x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A ranking which rankles with 'Finns'

The perceived inequalities of the IRB system is a sore point for adopted members of the Nordic team, who struggle for financial support.

As the world's best teams continue their quest for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, spare a thought for those players on the other side of the globe - and at the other end of the rankings.

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

The International Rugby Board (IRB) ranks qualified national teams from New Zealand at No 1 all the way down to 93 - where Finland languish behind even lesser rugby nations such as Cameroon, Guam and Peru.

Steve Whittaker, a 35-year-old Englishman who has lived in Finland for more than a decade and captains the national side, begs to differ.

"Is it fair to say we're the worst team in the world? No. Quite clearly not," Whittaker said. "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 play 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 their ENC group only Bulgaria fit that criteria.

So a recent win against Greece, and wins against non-ENC, non-IRB Estonia do not 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 - in the national team's players, whatever their country of origin.

"If we would dump Finland right in the middle of the Caribbean, we would be a lot higher" said Marc-Olivier Meunier, a Frenchman with four caps at prop 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."

Ranking rankles aside, Whittaker said 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," Whittaker said.

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

The IRB says it is 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," said Douglas Langley, the IRB's Denmark-based regional development manager.

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

"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 said.

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

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

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".

But he maintains a level of satisfaction within the sport.

"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'," Whittaker said.

"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."