Yugoslavia was, without any doubt, a sports powerhouse in the period after the Second World War. When an average sports enthusiast is asked about his or hers associations to the now non-existing country in the Balkans, the most common reply would be about memories of their fantastic basketball teams, brilliant but underachieving footballers, very competitive handball players and world’s finest school of water polo. However, with more than 500.000 registered active sportsmen and sportswomen in the general population of about 20 million, and with its socialist sporting system that encouraged sporting teams to have as many sections as possible, Yugoslavia was also a country which nurtured practically every existing branch of sport, including baseball, cricket and rugby. This is a story of Yugoslav rugby, at the time new and unknown, but also very exotic and exciting game for the vast majority of the Yugoslav people, the story of the hardships and powerful enthusiasm of the Yugoslav rugby pioneers.
Rugby was not completely unknown to Yugoslavs in the period before the Second World War. During the previous global carnage, many of the youngsters from Yugoslav lands sought refuge in the countries of the Entente, especially in United Kingdom and France. About 350 Serbian boys had spent the war in various British schools, and about 3.000 more in schools and lycées across France. The first Serbian rugby team was formed in 1917 in Edinburgh by the boys who attended the George Heriot’s School. They played several matches against teams of their British fellow colleagues from the city and even a match against the team of the students from British Dominions who were also being educated in Scotland. Serbian victory in this match was the first ever recorded victory of a Serbian national team in any international match in any collective sport. The similar thing was happening in France, especially in the south, where rugby was very popular among the schoolchildren. Despite their enthusiasm and love of the game, the refugee boys did not manage to make rugby popular in their liberated homeland. Only a few rugby sections were created within the existing football clubs, not enough to start a proper and regular competition. Also, the Yugoslav national rugby team was never assembled. Still, the flame was kept alive.
Socialist revolution that came after the Second World War heavily influenced sporting life. Ideology now played an important role in every sphere of social life and sport was not excluded. In this new age rugby was not in favour – it was seen as a bourgeois game of the British upper classes and it was also linked with colonialism, a major enemy of progressive and socialist people of the world. However, rugby had already taken roots in some of the countries that now formed the communist bloc – most notably in Romania, where rugby was imported from France in years prior to the war. It’s fair to say that Romanian rugby influence was responsible for the second birth of rugby in Yugoslavia. In 1952, Boris Blažević, member of the Romanian national rugby team, who was of Yugoslav origin, had defected back to Yugoslavia, trying to escape Stalinist-style purges. He was the first educated rugby player and coach in the country. Soon after settling in Yugoslavia, he established contacts with prominent Yugoslav sportsmen and sports officials, promoting his favourite game.
Blaževićʼs efforts were not in vain. He soon became friend to Dragan Maršićević, who was at the time secretary to the Yugoslav Association of Sports, a very powerful man in both sport and politics. Blažević managed to persuade Maršićević to invite a French rugby delegation to Yugoslavia, in order to demonstrate the sport to the general public. French response was positive and in September 1953 two very strong French rugby XIII teams (representation of Provence and representation of students) came to Yugoslavia and played four matches in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Subotica and Ljubljana. The attendance was huge and it seemed that the Yugoslav audience was very much interested in the exotic sport. Organizers of the event were encouraged by the reception and soon their enthusiasm was crowned with the foundation of the first proper rugby clubs in Yugoslavia. In 1953 two clubs were formed in Belgrade – „Partizan“ (within the sporting society connected to the Yugoslav Army) and „Radnički“ (an old workers’ sporting association). In 1954 the trend continued – „Jedinstvo“ was established in the city of Pančevo and „Mladost“ was formed in Zagreb. By the end of 1950ʼs, there were about 20 active rugby clubs throughout the land.
