When Croatia faced Bulgaria in Sinj on Saturday 2 December it was an historic occasion for both nations as it was the first time their women’s team had played in an official test.
That the match took place at all is remarkable when you learn that there are only three rugby clubs in Croatia where adult women’s rugby is played, and none of them play 15s. The women’s rugby landscape in Bulgaria is similarly barren.
So how did the ground-breaking match come about?
According to Petra Druskovic, the head coach, the seeds were sown when a friend of hers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands organised a trip to Croatia in May 2022 and requested some opposition to play against.
“I wouldn’t call it a project, everything happened so spontaneously,” she admits.
“We didn’t have enough girls from one club so I said I will try and put together a team from the three clubs we do have – one is in Split and the other two are 400km in the capital, Zagreb – and play as a Croatia XV.
“I was quite smart, I organised a boat trip the day before the game and I knew how that would finish up! So, we won the game, 24-12. It lit the fire for the girls about 15s.
“After that, we tried to put 15 girls together so that we could play another game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find another team in the region to play against. Not even Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia or Montenegro played 15s and only Montenegro had a sevens team.
“I am head of training and education in Croatian rugby so I know a lot of people in the region and I talked to Pavel Velkov, the guy from the Bulgarian Rugby Union, and we came up with the idea of playing each other home and away: Bulgaria would come to us first and then we’d go to Bulgaria in the New Year. So that’s how it all happened.”
While Druskovic had years of playing rugby behind her, predominantly in sevens at the Split-based rugby club Nada, and in 15s with various Balkans Barbarian-style sides, her hastily arranged Croatian squad had precious little experience of the longer format of the game and, in the case of two players, any rugby at all.
“We have limited funds so we weren’t able to do many sessions so we would have a meeting once a week on Zoom where I would show them games and explain the roles of the different positions,” she explains.
“I was worried if they would be able to transfer that that new-found knowledge onto the pitch but I had a huge amount of help from one of the men’s national team players, a friend of mine called Ivo Peric. He helped me out with lineout and scrums, areas where I can improve as a coach.
“There are so many things to concentrate on in 15s, so I tried to keep it as simple as possible and strip it back to the basics.”
On a rainy day in Sinj, Croatia settled the better of the two teams and raced into a 22-5 lead before closing out a 37-5 win.
Captain Ela Avramović, from the picturesque Dalmatian island of Brač, crossed for two tries, as did Deliandra Garcia and Lara Josipović, while Dubravka Kovac also got her name on the scoresheet.
Druskovic, who came off the bench to play the final 10 minutes as a front-row replacement was proud of how the squad came together on what was an emotional day for all concerned.
“Most of the time we were on the attack but when we did have to defend, they put really good pressure on Bulgaria and supported each other. I said to them to pick up this much so soon after just three practical sessions of switching from sevens to 15s, I was super proud of them.
“They did all I asked of them, they put their heart on the field for Croatia and for their families, or whoever they know who helped them to be there and put the national team jersey on.
“We are a small team sport in Croatia but to be in the national team for anything, you’re still representing your country and I want to build up this feeling that they belong to a special group.
“I was really emotional when the national anthems were playing, when the first kick-off took place, and when we scored our first try.
“That pitch really means a lot to me personally as well, even though I am not from Sinj. It was the pitch where I reffed the first 15s game as a female in the National Division in 2015.
“We are still quite a conservative country, so nobody wanted a girl who’d never played 15s before to ref the game. But I did well and later on, they were all happy about it.”
Druskovic is a Springboks supporter because of her family ties with South Africa – through her Mum’s cousin, and has visited the South Africa RU academy in Stellenbosch as a wide-eyed tourist.
However, her interest in rugby was first piqued when she saw Richmond Women playing during her gap year in London.
At the time Druskovic was a handball player but when she returned to Croatia to study kinesiology, there was a rugby pitch on her doorstep and she thought she’d ‘give it a go’.
Druskovic “quickly fell in love with rugby” and before long she was coaching kids at Nada RC and helping to encourage more girls to take up the sport.
Coaching and refereeing qualifications followed, and she is now doing her utmost to grow the game throughout the Balkans.
Druskovic is a passionate advocate of the benefits that playing rugby can bring, from the sense of belonging to a physical and mental wellbeing perspective.
“I am still refereeing but I am more into coaching and helping girls’ rugby develop, not just in Croatia but throughout the region,” she said.
“I am working very closely with the Montenegro Rugby President, who is a girl that used to play rugby when I was playing, and I’m also trying to help out the girls in Slovenia to restart their team.
“I know that it is important for us to have other nations in the region for us to play against.”
Druskovic is also keen to reconnect women’s rugby in Croatia with its past.
Even though women’s rugby was first played in Croatia a couple of decades ago, there are only 50-60 active players around today. The sport in Croatia needs someone with Druskovic’s drive to push it forward.
“If I am not mistaken it was in 2001 that the first female rugby club started in Croatia. Unfortunately, none of those ladies are actively involved now, which is a pity.
“So, it was nice after the union announced we had played 15s again, that a big number of them reached out to us to say congratulations and to say how it had brought back memories for them.
“I hope on the wings of this I will be able to bring some of them on the team, to help me get girls into rugby even more.
“I believe the Balkans are built to play rugby, that’s my opinion.”