The world of rugby can present us with the strangest of opportunities. Our reporter Stevie Love caught up with local man Marty Lusty who has journeyed a road less travelled to end up National Coach of Montenegro Rugby. Steve finds out how he got there …
SL: Congratulations on your appointment as National Coach to the Montenegro Rugby Team. It’s great to see a local lad do good in any field, never mind rugby. Can you give the FRU a little bit of a synopsis of your rugby past?
ML: I started playing rugby as a little nipper in the minis and maxis at Carrick, played for a period at Belfast Royal Academy, then moved across to RBAI and played there until leaving school in Upper 6th. Once I left school I spent a short spell at Cooke, Ballyclare and Malone and ended up with RUC until I left Northern Ireland and moved to the Balkans. Most of my experience playing has been at 1st and 2nd XV levels and of course been selected for some interesting scratch sides such as Waterside in the Carrick 7s with such local legends as Steve Love and for Garnerville alongside Irish Rugby Legends Jeremy Davidson and Ronny Carey.
In Serbia I played 1st XV and Provincial Rugby for Vojvodina and Vojvodina State.
SL: I understand the love of a good woman took you to Serbia/Montenegro; when did you move there and what was your experience like of rugby when you first moved?
ML: When I arrived in Serbia to begin with in 2003 the city I arrived at (Novi Sad) had a club (Vojvodina) that had just started playing. At that time the team was made up from a bunch of enthusiastic lads who just wanted to play rugby, they were learning from books and had limited access to equipment or coaches of any kind. I learned about the club through a friend who heard an advert on local radio and I went along to see what was happening. Ten minutes after watching the session I was invited to join in which I did and the next session I was asked if I would help them by coaching from time to time which I was happy to do.
The league in Serbia was and still is a mixed bag in terms of skills and levels, if you imagine a scattering of teams from across the league structures in Ulster all rolled into the one league, it is close to what happens in Serbia. For example the majority of Serbian International Players play at Pobendnik from Belgrade or Red Star Belgrade. These clubs would be the equivalent of a good Qualifying 3 side. At the other end of the spectrum you have clubs that would struggle in the Minor Leagues. This of course leads to massive scores on occasions and horrendous mismatches.
In terms of refs and facilities, things were again very mixed, there were some great refs and excellent pitches, then there were a few locations that were close to playing in a car park. Sadly that was the downside of Vojvodina, our pitch was the first in Serbia with fixed posts, however the surface was full of stones and glass. Before each game the players had to walk in a line the length of the pitch and clear away the glass and larger stones. The hot weather in Serbia meant that the pitches were often rock hard in the early season and towards the end.
In terms of overall playing experiences, my first impression when I saw Serbian players was sheer size !! These guys are massive as a race of people and some of the players are nothing short of huge, luckily I still had a bit of guile to keep me out of too much trouble, but the hits were often high and pretty brutal!
SL: At what point did you decide to give coaching a go? Was it thrust upon you unexpectedly, or was it something you gradually grew into?
ML: I began coaching early back in Ballyclare to be honest, at the tender age of 19 yrs old I was coaching the Minis and Maxis on a Saturday morning and then moved on to coach the U14s. The main reason I started coaching was down to a great coach I had at Ballyclare, in the U20’s and U18’s, Max Cairns. Max encouraged me to give it a go and I got my start being involved with the tremendous May Fair Tournament and continued on from there. I continued to play and really only started to get involved in Serbia with my first serious coaching role. From there I completed my coaching certificates and kept learning as a player/coach. The highlight was in 2006 when I managed to lead Vojvodina to promotion to the 1st league and to the cup Semi Final where we lost out to the then all conquering Partizan side.
I am currently coaching in Montenegro where I coach the current league leaders Lovcen. There are 6 clubs presently in the Montenegro set up with another waiting to join next season and hopefully work we have started in schools and in the North of the country will see another 2 senior clubs and a schools section in the next season.
I have also assisted Rugby Albania with coaching a few sessions for Tirana and I am close with the rugby in Kosovo as they try to get of the ground, although most of my assistance there is reffing for them.
SL: Having made the decision to hang up your playing boots – where did you start coaching?
ML: Who said I hung them up? Let’s say that the boots are presently taking a break.
I only really quit last season playing again for Vojvodina against Partizan Belgrade in the Serbian league. A few years ago I was approached about coaching in Montenegro, rugby there was still very new and a new club had started in Podgorica. I accepted the chance to coach there and again found the players to be inexperienced but lively and great fun. I was coaching alongside Rambo Morrison Tavana who had captained Samoa in the U21 RWC a few years previously and had recently been forced to quit playing Heineken Cup and Top 14 rugby in France. Sadly Rambo left to coach in Canada a short time later.
