Finland: officially, world's worst rugby team

HELSINKI (AP) — As the world's best rugby teams continue their quest for World Cup glory in New Zealand, spare a thought for players on the other side of the globe, and at the other end of the skills level.

Make that Finland, officially the worst rugby team in the world.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) ranks qualified national teams from leading New Zealand at No. 1 to 93. Finland props up the bottom of the table, languishing behind even lesser rugby nations such as Cameroon, Guam and Peru.

Team captain Steve Whittaker, a 35-year-old Englishman who's lived in Finland for more than a decade, however, begs to differ.

"Is it fair to say we're the worst team in the world? No. Quite clearly not," says Whittaker.

"Yes, we are ranked last in the IRB rankings, but there are many countries that are not ranked, so therefore technically, theoretically below us."

Finland plays in the European Nations Cup (ENC) tournament with Bulgaria, Greece, Luxembourg and Cyprus. But the country can only advance in the IRB standings by beating other IRB-ranked teams, and in its ENC group only Bulgaria fits that criteria.

So a recent win against Greece, and wins against non-ENC, non-IRB Estonia don't do the Finns any good.

The perceived inequalities of the IRB's ranking system stirs the passions of 'sisu,' a Finnish word loosely defined as fighting spirit, guts, pride and determination, in national team players, whatever their country of origin.

"If we would dump Finland right in the middle of the Caribbean, we would be a lot higher" says prop Marc-Olivier Meunier, a Frenchman with four caps for his adopted nation.

"Look at the ranking of Caribbean teams. Look at the ranking of Tahiti. If we play against them, we would most probably beat (them) and go much higher."

But ranking rankles aside, Whittaker says some of the key challenges facing Finnish rugby are increased money and player participation, which can build up the sport from the club level through to the national team.

"Nobody takes a chance on Finnish rugby in terms of financial input, because we don't give them anything" says Whittaker.

"But because we don't have the financial backing like the bigger countries, we can't proceed, we can't excel in the ranks, and so we don't have anything to offer."

The IRB says it's doing what it can to improve rugby in Finland, providing grants to promote the sport in schools through touch and flag-rugby projects.

"It's not just about getting sport into schools, but getting new members into clubs," says Douglas Langley, the IRB's Denmark-based regional development manager.

"Another way we've been trying to help Finland is coach and referee education," adds Langley. "We're trying to assist Finland in its club environment with better coaching and match officiating. That might assist with improving the performances of the clubs."

Improving the awareness of rugby in Finland seems to be a stop-start process. In 2010, a bittersweet documentary called "Freetime Machos" about the travails of Oulu Rugby Club in northern Finland, was a domestic and international hit at film festivals.

And last week's national championship decider between Helsinki Warriors and Tampere Rugby Club attracted an enthusiastic crowd of 300 spectators.

But an exhibition of flag rugby in downtown Helsinki, which coincided with the start of the World Cup, failed to fire the imagination of Saturday shoppers at the city's largest mall: just a handful of bemused Finns paused to watch the fast-paced flag action.

Still, new players are finding their way to the dozen or so clubs across the country. Student Niklas Sved only took up the sport a year ago, and now plays for Helsinki Rugby Club alongside two Finnish international rugby stars.

"When I tell my friends I play rugby, they just assume it's American football. There's no recognition of the sport in Finland, no one knows about it," Sved says.

Other Finnish players broke into the sport at an earlier age, like Ville Siiskonen, who was introduced to rugby during a study abroad program in Wales.

"After the first training session I was hooked. I knew that rugby was my sport," said Siiskonen, a second rower.

Siiskonen is traveling to New Zealand for the World Cup to watch his first major international match despite having 10 caps for his own country. He's also surprised that more Finns haven't taken up the sport.

"The Finnish people love physical sports. For example, ice hockey is very popular here" says Siiskonen, referring to the current world champions. "I think the whole ethos of rugby, respecting your opponent and the sort of honesty that's involved with the sport would fit ideally to the Finns."

A stint with London Irish Amateurs improved Siiskonen's skills, and the brawny Finn hopes to build on his rugby experience by playing semiprofessionally in France or New Zealand after graduating from university.

As the World Cup pool matches unfold, Finland's small but enthusiastic rugby community is following the tournament from the other side of the world. Whittaker concedes his side will never play among such an august group — "not in our wildest dreams" he says.

Regardless, Whittaker has some personal satisfaction based on his experience in the fledging sport in his country.

"The first thought I had when I saw the England selection to go to New Zealand was 'I've got more caps than half of them'," says Whittaker.

"I've played more times than any of the backs. It feels kind of good. We're never going to get that high, but every game we play is just as important for us."

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