Written by Oliver Kellner-Dunk
Photo by dedicphotography
In recent years the Red Star Belgrade Rugby League club has been making waves in the rugby league world, through their dominance in both the Serbia Rugby League competition and the Balkans Super League.
The current pandemic has not only had an impact on the NRL and Super League, as competitions all over the world have been postponed or cancelled, and clubs have been significantly affected as well with Red Star Belgrade being no exception.
Club director Matthew Wright recounts the challenges that this pandemic has caused for Red Star.
“The global pandemic has hit us pretty hard, as it has everyone, it’s a challenging time for the sport worldwide,” he told Everything Rugby League.
“The Balkan Super League was cancelled meaning we’ve missed out on playing teams from other countries which is always exciting, the Serbian domestic season was put on hold a week before it was set to return and restrictions were enforced across Serbia which meant all the preseason work fell by the side too and a lot of the boys were advised to remain indoors unless going to work so as you can imagine a lot of them were also struggling.”
Concerns over the pandemic were so severe that the club was forced to part ways with their head coach.
“We also lost our head coach Phil Economidis as he had to return to Australia because in March April time there was an enormous risk that the season might not resume at all and ourselves and Phil agreed it would be best for him to be back in Australia just in case the borders are closed, Phil will be back for 2021 though so we’re looking forward to getting him back and working with the boys.”
Economic issues have been a crutch for the organisation too; however, they have pulled through, in large part because of their dedicated fans.
“From a financial standpoint we’ve also been effected we have wages to pay for the team, thankfully though the lack of travel due to the cancellation of the Balkan Super League has evened this out as well as our fantastic fan base and members who have bought merchandise and memberships that help ease some of that strain we’ve experienced.”
While the Balkan Super League was cancelled, the Serbia Rugby League competition has recently recommenced with clubs abiding by strict guidelines.
“In regards to a return, we’ve played three games since the season’s resumption almost a month ago and to be honest so far so good, the Serbian Rugby League Federation has done a good job of communicating with the clubs and ensuring protocols are abided by at all times, such as temperature checks, isolation in the event of symptoms, they were very clear from the beginning that it needs to be taken seriously despite Serbia’s low number of COVID-19 cases.
“In regards to getting everyone back on the pitch, the call came from the sporting minister of Serbia that sports can resume but with a decreased crowd presence and adequate spacing, the SRLA then began spacing remaining fixtures out to one game every two weeks, and so far this is working well.”
Over the past couple of years, Red Star’s bid to join the Rugby Football League similar to the Toronto Wolfpack has not eventuated.
The global pandemic means that having a bid accepted would be an even more challenging task, which is why for now the club’s primary goal will be to develop Serbian talent and Rugby League in Serbia.
“I think one of the worst things you can do realistically as an expansion club is close off your options and possibilities by saying it’s this or nothing, right now there’s a lot of time to assess options, but one of the biggest misconceptions of this club is that we have a goal to be somewhere or playing in a particular competition, our goal is the development of Serbian Rugby League players and giving the youth of Serbia a new aspiration in a new sport.
“Whether that comes on UK shores, in Serbia itself or elsewhere is to be determined. It’s even harder right now to say we wish to play in another country because of things like COVID, which doesn’t seem to be slowing in parts of Europe. Ultimately it makes it difficult to plan for 2021 as it’s so unpredictable what the economic climate will look like, or travel, or even being able to obtain sponsorship as there are no guarantees yet that come early next year things will be better.
“So, for now, we’re open to all possibilities but with our eyes firmly set on that overarching goal of developing Rugby League players from Serbia.”
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