It is always a special moment to be selected to play your first international, and nothing would stand in the way of Joshua Brajkovic and Marin Altamirano in putting on the red and white checkers and representing Croatia at rugby for the first time – not even 18,000 km.
Brajkovic, from New Zealand, and Altamirano from Argentina, made their debuts for Croatia on the weekend in the Rugby Europe Championship 2016-2017 clash against Malta at Zagreb’s Stjepan Spajić stadium.
Whilst the match finished 14-14, ending Croatia’s hopes of winning the group and advancing on in World Cup qualifying, Brajkovic and Altamirano will not forget the day in a hurry.
For a number of years now the Croatian rugby team has been bolstered by players of Croatian descent living abroad, particularly from New Zealand and Australia.
It has not been unusual over the last decade for players from New Zealand with Croatian heritage to travel the 18,200 km to help the developing rugby nation out, and then turn around and take the long flight back home the following day.
The passion for wearing the Croatian colours is strong, which debutants Brajkovic and Altamirano have exhibited.
Brajkovic was born and raised in New Zealand, as too were his parents, but both sets of his grandparents were from the island of Hvar in Croatia.
“My grandparents are from Croatia so they speak Croatian at home and I have learned a little bit”, Blindside flanker Brajkovic told Jutarnji list, adding that he was impressed with the atmosphere at the Zagreb match.
“The crowd was nothing close to what we have in New Zealand. In New Zealand, the crowd is quiet at rugby matches and they are not as fanatical as Croatians.”
Brajkovic is the latest player in a long line from downunder who have shown what it means to play for the country of their forefathers.
“18,000 kilometres is nothing compared to the pride I feel when I wear the jersey of my ancestors”, Brajkovic says.
The same emotion was felt by the other debutant on the day, hooker Marin Altamirano.
“Although it is my first time here, I am proud that I can wear the Croatian jersey,” he said after the match.
Marin does not have as far to travel, but still, has a 12,000 km trip to make back to Argentina.
“I have two uncles here in Croatia, and my grandfather was born on the island of Vis”, he says.
(Altamirano front on picture)
Apart from Brajkovic and Altamirano, Croatia’s side on Saturday featured two Australian-born players – Dylan Rowe and Jai Ayoub, and two based in the UK – Luka Perlain and Filip Perica. Croatia’s coach, Milan Yelavich, is also from New Zealand.
Croatia now faces Cyprus away this weekend in their last Rugby Europe Championship 2016-2017 match.