An article released today by a Helsinki based reporter; David MacDougall of Associated Press, went viral in minutes, David discusses the IRB rankings and Finland’s position within them, this article is also accompanied with video footage which will be posted as soon as released.

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HELSINKI (AP) _ As the world’s rugby elite continue their quest for World Cup victory in New Zealand, spare a thought for players on the other side of the globe, and at the other end of the skills level.

Finland_officially the worst rugby team in the world.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) ranks qualified national teams from one to 93. Finland props up the bottom of the table, languishing behind even rugby minnows like Cameroon, Guam and Peru.

“Is it fair to say we’re the worst team in the world? No. Quite clearly not” says Steve Whittaker, an Englishman-in-exile who’s lived in Finland for more than a decade, and captains the national side.

“Yes, we are ranked last in the IRB rankings, but there are many countries that are not ranked, so therefore technically, theoretically below us” the 35-year old adds.

Finland plays in the European Nations Cup (ENC) tournament alongside Bulgaria, Greece, Luxembourg and Cyprus. But they can only advance up the IRB standings by beating other IRB-ranked teams and in their ENC group only Bulgaria fits that criteria. So a recent win against Greece, and wins against non-ENC, non-IRB Estonia don’t do the Finns any favours.

The perceived inequalities of the IRB’s ranking system stirs the passions of ‘sisu’ – a Finnish word loosely defined as fighting spirit, guts, pride and determination – in national team players, whatever their country of origin. It is often said that to understand the meaning of ‘sisu’, is to truly understand Finland and Finns.

“If we would dump Finland right in the middle of the Caribbean, we would be a lot higher” says Marc-Olivier Meunier, a Frenchman with four caps for his adopted nation. “Look at the ranking of Caribbean teams. Look at the ranking of Tahiti. If we play against them, we would most probably beat the crap out of them and go much higher” insists the 32-year old prop.

But ranking rankles aside, Whittaker identifies some of the key challenges facing Finnish rugby as increased money and player participation, which can build up the sport from the club level through to the national team.

“Nobody takes a chance on Finnish rugby in terms of financial input, because we don’t give them anything” says Whittaker. “But because we don’t have the financial backing like the bigger countries, we can’t proceed, we can’t excel in the ranks, and so we don’t have anything to offer”.

The IRB says it’s doing what it can to improve rugby in Finland, providing grants to promote the sport in schools through touch and flag-rugby projects. “It’s not just about getting sport into schools, but getting new members into clubs” says Douglas Langley, the IRB’s Denmark-based regional development manager.

“Another way we’ve been trying to help Finland is coach and referee education” says Langley. “We’re trying to assist Finland in its club environment with better coaching and match officiating. That might assist with improving the performances of the clubs” he adds.

Growing the awareness of rugby in Finland seems to be a stop-start process. In 2010, a bittersweet documentary called “Freetime Machos” about the travails of Oulu Rugby Club in northern Finland, was a domestic and international hit at film festivals. And last weekend’s national championship decider between Helsinki Warriors and Tampere Rugby Club attracted an enthusiastic crowd of 300 spectators. But an exhibition of flag rugby in downtown Helsinki, which coincided with the start of the New Zealand World Cup, failed to fire the imagination of Saturday shoppers at the city’s largest mall. Just a handful of bemused Finns paused to watch the fast-paced flag action.

Still, new players are finding their way to the dozen or so clubs across the country. Student Niklas Sved only took up the sport a year ago, and now plays for Helsinki Rugby Club alongside a brace of Finnish international rugby stars. “When I tell my friends I play rugby, they just assume it’s American football. There’s no recognition of the sport in Finland, no-one knows about it” says the 25-year old.

Other Finnish players broke into the sport at an earlier age, like Ville Siiskonen, who was introduced to rugby during a study abroad programme in Wales. “After the first training session I was hooked. I knew that rugby was my sport” says the 23-year old second row player.

Siiskonen is traveling to New Zealand for the World Cup, remarkably, to watch his first major international game despite having 10 caps for his own country. He’s also surprised that more Finns haven’t flocked to the sport. “The Finnish people love physical sports. For example ice-hockey is very popular here” says Siiskonen_the Finns are current ice-hockey World Champions_”I think the whole ethos of rugby, respecting your opponent and the sort of honesty that’s involved with the sport would fit ideally to the Finns”.

A stint with London Irish Amateurs improved Siiskonen skills, and the tall brawny Finn hopes to build on his rugby experience by playing semi-professionally in France or New Zealand after graduating university.

As the World Cup group matches unfold, Finland’s small but enthusiastic rugby community is following the tournament from the other side of the world. National captain Steve Whittaker concedes his side will never play among such an august group_ “not in our wildest dreams” he emphasises.

But there is a certain amount of pride in the Englishman’s voice, a hint of that uniquely Finnish ‘sisu’ trait. “The first thought I had when I saw the England selection to go to New Zealand was ‘I’ve got more caps than half of them'” says Whittaker. “I’ve played more times than any of the backs. It feels kind of good. We’re never going to get that high, but every game we play is just as important for us, as it is for them to play in New Zealand”.


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