'My 13-year-old daughter asked to leave because she was terrified'
“The last three months have been surreal. I have just arrived back in Kyiv after three months in Spain. I’m not sure if it’s a good decision, but it’s made. I really hope the war will stop soon.”
Rugby likes to use wartime phrases to convey its combative nature, talk about ‘fighting for every inch’ and being ready to ‘go into battle’ when discussing an opponent are cliches that pepper pre-match lexicon, but those similes feel trite when hearing, first-hand, the day-t0-day life-or-death situations involving with the Ukrainian Rugby Union (URU).
Iryna Arkhytska, the secretary general of URU, despite impeccable English, is struggling to find the right words to the fact her beloved country was invaded by Russian forces on Feb 24, in the depths of winter.
Now bathed in sunshine, she prays for better days ahead.
“For first two or three weeks we were confused, lost and terrified but then we started to think about our possessions and how to keep ourselves alive.” She pauses, “mentally.”
Arkhytska started working for the Ukrainian Rugby Union six years ago and only tried playing a game of touch in Madrid, laughing that she now understands, ‘how tough it is for your body and soul.’
Responsible for international documentation, over the years, she got to understand how a governing body works, regularly liaising with Rugby Europe, World Rugby and the Olympic Committee before assuming her current title. It was experience that has served her well in recent months.
On the day of invasion, Arkhytska was Kharkyiv-bound on the train when she heard the Russian Army had crossed the border. “I was a long way away from my family and it was a huge shock. My first thoughts were that I needed to get back to Kyiv. Not for a moment did I think about leaving the country permanently. My husband decided he couldn’t leave his heartland while it was under attack and I wanted to stay with him. However, those first three weeks were very intense and my 13-year-old daughter asked to leave because she was terrified.”
Like millions of families, heart-wrenching conversations were had and it was decided mother and daughter head West to the city of Lviv, in close proximity to the airport. “Lviv was a shelter for people trying to escape the relentless bombing. The local government organised a refugee response along with Lviv Rugby Union who organised a camp at the local university rugby stadium pitch. I worked in the same food kitchen as the Ukrainian Rugby team, where we were cooked for refugees and military forces from the moment we woke up. The boys were exhausted but they kept going, I was so proud of them.”
Defending his native #Ukraine, Vladislav Oleksiyovych Gorbunov, a player of the #Donetsk regional rugby team, was killed during combat missions. He was only 22 years old …@rugby_europe #stopwar #StopPutinNOW #UkraineWar @WorldRugby #StopRussia #StopRussianAggression pic.twitter.com/wtuzsVa5xT
— Ukraine Rugby (@RugbyUkraine) June 23, 2022
When word reached them that Russian forces were advancing it was decided to move to Poland. It was then the global rugby network kicked in. “We knew some Ukrainian players who played there, and they promised us accommodation in Katowice. We crossed the border on foot where we were provided with hot food and SIM cards and then we went to Warsaw. Honestly, we couldn’t believe how supportive the Polish were.”
Now in relative safety, Arkhytska began making plans to pull a disparate Ukrainian Rugby together. “The URU is a family and I started to collect information from the clubs via personal messages. I must say, from the first day of war we were well supported by Rugby Europe and World Rugby. They offered us shelter in their countries. By day three, World Rugby announced a support package, which was fundamental to us surviving as a governing body in those early days.”
When in Poland Arkhytska started to work with the game’s administrators more closely and it was proposed she move to Spain where she could communicate more freely. Transport was arranged and within a fortnight she was in Madrid, as a guest of the Spanish Rugby Union. “In the first three weeks or war, we withdrew all our sides from competitions, but after consultation, we decided to apply for U18 boys and girls participation, which Rugby Europe accepted. Then we looked for private financial support because government funding was blocked for obvious reasons.”
Rugby Europe launched a fundraiser which Arkhytska says continues to be a massive help and training camps were organised to enable Ukraine to compete at the forthcoming European Championships.
Not every one of the country’s 3,000 male and female players will be present, however. “Some of our representatives have joined the military operation, joining territorial protection groups, volunteering to help with humanitarian aid. Many of our members go into the red zones to help people with food and medicine.”
Athletes of the LEGION XIII rugby club at the #Dynamo Stadium in #Kharkiv.
In July 2019, the matches of the second round of the European Grand Prix in rugby 7 among women took place here. 12 teams took part in the tournament, including the#Russian national team.#rugbyeurope #war pic.twitter.com/gIM3rk48N9
— Ukraine Rugby (@RugbyUkraine) June 20, 2022
The plight of the URU was brought to the attention of the Olympic Committee and Olympic Solidarity support has been applied for to cover training expenses in the short-term.
Arkhytska says Octavian Moriariu, the head of Rugby Europe has been particularly supportive. “In the first week of war, we were hiding in the bathroom as a family due to heavy bombing when the President of the Ukrainian Rugby Union called me to ask me to translate the conversations between him and Octavian. There was heavy shelling outside, so it was a crazy situation!”
Offers for support have come from far and wide. “Amazingly, one of the Pennsylvania State University representatives contacted me and said they’d like to organise a charity dinner. They asked for our national shirt, which they said they would hang in the Hall of Fame to raise money. We are also liaising with a British company about producing rugby kits with our logo to help our profile. It’s amazing how many people want to help us.”
Currently No 34 in the world, Ukraine has a passionate, committed player base, having beaten Romania previously and there was hope that they could move up the world rankings before war hit.
“No one is hiding from this reality. Take Oleg Kosariev, the captain of our Ukrainian 15-a-side and 7-a-side sides. He has not been able to train properly. He is just running in his back yard or using public equipment at night because his he has been protecting Ukraine as a volunteer. If we play in any competitions next year, there are concerns because so many of our players haven’t been able to train properly. With a lack of money, if we miss games, it complicates matters.”
Keeping the administrative wheels turning when on a war footing is a challenge for even the most talented administrators, says Arkhytska. “The executive director of Ukraine Rugby joined the military in special ops. He can’t share where he is or who is he working with most of the time. He has made the decision to help his country, which makes communication sporadic.”
The long-awaited event for young rugby players took place at the #Odessa Sports Academy Stadium – for the first time during the full-scale #WarInUkraine they had the opportunity to play training matches against their rival friends from Odessa schools.#rugbyukraine #rugbyeurope pic.twitter.com/vjHeflb917
— Ukraine Rugby (@RugbyUkraine) June 19, 2022
As for the future, Arkhytska says it is unclear, but the kindness and warmth shown by the rugby community has been overwhelming. “We’ve been so amazed by the global rugby family support and solidarity. It’s difficult to express my feelings. They have proposed to help us with accommodation, to shelter our players, because at the start we didn’t really know what we wanted or needed, but slowly the system kicked into place. Our male and female players were left with a choice which country they wanted to go to, so we liaised with different unions, and they’ve all been incredible.”
Arkhytska says with all the support and help, there is hope the Ukrainian Rugby Union can survive this critical emergency. “We have to believe that. The patriotic unity of Ukrainians gives us hope. We are desperate that the world doesn’t forget out Ukraine and keeps reporting what is happening here. We have been thrilled that organisations like RugbyPass have raised money for our and it is hugely appreciated. We cannot thank you enough.”
Join free and tell us what you really think!Join Free