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Jai Ayoub and the Croatian Connection

by Paul Treanor

Jai Ayoub is about to fly off to represent Croatia in the 2014 – 2016 European Nations Cup (ENC). Jai qualifies to play for Croatia through his mother’s heritage. This will be Jai’s seventh campaign in the red and white jumper. Croatia play in the 2A Division of the ENC which is played over two years with two blocks of games each year. They have one win, one loss and three bonus points from the first round and are wanting to consolidate their position in second place. First up they play the current leaders (Czech Republic) at home on 11th April. Then they travel to Switzerland where they play their second game on 18th April. Switzerland also have a one win one loss record but have only the one bonus point. Both games are vital to Croatia’s chances of finishing in the top of their Division.

Jai Ayoub playing for Croatia against Lithuania April 2014.

Croatia’s national team was founded back in 1962. They became affiliated with the IRB in 1992. However this coincided with the Homeland War fought over Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia and seriously restricted the growth of the game. Lack of money to develop the sport at a local level has meant the local competition is not as strong as it is in other European countries.

“One of the biggest problems besides the lack of money is the lack of kids growing up knowing the sport.” Jai explained. “Kids don’t kick a rugby ball around and so those early skills are not developed.” The big games in Croatia are soccer, basketball and handball. With the money on offer in these sports in Europe you can understand why kids gravitate to them rather than rugby in a country that is among the poorest in Europe.

“It’s the physicality of rugby that attracts Croatians to the game.” Jai continued. “What’s missing is the strategy and finesse of the game.” This is where overseas players come in. The main contingent comes from New Zealand including the coach, Milan Yelavich. Others come from South Africa and Jai, at this stage, is the sole Australian. They come together twice a year and have built up a special bond. “It’s not just about playing rugby in countries throughout Europe and visiting cities I never dreamed of seeing. It is about seeing another side of life and helping to develop the game in Croatia.” Jai said.

Jai has moved to help with the coaching and developing the backs while Milan concentrates on the forwards. Jai takes what he has learnt here at Eastwood and modifies some of the plays to suit the players skill level. “They watch a lot of rugby on TV and YouTube and want to try out moves they have seen. They are very keen to learn and improve their game.” he said. He also spends time with local teams and schools in spreading the word.

Jai knows he wont always be available to travel over to Europe twice a year and so he is keen to set up a database of eligible players from Australia who can make the trip from time to time. He has already discovered three players here at Eastwood who qualify and have shown interest in making the trip. He also has a wish to have his brother Liam play along side him in Croatian colours. Liam is four years younger than Jai and is yet to see the light as he is currently playing league in the Penrith NRL organisation. Having never played junior footy together it would be a highlight of Jai’s career to play with his brother not only in Croatia but also here at Eastwood.

We wish Jai and his travelling Croatian mates well and look forward to seeing him back here in Eastwood colours in a couple of weeks time.

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