Rugby League slowly gaining a foothold in Poland
07 January 2019 - Written by Keith Whitelock
With little to no funding, Poland have approached the establishment of Rugby League in the country with a controlled growth philosophy. Whilst in reality, the growth of rugby league in Poland is still too uncertain make any bold claims, the work of a small number of people with love for the game is starting to bear fruit.
Poland is a central European country with a population just shy of 40 million people. A population this large presents a great opportunity if the sport of rugby league can gain funding and have the right people in charge making smart decisions. To put this population into perspective, rugby league’s fourth ranked team, Tonga, has a population of only 108,000 people. Economically, Poland has its fair share of problems, although it must be said it has performed fairly well in comparison to other post communism countries. The average income in Poland has now climbed to 70% of the European Union average according to Eurostat data.
Rugby league is in an interesting position around the world, where countries that are new to the sport find it much easier to climb the world rankings due to how centralised the sport is. Poland is currently ranked number 23. This ranking is largely thanks to a diaspora of polish heritage players in England and Australia. It is hoped in the future that a mix of heritage and domestic players can help Poland continue to climb higher in the world rankings.
Recently, Everything Rugby League spoke with Alex Kowalski, Shane Young, Łukasz Łucka and Lee Addison about Poland’s biggest year yet after a successful 2018 calendar year.
“One of the biggest successes for me was the Emerging Nations (World Cup) trophy win, against all odds”, says Lee Addison, Head Coach of Polska XIII. For those who don’t know, the 2018 Rugby League Emerging Nations World Cup (ENWC) was split into 3 groups after the results of the pool stages were determined. These groups were for the Cup (1-4), Trophy (5-8) and Plate (9-11). Poland defeated the Philippines 14-10 in the final of the Trophy competition, effectively finishing fifth in the 11-team tournament. This trophy final win is Poland’s biggest achievement to date on the international stage. “We are participating in the upcoming Cabramatta International Nines as a way of getting the ENWC squad back together for one last hurrah and also have a presentation to celebrate our achievements in 2018” says Lee.
One of the future goals for Poland is to get the team into the Rugby League World Cup. The next opportunity for this goal will be the qualification stages for the 2025 World Cup, who’s host country is still up in the air.
“One of the biggest challenges is bringing the British based, Polish based and Australia based players and officials together and on the same page. That is what I see as my role away from coaching and I’m very positive we can do that. Money is always a problem in rugby league and Poland is a country with a difficult economic situation. Every nation is unique in its own way and there is certainly no one size fits all model to follow” says Lee.
Domestically, Poland has only been playing the sport of Rugby League for around a decade now. Volunteers such as Łukasz Łucka are pivotal to the growth and sustainability of rugby league in Poland. The sport is still in an embryonic stage where commercial sponsorship is extremely difficult to come by. Many other developing rugby league nations find themselves in a similar position, making it very difficult to avoid “key man syndrome” meaning rugby league in certain countries would possibly collapse if one person (in this case Laukasz) were to leave. This makes the push towards a commercially viable product even more important.
Despite the recent long overdue acceptance of Rugby League as a sport by Global Association of International Sports Federations (previously Sport Acord), many governments around the world only fund International Olympic Committee recognized sports. Poland is unfortunately one of these countries, meaning Rugby League receives no central government funding.
“We don't receive any government funding, as the game is not recognized by Poland's government. They only recognize IOC recognized sports. This fact is important because sport in Poland in general just rely on government funding. It obviously helps them achieve some success, attract media attention, and eventually get private sponsorship too which only leads to receiving bigger grants from the government etc.
We are not part of this system and can only rely on membership fees, and some little private sponsors. It's also easier (doesn't mean easy!) to find a small sponsor for a local club than the Poland Rugby League as the whole” says Lukasz.
Many rugby league fans around the world don’t realise just how important the Nines format is to developing countries. Being able to consistently field competitive teams is made significantly easier the less players you have. Poland have used this format well with the aim of progressing the sport in Poland to a stage where multiple, 13 a side teams are competing.
“So far we’ve played our championship as a series of Nines tournaments with the top two teams playing a 13-a-side Grand Final. Our main goal for 2019 is to move into full 13-a-side competition with at least four clubs participating. It's always tough for Polish clubs to have a good number (of players) in their training session. It's also quite a jump from the Nines, but we learned a lot during the past couple of years and we think it's the natural next step for us. We're still going to play a couple of Nines tournaments too. It's just much easier for new clubs to start playing rugby league in this simplified version”, says Lukasz.
It’s always interesting to hear how people in non-traditional rugby league playing countries come across the sport. One of the most common occurrences is expat Aussies, Kiwis or Brits moving to another country and establishing the sport upon their arrival. Occasionally, there’s people who stumble across footage of the NRL or Super League and become hooked on the game. Lukasz falls into this second category.
“I became involved in Rugby League in 2011 when I first encountered some NRL and Super League live streams on the web, which led me to establish the very first Rugby League club in Poland, the Lodz Magpies, only a couple of weeks later. Working hard all those years, we eventually managed to establish more clubs and introduced Whites vs. Reds, our State of Origin-like series in 2015. Then we played our first domestic Nines tournament in 2016, and the first regular domestic championship in 2017” says Lukasz.
Poland is also planning on playing in at least 3-4 international games this year which will present further opportunities to break into the top 20 of the world rankings.
All members of the group behind Polska XIII see the fact that rugby league is currently played in Poland as their biggest success. The group also seem to take a realistic approach to the growth of both a Polish team on the international stage and the regular occurrence of rugby league matches in Poland. There’s no doubt that funding could see rugby league in Poland grow at an exponentially faster rate. If the group have achieved this much with little to no funding to date, your mind can’t help but wonder how much could be achieved with even one substantial corporate backer.