Growing up in east Hull, rugby union was always something alien, but also something distant. Indeed, I think it was only when a PE teacher at Andrew Marvel High revealed that he played union for one of the village teams around Hull that I realised the sport even existed in my home county. Here in Serbia, however, the union is like a wasp feeding on the sweet league.
My first run-in with its loyalists came in the summer of 2011 when I got a phone call from a guy I hardly knew who used to play for the team: "Mark, some guys will turn up at your training session tonight. They're good guys and they want to form a Red Star rugby union club. Please be nice to them."
I knew immediately this was a no-no for the simple reason that the race to establish ‘The Derby' (Red Star vs. Partizan is the ultimate Serbian derby in all sports except ours, which are currently Red Star vs. Dorcol in league and Partizan vs. Pobednik in union) is one of the most important in the race to popularise the sport.
The timing couldn't have been worse. It was high summer, the hot-weather break in the Serbian season, and I was all alone as assistant player-coach at the time, with the head coach, most senior players and the club director all away on holiday. I called someone from the federation and was told to immediately kick them out of the stadium or call security and get them removed. Zeljko, Red Star RLC Director, called from Greece sounding stressed and said something similar, but I insisted that I'd only do that if they tried to run a parallel training session or discuss any sport other than rugby league.
The session went ahead and it was only once we were changed and on the field that the posse approached - five overweight players and six overweight, middle-aged men, one of them sporting a tracksuit. He approached me with an outstretched hand and we spoke in Serbian. "You must be Marko. Kucha told us it'd be okay if we train with you."
That's fine," I said. "This evening we're doing marker & ABC defence drills. Feel free to join in."
No mention was made of union until the session ended and the other likely ‘directors' told me of their plans to form a Red Star rugby union club. My response was clear: "I'll have to block those plans with all means possible because I won't help your sport gain The Derby before mine. However, if you successfully lobby for the Partizan Sporting Society to form a rugby league club we'll see about lifting our block on your entry into the Red Star Sporting Society and we can hold both derbies on the same day, one after the other, and see which code of rugby the unsuspecting public prefers."
They were shocked and started trying to explain what nasty and corrupt guys were running rugby league in Serbia. I responded by explaining that Partizan is also a generic name, but that the Serbian Rugby League had not sought to form a rogue Partizan RL club outside of the Partizan Sporting Society, which is precisely what the rugby union was doing.
The session ended and I never met the men again. The Red Star union club was formed and exists, but is not a member of the Red Star Sporting Society (which I endeavour to point out whenever it is mentioned in the media), though they did claim to be so when they wrote their Wikipedia page and linked it to the page of the RS sporting society (since removed by us). At one point they started cheekily using the facilities at the stadium and saying that they were part of our club when approached, until we made sure all stadium porters had pictures of our registered members and they were expelled.
My second run-in with the union came during last year's Rugby League World Cup 2013 qualifiers in Belgrade. As part of the organising team, we had chosen to support the local Battle for the Babies campaign to raise funds for incubators and the Serbian RFL had agreed to donate all ticket revenue from the double-header Serbia vs. Russia and Italy vs. Lebanon. Two days before the match, while attempting to sell match tickets for charity to an American diplomat, I was told that the entire embassy, along with probably all other Belgrade embassies, had been invited to the rugby union friendly international between Serbia and Slovenia that had been scheduled to coincide with the rugby league world cup qualifiers and would be played on the other side of the same park!!
On the morning of the match I called the organisers of the humanitarian campaign, as instructed, to arrange to pick up the pitch-side banners that would be displayed during the qualifiers, only to be told that they'd already been taken earlier that morning by somebody from the rugby federation - it was the union. They'd stolen our international exclusivity by staging a simultaneous free-entry match across the park and hijacked our humanitarian campaign. We did nothing other than donate our 400 euros and ask how much the union had donated... nobody knows.
The war wages on, no matter how much we try to fight it by simply ignoring the rival code.