Rugby in Croatia has a long history with the first club, Mladost – Zagreb, formed back in 1954. Whilst it is an amateur sport, the small nation has enjoyed some impressive success, particularly during the ‘golden era’ of the late 1990s.
With New Zealand boasting a large Croatian community and arguably being the greatest rugby nation in the world, winning the World Cup three times, it was logical that Croatia would tap into talent down under.
The Croatia national team over the years has featured a number of players with Croatian heritage who were born and grew up playing in New Zealand, including a handful who also represented the All Blacks.
One of those ‘Croatian-Kiwis’ who has been instrumental in Croatia rugby as a player and now a coach is Anthony Poša. After playing for the Croatian national team for 10 years, Poša moved into a coaching with the national team and is now developing the new generation of Croatian players.
This summer he has been busy with the Croatia 7s team as they compete in tournaments around Europe and we caught up with him.
When did you first start playing rugby and which teams did you play for in NZ?
I started playing as a 5-year-old, barefoot on frosty grounds for my local club Waitemata in West Auckland. My dad had an outstanding career for them, and for Auckland too, so obviously I tried to follow in his footsteps. I didn’t have much of a choice! I joke, I loved it growing up, it was a real family club with a strong Croatian presence, among many other cultures.
Can you explain a bit about your Croatian heritage?
I’m a second generation ‘Croatian Kiwi’, by that I mean myself and my parents were born in NZ, but all four of my grandparents were born in Croatia. My dad’s parents were both born in the village of Pupnat, on the island of Korčula. My mum’s father was from Vrgorac, and her mother was also from Pupnat.
Its pretty cool being able to visit the villages now where your grandparents were born and grew up, and to meet extended family in Croatia, something I’d hugely encourage Croatian descendants all over the world to do.
When did you debut for Croatia and how did that all come about?
In the mid 90s I got the chance to play a season for Ljubljana in Slovenia, I was originally supposed to go to Croatia, but we weren’t sure if Croatia was ‘safe’ after the war so Ljubljana was like a great alternative to use rugby as a vehicle to see Europe.
I actually ended up playing a friendly game for Slovenia against Croatia, which they won for the first time, and a fellow Kiwi, Antony Sumich was coaching Croatia at the time and he invited me to join Croatia in their up coming World Cup qualifiers and the rest as they say is history.
I moved to Croatia and played for the Makarska Riviera rugby club in 1996 and played for the Croatian National team for 10 years from 1996 to 2006 – including after I left Makarska in 2000 to play my club rugby in the UK.
I spent 3 and a half years living in Makarska from late 1996, we won everything in that time, the Cup, National League, and the Neighbouring Countries Cup), it was unheard of for such a small club.
In 2000 I got a contract to play in Scotland, but continued to play for Croatia till 2006. My last game for Croatia was a 26-26 draw with Spain in Seville – another massive result as Spain are way more established with their rugby than us.
Croatian rugby went through a golden era in the late 1990s and early 2000s. How was it being a part of it?
Simply put the best time of my life, on and off the field! Living in the holiday resort of Makarska, playing for Croatia, seeing the world through rugby. Going to places like Russia, Georgia, Germany, Denmark, Ukraine etc etc, places most of us would never dream of seeing or even going to on holiday.
I guess the main reason of our success is we had a talented group of Kiwis with obviously strong Croatian links, mixed with some very talented local Croatian athletes as well. Antony Sumich and Drago Lulić did a fantastic job of getting us all together, then on top of that ex All Blacks Franco Botica and Matthew Cooper made themselves available and we started making some serious waves worldwide.
At our pinnacle I think we were ranked 26th in the world and we found ourselves playing Italy and Russia to name a few in front of packed local crowds in Makarska, live on national TV, literally one game away from making the 1999 Rugby World Cup!
We were on the 7s World Series too, and featured at two Hong Kong tournaments which is the pinnacle for World 7s. On a personal note I got to play against New Zealand at the Fiji 7s, something I’ll never forget.
After Croatia you continued your playing career in Scotland before heading to England where you began coaching?
In Scotland I played for a team called GHA, we had two promotions on the bounce when I arrived so despite the dramatic change in weather, I really enjoyed it.
Scotland will always be a little bit extra special as I met my wife Christine there, and our first child Callum was born in Glasgow in 2002.
In 2003, we moved to a beautiful town called Beverley in East Yorkshire. I started my move into coaching with a player coach role for them. Almost unbelievably (pretty sure it hasn’t been done before or since), we got four promotions in a row. Oh and off the field, my daughter Nina and then my youngest son Luka were born.
The plan was always to immigrate back to New Zealand when the time seemed right, but I kept having success and new coaching opportunities opened up for me in both England and Scotland. Now twenty years later I’m still in England working full time as a coach – no wonder I’ve lost my hair! The kids are growing up fast and settling into their own lives now, so the return to New Zealand plan is firmly on hold.
