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Breaking Through In The Land Of Ice and Snow: Icelandic Rugby On The Rise

One when thinks of Iceland, one might conjure up images of beautiful scenery, of volcanoes bursting through these landscapes, with the accompanying soundtrack of wonderful music that the nation produces, but one rarely associates it with rugby.

However, interest in rugby is increasing across one of Europe’s most sparsely populated countries. Kristinn Thor Sigurjonsson, President of Rugby Iceland, the country’s governing body, spoke exclusively to Pundit Arena about some of the struggles of establishing a new sport but also the successes he has seen along the way.

He begins by explaining how Iceland is starting to forge its own identity as a rugby nation:

“We try to pick up what works into our game. On this foundation we have then added quite a bit of our own Icelandic idealism and principles and the results are an incredible group of people coming together to play a sport that they love.

“Our rugby here in Iceland is very much a copy, or at least an attempted copy, of the English standard. We focus heavily on the values of rugby and try to impress on players the high playing standards inherent in global rugby and we look to England very much as an example.

Iceland v Latvia - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier

“Coaches and other key members either studied in England and got introduced to rugby or are born and raised there into a rugby culture. We also have players from around the world giving us a good mix of styles.

“As to our method of playing on the pitch we are still developing that, I am sure that we will eventually have our own Icelandic way of playing, but we are still a very young rugby nation and we are not quite there yet. However, there is an Icelandic way of playing sports in general which can best be described as having fun while never giving up. There is a Viking spirit in our players, with endurance, strength and courage.”

One of the country’s biggest teams, the Reykjavik Raiders, was only recently set up:

“The Reykjavík Raiders were founded by several expats (mostly from the UK) and one Icelandic guy in 2010. The team was soon taken over by Icelandic enthusiasts and is now mostly Icelandic.”

Icelandic rugby is slowly building its own sense of identity and with the hard work and determination of Kristinn and his colleagues; there have been a number of reasons for the country’s players, coaches and organisers to celebrate.

“I would say that our main successes have been how many games we have been able to host in Iceland and the connections we have built with clubs abroad – the reception we have received when traveling abroad has been a huge boost for everyone involved with rugby in Iceland.”

Despite this, the country is still battling to create a national 15s team.

“We are still developing our plans for a 15’s team. So far we have been held back by our limited numbers but with more people entering the sport every year we expect to be able to bring together and start training a 15´s national side in the next 2-3 years. The other main factor holding us back has been finances – we get no financial support in Iceland for rugby development and so we cannot afford to send anything more than a 7´s team abroad once per year and even then the players themselves are paying for the most of the trip.”

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND
REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

Yet even when faced with financial issues, Icelandic rugby is not on its own through its development.

“World Rugby has a training and education programme for developing nations like Iceland, which is not a full member of the organisation. Through that we are able to get educators from the Scottish Rugby Union. We have yearly visits from them, excluding last year, giving us qualified coaches and the ability to introduce the sport around the country on our own.

“This programme is the lifeline for us, without it we would still just be a bunch of guys throwing the ball in random directions. In addition, Rugby Europe invites us to attend a yearly conference for general secretaries and technical directors.

“The conferences give us the opportunity to meet other people in similar situations around Europe and share experiences. We have learnt a lot in terms of general management from those meetings and have used ideas from other nations in the promotion of the sport.”

Rugby Iceland is determined to push forward the growth of the sport within the country and this year major work has been carried out in promoting rugby union to a broader spectrum of Icelandic society:

“This year we are currently working on developing the first women’s team in Iceland as well as starting a rugby youth programme.

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND
REYKJAVIK, ICELAND

“We give introductory sessions to schools, youth programmes or institutions that are interested, but it is difficult to get information out there about a sport that most people in Iceland are not aware that exists.

“Most of the people we do get into the sport are not aware of the difference between American football and rugby when they start.”

It’s clear for all to see the passion Kristinn has in his mission to spread the word of rugby across his great nation:

“The proudest moment in Icelandic history so far was when the first team – mostly made of Icelandic people – went abroad, to Denmark to play at the Scandinavian 7s, and started understanding that rugby is more than just a sport; we started talking about its values and behaving like proper rugby players on and off the pitch. That was the time I knew that rugby would catch on and grow into something great in Iceland.”

Forget about the majesty of its landscapes or the sensational sounds emanating from them, the real beauty in Iceland is its magnificent people and their drive and determination that make them unique. Rugby’s values might just well be the perfect fit for Iceland’s small but proud population.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.