A year later and due to hard work from other persons such as Beckett Tucker, the Montenegro Rugby President, David Lowe, Bato Jovic, Nedja Savic, Marko Milosavljevic and Marko Zeravica the number of players and clubs grew rapidly. I took over as head coach at Lovcen and was lucky to have a great balanced side with motivated players. This season we started the 1st Montenegro League Championship and I am happy to say Lovcen are presently leading that league.
SL: Moving on to the present day and your new role; would you give us a little detail as to what the job remit is?
ML: My job remit is as Head coach of Montenegro Rugby Union. It is a part time role (feels like full time) and I turned down payment because my employment with the EU forbids secondary incomes. In April we host the Division 3 European Nations Cup and this is our first big test as a Nation. This will be historic in many respects but none more than it is the first time Montenegro will have played a Rugby International. So obviously my main role is to prepare and select the best team possible for the task.
I also see the role as key to raising the overall standards in the national competition, myself and my team of coaches, Marko Milosavljevic (Former Serbian International), David Lowe (Former Mowden Park and Doncaster) and Mitar Boskovic (Fitness coach) have been holding sessions at each of the clubs around the country trying to coach improvement in key areas such as the breakdown, lineouts, scrums and defense. I think my role is more than just the national side, it is about development and improvement in this next 12 months.
SL: On the cusp of the 6N kicking off here at home – what is the domestic international tournament setup in the Slavic region?
ML: We presently participate in the European Nations Cup when we gained membership of Rugby Europe last year. This is Montenegro’s first run at International rugby so we are not yet members of the IRB and as such have no rankings. We will play against Slovakia in our first game which should be tough opposition, then we play the winner between Greece and Estonia. These teams all have a lot more experience than we do and it will be tough, but the lads are working hard and are determined to give a good account of Montenegro Rugby. In Early summer last year the 7’s took part in the ENC B competition in Greece, winning the Bowl competition and finishing 6th overall. The national 7’s coach Michel Milovic (former France 7’s player) has set a hard act to follow in terms of initial success.
In cross border competition, Tivat Arsenal were admitted to the Regional Rugby Championship this season and played their first 2 games in early autumn against Pobednik from Serbia and Celik from Bosnia. These were tough games and gave the lads an idea of the step up in level from domestic to regional competition. (RRC consists of teams from Croatia, Serbia , Bosnia , Hungary and Montenegro).
SL: How do you envisage the next few seasons unfolding for you in your role and for rugby in the region in general?
ML: I hope to leave Montenegro rugby in a stronger position than I found it. It is essential that we continue the development plan for the north of the country and get at least 3 sides there competing in the national competition, in addition I see the schools programme as essential in the long term success of the national side and as such we intend to pour a lot of time and effort in there whilst establishing an inter schools competition.
Sponsorship is key to our success and we are always on the look for sponsors, kit , equipment, shirts (even old shirts), anything really (yes that was a shameless punt for kit, if anyone has balls etc. lying around we would gladly accept, especially age grade sizes).
SL: On a lighter note – how do you see the 6N unfolding this year?
ML: Dare I say it that Ireland have to be among the favorites this term, however England will be hard to beat as always. I think Scotland may cause a few headaches and Vern Cotter is a great coach who I think will get the best from them.
I have a few young players that I am excited about in the 6 Nations this year, mostly Scotland Lock Jonny Gray and Italian Centre Michele Campagnaro, the player who I most rate in the competition though is still Paul O Connell, if he is firing , then Ireland are going to be hard to beat.
A few quick fire questions to finish off:
Favourite memory from your own playing career? Scoring the winning try for Ballyclare U20’s in the floodlit cup against Malone at Ravenhill!
Favourite stadium/venue? Ravenhill (is their anywhere else?)
All time favourite player? Michael Jones (NZ Openside)
Biggest influence on you as player/coach? Brian McLaughlin at RBAI as player, Max Cairns as Coach.
Earliest rugby memory? Standing freezing in the lashing rain in Carrick playing against Larne in a game which we drew 0-0, brutal.
Best player you have played alongside? Probably Clem Boyd, such a pity he had to quit early in his career, the man was a equal part beast equal part genius on the pitch.
Best player you have faced? Neil Back, immensely tough and had a massive engine.
Favourite Ulster Rugby memory? First Ulster game in early 80’s with my old man, can’t remember the score, we won against Munster and it was lashing again, but the buzz was enough to have me hooked!
Ravenhill or Kingspan? Ravenhill