The Malta Rugby national team will embark on a new era on Saturday afternoon when they open their Rugby Europe Conference campaign with a home match against Cyprus at the Tony Bezzina Stadium (kick-off: 2pm).
The national selection will be under the charge of new coach Keith Hopkins who replaces his fellow Welsh compatriot Damian Neill who stepped down from the post last June.
Hopkins has his work cut out to try and match the achievements of Neill who during his long-term tenure in charge has masterminded the team to a consistent run of positive results on the international scene.
Speaking to the Times of Malta, Hopkins said that he is excited to embark on this new challenge that sees him return to Maltese rugby after a short stint as technical director of Kavallieri Rugby Club almost a decade ago.
“I am really delighted to have been given this opportunity to lead the Malta rugby national team,” Hopkins said.
“It’s a fascinating opportunity and I am really looking forward to it. Obviously, there are some great challenges but I am ready to work hard to reach our objectives.”
Asked to describe what are his biggest challenges, Hopkins said that his main objective is to try and enlarge the pool of players eligible to represent the national team colours.
“At the moment, we have a small pool of players who can play for the national team,” Hopkins said.
“I am looking at my job as being split into two factions. The first one is that we need to have a successful national team. Our side has enjoyed a lot of success over the years and a lot of good work has been done and our objective now is to try and maintain that level of success.
“Secondly, we need to enlarge the pool of players eligible for the national team players. Our job is to try and improve the skills of the locally-based players and help them reach a level that they can don the national team colours.
“It’s our responsibility as a rugby union to explore other avenues to boost the game on our islands. One thing I’d like to inject here is the community feeling. In Wales, where rugby is the national sport, there is a sense of community where one plays rugby and then sees his sons and grandsons also play the game and that is something that we need to add here in Malta too.”
Turning his sights on Saturday’s challenge against Cyprus, Hopkins said that the team is bracing itself for a tough physical challenge.
“Cyprus is a team that beat us before so we definitely cannot take them lightly,” Hopkins said.
“They are a very physical side and as we saw in the Rugby World Cup final (where South Africa beat New Zealand) it’s very difficult to overcome a physical team. But we are wary of their strengths and we are working together on strategies to see how we can counter them physically.
“It’s a great challenge for us but whatever happens it’s going to be a great game to play.”
Hopkins heaped praise on his predecessor Damian Neill, with whom he enjoys a great friendship, and said that his style of play is quite similar to the one used by his fellow compatriot.
“Damian is a great coach and a very good man,” Hopkins said.
“In life, changes at some point are inevitable but he deserves all the plaudits for what he has done to Maltese rugby over the years. We have quite similar concepts as we believe a lot in hard work.
“Obviously there will be some tactical tweaks in a bid to lift the team to a higher level of performance.”
The Malta Rugby Football Union is a relatively small sporting federation on our islands with a limited financial budget and Hopkins is aware of the big challenges the governing body faces each year.
He admits that the main goal has to be to invest at grassroot levels.
“Having Malta with a small population is definitely a challenge,” Hopkins said.
“As a rugby union this week we visited schools and coached over 200 kids, with some of them having never seen a game of rugby. Having young children involved in the sport with coaches who were former national players would be a great tool to infuse enthusiasm for the sport in them.
“Rugby has a lot to offer to people and can provide children a holistic development. In our sport, we have a Code of Honour which you don’t get in other disciplines as we witnessed during the rugby World Cup.
“We have seen instances when players are injured during the game and players from the opposing team looking after them is something you don’t witness in football for instance. No doubt, rugby can offer a lot of these things to children which go beyond the game and I hope that on Saturday a lot of children will attend the match so we can inspire our future generation of rugby players.”
Karol Spiteri; Thomas Davey; Terence Galdes; Harry Perkins; Martin Barbara; Cameron Sultana; Daniel Apsee; Mark Davey; Thomas Holloway; Robert Holloway; Brendan Dalton; Kyle Gauci; Chris Dudman; Philippe Ioffe; Jethro Zammit Randich; Nicholas Azzopardi; Andrea Borg 17; Sven Camilleri; Liam Scicluna; John Jerome Micallef; Nicholas Vella 21; Dominic Busuttil; Mark Robertson.
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