Members of the southern Ukraine rugby team, the Odesa Seagulls, who trained with Jonah Lomu in 2009 are training to fight in the war. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi photojournalist Tom Mutch met a rugby team in southern Ukraine – with a connection to a very famous New Zealander – who are preparing to go to war.
“Before this, I didn’t even know you had rugby in Ukraine, but you played really
well, surprised me”, Jonah Lomu said the first time he met Roman Kovalenko, then a 19-year-old first five-eighths for the Odesa Seagulls, a provincial rugby club located at the famous Black Sea port city in southern Ukraine.
They met in November 2009, when his team visited the French city of Marseille for a two-week training camp with the All Blacks legend. Lomu had signed for the third division French team Marseille Vitrolles a few months before and oversaw their training sessions from the sidelines, assisted with coaching, and offered them advice on how to improve their game.
Lomu apparently took a shine to the young playmaker and told him he had a bright rugby career ahead of him if he dedicated himself to it.
“You’ve got great passing skills and play a great physical game,” Kovalenko recalls Lomu telling him after the Seagulls played a friendly game against Vitrolles, which Lomu observed from the sidelines.
“The first thing I asked him for was a photo and he gives me a hand and he said that learning about our game is very interesting for him. I tell him that it was only two years since I started playing rugby and, in these years, I saw how he played, and I wanted to be like him. It was the proudest moment of my life. Until now, of course.”
Kovalenko, the director of the Maritime Technical College for sailors in Odesa, sits in his office, which is covered in memorabilia, including local team jerseys, trophies from various competitions and deflated rugby balls. Over bitter black coffee, he says he remembers that Lomu would tell them, “If you want to be the best, you need to train every day, wake up thinking about rugby, go to sleep thinking about rugby.”
Kovalenko, 31, still plays for the team, as do more than half of the players who trained with Lomu. They would still meet for training until a little over two weeks ago.
But now, these men think of only one other thing – war, and how to protect themselves and their families from a coming Russian assault on the city.
“This year we really wanted to train hard, and win, because the 2022-2023 season would be the 60-year anniversary of our club. But of course, the war started and now our guys must go to fight.
“Most of them go to territorial defence volunteer forces, other guys go to the Army, especially those who have military service before. Anything someone can do for our forces, they do it.”
Instead of scrum and passing drills, they learn to shoot, take cover, and give emergency medical care. Many of the skills, he insists, are very transferable. “We learn teamwork, fitness, and the importance of working harder and caring more than the other guys.”
Before the war, rugby was still a small but expanding sport in Ukraine, with about 2000 registered professional players and 42 clubs. It doesn’t have the following it does in Georgia, another post-S
…. to be continued
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