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How rugby league is offering a beacon of hope in Ukraine

In the bomb shelter, two kids in Kyiv Hearts’ red uniforms sit playing chess with their teammates looking over their shoulders. In another room of the shelter, Kyiv Rhino players in blue kit work their phones the way teenagers the world over do.

It’s how they kill time.

To play their Saturday under-14s rugby league match in suburban Kyiv, both teams and their managers need to wait for the ‘all clear’ from the air raid sirens which are a normal part of life here in Ukraine.

“We have to stick to the rules,” Yevhen Zubritsky, the head coach of the junior Rhinos, explains. “But no matter, we’ll still get in a good match today. The boys will insist on it.”

Coach Zubritsky, a former first-grader at hooker, knows his boys well. The Kyiv Rhinos junior rugby league program has been affiliated with Public School Number 196 since 2016 when Zubritsky started as a PE teacher there.

Australia’s most popular football code is also the number one boys’ sport at the school; his players train three times per week with a game on the weekend.

“Three times a week, there’s no war for these kids. Rugby league is the main thing keeping them normal. They literally run to get out of the building and on to the paddock for training,” Zubritsky says.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 12 months ago, Hearts and Rhinos have only missed a few weeks of training. 

“Even during the few weeks we weren’t on the paddock, we ran on-line training with the boys. Watched games, chatted, tried to give them support when things were looking pretty bleak. They were great through all of it. Rugby league motivates these kids for the future and that’s what motivates me,” the energetic Zubritsky, 52, says.

His school-based program is a pipeline of player talent for both the Kyiv Rhinos in the first-grade Ukrainian Super League (where they compete against the likes of the Lviv Tigers and the Ternopil Knights) and the Ukrainian national rugby league team.

Thankfully, the air alert passes without rockets or missiles – some 1000 of which have been fired on Ukraine in recent months. On a cold early spring day and under a grey sky, the two teams face off in an exhibition match of 10-minute quarters played with full-contact on an astro-turf surface behind the school. Their little brothers and club-mates in the under 8′s fill in the gaps.

Artur Martyrossian, standing with his league mates Victor Baranov and Dmytro Radysh, is an imposing presence on the sidelines. He’s in full combat uniform and stands 190cm tall and weighs 120kg; he’s a former triple first-grader in league, union and gridiron.

For most of this year, Artur, 46, has served as a Private First Class in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Between patrols, he continues to meet his duties as the long-serving President of the Ukrainian Rugby League Federation (URLF).

“When I’m off duty, it’s a chance to keep doing something positive and to contribute to a better future. Besides, it’s in my blood since I was a kid. My dad was a leading sports admin guy here. I love league because it’s about the team – you’re always sacrificing for your mates in order to succeed,” Artur says.

With patience, passion and humour, Artur has spearheaded the growth of league here since 2007. Starting from nothing, the Ukrainians have most notably won a European 9′s tournament. Before the war, they were competitive in Group B of the European Cup. There are international tests coming up in October versus Norway and Greece, if players and costs can be put together.

Artur hopes for more help from the UK, where the Kyiv Rhinos are affiliated with the Leeds Rhinos and Ukrainian first-graders have played for the Milford Marlins, and from Australia, the epicentre of the code they love.

Ukraine’s league types closely follow the NRL.

They nominate their favourite teams – the Rabbitohs, the Panthers, Wests Tigers, or the Eels, who share Ukraine’s blue-and-gold colours.

Nathan Cleary, whose grandmother is of Ukrainian background, recently boosted their spirits by calling for heritage players in Australia and elsewhere to come out for the Ukrainian national team.

Artur, with special permission to temporarily leave Ukraine, met Nathan by chance in the lobby of the Australian team’s Manchester hotel during the World Cup. On that short trip before returning to the army, Artur got to see his baby daughter, born as a refugee in the UK, for the first time.

When the invasion started on February 24, 2022, Artur, Victor and Dmytro were helping to run a junior tournament in far western Ukraine. In spite of news of Kyiv being under direct attack, they jumped in their car and sped against the flow of jam-packed traffic to get back to their hometown. To get their wives – Artur’s was then seven months pregnant – and kids to safety; to volunteer for the defence of Kyiv; to literally take up arms with no military backgrounds.

Also former first-graders, Victor and Dmytro also serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and have seen action around the country; some one-third of the current national team has volunteered for the military. They have all lost countless mates during the defence of their country, which Putin said would only last three days.

A decorated commander who before the war ran a successful boat accessories business Victor says: “I’ve changed. I’ve cried more this year than my entire life. When we realised that the Russians don’t take POWs, and when we saw the mass murder and rape of civilians at Bucha, we realised that there was no going back.

We cannot step backwards. And we haven’t.

On the sidelines, rugby league families of the players do what they do. Comment on form, tactics, the competency of the coaches, but with real gratitude too.

“Rugby league has given these kids so much during the war,” Svitlana, a 39-year-old mum, says. “Teamwork, friendship… when the war started, they were little boys. Now, they’re almost like men. Stronger, bonded together… being here is more than just ‘sport’.”

Mrs Rima Debnovetska, 79, who the locals call the ‘grandmother of rugby codes’ in Ukraine, has known Artur, Victor, and Dmytro since they were running around like these kids. Her grandson, Mykola, a tall and strong 13-year-old, is playing in the forwards for Hearts today. She cheers him on during a big hit-up. 

“When we say ‘Ukraine has not died’ – the words of our national anthem – this is exactly what we mean,” Mrs Debnovetska says.

Coach Zubritsky, who has been refereeing the scrimmage, blows the final whistle. The Kyiv Rhinos and the Kyiv Hearts form a tunnel and shake hands. Everyone – players, coaches, administrators, parents and grandparents – poses for a photo.

No one seems to know the score of the game. And, for once, the old cliché rings true: rugby league was the winner today.


This article was written by Pete Shmigel, Advisor to the Ambassador of Ukraine to Australia and New Zealand.




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