HELSINKI — As the world’s best rugby teams continue their quest for World Cup glory in New Zealand, spare a thought for those players on the other side of the globe – and at the other end of the rankings.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) ranks qualified national teams from New Zealand at No. 1 all the way down to 93 – a bottom where Finland languishes behind even lesser rugby nations such as Cameroon, Guam and Peru.
“Is it fair to say we’re the worst team in the world? No. Quite clearly not,” said 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.
The perceived inequalities of the IRB’s ranking system stirs the passions of ‘sisu’ – a Finnish word loosely defined as fighting spirit – in the national team’s players, whatever their country of origin.
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.
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 stars.
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 said.
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