There’s little that is more typically Australian than two mothers standing on a sideline on a Saturday afternoon supporting their boys playing the 13-man version of rugby, and chatting about their families.
But what is very different on this rainy weekend afternoon in Sydney’s working-class western suburbs, is that Kylee Jurkans and Holly Hromow are watching their young adult sons play the fast and furious game with Ukraine’s national symbol on their uniform and, according to themselves and their supporters, Ukraine in their hearts.
For the first time in the Ukrainian diaspora’s 75-year-long history in Australia, the Tridents, a team of players of Ukrainian heritage created only two months ago, competed in the Harmony Cup, a high-level official tournament staged by rugby league’s Australian governing body.
As the game against an experienced South Sudanese heritage team kicked off, Kylee, who is from Singleton’s mining country some 150 kilometers north of Sydney, and Holly, from Wallaroo some 300 kilometers south of Sydney in grazing country, chatted.
They weren’t just interested in their sons’ hopes of someday representing Ukraine itself, or the very hard-fought opening moments on the field. They also talked with Kyiv Post about their family ties to Ukraine and their concern for the well-being of its people.
“This experience has let the boys really discover part of our family heritage and it couldn’t come at a more intense time,” Kylee said while looking over Kyiv Post’s shoulder as players made breakaway runs and crushing tackles.
“It’s very sad what is happening in Ukraine; it’s sad how their grandmother had to leave her home and her country in similar war-time circumstances in the 40s. But it’s also good there’s people coming together now,” she said.
Her new friend Holly added: “The Trident experience has helped us and Yuri connect to the community and his heritage at another level. We keep in touch with family in Ukraine [near Kharkiv] during the war and worry about them every day. Maybe, events like this and Yuri’s participation gives them some comfort that others have Ukraine in their hearts – even as far away as Australia.”
The Tridents were organized by Matt Girvan, who has been involved with rugby league in various capacities for his entire life, including with the North Sydney Bears one of Australia’s leading professional teams and the Lane Cove Tigers juniors club.
Matt’s wife is originally from Kremenchuk, Ukraine. Watching the war with her from the vast distance of Australia, he decided to contribute something to Ukraine’s cause using what he knew – rugby league.
Gervin reached out to Artur Martyrossian, the Kyiv-based President of Ukrainian Rugby League. The formidable Martyrosian is a former national team player; from the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he volunteered and is now a serving soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He and Girvan agreed a plan, including a pathway for Australians of Ukrainian heritage to be eligible for national team selection.
Within weeks, Girvan and his small group of volunteers had heard from around 30 young men who qualified on the basis of their family lineage spread across three Australian States and a Territory.
They had only eight weeks to build a team from literally nothing so that it could debut in the Harmony Cup played at the Terry Lamb Complex in Chester Hill, a suburb of the City of Canterbury-Bankstown situated 25 kilometers west of Sydney.
“In 2024, there’s a couple of big rugby league tournaments that Ukraine will play in, including a European under- 19’s competition to be held in Scotland, and these guys are all eligible to be selected for representative teams. Here, they can show their wares,” Girvan said. They filmed the match to allow them to analyze the team’s and individual players strengths and weaknesses.
But also important for Girvan and the others involved in the project was the opportunity to give the young men better appreciation of their culture and Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, and to show solidarity with Ukraine and rugby league in Ukraine, which is fast-growing despite bombs and bullets.
That reaquirement was ably filled by Peter Kobryn, 72. Kobryn, a very active member of the Ukrainian community in Sydney since he arrived in Australia aged 10, is a passionate rugby league supporter who lives in Penrith in Sydney’s outer west suburbs.
The local team there, the Penrith Panthers, have won three consecutive National Rugby League premierships, and are coached by Ivan Cleary and captained by halfback Nathan Clearly, who many consider to be one of the league’s greatest ever players. The Cleary’s are proud of their Ukrainian background and both strongly endorsed the Trident project as an act of solidarity with war-time Ukraine.
“My role was to get the team feeling comfortable with their Ukrainian heritage and getting them to bond. They’ve really developed a strong brotherhood… We’ve talked about brotherhood, unity, strength and victory,” Kobryn said, clad in an embroidered “vyshyvanka”shirt and holding the hand of his fourth generation Ukrainian-Australian grandson.
“They truly have Kozak blood. I’m full of pride for these boys – who are descended from a great people which has survived terrible things, including the Holodomor, the 90th anniversary of the which we commemorated this weekend,” Kobryn added.
Sixteen thousand kilometers away, another band of Kozaks is now under arms and defending their country from Russian aggression; some half of Ukraine’s national representative rugby league team now serves in their country’s military.
Every day, the leadership of rugby league in Ukraine hopes it will not be hit by the tragic news that has impacted the families and friends of more than 250 Ukrainian sportsmen who have been killed in action during the full-scale war.
Close to the same age as many of their peers in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Brock, 21, and Ryan Jurkans, 17, who regularly play for the Singleton Greyhounds, put their hands up for the Tridents.
Their Ukrainian grandmother, originally named Dania Nesterov, was forcibly taken by the Nazis as a slave laborer. In 1948, with her Latvian husband, she migrated as a displaced person to Australia where their early years were spent working, like so many migrants of that period, on the vast Snowy Mountains hydro-electrical scheme.
The Iron Curtain stopped the Jurkans’ “бабуся (grandmother)” from ever returning to Ukraine, but she may have been proud of this little piece of Ukraine in Australia on Saturday.
“This has been really special. This a great bunch of guys who it’s been amazing to meet. We’ve learned a lot including about our heritage. We hope we made people proud. It’s been life-changing,” Brock told Kyiv Post right after the match.
Yuri’s father, Phil, recounted travelling to Ukraine in 1996 and connecting with relatives in Kharkiv and elsewhere. It was very “Soviet” then but nowadays, the families keep in touch using the most modern technology.
“They just ‘marked’ 10 days without missiles or shelling. Just regular people being put through all that… What a totally different reality from ours; it breaks your heart,” his wife Holly said.
Brock and Yuri, who was the youngest player on the field having just turned 17, were joined by Tom Mencinsky in speaking to Kyiv Post right after the match.
Having especially converted from traditional rugby union and playing his first-ever game of the fierce 13-man code, Tom, 28, is a third-generation Ukrainian Australian. All four of his great-grandparents were refugees during World War 2 and then migrants to Australia. In a long-standing family tradition, he will help his grandmother, Olya, set the table next month for the traditional 12-course Ukrainian Christmas dinner - often held in the 30-degree heat of an Australian summer.
Olya, in her late 70s, was at the match too. As the momentum shifted to the Tridents after a tough first half, she proudly offered samples of her homemade ‘varenyky’ (traditional Ukrainian potato dumplings) to other spectators from a plastic container.
Tom’s father, Taras, also spoke with Kyiv Post. When I suggested that the Tridents could perhaps be considered a “silver lining” among the clouds of the war; he was direct in his reply.
“There are no silver linings from Putin’s war on Ukraine. He has tried to erase the Ukrainian nation and he has completely failed. It’s a nation that will simply never give up its sovereignty and independence. Even here in faraway Australia, you see that when third and fourth generation kids play an Australian game with Ukrainian pride in their hearts.”
When the final whistle blew, the result wasn’t in the Ukrainians’ favor, hardly surprising as they were playing together at this level for the first time and without some key players, such as Jet Cleary, the younger brother of Nathan, who was out with a shoulder injury. But, as I poked my head into the cramped locker room of mud-splattered young men afterwards, I couldn’t see any losers there; only positive young adults, supported by their dedicated coaches and other staff all vowing to get back into action soon.
The Tridents were all heart.
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