Tom Lovelace gives an insight into what it’s like to fulfil your international dream for one of rugby’s smaller nations
What’s it like to play international rugby for Gibraltar?
Tom Lovelace started playing rugby for Haywards Heath aged six and, after a four-year stint living in Gibraltar, continued from the ages of ten to 18. Since then he has played for Nottingham University, Barnes and KCS Old Boys.
He made his international debut for Gibraltar against Montenegro, where he scored two tries as a replacement. Here he explains what it’s like to play for one of rugby’s smaller nations…
On the final day of the Six Nations Championship, I fulfilled my boyhood dream and lined up to start an international rugby match for my country in front of a home crowd. Thankfully, I wasn’t at Twickenham wearing the red rose of England and losing to the Irish, but was representing the small British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar against the comparably enormous Finland in front of a rapturous 1,000-strong crowd at our fortress Victoria Stadium.
A couple of years ago, aged 26 and after 17 years of mediocre achievement in rugby, I’d finally accepted that playing club rugby in London Two wasn’t going to give me a route out of accountancy and I was categorically not going to earn an international call-up from then England coach Stuart Lancaster no matter how much more questionable his selections became.
As a half-Gibraltarian, I visited the Rock at least once a year but had heard very little about the rugby team on my travels. By good fortune at the 2016 Hong Kong Sevens I bumped into a man wearing a Gibraltar Rugby cap and found he’d been following the Gib tour of Singapore and Malaysia.
As soon as I came home I did a bit of searching on Facebook and came across our amiable team manager Steve Payas and sent him a message asking how to get involved. I was invited out that September for a trial in a friendly against the Royal Marines, who visit the Rock every year for a charity game, and made my debut for the Gibraltar Select XV.
After a rusty performance playing under the intense September sun, I was proudly called up for my first cap: Montenegro away in November in the little port town of Tivat, a place I can definitely say I’d never have visited if it wasn’t for rugby.
Montenegro had recently been admitted into the fifth tier of European rugby and we managed to get a comprehensive 55-7 victory. My first taste of international rugby was a 20-minute stint off the bench on a muddy pitch against a team who had to turn their shirts inside out because of a colour clash. It was by no means glamourous but it was an incredible experience. What the Montenegrins lacked in rugby prowess, they more than made up for with post-game beers.
Fast-forward 18 months and I’m on four caps from games away to Hungary and two at home against Finland. Helsinki’s weather isn’t quite as conducive to running rugby as the southern tip of Spain but we do plan to return the favour and head over there at some point.
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My highlight so far was coming off the bench against Finland last year to score the winning try in front of a home crowd. That moment alone will keep me coming back to play for Gibraltar any time I’m called up.
The boys are regularly featured on our local sports TV programme, GBC’s Sports Hub, but I’ve yet to hit the big screen. I was interviewed on the Radio Gibraltar breakfast show on the Thursday before the game from my breakfast table in Clapham, which my housemates enjoyed. I’ve not been inundated with media offers since but the radio show earned me two extra followers on Instagram, which I’ll take.
We won the game 17-5. We made it difficult for ourselves but conditions were challenging as we had a fair bit of rain and wind. I didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet but our hooker, Chris Griffin, danced through the Finnish defence to score a majestic solo effort from the 22 in his last game before he moves back to Bristol.
Fly-half Chuqi Cruz, who’s also UK-based at Loughborough University, kicked four penalties in the wind to put us out of sight. We’ve now won eight Internationals on the bounce but we have a long way to go before we start thinking about Cyprus’s 24-game world record winning streak.
The match had finished by the time England played Ireland and we managed to enjoy a few beers with the Finns on St Patrick’s Day. Every team I’ve played against have been brilliant after games – language barriers are easily broken with a few beers and it’s good to see rugby’s culture reaching the far corners of Europe.
As we don’t have an endless number of playing shirts to swap, I make a point of swapping my GRFU tie with my opposite number and I have built up a little collection.
Like me, Chuqi and five or six others are UK-based for work or uni, which is tough as we don’t get to train with the squad too often. We had a full training camp in January before our two spring fixtures which we all flew out for but it’s not quite enough.
Because we’re not yet part of Rugby Europe, who normally provide for transport costs, players get 50% of our flight costs refunded and are provided with food before and after matches but we cover the rest ourselves. It’s a reasonable commitment taking leave from work and the costs can build up, but my employers are understanding and let me take the time off whenever I request it.
Funding ourselves is tough but worth it. Our management team work incredibly hard, our sponsors are great and the people of Gibraltar turn out to support us at home despite rugby being very much a secondary sport on the Rock.
Next up for Gib, the team are off to play the UAE in Dubai in April. I can’t make it sadly but I wish them all the best of luck and I can’t wait to get back out against whoever we play next in September.
Playing for Gibraltar isn’t quite the dream I had as a kid running round Whitemans Green with Haywards Heath RFC but I feel every bit as proud playing for them as I would for England. Walking out the tunnel in front of a cheering crowd, singing the anthem and representing my small country alongside 22 of my mates is an unforgettable experience and it’s a true privilege to be part of it.
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