Written by Stuart McLennan
Rugby league expansion has been a hot topic recently. There has never been a better time if you love the international game.
The Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) in partnership with in-country passionate volunteers are making plenty of headway across the continent. European nations, where rugby union had a foothold, are increasingly turning to rugby league as an additional or alternate sport.
One of the founders of rugby in Albania, Ditmar Halla, has seen his club Tirana transition to rugby league.The team currently competes in the Balkan Super League.
“We got involved with rugby league in 2017 after we switched codes. Ever since we joined the rugby league community it has been a different feel altogether. The level of organisation in the Balkans steered us in the right direction. Thanks to (RLEF Central and Eastern European Regional Director) Jovan Vujosevic, who invited us to play rugby league and has supported us since the very beginning,” Halla said to Everything Rugby League.
“We have not played a union game since we switched codes and don’t intend to in the future. We have fallen in love with the quick pace and physicality of rugby league,” explained the captain of the Tirana club.
At present Tirana is the only club in Albania however Halla says work is currently being done to establish a second team called the ‘Illyrians’.
“We intend to create a second team that carries this (Illyrians) name and is independent from us. We think that this rivalry will help the sport grow.”
Tirana debuted in the Balkan Super League, a competition that currently boasts fourteen teams across eight different countries, in 2018.
After losing both games last season against Serbian side Radnicki Nis and Athens club Attica Rhinos, Tirana secured a solid 46-6 victory against Vitez in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month.
“We had a rough time (in 2018), but we matured and this year we achieved our first victory in the Balkan Super League. The (BSL) championship is one of the best things to have happened to us as a team.
The GB Pioneers, a squad from the United Kingdom made up predominantly of students that travels to new up and coming countries to help in their rugby league development, recently announced they would tour Albania in 2019.
“After last year, when the GB Pioneers went to Turkey, we were anxiously waiting to see if they would pick Albania as their next destination to tour. When they contacted us, we here so happy to be given this chance, which felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. Halla said excitedly.
“We are still in the administrative phase, as we are setting up the dates and matches for the tour. Hopefully we will all be able to gain a lot from this interaction. Our players are new and need the experience. The experience they will get from this tour will be immense.
“The other part we are really looking forward to is the chance to form a national team. This would be our proudest moment as it has been long time in the making. We really hope this will allow us to build the foundation needed to create a national team.”
Halla says they are still undecided on the issue of bringing heritage players into the national squad at this stage.
“We are still considering our options. Everyone wants the opportunity to play for their national team. Especially in Albania, the desire to represent your country is very strong and we think everyone deserves the opportunity. If someone deserves it, they will have the chance to do so in our team.”
While Albania Rugby League is excited about having a team competing in the Balkan Super League, officials will continue to work towards the goal of forming a domestic competition.
“In the future we would like to have our own league of course. For the moment we are considering joining the Greek championship to keep the sport alive and the team engaged.”
The Greek Rugby League Association currently has five domestic clubs with an additional Athens team in the pipeline for next season. President George Stilianos said he would be open to discussions on including Tirana.
“We would would welcome their entry if it could be managed logistically. I was fortunate to travel to Albania last year with the Attica Rhinos for the Balkan Super League clash. It was an unreal experience, an amazing atmosphere at the game and top-notch hospitality from the hosts. You couldn’t ask for more,” Stilianos said.
“We want to see the sport spread more and more in Albania,” Halla continued.
“We want to start a school program as soon as possible.
“It (rugby league) has a great culture and community that can help a lot people. That’s what we love most about it.”