With strong desire to gather the newly formed clubs under one roof and in order to try to organize a nationwide rugby competition, rugby enthusiasts and representatives of the clubs formed Rugby Association of Yugoslavia (RAY) in Belgrade in 1954. The task lying before them was huge – some clubs preferred rugby XIII (mostly clubs from Serbia) and some preferred rugby XV (clubs from Croatia and Slovenia); the country was poor and clubs had very limited financial means to acquire sporting equipment and to travel to play matches, etc. But the biggest problem was very low level of expertise, technical and tactical knowledge of the game. RAY tried to tackle all the issues, as much as it could. They organized seminars for players, coaches and referees, somehow managed to get the essential equipment and soon enough RAY organized the first national rugby championship. In November 1957 a championship tournament took place, with the best four teams in the country participating – „Jedinstvo“, „Mladost“, „Partizan“ and „Radnički“. Rugby league (XIII) rules were adopted for the tournament and it remained a practice until 1964. The interesting tournament produced „Jedinstvo“ from Pančevo as the first ever Yugoslav rugby champion. In 1961, Yugoslav national rugby team played its first ever international match. In Bosnian city of Banja Luka the Yugoslavs hosted the amateur team of France. Despite all the efforts made by the national team coach Boris Blažević and the best Yugoslav rugby players, the 5.000 people in Banja Luka witnessed the defeat of the Yugoslavs by 13:0
. In 1964 the leading people of the RAY had decided to definitely accept Rugby union (XV) rules, stating that the XV rules were more popular in the world and, importantly, closely connected to the values of amateurism, very significant in the socialist understanding of sport. Contacts between RAY and FIRA (Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur) were made and in September 1964 Yugoslavia became the full member of the organization. This cooperation represented a crown of 10-year long effort to enroot the sport in Yugoslav soil and stimulus for further development. At the same time, new clubs were emerging – „Nada“ from Split, „Zagreb“, „Energoinvest“ from Makarska, „Brodarac“ from Belgrade, „Ljubljana“, „Čelik“ from Zenica, etc. All of those clubs were very competitive and strived for the highest positions in the championship. Also, both senior and youth national teams started their participation in the FIRA competitions. First ever competitive match Yugoslavia played against Italy in December 1968, losing 22:3 in the FIRA „B“ group competition. From that moment on, Yugoslavia competed in the Second Division of the FIRA Nations Cup, without achieving much success. Most prominent competition Yugoslav team ever participated in was the rugby tournament of the 1979 Mediterranean Games, held in Yugoslav littoral town of Split. Among other rugby teams, Yugoslavs hosted the strongest teams of France and Italy. In the end, Yugoslavs finished fourth, losing to France 88:6 in the semi-finals. Despite the heavy defeat, rugby audience was happy with the fact that the national team played against one of the best teams in the world at the time.
In total, in the period between 1961 and 1991, Yugoslav national rugby team had played 66 international test matches, winning 20, losing 44 and drawing 2, with score difference 622:1.056. Also, the national team played 50 unofficial matches, against various teams both home and abroad, winning 26, losing 23 and drawing 1, with score difference 1.142:699. Also, during the period of socialist Yugoslavia, 35 national championships were held, with six different clubs winning the national trophy („Nada“, „Čelik“, „Zagreb“, „Jedinstvo“, „Partizan“ and „Mladost“) and dozens more competing for the highest places. Even after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and bloody civil war that followed, rugby players and officials from the now non-existing country stayed in contact, nurturing good relations they had before. Joint tournaments are quite common these days, as are the seminars and rugby summer camps. But probably the most active are the veterans, who gather quite frequently, not just to see if they had forgotten how to play the game, but also to reminiscence about the good old days. Despite the fact that future of rugby in the ex-Yugoslav states now seems quite bleak, no one can actually tell how it’s going to be in years to come. When one looks back to the rocky road and sees how much was accomplished in such short time and with so many obstacles, he can only wonder what the future holds. One thing is certain ‒ the pioneers of Yugoslav rugby should be cheered and celebrated as true heroes of the magnificent sport.
Article © Dejan Zec