Ambitious Tirana Rugby Club is leading the charge to grow the sport in Albania and will debut in the Greek competition this season.
Rugby league in the European country is in its infancy, but already progress has been made and the potential is high. It all started in 2013 with Tirana Rugby Club, the first club set up in Albania.
Founded by Stilian Sala and Erland Abaza, originally the club was focused on rugby union. But with little support coming from the 15-man code, a pivotal switch to the 13-man code was made three years ago.
“For many years we struggled to develop the sport, despite our numbers increasing year by year,” club board member Arnaldo Telo explained to Rugby League Planet.
“We felt that support from international organizations was missing. After many unsuccessful attempts made towards developing rugby union in Albania, in 2017, we decided to take another direction with the help of Serbian Rugby League Federation.
“This was unexpected, but at the same time a thrilling development for us. Rugby league is easier to understand, and physically more for the public eye, which are the main reasons that drove the team towards this decision.
“The support from the international rugby league community was highlighted when representatives from Albania were invited to participate the Rugby League European Federation Conference in Belgrade, Serbia. Following the conference, Tirana RC was invited to compete in the Balkan Super League, and since then for Tirana, and Albania the only code of rugby played has been league.”
It has been a fortuitous switch for the Balkan nation, with a population just under three million, and for Telo himself.
The 31-year-old still dons the boots, as well as working as an official and administrator. Telo admitted his involvement with rugby league has been a “life-changing experience” for him.
“I would like to think that I am just a player who represents his team and his city, playing the game he loves,” he said.
“However, I am also on the board of Tirana RC, and the current president of Albania Rugby League Association as well. For me, it is a duty to give as much as I can to the sport of rugby league and our community in Albania, because rugby has been a life changing experience for myself and I would like to give back to this wonderful sport.”
Tirana is the only active rugby league club in Tirana at the moment, however
KR Iliret have been playing Nines for the past two years. There are also plans to bring the sport to the cities of Vlore and Shkodra, and into schools.
Telo concedes the Coronavirus has slowed down their development program, but their goals remain ambitious.
“This situation doesn’t give us much opportunity to do much, but still our work never stops,” he said.
“Albanian Rugby League national team coaches Peter Grayburn and James Finch, and manager Alan Vernon have been able to create an Albanian heritage player database that includes players from UK, France, Italy, and Australia, from U12 to senior level players.
“We hope that this will help us achieve the bright future that we see for the development of rugby league in Albania.”
For now the focus is on Tirana entering the Greek Rugby League Association’s (GRLA) domestic season for the first time. The campaign kicks off next month and the hope is that the link with Greece will stimulate faster growth across Albania.
“Our main goal is to have regular games so we can grow as a team and also individually,” Telo said.
“We also aim to gain experience, so our more established players can show what they are capable of accomplishing, and the new players can learn directly by playing to improve their games. Our hope is to have more rugby league played in Tirana, and attract more people towards rugby league.
“Through this collaboration with GRLA, we will have the much needed support to develop and sharpen our skills not only on the field but also outside of it for the future coaches and referees of Albania Rugby League.
“In all competitive sports, the main goal is to win, and for us is the same. We know the strength of our opponents, and the experience that they have, and we are prepared to do everything we can to win.
“When we decided to join the Greek Rugby League competition, the community of Tirana responded positively in general, but a minority was against it, but their reasoning was mainly political.
“This made us add to our main objectives and now, as well as winning, we also want to represent our country and our city with dignity, and to show that rugby league is not just a sport, but a medium that can unite people, and show that, in reality, our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.”