Despite the backdrop of conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian and Ukrainian national rugby league teams will face one another in Belgrade on Saturday (4 July, 6pm kick off) in the ninth match of European Championship B 2014-15.
Russia sits in second place on the table, behind Serbia and ahead of Italy on points difference. Victory in Belgrade will guarantee the Bears a place in the European qualifying tournament next year for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Ukraine, forced to play all three matches in the competition in 2014 away from home due to the crisis, will not be mathematically out of contention if they lose, but will need a minor miracle to overhaul Italy, who they play in Kiev on 18 July.
Gennady Vepryk’s men have enjoyed a decent preparation, testing themselves against the visiting English Lionhearts in June, the 32-24 win for the tourists labelled as, “fiercely competitive.”
He selects five new caps; Krivbas pair Mykola Shalaiev, Dmytro Stepanenko, Vadim Polyuhovich from RK Rivne, Sokol’s Ostap Grischenko and Evgenii Тrusov of Legion XIII in the biggest spread of domestic clubs represented to date.
“We are heading into the match focused on getting a victory,” said Vepryk. “Our five new players did really well against the English Lionhearts and won the right to play for the national team. The veterans are in a good condition and ready.”
Having lost their last two matches, for the first time since 2011, Russia coach Igor Ovchinnikov has reverted to a tried and tested formula, selecting veteran loose forward Sergey Gaponov, who has not played for the national team for over two years, and welcoming back his Vereya team-mate, giant prop Anatolii Grigorev, who missed the Serbia match through injury.
“We are preparing for a very physical game,” said the Lokomotiv Moscow coach. “The Ukrainian federation, despite the internal difficulties in the country, has still managed to conduct its domestic championship and has played some preparation matches against English opposition.
“The players of our two nations have, traditionally, enjoyed very friendly relations and I’m sure this tradition won’t be broken. We are also grateful to the Serbia Rugby League Federation for organizing the match.”
Both the Russian and Ukrainian teams have been invited to a reception hosted by the Belgrade Municipality on Friday to officially welcome them to the city and celebrate the ties between the three countries. The match will be played during the RLEF Congress, and will be attended by the chairmen of both the RLEF and the Rugby League International Federation, Maurice Watkins and Nigel Wood, in addition to assembled delegates of the RLEF’s membership.
Meanwhile, the UK’s Parliamentary Rugby League Group has praised those involved for playing and hosting the match despite a background of political tension.
A Motion has been tabled in the House of Commons by the Group’s Chairman, Leeds North West MP, Greg Mulholland MP who said, “It is great to hear that a rugby league match between Ukraine and Russia is taking place. Sport is one of the few areas over which politicians of all backgrounds come together. Rugby league has a long and proud tradition of binding communities and bringing nations together and there is no better way to continue that legacy than through this forthcoming match. All in the game are grateful to those playing for their spirit, and to the Serbian Rugby League Federation for hosting the match.”
UKRAINE 18-MAN SQUAD
Svyatoslav Аndreichenko, Igor Urkin (Atlant Dnepropetrovsk), Mykola Shalaiev, Dmytro Stepanenko (Krivbas, Krivoi Rog), Andrii Bashevskyi, Pavlo Kardakov, Volodomyr Karpenko, Sergii Kravchenko, Artur Martyrosyan, Volodymyr Mashkin, Maksym Miroshnichenko, Oleksandr Kozak, Oleksandr Skorbach, Mykhailo Troyan, Evgenii Тrusov, Bogdan Vepryk (Legion XIII, Kharkiv), Vadim Polyuhovich (RK Rivne, Rovno), Ostap Grischenko (Sokol, Lvov)
RUSSIA 18-MAN SQUAD
Valentin Baskakov, Artem Grigoryan, Denis Korolev, Kirill Kosharin, Bakhodur Mamadzhanov, Roman Ovtchinnikov, Georgy Vinogradov, Anton Zabelin, Andrey Zdobnikov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Dmitriy Bratko, (Magi), Rustam Bulanov, Mikhail Burlutskiy, Sergey Gaponov, Anatolii Grigorev, Sergey Konstantinov, Aleksandr Lysokon, Vladimir Odnosumov, Vladimir Vlasyuk (Vereya)
1 Serbia 5 4 1 0 132 69 63 0 8
2 Russia 4 2 2 0 77 66 11 0 4
3 Italy 4 2 2 0 96 96 0 0 4
4 Ukraine 3 0 3 0 44 118 -74 0 0