FESTIVAL OF RUGBY – Sportsmanship and comradery

While the international media focusses on the division that Brexit is causing between the UK and its current European partners, the international rugby community has shown once again that sport brings people together. Where the politicians currently seem to focus on what divides us, Gibraltar Rugby has shown that sportsmanship and comradery can overcome political differences between countries.

Gibraltar Rugby hosted a ‘Festival of Rugby’ on Saturday 8th of April in Victoria Stadium, where Gibraltar, Spain and Finland were represented by teams from all ages from four year olds to the Gibraltar National Team. A large and vocal crowd of many different nationalities was packed into main stand of Victoria Stadium.

The afternoon saw Gibraltar’s national rugby team take on Finland in what turned out to be one of the toughest fixtures the home side had faced at home to date. The visitors brought a level of intensity and physicality which proved very difficult to deal with for large portions of the game, much like their development XV had shown the evening before (7th April) whilst beating Gibraltar’s Development XV by 17 points to 7.

The curtain was officially raised at 1pm with a number of demonstration games from the Gibraltar Minis section before Gibraltar’s under-12s took on a visiting side from Malaga. The local juniors ran out as six tries to two victors with some excellent displays of skill and handling from the youngsters, the future of Gibraltar rugby looking very safe in Tom Tunbridge’s capable hands.

Mike Milward, supported by Jack Milton and Chris Lugnanitest out the Finland defence

Shortly after 3pm, with dignitaries back in their seats after meeting and greeting both senior sides and anthems played, the fixture was underway with Gibraltar piling on the pressure for the first five to ten minutes of play. Unable to break down the Finnish defence, the visitors soon began dealing with the home side’s fast-paced game very effectively and soon took control of the ball, and the game, for a sustained period of time.

The next 15 minutes of the game saw Finland press hard within Gibraltar’s defending quarter with an attempted drop goal missed during a penalty advantage. Gibraltar moved the ball effectively through their backs once more and were soon putting the pressure on the visitors within their own defensive quarter. A penalty awarded to Gibraltar just five metres short was tapped quickly by Alexander “Chuqi” Cruz who ducked under the defence to score the first try and points of the game. Chuqi duly converted his own five-pointer to put the hosts 7-0 up with twelve minutes of the first half left to play.

Minutes after the restart, the Finnish scrum-half box-kicks from a ruck just inside the Gibraltar half which caught the Gibraltar defence unawares. The bounce was favourable for the upcoming winger – Eetu Lahtivuori​ – who collected the ball and sprinted in under the posts for the visitors’ first try of the encounter. Antti Lammi​ duly converted the simple kick from in front of the sticks and the teams were level at seven points apiece. From the resulting kick off, Gibraltar were unable to deal with a fast move from the Finnish backs. A number of quick passes and Crispin Mäenpää​ was in for a try in the corner. The conversion was never anywhere near the posts and the teams went in at half time with the visitors leading twelve points to seven.

Gibraltar started the second half with the same, frenetic intensity as they had started the first period of play. Keen to put the disappointing end to the first half behind them, the boys in red and white began piling on the pressure with hard carries from the forwards followed by various backs moves, trying to draw in defenders. The tactic pays off shortly after ten minutes into the second half, and Tom Lovelace, having only just come on as a substitution for Albert Loddo, dove in for a try on the far side of the field. The conversion was missed and the teams were level at 12-12.

With less than 15 minutes to play, Gibraltar were awarded a very kickable penalty after a sustained period of pressure within the Finnish 22. Chuqi Cruz converted to put the local team three points up at 15-12. The physicality was showing across both teams, with Finland’s front row substitutions getting the better of Gibraltar’s replacements on multiple occasions, no sooner had the crowd calmed down after celebrating the penalty and the Finns form a strong rolling maul from a line out and drive the home side over the line to score. Hooker Mauno Konttila​ emerged from the mass of bodies with the ball and is awarded the five points.

Harvey Armstrong stretches out

Gibraltar, trailing 17 points to 15 with less than five minutes to go, refused to believe the battle was over. Pressing up the middle, they again drew in a number of Finland’s players to defend at the rucks, leaving space out wide. A simple move through the hands and Tom Lovelace was through the defence with only the whitewash between him and the second of his brace of tries. Chuqi Cruz added the extras with the boot and Gibraltar took the lead again with three minutes to play. With a five point deficit, Finland were unable to successfully kick the penalty they were awarded as the clock had turned red and the final whistle rang out around Victoria Stadium.  Final Score – Gibraltar 22-17 Finland.

The match was an opportunity to award first international caps to four players (Jibran Pervez, Mark Henwood, Ziad El-Yabani, Oscar Cruz), all of whom have benefitted from being part of the Gibraltar Rugby Youth Programme. Pervez, El-Yanabi and Henwood starred in the Inline Framing Sharks’ Super IV’s success this term and have earned a well-deserved call-up.  Meanwhile, Cruz, is one of five from the extended family, to be named in the squad against Finland. He is cousins with winger Harvey Armstrong and the Cruz brothers, Freddie, Chuqi and Charlie. The Cruz brothers made Gibraltar Rugby history over the weekend by being the first trio of siblings to play in an international match.

Kim Chang, General Manager of Gibraltar Rugby told us “I have previously worked for some of the largest organisations in World Rugby (Australian Rugby Union, Queensland Rugby, New South Wales Rugby) and now probably work for the smallest. This weekend we hosted two international matches against Finland. Though these matches might not be the Bledisloe Cup or the 6 Nations, the passion that the players, fans, volunteers and administrators have for the love of Rugby here on ‘the Rock’ is what epitomises the true spirit and ethos of our game”.

words | Andy Blackburn, GRFU
photos | Rough & Ready Media and Calippo Photos