Scania, Copenhagen, Gothenburg. One day, they will be regarded as this region’s rugby league pilgrim fathers. Or at least that’s the aim of the founders of the sport’s first ever pan-Scandinavian tournament, which is due to start on Saturday March 30, when the city’s newly inaugurated side, Copenhagen RLFK, cross the Øresund to take on their Swedish neighbours in Malmø.
Copenhagen will be out for revenge after losing 18-30 to a Sweden Barbarians side back in October, a game that bodes well for the competitiveness of the coming season. Back in April, the Danish national side had thrashed Sweden 122-8, but it would appear that since then, the Swedes have successfully recruited several experienced rugby union expats based in the region. In total, the Barbarians fielded 13 different nationalities and eleven current or former internationals, boasting 35 caps between them
Following the opening game, there will be five more games on consecutive Saturdays (April 6-May 4) as each side plays one another twice, home and away. Copenhagen’s home games are at Gladsaxe Stadion on April 13 and 20. Meanwhile, a warm-up nines tournament is taking place at Gothenburg’s Kungsbacka RC on Saturday.
While Sweden are currently the bottom-ranked nation in the world (28 to Denmark’s 27, although a further 12 countries are unranked), both countries are optimistic that the league will help them climb the rankings. And if it continues to grow – with a team representing Stockholm and the inclusion of the Jutland outfit, which Copenhagen will lock horns with over a three-match series later in the year – there is no reason why they won’t be in contention to qualify for the World Cup in 2021, which following an expansion for this year’s tournament (taking place in the British Isles from 26 October-30 November) will include at least 14 nations.
“As these clubs emerge in Denmark, there will be more comprehensive training and experience for everyone involved and we will roll out our youth development strategy,” said Steve Davy, the president of the Dansk Rugby League Forbund. “Our destination is the Rugby League World Cup in 2021, and I look forward to sending a very strong team.”
Denmark have already come a long way since their first international in 2009, and in 2011 they won the first ever Nordic Cup, beating both Norway and Sweden, although last year, the Norwegians, who have a well-established domestic league, underlined their regional authority by taking the title.
“The first year was unbelievable!” the Copenhagen RLFK captain Eugene Hanrahan recalled about 2011. “We defeated Sweden in Gothenburg and then stunned mighty Norway on home soil at Gladsaxe stadium, becoming the Nordic Cup champions during our inaugural year!”
Hanrahan, who played amateur league for Irish side Limericks Treaty City Titans, had presumed his playing days were over, but then he met national coach Nigel Kitching in 2010. It has instilled in him an ambition: to prosper with Copenhagen RLFK and to help establish the sport. “Obviously Copenhagen is aiming to win the league, as will the rest of the clubs,” he said. “For me I would just like to see the game grow in Denmark and to keep attracting new players to the toughest and best game in the world.”
The club is keen to recruit Danes. “While we’ve attracted players based in Copenhagen from all over the world, we’re committed to recruiting local Danes as well as international players,” revealed Murray Power, the Australian chairman of the club. “Many native Danes take to the game with great passion. This is important to ensure a healthy future for the club and rugby league in Denmark.”
And the Swedes are also looking ahead with confidence. “With three clubs who are all fully focused on rugby league, this will surely help regenerate rugby league interest in the north,” predicted Swedish Rugby League president Scott Edwards.
Coaching the Scania team is Rob Leishman, a Scot with over 25 years’ experience as a player and coach in three different countries, including New Zealand. “It’s great to see everyone from each of the clubs and countries pulling together, sharing ideas and trying to accommodate each other,” he enthused. “It’s great to see the sport growing, with many new players. It is fun to help introduce a new sport.”
Looking ahead to the coming season, Hanrahan is confident that Copenhagen have a few aces up their sleeves: “Robert King is a strong running forward who always looks for the offload and loves to hear that ‘crunch’ in the tackle – the Maltese voted him the best player on the Danish side after their last international. Silas Mubanda is a proven try-scorer and can make things happen from nothing; keep your eyes on him otherwise you will miss the magic! And Ungureanu Andrei, a former Denmark rugby union youth international, is another young player who has his first taste of league and is hooked. He is great with the ball in hand and has a great defensive ethic − maybe one for the national team.”
Edwards, though, is more cagey about the Swedish sides’ hopes. “With this being the inaugural year, we don’t know much about each other on the field,” he said. “Therefore it’s difficult to comment on the strengths of our opponents or indeed predict how we will attempt to play against them. Apart from two players, our boys are all newcomers to the sport and we hope to raise the profile of rugby league in our town.”