What have been some of the standouts from the UK?
I guess the highlights over this time were the multiple promotions with both Beverley & Doncaster where I also established a very successful full-time Academy, and the many National County titles we won at Twickenham with Yorkshire at Under 20s level.
I have made many friends and worked at some great clubs along the way, currently working as Head of Rugby at the University of Sheffield as well as coaching Barnsley Rugby Club.
What is your current role with Croatia?
Back in 2014, I started helping the coach at the time, Milan Yelavich, who is also another Croatian Kiwi, with the Croatian National team. ‘Mils’ is a very good coach with tons of experience so it was brilliant working with him and I’m confident in saying we complimented each other’s coaching ‘skills’ a lot, so it worked pretty well. Only problem though was my rugby commitments in the UK didn’t always mean I could make every ‘campaign’, plus with Milan coming from NZ, where he has his own business commitments, it always seemed to be too short a time we were both there as a coaching team working with the entire national squad.
So we tried to work out a ‘system’ where one of us would always be there when the national team played, which sort of left me in charge of the 7s program.
Then Covid hit us all, which means Milan can’t now travel, so at this point in time I’m running both the 7s and the 15s. Tonci Buzov, an ex player from Split, is now coaching in Scotland so he helps me with the 15s side of things.
After the ‘golden era’ of almost two decades ago, how has Croatian rugby been going?
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster if I’m honest. After our ‘golden era’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed to fall away a little in the late 2000s sadly. Clubs stopped fielding teams, players dwindled etc. However this current playing generation now are doing great work when they return to their respective clubs; Nada, Sinj, Zagreb and Mladost clubs in particular all have experienced national players having huge roles within their respective clubs, whether it be coaching the senior team, a kids team, helping recruit kids in schools etc, they are all giving something back which is crucial. Coach/educating our new generation of coaches is what is key here I believe.
Croatia did have many highs too though, and there is a new crop of expat Croatians that have played for us and some that will hopefully play for us in the future – not just from NZ either. Australian, Welsh, South African and English to name a few.
Covid though hit us all hard, especially an amateur minor sport like rugby in Croatia. The ‘seasonal’ workers down south I know have really suffered, fact of the matter is, whilst rugby is an amateur sport in Croatia we are always going to struggle when competing with the ‘more established, more resourced’ countries, Covid just exaggerated this.
My ‘dream’ for the future would be to open and run an academy for future players, I’d have one in the south and one in the north. Imagine having talented young players do their studies alongside full time rugby training, getting a qualification as well as training like a professional rugby player. I’ve run similar programs for a living here in England for a long long time, but now I don’t need to help the English any more ha ha!
But it obviously takes resources and funding to do this, and I’m afraid I can’t see that happening.
You have been back and forth to Croatia recently, what is the latest with Croatian rugby?
As mentioned Covid hit the sport hard, so after all the lengthy lockdowns in Europe we finally arranged a ‘Test Match’ thanks mainly to the hard work of Croatia Rugby’s Većeslav Holjevac against the Czech Republic. We beat them in Sinj, which was the first time an international has been played there, and I’m sure helped raise the spirits of what had seemed a desperate time.
Then last month I returned again to prepare both the women’s and men’s national sevens teams for their respective European tournaments. Despite a ridiculous amount of unavailabilities, mainly due to players that couldn’t leave their work after Covid, we competed well, especially considering both squads having approximately half new, young players playing at this level for the first time.
Incredibly the women got bronze, and the men finished seventh – again credible given the standard and the ‘resources’ available to the opposition.
The men have their second leg next week in Budapest on 10th & 11th July and face the daunting task of having Czech Republic, the winners of the last tournament, Romania and Denmark in our pool – I’m sure we will be up for it though!
In between tournaments I managed to get to coach the kids in both Dubrovnik and Makarska. Dubrovnik have done brilliantly to start a new club and the potential there is huge, while Makarska seem ‘reborn’ as they are also promoting rugby with their local kids.
It was especially amazing to see the sons of some ex team mates playing and the Makarska Under 14s team won the national title while I was there. So long overdue, and so good to see the foundations being put in place to grow our sport.
Speaking of sons, are yours following in the family footsteps?
Yes, Callum has just turned 19 and is attending the University of Sheffield. He made the first team there in his first year, so I get to be his coach which is pretty cool as that is one of my many teams I lead. Pre-Covid he made the Yorkshire Under 18s squad, and was invited to train with his age group in Scotland which is a pretty proud achievement.
Luka also plays at his local club and is starting to show a bit of potential. The facilities at his club are outstanding, what we would give to have something similar in Croatia available for the kids there.
Finally, away from the rugby in Croatia, where are your favourite spots?
Easy question this! Makarska of course will always be special. But as for a favourite spot – Pupnatska Luka – heaven on earth!