Life Beyond King's – Finnish Rugby!
A journey into the world of Finnish rugby
Rob Coombs OA tells of his journey into the world of Finnish rugby.
On the 7 July I left King’s for the final time as a student. Two days later I boarded a flight to leave England for 10 weeks.
In these 10 weeks I would be playing and helping to develop the game of rugby union in Finland. Finland being the birthplace and home to my grandmother for 85 years and generations before her. I didn’t expect, upon leaving, that by the time I returned, both of the teams I played for would be top of their respective leagues, winning the regular season titles, and both qualifying automatically for their respective national cup finals.
While over in Finland, I played for both Jyväskylä rugby club in the West, who compete in the highest division in Finnish rugby: the national championship series as well as Kuopio rugby club in the Eastern ‘Savo’ region, who play in the second highest division: national division 1. To put the age of the game in Finland into perspective, Jyväskylä were founded 2000, the year I was born coincidentally, and Kuopio was founded in 2011. The oldest club is Helsinki, founded in 1999.
I lived in Kuopio, the largest city in ‘Savo’. ‘Savo’ believe it or not is basically the Somerset of Finland, known for its agriculture and rural accent. Being from Somerset the area felt strangely familiar. I lived with my granny’s nephew and his family, little did I know he spoke less English than I speak Finnish (I speak a grand total of six words). I also found out that his brother, my granny’s other nephew, had been to the winter olympics as part of the Finnish ski team in the 80s, and so my extended family were already connected to sports in Finland. Luck was on my side as my training pitch was located just a five-minute cycle from my home.
I found work fairly quickly through the one of my team mates and newly crowned ‘Finnish rugby player of the year’ Matti Keränen. Work ranged from painting to demolishing the inside of saunas in full clothing at the height of summer (I would recommend the latter).
Rugby took me all over the country, especially considering my closest away game was at least four hours away, and home games for Jyväskylä weren’t exactly a jog from Woodard House to the main rugby pitch at King’s; in fact, home games for Jyväskylä could sometimes take up to two hours to get to.
I also played a couple of cricket games, that could have been on the streets of Mumbai, not Finland. Learning to eat curry with my hands between innings is a somewhat unusual skill to learn in Finland.
During my stay, I visited the arctic circle, where reindeer and elk routinely block the road. I also played an away fixture against Tallinn Kalev in Estonia’s capital (I can firmly say that to this day I’m unbeatable in Estonia) and briefly headed into Sweden. It was great to play with and against not only Fins but other Englishmen, Welshmen, Australians, New Zealanders, Pacific Islanders, Swedes, Germans, a Lithuanian (inventively nicknamed ‘Lits’), a Frenchman (inventively nicknamed ‘Frenchy’), and a Fijian named Kitione (nicknamed Kiti, the finnish word for thanks). Kiti himself is 52 years of age and is still playing rugby every week; he certainly taught me a thing or two about the game he loves and has over 40 years of experience playing all over the world. Unbelievably in my first game I discovered that my opposite number was originally from Minehead – I went on to play him a further two times.
In total I played 10 games, winning 8, whilst personally recording over 50 points, including 9 tries and 4 very suspect conversions, and finished 2nd top scorer in Kuopio’s division 1, with help from a hat-trick in Kuopio’s club record 101-12 win over Seinäjoki, a team we lost to the very next weekend.
Kuopio won national division 1 final, having qualified automatically by winning the regular season as previously mentioned. I’m immensely proud of this.
Jyväskylä having also won the regular season in the championship had qualified for the biggest game in the Finnish rugby calendar, the national championship final. The club kindly paid for me to fly back out for this game, having gone home two weeks before. Unfortunately we came up short against eight time champions Warriors rugby club Helsinki. However, the 35-hour round trip from Taunton which took me to Bristol, Stockholm, Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Hämeenlinna, back to Jyväskylä, Helsinki again, and Copenhagen was not wasted because we lost. The famous rugby 3rd half delivered as always, and I witnessed the passion that Finnish rugby players have for the game. Post-match the club song was sung and giant men were reduced to tears to the sound of the Jyväskylä remixed version of John Denver’s classic ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’. I realised that the rugby community is a very special thing all over the world.
Psychology in rugby and life is something I became very aware of whilst playing in Finland. In every game I played I was probably the smallest player and definitely the youngest. Being 11 stone in a league dominated by those over 15 stone and in some cases up to 25 stone, was difficult to adapt to, and I carried a lot of small injuries in every game, and this brings a mental challenge, but I was able to adapt and play every minute of every game, and I’m twice the player for doing so.
There were many challenges. I had never been away from anyone I knew for more than around three days. I met very few people of my age also. Languages were never my forte, and they still aren’t – I picked up very few words. The culture is very different, listening to ‘Radio Suomi pop’ at work wasn’t a highlight. But I dealt with all of these challenges, big and small, and I’m happy I did so, and I can now give sound gap year advice to anyone interested.
I attended a national team training day near the end of my stay, having been added to the training squad, and I will now be considered for both 15s and 7s down the line, which is great.
I tried to keep this concise; I have many other stories to tell and interesting aspects to life in a strange country. As for what else I have planned for the coming year, I’ve been invited to play rugby 10s in Indonesia by my Kuopio teammate Evan Rees, for his side from New Zealand. I’m also looking at competing in Europe’s Toughest Mudder in June, a 12-hour overnight non-stop obstacle course race in mud, as well as some other adventures.
I must thank everyone at Kuopio rugby club, Jyväskylä rugby club, my extended family, and King’s College for the Micheal Baker Young Traveller Award that helped immensely toward covering various costs.
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