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Rugby unites Russian and Estonian kids

Relations between Estonians and Russians living in the Baltic state have been strained over the last decade. However, one man has come up with a novel way to get the two communities interacting again – rugby.

­You will not hear any Estonian or Russian on this pitch – only English, bellowed, John Slade, a former Major in the British Army.

He has been living in the Estonian capital Tallinn for the last 20 years, and has been trying to introduce the "new" sport of rugby to the youth of the Baltic nation.

“We’ve set up the Tallinn Tigers multisport skills club. And we now get Estonian and Russian schools playing three different ball games. This year is the first year, but, hopefully, we’ll continue,” Slade said.

However, the main point of the project is to try and get the Russians and Estonians playing together – something which unfortunately is an all too rare occurrence.

“Unless you get the children between six and nine meeting each other regularly, not once a year, every wee, it’s not going to happen. When the 17 or 18-year-olds meet in the disco, for the first time, obviously, there’s going to be slyness,” the coach said.

Another important side of the project is to try and teach the children the dangers of drinking and taking drugs.

In 2009, a staggering 1.2 per cent of the Estonian population – or one in every 3,000 people – had contracted HIV. However, by getting children involved in sports, John believes he is giving the kids something to believe in, and keep them occupied, while there have been a number of success stories over the last few years.

“Over the last 15 years we’ve got over 40 boys and girls at Universities in Europe, particularly, Edinburgh. That is success for us. It’s not about great rugby. We use rugby as a development tool,” Slade stressed.      

One boy who is looking to follow in their footsteps is Yaroslav. He is ethnically Russian, but speaks fluent Estonian and goes to an Estonian language school. He has only started to play rugby over the past couple of weeks, but he says he enjoys it as it gives him something to do during his three months of summer holidays.

“Because it’s a manly game, it’s not girlish. You fall. It’s fun,” he said.

Yaroslav's improvement has been so quick that he has already been named captain of the Tallinn Tigers' touch rugby team. However, the boys could have a big treat in store in the autumn. John is trying to organize a tour to the rugby heartland of England to play sides in Gloucester.
Nevertheless, the biggest bonus the kids will gain is the interaction between their respective communities, which will hopefully lead to Estonian and Russian children playing together peacefully.