The Serbian Rugby League season is now in full swing, with three rounds already completed, a domestic regional representative match played and Serbia having walloped Germany in an international friendly!
Here at Red Star we started with a pre-season friendly at new club Soko down in Vranje, which is seemingly closer to Greece than it is to Belgrade. A pioneering venture that’s now competing in the second division thanks to the great work of the boys from Vranje and the team at the Serbian RFL, Soko is seemingly flourishing. They asked if they could field 25 players against our 16 (17 is regulation), with unlimited interchanges (12 is regulation) and four 20-minute quarters (instead of two 40-minute halves). We agreed to all requests, eager to allow as many boys from the town as possible to experience a proper game environment and, besides, it was a ‘friendly’.
A healthy crowd of, I’d say, 150+ turned up to watch and when Vranje scored their first try the place erupted.
I won’t give you a full match report, but suffice to say that Vranje’s hard running up the middle paid dividends on numerous occasions and Red Star’s defensive frailties up the middle were only tempered by the determination of a few.
It ended 18:26, with Vranje scoring 4 tries (1 converted) and Red Star bagging 5 (3 converted).
Having failed to organise the required pre-season friendlies and training camp, we thus entered the season having played just the one match together – and that after six hours on a bus and against 25 enthusiastic Vranjard battlers.
In round one we faced a tough Tsar Lazar team from Krusevac. A relatively experienced, tight team unit, the visitors were certain to test a team of virtual strangers. On game day I met two players I’d never seen before (i.e. they’d never been to training) and tried quickly to explain principles of marker defence and sliding defensive lines… To no avail: in the first ten minutes of the match the centre of our defence cracked and allowed Tsar Lazar’s boys to score from close range. We quickly reduced the deficit by shipping the ball wide into space and exposing their flanks, but stalemate ensued. Though we dominated affairs from then on, crossing the line on new fewer than four occasions, we were denied another score and the game ended 12-6. Subsequent video review cast doubt on decisions denying two Red Star tries, but the final result was never disputed: excellent away win for Tsar Lazar.
RND 1 results (19th/20th March):
Red Star 6 vs. Tsar Lazar Krusevac 12
Dorcol 60 vs. Radnicki Nova Pazova 6
Soko Vranje 14 vs. Stari Grad 36
Morava Gepardi Leskovac 6 vs. Nis 64
Round two saw us come face-to-face with the dreaded, invincible champions, Dorcol – a name that strikes fear, or at least mild apprehension and a few other negative emotions, into every league player who knows he is to face them.
We took to the field with a sense of hushed determination and hope. “If we can hold them out for the first twenty, it’ll be a totally different game” somebody whispered to me with quiet optimism as we headed out to meet Dorcol’s home crowd. However, forced to enter the game with a reduced squad, the centre of our defence again proved the decisive weakness... They scored two quick tries and held the ball for 15 minutes of the first 20 and we were chasing rainbows from then on in.
Now, 54 points to 10 may seem a lot to you and, to be fair, it is, but consider that a converted try is worth 6 points and you’ll start to realise that Dorcol made 9 or 10 scores over the course of 80 minutes. The only reason the result wasn’t 100 – 10 was that we had a few fearless warriors in the middle of the park (Pele, Zoki, Krta, Cupa et al.) who made 20-odd tackles each. And the only reason it was 54-10 and not 54-0 was that we had the enigmatic Rafik in our ranks: a scrawny, athletic winger, built more like a football winger, the Belgrade-resident Algerian sportsman somehow shrugged and bounced off the attentions of Dorcol’s aggressive defenders to twice outwit and outpace them.
Oddly enough, we left the field relatively pleased with the result (Red Star’s best in recent times against Dorcol), while the downtown team left the field disappointed not to have posted a score of 100+.
RND 2 results (2nd/3rd April):
Dorcol 54 vs. Red Star 10
Tsar Lazar Krusevac 38 vs. Radnicki Nova Pazova 18
Nis 46 vs. Soko Vranje 0
Morava Gepardi Leskovac 10 vs. Stari Grad 26
Round three marked our fourth game together as a team. If initial plans for three pre-season friendlies had been realised, this would have been our opening game of the season. And, indeed, it was the performance of a group of players who are beginning to gel as a unit. With the squad decimated by injury (the Dorcol clash had taken its toll physically), it was up to a few senior players to stand up and lead the team out against the Workers of Nova Pazova. The captain’s armband was given to Milos Calic ‘Chaki’, one of the most exciting young prospects in Serbian rugby league, who led from the back of the scrum and did his club proud.
Suffice to say we went into an early lead (I scored the first try. Yippee!), scoring and converting three quick tries before our close range middle defence was again exposed to its seemingly well-known frailties and we conceded two down the middle. The Nova Pazova team chased the game admirably, but the wet conditions hindered any expansive rugby and our middle found some new steel with the late arrivals of barnstorming club co-captain ‘Aca Tyson’ and Sloba Subotic, the hardest runner in the land.
Radnicki played their best rugby in the last quarter of the game, making successful offloads in collision and running penetrative angles as they chased the result yet harder. However, a late breakaway try from speedster Rafik snatched any hope of a comeback. Red Star’s best performance of the season thus far, the upward performance curve leaves plenty of room for optimism, though with plenty of work still to do.
RND 3 results (10th/12th April):
Radnicki Nova Pazova 18 vs. Red Star 34
Dorcol 70 vs. Tsar Lazar Krusevac 10
Morava Gepardi Leskovac 0 vs. Soko Vranje 32
Nis 24 vs. Stari Grad 42
On the expansion and international front, the Vojvodina Town of Ruma recently hosted the so-called Serbian State of Origin match between the Belgrade representative team and the ‘Rest of Serbia’. Belgrade proved victorious, as expected, but the Rest of Serbia team certainly held their own in front of a modest crowd of interested locals, led by host and Ruma Mayor Nenad Borovic, and visiting foreigners from Belgrade, brought for the game courtesy of the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club. The final result of 40:20 was a fair reflection of the Belgrade team’s superior physical presence and prowess, but the game also allowed some fringe representative players on both sides to impress Serbia Technical Director Lee Crooks, who was also in attendance. Indeed, it was only after this match that Crooks announced his Serbia squad to travel to Germany.
The Germany game, one of a series of warm-up friendly matches scheduled as part of preparations for Serbia’s world cup qualification bid this October, was meant to be a Good Friday test. Unfortunately, however, the Germany team proved no test and no match for Serbia, who demolished them 90 points to 6. One must question how much Crooks and the rest of the coaching staff and players could have learned from such a whitewash after spending days travelling on a coach expecting a challenge, but maybe they at least got the chance to bond.
Next time: cup ties & acceptable levels of aggression