Graham Smith was the Assistant Coach of England when they won the World Cup in 2014. Today he is at the other end of the international game, starting from scratch as directory of rugby in Estonia.
When Estonia took the field in Belgrade on 4th June 2022 they became Europe’s newest sevens team. Now they looking to expand into fifteens.
But how do you form a women’s national team in a country that has never had one before?
Graham introduced us to Laura Nõlvak, the first captain of Estonia’s women in their first tournament the Belgrade European Conference 7s 2022, where they became the 148th women’s rugby international team.
Estonia women’s rugby started three years before in the summer of 2019 when Laura came back after have been introduced to the game the Netherlands.
“I wanted to keep my skills sharp during the summer and looked up if there were any teams here” she says.
Laura asked Kalev RFC if she could tag along in their training with the men. Following this another woman, Mirjam Liblik, also wrote to the club and expressed her interest in playing rugby.
Kalev RFC then decided to do try doing some women’s recruitment alongside the men’s. That recruitment resulted in Marleyn-Cristin Kallas join. She had just come back from Ireland, where she had previously played rugby. Alongside Marleyn, Ketlin Loob also joined the training.
In 2019-2020 Kalev played games in Finland with a mix of women from Estonia and from the Army NATO base at Tapa, Estonia. But once Covid took hold, everything, including Rugby in Estonia, stopped.
Then on May 4th 2022 Graham took on the role as head coach to Kalev rugby and was quickly asked to coach the growing number of women in sevens. He was soon preparing them for the Rugby Europe Conference, taking place in Serbia a month later. The aim was to field a team in Estonian shirts at an established international women’s tournament, and from that promote the game to bring in more players. In that first year he managed to run “about eight training sessions” before the tournament.
“For some of our players, their first ever game of rugby was that international against Austria. We lost that first game 45-5.
“At this level we have to work on little victories and our little victory in this tournament was that even though Austria won the tournament undefeated, the only try they conceded was against Estonia.
“We achieved our goal of establishing an international women’s team.“
18 months on, where are they now and what next?
“My role changed from head coach of Kalev rugby club to Director of rugby for Estonia”, says Graham, “which includes a number of coaching roles and responsibility for growing the game in schools and universities, and coach education.
“We have continued to develop and recruit new players. Currently, there are about 20-25 women playing rugby in Estonia in two main cities, Tallinn and Tartu. We have players recruited from ice hockey (though they still play ice hockey).
“We play regular games of 7s and 15s mainly against teams from Finland and Latvia, which we will continue throughout the winter months.
“In June of 2023, we again played in the RE Conference tournament in Serbia. We were more competitive and although we lost all our games, we were much better prepared and scored more tries than the previous year – again, its the little victories.
“We will be running a new recruitment campaign in the new year with plans to play more regularly in 7’s and 15’s next season and will participate in the Conference tournament for a 3rd consecutive year this year.
“We have introduced tag rugby to schools for the first time this autumn term with over 700 students involved and a significant number of them were girls.
“The immediate aim is to establish a regular 15s team playing in the Finnish leagues and to get promoted from the Conference to the Trophy in Europe. To achieve this we are working closely with the Baltic and Nordic countries in working together to develop rugby in northern Europe.
“We have some good players and I believe we have an exciting future.”