Serbia rugby league has stepped up their preparations for the forthcoming 2017 Rugby League World Cup European Pool A Qualifiers against Wales and Italy.
Their national side had a terrific 64-4 win in Valencia against Spain, Miloš Ćalić with three of their 13 tries, whilst their U21s were defeated 22-6 by Lebanon in the second match of their series, after the sides drew the opening game 18-all.
The Qualifiers are the culmination of a five-year plan, instituted after they had been knocked out on the road to the last World Cup, as SRLF president Predrag Pantić notes. “Having established respectable results back then, we knew we had to get really ambitious if we wanted to get ourselves further in the world of rugby league,“ he says from the sport’s head office in the centre of Belgrade.
“We concluded that the biggest possible thing for us is to get to our first-ever World Cup, that doesn’t happen too often for sports in Serbia. It possibly is too much to expect that it can be 2017, more realistically 2021, but here we are, a couple of weeks away from being able to fulfill our dreams.“
Although in their current guise for only 15 years, the sport dates back to 1953 and the former Yugoslavia when the French federation sent two touring sides to Belgrade to promote the 13-a-side game. Local sports executive Dragan Maršićević was instrumental in orchestrating those matches that began the development of rugby league in the country and less then a year later the first domestic match was played in Paraćin followed, soon after, by a national championship.
Current SRLF Board member Blagoje Stoiljković remembers those beginnings: “We had league games, touring teams both into here and our squads going abroad. The game was on the rise until the beginning of the 1960’s when, basically, the Government banned our sport. But the great spirit of rugby league lived on and 15 years ago we kicked started the whole thing again. Making the World Cup now would be a great recognition to all those pioneers of half a century ago.”
“Rugby league is fast growing sport, especially in this part of Europe,” adds SRLF general secretary Slobodan Manak. “We were among the first Federations that dedicated ourselves to developing in all areas: grassroots rugby, coaching and referees education, marketing, promotion and managing strategy. National team recognition is important but if you don’t have the other elements, success won’t last. We assumed a leading role in the region and that’s why it would be a great achievement if we could be a part of the World Cup. Not just for us, but for all the up-and-coming nations in this part of Eastern Europe.”