On what is bound to be a highly emotional occasion, Ukraine’s men’s team returns to test rugby this weekend with a game against Croatia in the Rugby Europe Trophy in Zagreb.

Due to the situation with Russia, it will be almost a year to the day on Saturday since Ukraine last played – a 39-37 win away to Lithuania, on 22 October, 2021.

When they run out proudly wearing the blue and yellow colours of their nation, the memory of fallen heroes such as former Ukrainian captain and president, Oleksi Tsibko, will no doubt be on the minds of the players.

Tsibko was killed in action back in April and countless others associated with Ukrainian rugby have been badly affected by the conflict.

As many within Ukraine’s rugby fraternity continue to serve their country on the frontline, a youthful squad has travelled to Croatia.

However, Ukraine Rugby Federation board member, Iwan Rewko, who will be at the match, says their spirit and determination will more than make up for what they lack in experience.

“We’ll be going with a less than full team because the majority of our experienced players are in the army or fighting on the frontline,” said Rewko, Ukraine’s representative in the UK.

“The squad we are taking over is young and inexperienced, but they’ll play with fire in their hearts and do the best that they can on the day.

“As some of these players are over 18 we had to get permission from the President’s office for them to be allowed to leave the country and represent their country. He’s a sports supporter, and he thinks it is very good that Ukrainian teams – whether they be rugby, volleyball, basketball or whatever – are showing Ukraine is still a country and is out there in the world doing the best we can.

“It brings a kind of normality back to our lives. Whilst we have been training amongst ourselves, it is good to go back on the circuit and play a game and represent our country. We have been doing it with our U18s in rugby sevens but this is the first full international since the outbreak of the war. It is going to be an emotional game.”

A welcome distraction

Rewko, a former Lancashire rugby player, lives in the northwest of England and was last over in Ukraine three months ago to witness the ongoing effects of the conflict.

For Ukraine’s team manager, Maxim Kravchenko, the threat from Russia is one he lives with every day.

“I was with my wife and two-year-old the other day when a missile exploded 800 metres away from us. It was terrible. I’m taking my wife and my son with me to Croatia, I can’t leave them in Kyiv with the situation there,” he said.

The postponement of the National Championship has inhibited preparations but Ukraine’s steadfast approach to the conflict with Russia has been reflected in their determination to get the match with Croatia on, despite the most difficult of circumstances.

“With the situation we are in, it is difficult but we have done everything possible to make sure the match goes ahead. We had a camp in Lviv for about 10 days in September and now we will have a camp before the match, for about eight to nine days in Zagreb,” he said prior to departing for Croatia.

“Everyone wants to fight for their country – whether that’s in the army or in the fields of rugby; we really want to show we have big Ukrainian hearts and we will fight.”

English assistance

While in Zagreb, Ukraine’s coaching team, led by Valery Cochanov, will be assisted by Grant Hathaway, a coach developer at the RFU.

A connection with one of the trustees at Penguin Rugby charity through the club he coaches, London-based HAC, led to the charity funding the trip, and Hathaway has been with the squad in Croatia since Sunday.

“The situation, as I understand it, is that a lot of the players have been away with the war and a lot of them haven’t played for quite a period of time,” Hathaway said.

“But there is a huge amount of pride in national representation within the sport so for me to go along and try and add some value and support the players and coaches is really quite a proud moment for me as a coach.

“I’ve been quite lucky, I have coached at Bedford Blues, working in the academy there, coached Wasps Women in Premier 15s and coached the Navy Women, so I have had a really varied career coaching and this is again something completely new which is really exciting. It’ll be a really good experience for me to try and test my coaching craft when there is a language barrier.

“It’s not just going to be a one-off, the Penguin charity is really keen to make sure that we continue to support Ukraine moving forward.”