An article by leading national paper Helsigin Sanomat:
A gentleman, but with a dirty mouth on him in the scrum
Stephen Whittaker captains and manages the world’s worst national rugby fifteen
By Tuomo Väliaho
Those living in Finland could perhaps be forgiven for not noticing that the Rugby World Cup is being played in New Zealand, and that the hosts face France in the final this weekend.
Although American football is played here with some success, rugby is not a discipline that is very high on the Finnish sporting agenda.
Not yet, at least.
One might have thought that it would piss one off to be known as the world’s worst, but the man sitting opposite me is all smiles.
Stephen Whittaker, 35, is officially the world’s worst, or to be more precise, one of the world’s worst.
Whittaker captains and manages the Finnish national rugby side, which was recently ranked 93rd and bottom in the International Rugby Board’s world tables.
For all that, the captain is positively radiant.
“It was a great thing for Finnish rugby”, he enthuses.
“The AP news agency piece, picked up by outlets as diverse as Forbes and the New Zealand Herald, has since found its way onto countless net sites and has been quoted by other papers. There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
But is it really so, that rugby here is in such a depressed state that it is worth taking comfort out of being ranked at the very bottom of the heap?
There are a good many countries in the world in which the game is played, but for which no ranking exists. A good many places that actually come above Finland in the IRB’s estimation are in reality weaker sides on the field.
“For example, two rungs above us on the ladder are Vanuatu, who have only won one of the ten international matches they have played. We would take them out, but we play in different groups”, says Whittaker, and he could also have noted that in the European Nations Cup tournament, Finland have already beaten Greece from their group. Unfortunately, Greece are not on the rankings table as yet, and so it does not affect Finland’s current position at the bottom.
And how in the world did Whittaker, a British citizen, wind up as captain of the Finnish national side?
The reason, curiously enough, is the 75-metre-high Puijo observation tower in Kuopio.
In 1993, at the age of 17, Whittaker came from his home Plymouth to work as a trainee in the restaurant there on a student exchange programme.
He was only there for a month, but the experience stayed with him.
He graduated as a chef and spent a couple of years working in the trade in the UK.
In 1996, the principal of a hotel and catering management school called him up and suggested a new exchange programme.
Whittaker applied with Finland as his first choice, and he got in.
Six months of the training were actually spent in Germany, and another six months at the Old Baker’s Restaurant in downtown Helsinki.
Whittaker enjoyed his time there and in Finland in general, and after the stint was up he stayed on to work in the restaurant.
“I went back to England for Christmas, and I realised that time had basically stood still over there. The same people in the shops and the same drunks on the streets. I had changed, but my old home town had not.”
When one of his colleagues at work then called up from a party and expressed disappointment that Stephen couldn’t be there in Helsinki, it gave rise to an odd and unexpected sensation.
“I realised that I was feeling homesick – and for Helsinki of all places. I packed and left for the airport there and then.”
Back in Helsinki, Whittaker discovered rugby again. He had played as a teenager, but the game had fallen by the wayside during his studies.
“I was out walking by the Tali playing fields
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