Sweden men are guaranteed their best-ever finish in the Rugby Europe Trophy if they do what every other team has done this season and beat Ukraine on home soil in Trelleborg this weekend.

It would be the second time in as many Trophy campaigns that they have set a new all-time high having achieved a record third place in 2022-23.

However, head coach Alex Laybourne is not taking anything for granted, and he is right not to, given that Sweden never beaten Ukraine in nine previous attempts.

“We are very excited for the game against Ukraine on the 6th of April. We expect them to be a physical and well organised side who will be tough to break down, and we know we will have to be at our best in the contact area and our defence,” said Laybourne, the former Scotland Women’s U20 coach.

“The scoreline in their game last week against Czechia (18-48) doesn’t reflect the game, they were disciplined, ambitious and very physical – losing out to an excellent Czech side who took their opportunities when they came.

“We know they arrive in Sweden a week before the game, so they have plenty of time to prepare, train and connect as a group as well.”

Real progress

Sweden go into the match against Ukraine placed third in the Trophy standings, one point behind Czechia and four points behind Switzerland at the top of the standings.

A bonus-point victory would see them replace the Swiss in first place but with the unbeaten leaders having a game in hand against Ukraine a week later, the likelihood is that the lead would only be temporary.

Regardless of all the outcomes, it has been a season of real progress for Sweden who currently find themselves one place off their all-time best position of 32nd in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.

“It has been a good season so far, we had an excellent win (48-37) against Czechia at home in October, and we were disappointed that we didn’t leave with a bonus point – although the Czechs should take credit for their late fightback,” said Laybourne, who is in his fourth year in charge of the team.

“Our attack, particularly in the second half, was fluid and ambitious and it paid off.

“I was also pleased with our game against Switzerland away in November despite the loss (24-12), they were clearly the outstanding team in the league over the last two seasons. But in the same breath, we were frustrated to come away with nothing based on our performance on the day.

“Our scrum was excellent, and since then has become a real attacking tool for us, and we defended resolutely – outscoring them two tries to one. But unfortunately, our discipline let us down that day.

“We then travelled to Croatia for a tough test – they are such a difficult team to play any time, but especially away from home. We also had to endure a ‘Bora Storm’ which didn’t help the preparations or playing conditions!

“An even contest saw us come out 22-20 winners, probably defined by the touchline drop goal conversion against the wind from Mattias Nilsson at the end of the first half.”

“Chalk and cheese”

Sweden then moved to within touching distance of history by securing a 27-8 bonus-point win against Lithuania at the Siauliai Rugby Academy Stadium in Siauliai.

Leading the side for the first time, captain Axel Kalling-Smith scored the all-important fourth try eight minutes from time.

“I am proud of the performance we put in last week against Lithuania, and we deserved to come away with a bonus point win. It was a tough battle, but we got our rewards in the second half by sticking to our game,” said Laybourne.

“Two things stand out to me, one is that we know we can be better than our performance last week, so we will need to address and fix a few areas before hosting Ukraine; and second is the growth in our performance from 12 months ago, as it was a very similar first half to that of us against Ukraine in 2023, where we ended up losing.

Reflecting on the Trophy campaign so far, Laybourne is filled with pride at what his team have achieved.

“I am incredibly proud of the players, they make a lot of sacrifices to play for Sweden, they put in a lot of work away from camp and when we are in camp they work as hard as possible as we know we have limited time together and we need to make the most of it.

“Our performances from 12 months ago to those of today are almost chalk and cheese, and that is because the players are prepared to push each other and do the hard yards away from the pitch.

“We know our resources are limited, but we do the best with what we have. We don’t want to be a side that makes excuses, we want to be known for pushing the limits and ultimately one that the rugby community in Sweden (and elsewhere!) can get behind.”

Luxembourg on the up

Outside of the Rugby Europe Trophy 2023-24, there are two matches in Pool B of the Rugby Europe Conference this weekend.

While Sweden cannot improve on 33rd place in the rankings with a third Trophy victory, unbeaten Luxembourg can equal their all-time best ranking of 58th if they beat Hungary by a big enough margin.

Hungary will only be two places behind Luxembourg in 66th – a climb of five places – if they pick up their second win and the margin is more than 15 points. A win by a lesser margin would result in a gain of two places and lead to Luxembourg losing two in exchange.

In the other game, Austria, who are currently at a record low of 87th, cannot improve on that position his weekend regardless of how they fare against Bosnia and Herzegovina as the gap between themselves and India above is too big.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, though, could fall as many as seven places to 100th in defeat. Equally, a win for Bosnia and Herzegovina would come with big rewards as a gain of six places is possible.

Photo credit: Rugby Europe