ITALY AND SERBIA IN ‘RELEGATION' CLASH
Italy and Serbia face a rugbyleague.com European Cup relegation shoot-out in Maesteg on Sunday morning (kick off 10.30) as part of the competition’s Finals Day and they are determined to remain at this level of competition.
Both nations graduated through their success in the European Shield, Serbia in 2007 and Italy succeeding them for the past two seasons but, with France entering the 2010 European Cup, one of them is set to drop back into the tier below.
Despite the pair having received something of an education at this level, with heavy defeats to more established nations, both are convinced that the exposure and experience has been vital, on and off the field.
Italian rugby league president Tiziano Franchini has been delighted with his nation’s participation in the rugbyleague.com European Cup, classifying it as “Year Zero” in Italy’s resurgent bid to become a rugby league stronghold.
Franchini, who has led the Italian rugby league from its Paduan base since 2004, did not need to think twice when the Rugby League European Federation offered the Azzuri a place in the tournament following Russia’s late withdrawal – and he is adamant that the alacrity with which the Federazione Italiana di Rugby League seized upon the chance was the right move.
“The European Cup has been the best exposure we have ever had in four years of developing,” said Franchini.
“It has been a positive experience in terms of media, culture, players and for the whole country. We thank the RLEF for the opportunity because we have made a lot of steps forward in rugby league development.”
“In the last month we developed relationships that we never had the chance to before and we never believed we could establish.”
Chief among them is a burgeoning link with national airline carrier Alitalia who have been present at both group games, along with Italian embassy and military officials.
Alessandro Sannino, General Manager Alitalia, Levant which covers the Middle East, took particular interest in the match against Lebanon in Tripoli.
“All the Alitalia team there were so glad and proud of this event especially during the National Anthem of Italy when all players put their right hand on the heart on the Alitalia brand” he commented.
“We will be honoured to continue our partnership and see the national rugby league team as a vehicle of culture and strong positive values.”
In addition to corporate relationships, the FIRL feels its administration will improve after the European Cup experience.
“Being in the European Cup allowed us to fund raise as much as possible and the most important thing that we learned is that if we want to be competitive we need to act and be like professionals” continued Franchini.
His priority is an enhanced domestic programme for 2010 including representative player camps, with one eye on the 2010 European Cup.
“2010 is going to be a critical year for the FIRL, we have touched with our hands the professional level and need to stay there.”
Further East, the Serbians built up for their crunch match by playing an A side versus B team game to keep the players fit and focussed, followed by the squad watching the Gillette Four Nations and rugbyleague.com European Cup games on TV in Belgrade last Sunday.
The first choice beat the second string 70-10, dominating the second half, with front rower Ivan Djordjevic the top scorer with four tries.
17-year-old center Milos Ćalić claimed a hat trick and Aleksandar Sič, Nikša Unković and Dejan Lukenić scored doubles, while Igor Kesegi, who debuted against Wales also crossed.
On the other side, Serbian international Mate Granić, who has just completed a year on studies in USA and therefore missed European Cup campaign and youngster Stefan Nikolić scored tries.
Serbian team manager Nebojša Sretenović has no doubt that his side have gained from the competition.
“Obviously, the first half of the tournament was very tough for us because we had to face two professional teams whose aim was winning the Cup” he said.
“The majority of Serbian players had their first contact with real professional behavior during our preparations in Cumbria just a week before the Ireland game.”
“It was an illustration of the difference between their everyday life and this new, high level competition standard” he added.
“They switched from studying or going to work every day to serious training sessions twice a day while we were on camp.”
“That’s why we are not so disappointed about the scores against the Celtic nations in our pool, especially with the performance against Wales in the opening minutes of the both halves.”
“Now something different awaits us in Maesteg. Our goal has not changed from the moment the European Cup details were first announced and it is to win a game in the competition.”
“The players are now aware of their improvement from the Ireland match and they can’t wait for the kick-off on Sunday morning for what we all hope is going to be very exciting duel, because I’m sure the Italians see their chance for some glory too.”
“Serbia has tried to fully contribute to this competition, we played our home game at one of the two best stadiums in the European Cup, answered to all tasks given at the beginning of the competition and probably set some standards.”
“Our playing standard is rising as we play games, however, we know that we have to learn a lot more to be competitive with the top four teams of the European Cup.”
“The positive about the structure of the tournament is that gives opportunity to all teams to find their position on the international rugby league map and what is needed to be better in the next period.”
Whitehaven back rower Soni Radovanović (21), who captained the team in what was the biggest rugby game ever on Serbian soil, against Wales in Smederevo, added.
“The atmosphere in the team is excellent and we are determined, as always when we wear our national colors, to give our best and if possible to win the game.”
“Our team is very young and I’m sure that winning the game on Sunday will have a massive effect on my team mates’ careers and, generally, rugby league in Serbia.”
Tournament Director Kevin Rudd praised the contribution of the two fledgling nations to the rugbyleague.com European Cup.
“Italy and Serbia have been honourable in their commitments to the competition and international rugby league” he noted.
“Neither was pushed to take part but chose to make the jump up in level at their own request to be able to benchmark their organisations both on and off the field.”
“All involved within the tournament have benefited and I am sure it will make them strive for more.”
“The last three contests on Finals Day look set to be very even and exciting with a number of different styles of play on show.”
“It is a terrific way to showcase all who contribute to the international Rugby League community.”
Tickets for the rugbyleague.com European Cup Final between Wales and Scotland, priced from £5 for concessions and £10 for adults can be bought by going to www.rugbyleaguetickets.co.uk or by calling 0844 856 1115.
This ticket will allow entry into all three games:
10.30am - Relegation Match - Serbia v Italy - The Old Parish, Maesteg RFC
12.15pm – Ranking Match - Lebanon v Ireland - Brewery Field, Bridgend
4.00pm – European Cup Final - Wales v Scotland - Brewery Field, Bridgend (on Sky Sports 3