Lithuanian rugby team’s Olympic dreams hampered by underfunding

Donatas Streckis
S.Čirbos nuotr.

Donatas, who served in the Lithuanian army, and commanded about 30 soldiers, explains that his philosophy, as a rugby coach, is similar to the army. “I like everything is under control, as in the army. On the women’s team it is a bit harder than in the Klaipėdos kovos team that I am coaching as well” explains Streckis.

“I started sports at the age of 13 in rugby and Roman wrestling”, says Strekis describing his start in sports. “When I finished school I went to the University of Klaipėda. During my second year I decided to take an academic break and joined to the Lithuanian army, when at the end, I had commanded over 30 soldiers. In the army I continued to train in rugby and wrestling. After the army I continued my studies finishing the university with a master’s degree. Almost immediately I got a coaching contract in a city’s rugby school. I was in a good shape and played by myself for the national team. There I got experience and brought it to my coaching career” Streckis says, describing his coaching career.

After establishing a women’s rugby club in Klaipėda, which was built from sportswomen from other fields, he was selected to be the national women’s coach after the previous couch suddenly died. “The first year was tough. Some players did not recognize me as their new coach. But now the situation is much better”.

Last year, the women’s national team managed to qualify for Division A after finishing second place in Division B. In Division A they will face much stronger teams such as Poland, Finland and Norway. “The life there will be much tougher. If we’re not ready and not work hard, we will be back to Division B” says the coach and added that in order to survive, his team will have to take at least tenth place.

What’s the situation of rugby in Lithuania?

Rugby is growing up, but very slowly. Our federation lacking is money in order to develop the sport. This year the government gave even less money to the rugby federation than in the last year. In our clubs we are not getting any salary and we are hoping to find some sponsors. While other sports are getting some financial support by the city municipality, we are not getting a thing. I am coming to them and asking for support and they don’t want to talk.

In 2014 you led the women’s team to Division A. Is it going to be much harder than in Division B?

Two years ago, Sweden and Norway played in Division B without any serious resistance. Maybe the only squad that somehow fought was Israel, but others lost to them by 40-50 points. In Division A they are also getting good results. The level there is stronger by 10 times than in division B.

We are planning to get some training camps and to prepare at a maximum level. We are also planning to play against the Polish team, which is stronger, in order to prepare the girls for the main event. But again the question of money is rising. I want to get more money than in previous years since I want to get the maximum number of training camps. The federation gives money for that, but it could be not enough. Globally, our goal is to take the sixth to tenth places in order to stay in Division A.

The Lithuanians, physically are strong and high. What prevents the national teams to be at the top?

You need to work on it from early ages. You need to have rugby schools and you need to keep the good and talented players. The goal is to have more than a 100 rugby players from whom I can choose the national squad. In this case I will take the best. Now I have to select from 25 girls. Moreover, now I am working with them on rugby moves and even some basic things. When I will get some experienced players we will work on the theory of the game. In Ireland, for example, some clubs have a few teams which are playing in different levels and if you were good in the B group you can move to the A group. We don’t have such a thing in Lithuania.

What is the difference between male and female rugby?

Women’s rugby is much softer than men’s. They are trying not to do dangerous moves and trying not to risk themselves in the field. I think that even the women who are playing for England or Spain, whom I cannot really call women, are still are playing softer than men.

What is the difference between coaching men and women?

It is a big difference. My philosophy as a coach is taken from the army where I commanded a group of soldiers. I mean that I like to instruct and to be sure that what has been asked for will be done on the field. In the men’s group I don’t have any problems with that, but with the women the story is different. I need to ask a few times to convince them to do things because they don’t always want to do what I am asking.

How strong is the Lithuanian rugby league compared to other leagues in Europe?

The club from Šiauliai is pretty strong. They won many matches against other clubs in the Baltic states, but lost to Russian and Polish clubs since the leagues there are stronger. In Poland, their federation gets a lot of money and they are moving this sport along in their country very well.

What is needed so that Lithuanian rugby can be better?

Well, we are moving forward. The federation recently created some projects for the next few years in order to improve the leagues. The federation is doing a lot now. So far the main sports like basketball, handball, football and volleyball took the talented players. Our goal is to also be one of the most popular sports and to attract kids to play rugby. And we need to choose the best and to build them into high level professional rugby players. And who knows, maybe those kids will represent us one day at the Olympic Games.

During the last decade, how has Lithuanian rugby improved?

Well, rugby has improved not only in Lithuania but all over the world. This sport became much safer on one hand and also became a more technical game on the other. For example, when I started to play, if you fell down in the grass, you had a good chance of being injured by other players who would simply step on you. Today, it is forbidden and if you do, you are risking getting a red card.

In Lithuania, during the last few years, many rugby schools have been opened and kids are able to learn the basics of rugby. Ten years ago this sport was not well known in Lithuania; today the situation is better.

What advice can you give to those who want to play rugby?

If you want to play rugby, you need to like it. You should to go to some practices and see if you like it or not. You need to be a fan of this sport and be ready to work hard and often. If you are not ready to do so, then your place is not in rugby. Even today I am searching for new players for the national team and if any sportswoman wants to play rugby she is able to contact me and we will see how to train her to become a rugby player.

Donatas, what is your dream in rugby?

To be a part of those who will take the Lithuanian team to the Olympic Games. In my club in Klaipėda, I have 80 kids and I would really want some of them to grow up to be professional rugby players.

Lithuanian rugby is still in diapers, but according to Streckis, the “Olympic dream” is real. Maybe not in Rio 2016, but one day in the future. That requires money. And a lot of it. Lithuania is known as a basketball state, but why not also a rugby state? With a little effort and hard work it is possible.

Edited by Paul Moriarty

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