On International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, the global rugby family continues to provide essential support to the Ukrainian rugby community. Solidarity is one of the game’s core values and it has been in abundant supply since the Russian invasion of the country began in February.
More than 4.2 million people, many of them women and children, have fled Ukraine to escape the war, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary.
The offers of help are not just one-off contributions, but sustained coordinated efforts from the entire rugby family, to ensure the basic needs of the Ukrainian rugby family are met, including supporting refugees with food, shelter and friendship.
“We continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and the nation’s rugby family,” said World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont.
“The rugby community has been quick to act to offer basic support and assistance. These coordinated and individual acts of solidarity have been moving and reflect the very best of our sport and its values.
“Along with Rugby Europe, we have been in constant contact with the Ukraine Rugby Federation and have pledged our full and sustained support to assist rugby to get back up and running, when it is safe to do so.”
Values for life
In March, Rugby Europe estimated that 3,000 active Ukrainian rugby players were either on the road to exile or in the street defending their country as it launched a fundraiser to help the country’s rugby community.
Set up in cooperation with the Ukrainian union, donations are being used to help women and children transfer to other countries, book transit accommodation, buy medication, food and clothes, while covering other relocation costs.
The fundraiser is the start of long-term support aimed at eventually rebuilding Ukrainian rugby, both domestically and internationally. To make a donation, visit the Rugby Europe fundraiser page and pledge any amount from €10.
“We want to demonstrate that solidarity is not reserved just for the pitch and that our values are values for life,” a Rugby Europe statement read.
Players, officials and fans have shown their support for Ukraine ahead of recent matches in both the men’s and women’s Six Nations Championships.
United Rugby Championship club Zebre Rugby answered an SOS from RC Polytechnic, a team in Kyiv, last month, sending two coaches to the Ukraine capital to help bring people to safety in northern Italy.
RC Polytechnic chairman Andriy Dudko had reached out to Zebre through a shared sponsor and was able to put the families of players from the Kyiv club on the transport.
Once safely arrived in Parma, Zebre helped to arrange accommodation as the refugees adjusted to their new surroundings.
The club’s president Michele Dalia spoke to World Rugby in March about the scheme and his conversation with Dudko.
“I just told him, we’re available to help and he just answered me that helping me means one thing, move people,” Dalia said.
“So, we sent our two buses there. We sent [them] without having any idea of what was happening after that.
“We’re trying to make them feel at least safe, just to protect them from what is happening… It became a job, and it is the most beautiful job I’ve ever done in my life in rugby.”
RC Polytechnic’s coach, the former Georgia international Dima Basilaia, and a number of his players stayed in Kyiv, using his restaurant to cook meals to be distributed to those in need.
Dudko said: “This is what rugby is about, helping each other in their time of need.”
“It means a lot to help them”
Zebre is not the only rugby club that has dug deep to assist those in need. Fellow United Rugby Championship sides Munster and Edinburgh have donated a portion of their ticket sales to charities working in Ukraine, while the Pic Saint-Loup rugby school in France delivered food and medical supplies to the border with Poland.
Former Munster second-row Shane Leahy, meanwhile, has set up several warehouses in Slovakia, from where he has transported vital medical supplies across the border to hospitals in Ukraine.
“There are 10 million refugees inside of Ukraine,” he said. “It is our job to make sure they get looked after there. It’s their home, they don’t want to leave.”
Leinster’s Ireland U20 flanker Alex Soroka was born in Dublin to Ukrainian parents and has managed to raise more than €47,000 to date for the Okhmadits Children’s Hospital in Kyiv.
Soroka, who has family and friends living in Ukraine, said: “It means a lot to help them and I’m grateful for all the support to date from my team-mates and from the Irish people for getting behind this and supporting my fundraising efforts.”
Last week, a group of players from English Premiership side Bath set off on a journey of more than 2,000 miles to drop off donations at the Red Cross Centre in Poland.
Forward Tom Ellis, one of the players making the trip, had urged supporters to donate sleeping bags, blankets, clothes and toys for those in need.
“Nine of us will drive the donations to Poland, to the people who need them most. Every single item will make a difference to somebody,” Ellis said.
Fellow Premiership club Worcester Warriors turned their Sixways Stadium into a donation point at the beginning of March and there have been similar efforts at grounds across the continent.