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“Rugby gives us inspiration and strength”: Behind the scenes of Ukraine’s amazing spirit and passion

It was a weekend to remember for for Ukrainian rugby as both their men and women's team did the double in Zagreb in the first leg of the 7s Trophy competition. 

These are still very tough times for the people of Ukraine off the rugby pitch, but on it those who love the sport have come together in recent times to try and bring some happiness to people in their country.

Since the Russo-Ukrainian War began a few years ago - and more recently since last February when Russia invaded Ukraine - we have mostly heard about the country for all of the wrong reasons.

Rugby has a great way of bringing people together though and many other countries and individuals have donated funds to help the sport in Ukraine survive and thrive through these dark days.

And there were again smiles all over the place when Ukraine’s men’s XVs team defeated Croatia 27-22 in a Rugby Europe Trophy match in the Stjepan Spajic Stadium in Zagreb last October in their first big match since the pandemic and the Russian invasion.

Iryna Arkhytsk, the Secretary general of the Ukrainian Rugby Union, said:  “[After the invasion] we faced the biggest challenge ever.

“We recovered from the shock and we started to adapt to the new reality and, in terms of rugby, every member of the Union kept working in his or her particular direction.

“We feel great support from our friends and colleagues from all around the world and it helps us to move forward. 

“All the team members at the Union are fully involved and we work much more these days because we must find new sources of financing.

“We communicate all the time with the unions and clubs around the world who are very supportive and concerned about how we will manage to keep rugby alive [in Ukraine].

“Along with this we moved all the domestic competitions to the more or less safe regions and must organise them taking into account the range of restrictions [that are in place in Ukraine].

“For example, recently we urgently changed the place of the competitions from Kremenets city to Lviv because of attacks in the Ternopil region. Along with this, adults and children have to shelter when air alarms take place during the competitions.

“The process of the crossing border for national teams is quite complicated as well. We need to apply to the Ministry of Sport with an official letter with accompanying documents, including the invitation from the host of the competitions. If the Ministry of Sport approves this exit, it applies to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine to get permission for this exit.

As is exemplified here, there are many, many difficulties just now to get Ukrainians playing rugby, but the people involved at the Union as well as players and supporters have all worked together to make it happen.

“The strength of character people have shown to keep rugby going is indispensable for sure,” Arkhytsk continued.

“As soon as you become part of this game you can’t separate yourself from it ever. Rugby gives us an inspiration and strength, it is part of the recovery from this terrible reality. It helps to our mental wellbeing, gives us the reason to live and work and fulfils many vital purposes.  

“When the men’s team defeated Croatia last October it was such an inspirational accomplishment. It gave us confidence and fuelled the desire of all the members of team to compete while the Union supports them in everything they do.

“Then to beat Sweden in March and finish second in the Trophy confirmed that despite all the obstacles our players are warriors and the strength of the Ukrainian spirit is huge.

After the tournament Arkhytsk added, "I watched all the matches from Kiev on my phone, it brought great emotions. The wins were about incredible strength, dedication, talent and love for rugby and our country. Although we are facing a back-drop of tragic circumstances, our boys, girls, coaches and doctors did us proud."

The under-18 will have their pre-Championship training camp in Poland and then will fly to Switzerland.”

In terms of women’s rugby in Ukraine, many female players have left the country to play for different clubs around Europe, but when they are needed by the national team, they are always willing to get involved.

The under-18 women’s team is in Lviv city just now in a training camp and before their Championship they will spend some time in Prague.

Help has been forthcoming from around Europe and the world as the national senior women’s team was also hosted by member of the French rugby family in May and participated in an international tournament in Périgueux to prepare for Zagreb.

It is clear that rugby enthusiasts in Ukraine have done so much to keep the sport they love alive in recent times, but to conclude Arkhytsk is keen to once again touch on the “amazing support and solidarity” that has headed the Union’s way from the wider rugby community.

“From the first day of the War we could feel the support on all possible levels,” she said.

“The players and members of the Ukrainian Rugby Union were sheltered by different European unions while calls, messages and emails with supportive words and proposals on to help somehow were received from each part of the world.

“Financial support came from World Rugby and Rugby Europe and different funds helped with organising training camps, matches and also covered a number of other different costs within them.

“All of this support has definitely contributed significantly to the continued existence of rugby in Ukraine and the Union.”

You can still donate to the Ukraine fundraiser to ensure the union can continue their work. 

By Gary Heatly

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