Following their recent two week tour of Australia, Serbia Rugby League players and officials are determined to return there – having qualified for the 2017 World Cup.
The Serbs face Wales and Italy in this autumn’s European Qualifiers and they would love to be involved in the competition proper for the first time after the reception they received in and around Sydney, the Australians being co-hosts with New Zealand and PNG.
They participated in the Cabramatta 9s festival before a first-ever international with the Philippines, the just Tamaraws prevailing 18-12 in front of a large crowd.
Before the match, the Serbians were presented with their jerseys by Australian rugby league icon Mario Fenech at the Serbian Embassy.
“Our dream is to qualify for the World Cup and we know that we need help wherever we can get it,” said tour manager Blagoje Stoiljković on his arrival back. “The Serbian community is really big in Australia, about 200,000 strong, so the purpose of this visit was to connect with those people while giving the team a couple of strong tests. We managed both objectives.”
Eight players from Serbian domestic clubs were joined in Sydney by 12 players from Australia, four of whom had played back home but the others were debutants.
“I’m so proud that I had a chance to play for Serbia, a country I know just from family stories and the internet,” said one of the debutantes George Vujanović. “I know that it is a country with big sport heritage in soccer and basketball and, nowadays, tennis with Novak Djoković being number one in the world. It was a lifetime experience to represent my country of origin both on and off the field.”
Under the guidance of Australian staff, led by Yepoon Seagulls coach Jason Green, who was selected by consultant Brian Smith, the highlight of the tour was the international at the New Era stadium in Cabramatta. After having a try disallowed in the dying minutes, the heart-breaking narrow loss was sweetened by the fanatical support of 2.000 Serbians cheering for their new found heroes.
“It was a memorable experience, most of us have never played in front of that large a crowd. There were Serbian flags everywhere, we heard the people cheering, it was just unbelievable,” said captain Dalibor Vukanović. “We were hosted with great love, so we will do everything to qualify for the World Cup to have a chance to make that crowed proud again.”
The touring side also caught the attention of local media, especially as they were based in a local hostel and went on numerous community-organised events where signing autographs became the norm.
“We had a chance to go to Manly Sea Eagles’ training centre where we met their top players like Daly Cherry-Evans. Also, we saw South Sydney Rabbitohs train and had a chance to take a picture with Sam Burgess and a couple other players. It was like a dream come true, we watch all of those players on TV and we got a chance to meet them face to face,” added Vukanović.
Stoiljković acknowledges that even though the visit was a great success, the real challenge is to maintain momentum until the games in autumn.
“We have a really good feedback after the tour; people are calling us from Australia wanting to get involved. Also, we are hoping to have some more players of Serbian origins available when the time comes. Under the guidance of our new special consultant Brian Smith we are hoping to have a fair chance to fulfil our dream and qualify.”