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Lithuania dreaming of 2011 Rugby World Cup

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Article Published: Tuesday 16 March 2010

Rising from the depths of Europe's rugby pool, Lithuania can allow themselves a little star-gazing as they swim closer to the big fish of the 2011 World Cup.

"It's a bit utopian, but you can always dream," captain and scrum-half Mindaugas Misevicius, 28, told AFP.

"We've got nothing to lose, so even if we don't make it, we'll still hold our heads high," he added, steaming and hopping from foot to foot after training in the harsh Baltic winter.

In this nation of 3.3 million people where basketball is dubbed the second religion -- after Catholicism -- rugby is less a poor cousin than a neglected acquaintance.

But Lithuania's motley crew of amateurs are unbowed, displaying the fortitude that is powering them through the small-fry qualifying competition for the 2011 showpiece in New Zealand.

Amid a deep economic crisis, they shell out their own petrol money to drive to training weekends on snow-clogged school playing fields like the one in the northern town of Siauliai, where the touchline was marked by twigs and tyres and the bench was a back seat removed from a van.

Despite the shoestring operation, manager Anatolius Smirnovas has overseen a 16-match unbeaten run. That testifies to his players' motivation when they exchange their mismatched training kit for the yellow, green and red Lithuania jersey.

Mischievously, Smirnovas noted that Lithuania have imitated world champions South Africa, who notched up a string of 16 wins in 2008-2009.

A perfect record since 2006 has taken Lithuania up Europe's seven-rung rugby ladder -- not including the top-flight Six Nations -- from the fifth division to the third.

While keeping the focus on European league games -- they face the Swiss next month -- they have cruised through the parallel World Cup qualifying competition and are honing their skills for a crunch home match on May 8 with second division champions Ukraine.

"It's not just going to be a test of our mettle, but a real battle," said Misevicius, who has been in the side for 11 years and whose day job is production manager with the local branch of a Swedish technology firm.

Victory over Ukraine would set up a two-legger against first division stalwarts Romania or Portugal on May 22 and June 5.

"Now it's time for the serious stuff," said coaching advisor Sigitas Kugskis. "But they are enthusiasts, and enthusiasts are what rugby's all about".

His job is to develop the sport in a country which is home to just 1,650 registered players, or one Lithuanian in 2,000. That compares to rugby-worshipping New Zealand's whopping one in 30.

It also contrasts with more than 88,000 Lithuanian basketballers, or one in 37 of the population.

Lithuania's last World Cup hurdle would be a play-off later this year involving the globe's best losers: Uruguay, Tunisia, and a still-undecided Asian team from among Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the multinational Arabian Gulf squad.

The winner will join Argentina, England and Scotland in Pool B in New Zealand.

Misevicius plays club rugby for Siauliai's Vairas-Jupoja, reigning champions of the 10-team domestic league.

Like him, the majority of the national team are home-based.

A handful, however, are among the 300,000 Lithuanians who have left to work in other EU nations since their homeland joined the bloc in 2004. They play in the Swedish top-flight or low-tier English clubs.

Lithuania were only recognised by the International Rugby Board after the country won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.

In the communist era, however, Lithuania in the 1970s and 1980s enjoyed a solid reputation in the Soviet championship pitting the union's various republics.

Smirnovas and Kugskis played in those days, which are ancient history to the current squad -- average age 25.

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