Malta is one of the smallest but most colourful, diverse and unique places in Europe. Because of its patchwork quilt history, it is a mishmash of architectural, social, political and cultural styles. Now rugby is the latest European arrival to its shores.
So young is the sport in the country that the island’s first official test match was against Moldova back in November 2000; however, in only fifteen years the country’s rugby structures have gone from strength to strength.
Bryan Corlett, a local rugby blogger and part of Malta Rugby’s PR team, explains: “One of our main successes has been building an infrastructure to be able to train and develop the next generation of Maltese Rugby players, with that in mind the ‘GetIntoRugby’ scheme has been introduced into the schools which provides a pathway for young players to develop their love for the game and their ball and decision making skills.”
— Malta Rugby Union (@MaltaRFU) April 16, 2016
Don Hewer, General Secretary of the Malta Rugby Football Union, illuminates why Malta has so many reasons to be proud: “We became part of the IRB in 1999, and entered the European Nations Cup in 2000. Our world ranking makes us the smallest nation with the highest ranking in Europe. Last year our Under 18 squad entered European competition for the first time.”
In a country which has one of the smallest populations in Europe and is already competing with major sports like football and water polo, the Maltese men’s national team is currently ranked an impressive 47th in the world.
“Just look at the world rankings we’ve achieved with our male national team, the successes we’ve had with women’s team in Sevens,” says former Aberavon and Maesteg Number 8 Damian Neill, who is now the national team’s coach and technical director.
He is able to list off an incredible list of achievements that he and his colleagues have made in such a short space of time: “Back in 2003 we delivered a RWC primary school tournament, where each primary school took on board a nation, produced classwork explaining about each country, and played in one big tournament.
“Tag-Rugby was then included in the primary school curriculum. Since then we have delivered an advanced tag-rugby course at the University of Malta every year, and to date have certified over 300 student teachers.”
— Malta Rugby Union (@MaltaRFU) March 28, 2016
Nor is the game dominated by ex-pats as is the case in a number of smaller rugby nations across the globe: “Seventy five local based players have received international appearances in the last year alone and three of our match officials have officiated international games already.”
Right across the board, Maltese rugby is constantly improving and growing and is establishing a unique identity in a country which has been able to forge a distinctive ‘Maltese’ culture despite so many transient influences.
Neill explains the idiosyncratic style of rugby the team tries to play: “There is a Malta way that we have been working towards for some time, which is expansive, high-tempo rugby. As a nation Malta is quite short and stocky in build. We have to be highly conditioned to hold onto the ball for 65% of the time, and play with maximum pace and intensity, from anywhere on the pitch in attack. It is the same in defence for our line speed: to have excellent footwork to allow us to beat a defender in the least amount of space, and to allow us to make consistently effective low tackles. We need our set-piece to be technically above the other nations to allow us to win quick ball.”
Heart breaking stuff! Bulgaria kick a 40m pen in the last minute to secure a victory pic.twitter.com/yj2xtdgRmA
— Malta Rugby Union (@MaltaRFU) March 31, 2016
And to produce the physically and mentally demanding brand of rugby that is the shared vision of both players and coaches, it takes an unparalleled level of perseverance.
“To make the national team,” Corlett explains, “players are put through an immense amount of conditioning and also have to sacrifice time and money to make the preparation training period prior to each international. To accomplish that shows dedication, commitment and team spirit, working always for the greater good.”
In one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, it is of no great surprise that Malta is working with other continental and global organisations to improve the standard of rugby across the archipelago. As Neill explains: “The Six Nations run legacy projects with smaller unions to help with their development. There is also a training and support programme run by World Rugby, and we are supported by the Scottish Rugby Union, who have been amazing assisting Malta Rugby, by providing the expertise needed to move Malta forward. This includes delivering courses and providing trainers and educators.”
— Malta Rugby Union (@MaltaRFU) February 26, 2016
But despite the veritable myriad of initiatives, programmes, courses and more, for Neill the hard work all boils down to one fantastic reward:
“Seeing all the children playing rugby with a smile on their face, supported by a wonderful group of volunteers and working together in harmony with their parents.
This continued with the senior and youth female teams playing on the same pitch. This – before our home international, with the senior male team winning – was without a doubt a great overall moment for the whole community and for me.”
The whole nation is slowly embracing rugby and despite the limitations a tiny population places on the Union, the determination, organisation and commitment that Malta’s players, coaches and supporters put in means they can confidently challenge countries that have the luxury of much larger player pools. Europe’s Goliaths should take note.
You can find out more about Maltese rugby here.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena