In the bomb shelter, two kids in Kyiv Hearts’ red uniforms sit playing chess with their teammates looking over their shoulders. In another room of the shelter, Kyiv Rhino players in blue kit work their phones the way teenagers the world over do. It’s how they kill time.
To play their Saturday under-14s rugby league match in suburban Kyiv, both teams and their managers need to wait for the ‘all clear’ from the air raid sirens which are a normal part of life here in Ukraine.
“We have to stick to the rules,” Yevhen Zubritsky, the head coach of the junior Rhinos, explains. “But no matter, we’ll still get in a good match today. The boys will insist on it.”
Coach Zubritsky, a former first-grader at hooker, knows his boys well. The Kyiv Rhinos junior rugby league program has been affiliated with Public School Number 196 since 2016 when Zubritsky started as a PE (physical education) teacher there. Australia’s most popular football code is also the number one boys’ sport at the school; his players train three times per week with a game on the weekend.
“Three times a week, there’s no war for these kids. Rugby league is the main thing keeping them normal. They literally run to get out of the building and onto the paddock for training,” Zubritsky says.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine 12 months ago, Hearts and Rhinos have only missed a few weeks of training.
“Even during the few weeks we weren’t on the paddock, we ran online training with the boys. We watched games, chatted, and tried to give them support when things were looking pretty bleak. They were great through all of it. Rugby league motivates these kids for the future and that’s what motivates me,” the energetic Zubritsky, 52, says.
His school-based program is a pipeline of player talent for both the Kyiv Rhinos in the first-grade Ukrainian Super League (where they compete against the likes of the Lviv Tigers and the Ternopil Knights) and the Ukrainian national rugby league (NRL) team.
Thankfully, the air alert passes - some 1000 or so rockets or missiles have been fired on Ukraine in recent months.
On a cold early spring day and under a grey sky, the two teams face off in an exhibition match of 10-minute quarters played with full-contact on an astroturf surface behind the school. Their little brothers and clubmates in the under-8s fill in the gaps.
Artur Martyrossian, standing with his league mates Victor Baranov and Dmytro Radysh, is an imposing presence on the sidelines. He’s in full combat uniform and stands 6’3” (191 cm) and some 120 kilos; he’s a former triple first-grader in league, union and gridiron.
For most of this year, Artur, 46, has served as a Private First Class in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Between patrols, he continues to meet his duties as the long-serving President of the Ukrainian Rugby League Federation (URLF).
“When I’m off duty, it’s a chance to keep doing something positive and to contribute to a better future. Besides, it’s been in my blood since I was a kid. My dad was a leading sports admin guy here. I love league because it’s about the team - you’re always sacrificing for your mates in order to succeed,” Artur says.
With patience, passion and humour, Artur has spearheaded the growth of the league here since 2007. Starting from nothing, the Ukrainians have most notably won a European 9s tournament. Before the war, they were competitive in Group B of the European Cup. There are international tests coming up in October versus Norway and Greece - if players and funds can be put together.
Artur hopes for more help from the U.K., where the Kyiv Rhinos are affiliated with the Leeds Rhinos and Ukrainian first-graders have played for the Milford Marlins, and for Australia, the epicentre of the code they love.
Ukraine’s league guys closely follow the Australian NRL. They nominate their favourite teams - the Rabbitohs, the Panthers, the Tigers, or the Eels, who share Ukraine’s blue-and-gold colours.
Nathan Cleary, whose grandmother is of Ukrainian background, recently boosted their spirits by calling for heritage players in Australia and elsewhere to come out for the Ukrainian national team. Artur, with special permission to temporarily leave Ukraine, met Nathan by chance in the lobby of the Australian team’s Manchester hotel during the World Cup. On that short trip before returning to the army, Artur got to see his baby daughter, born as a refugee in the U.K., for the first time.
When the invasion started on February 24, 2022, Artur, Victor and Dmytro were helping to run a junior tournament in far western Ukraine. Despite the news of Kyiv being under direct attack, they jumped in their car and sped against the flow of jam-packed traffic to get back to their hometown. To get their wives - Artur’s was then seven months pregnant - and kids to safety; to volunteer for the defence of Kyiv; to literally take up arms with no military backgrounds.
Also former first-graders, Victor and Dmytro now too serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and have seen action around the country; some one-third of the current national team has volunteered for the military. They have all lost countless mates during the defence of their country, which Putin said would only last 3 days.
A decorated commander - who before the war ran a successful boat accessories business - Victor says: “I’ve changed. I’ve cried more this year than in my entire life. When we realised that the Russians don’t take POWs, and when we saw the mass murder and rape of civilians at Bucha, we realised that there was no going back. That we cannot step backwards. And we haven’t.”
On the sidelines, rugby league families of the players do what they do. They comment on form, tactics, and the competency of the coaches, but with real gratitude too.
“Rugby league has given these kids so much during the war,” Svitlana, a 39 year old mum, says. “Teamwork, friendship… When the war started, they were little boys. Now, they’re almost like men. Stronger, bonded together… Being here is more than just ‘sport’.”
Mrs Rima Debnovetska, 79, who the locals call the ‘grandmother of rugby codes’ in Ukraine, has known Artur, Victor, and Dmytro since they ran around like these kids. Her grandson, Mykola, a tall and strong 13-year-old, is playing in the forwards for Hearts today. She cheers him on during a big hit-up.
“When we say ‘Ukraine has not died’ - the words of our national anthem - this is exactly what we mean,” Mrs Debnovetska says.
Coach Zubritsky, who has been refereeing the scrimmage, blows the final whistle. The Kyiv Rhinos and the Kyiv Hearts form a tunnel and shake hands. Everyone - players, coaches, administrators, parents and grandparents - poses for a photo.
No one seems to know the score of the game. And, for once, the old cliché rings true: rugby league was the winner today.
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