We’re all prone to revelling in a bit of rugby nostalgia every now and then. Whether it is recalling the day you played the perfect game, or wallowing in the glory of the amateur days when men played for the love of the game not the money. It’s what makes players and fans so loyal and staunchly supportive of the Lions, harking back to the ideals of the old days with players from all corners of the British Isles uniting for a cause.
This ethos and spirit is still alive in Croatia where rugby has been around for 55 years and goes from strength to strength. There are 22 clubs in the country, centred around Zagreb in the North and Split in the South. Clubs are generally situated in the heart of towns, allocated space by the local government or Mayor; most have only found permanent homes in recent years.
Through a combination of government funding, private sponsorship, entrepreneurial ventures (running bingo clubs or bars), membership fees and volunteers’ efforts the clubs are run very successfully with most formulating plans for development, extensions and player improvement.
Ragbi Klub Nada, based in Split, have this year celebrated their 50th anniversary and have marked the occasion with festivities throughout the year including a 7s tournament and the launch of a 50th anniversary book detailing the history of the club.
Currently the most successful club in the country in terms of both ability and prosperity, they employ a full time secretary and full time coaches with other committee positions being filled by volunteers. They form the focal point for rugby in the Dalmatian region, encouraging the development of younger clubs in nearby towns of Sinj, Makarska and Brac – located on a beautiful island 45-minutes by ferry from Split and currently home to just an U15 side but the base for National Training Camps and tournaments.
Locals say that rugby players in Dalmatia are bred bigger and stronger than their Northern counterparts who are generally more technical (they’d have to be!). Players from Nada possess that well known rugby mentality of “…as long as we beat Zagreb” (ref. Wales’ Scotland’s and Ireland’s “…as long as we beat the English”!).
However their classic rugby mentality stretches further than that – whenever they take the field they do so to win, regardless of whether it’s a local derby or a touring Kiwi side they shouldn’t have a hope of beating. This ethos permeates the whole of Croatian sport and has brought countless Olympic gold medals and team championships in all manner of sports to these shores.
In the 1970’s and 80’s an abundance of British teams toured Croatia, something which understandably fell away during their years of war against Serbian forces between 1991 – 1995, but which is picking up again now.
In every way imaginable it is the ideal place for British amateur clubs to tour. It takes about 2 ½ hours to fly there; all accommodation, food and drink are excellent value and, crucially, the hospitality from the clubs reminds you of what you love about the sport. The “third-half” is as important as the match itself, something that you simply do not find in most corners of the world nowadays.
Rugby faces stiff competition from the more popular sports of football, basketball, tennis and water-polo, amongst others. However the community and family ethos of the clubs guarantees their success in the future. Veteran players are a fairly recent phenomenon given the youth of the sport of rugby in Croatia but a real responsibility is accepted by them to grow the game amongst younger players.
By Jon Hobbs