The Gallagher Premiership final attracts fans from far and wide. Rugby World chats to a Swedish supporter we met at Twickenham, and finds out about rugby in his country
“There’s a good feeling about Swedish rugby”
Saracens were not the only winners at Twickenham on Saturday. Insurance broker Gallagher, in their first season as title sponsor of England’s top flight, were rewarded with a pulsating final to conclude probably the most exciting Premiership campaign there’s ever been.
More than 75,000 people were there to see a ten-try fandango and they included not only supporters from all the Premiership clubs but also rugby fans from overseas.
One such was Gunnar Hagberg, a Swedish feature writer attending his fifth successive Premiership final in the company of four fellow rugby lovers from his country.
“I have always been interested in rugby and played a bit at school,” says Hagberg, 60, who hails from Norrkoping. “I never played league rugby. I played American Football for a number of years in the Swedish Super League, but I’m more into rugby now.
“My local team is RK Trojàn, who decided to drop down from the leagues after last season because of a shortage of players. But they have a good team, with some national players.”
Rugby exists on a modest scale in Sweden, with around a dozen active clubs based in five or six cities. Clubs don’t just have a senior men’s XV; there are women’s, sevens and youth teams, creating a vibrant social scene.
There are two ‘serious’ divisions for competitive men’s rugby. Stockholm Exiles, an expat side, are the best side in the country, with Enköping (from Stockholm) and Trelleborg, in south Sweden, the next best. Bath’s Max Green has played at Enköping – read about his experience.
Rugby is a summer sport in Sweden, the season lasting from May to September, and it is small fry compared to the most popular sports, football and ice hockey. Domestic rugby won’t make the national press there but the Rugby World Cup will, and the World Cup and Six Nations are available on subscription TV, with Swedish commentary by Hamish and Allan Mabon.
Most of the national team – which is coached by Kanogo Njuru – play their club or university rugby abroad, being bona fide Swedes but often with a British or Irish parent.
Significant players include lock Henrik Ek, openside Sami Paulsson, prop Giga Khanishvili and hooker Jan-Olof Johansson, with wing Axel Kalling-Smith and the Murphy brothers, Conor (fly-half), Nils (full-back) and Philip (centre), instrumental to the back division.
From a world ranking of 64 five years ago, Sweden are going in the right direction, now ranked 48 after wins against Latvia, Moldova, Luxembourg and Hungary in the past year.
“That’s pretty high for Sweden,” says Hagberg, as we chat near the 27ft-high bronze lineout sculpture that stands sentry outside Twickenham Stadium. “A defeat by Ukraine (on 19 May) means we will still be in Rugby Europe Conference One North. But there is a good feeling about Swedish rugby because we’ve taken small steps in the right direction.
“It started with the work on the U18 and U20 national teams. They have the same structure now as the senior national team, and also the quality of coaches has improved. Sweden needs to keep building from the bottom, to get a solid base of young players coming through. And maybe bring in coaches from Great Britain or Ireland, that would help. Playing (club rugby) abroad helps a lot. The game is tougher there and a higher standard.”
Some Scandinavians regularly fly over to London to watch Premier League football, and Hagberg used to be among them. Somewhere down the line he realised that he would rather be watching a different sport.
“My feelings grew stronger for rugby. I think it’s a more honest, cleaner game, so I started going to the rugby instead,” says Hagberg, who attended some 2015 World Cup games for his daily newspaper, Norrköpings Tidningar. “It gave me more pleasure to go to Harlequins than Arsenal or Chelsea. It’s great action, great atmosphere, and no fake injuries! Then we would all meet up in a pub afterwards.
“These trips don’t cost much. Ryanair is cheap and we stay in a hotel in Paddington. The tickets are much cheaper than football tickets. For the Premiership final it’s 40 or 50 pounds; you wouldn’t be able to go to a final at Wembley for that.
“So you get a lot for your money at the rugby. The atmosphere, the build-up, the fans outside the stadium; you get there a couple of hours before, straight from the flight really, go to the pub (The Cabbage Patch) and meet people. It’s a great thing.”
Ask about his favourite players and Hagberg mentions players like Danny Care, Joe Launchbury, Rory Best and the Vunipola brothers.
“I’m a big fan of England rugby, I follow England. I’ve also been to New Zealand to watch New Zealand v Australia a couple of years ago. My original plan was to travel there just for the weekend, arrive on the Friday, see the game on the Saturday, fly back on the Sunday. But my family decided to tag along so we made a family trip out of it. New Zealand’s always very impressive to see in action.”
Commendable dedication. And with that we go our separate ways, Gunnar and his friends heading to the North Stand to watch a dramatic 80 minutes unfold in Saracens’ favour. As we head for our seats, we see Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley, the Premiership’s Young Player of the Year, and stop to stay hello. He is here as a spectator, soaking up the day with the rest of us. It’s a grand day out, the Premiership final.