Rugby union has a battle on its hands to retain a fledgling player community on the margins of Europe, with Turkey the latest to succumb to the superior charms of the 13-man code.
Just a few years ago, the Crescent Stars were making waves in European 2D competition, defeating all of their rivals at one time or another.
This included Bulgaria, a nation which has been competing regularly in Europe for more than half a century.
But in 2017, Turkey was banned from competition due to a failure to comply with European regulations. Apparently this had something to do with the multi-sport nature of the national administration, which also runs American football, baseball and softball.
Unsurprisingly, the result was a sudden drop in playing numbers. But just as the French first turned to league when banned from the Five Nations in the pre-war era, a sizable chunk of the Turkish rugby community has now headed in the same direction – led by a Frenchman!
Julien Treu has been involved with Turkish rugby for the past decade, rebuilding the Kadikoy club on the Asian shores of Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait and taking them to a national semi-final.
He is a former Netherlands international who once faced Georgia’s Lelos, in fact, qualifying through his Dutch father. He started out in a player-coach capacity with Kadikoy, but is confined these days to the latter role.
With Turkey out of European competition, Treu was desperate to keep his players active and motivated. Rugby league provided the ideal answer, especially as a Balkans super league got underway the same year.
No sooner had Treu set up his Kadikoy Bulls team than fixtures with Balkans opposition were organised. The Bulls, along with Ankara’s Phrygians, are now part of a 14-team league which includes clubs from Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy.
Moreover, the Turkish national team was invited to compete in rugby league’s Emerging Nations World Cup in Australia last year, where they finished seventh, thumping Japan 60-0 along the way.
On the domestic scene, Turkey now has a ten-team national league, divided into two conferences, which are currently being led by the Bulls and Phrygians.
Meanwhile, the senior rugby union competition in Turkey has dropped from 14 teams and two divisions to a single division of seven teams – plagued by defaults and blowout scores.
Perennial champions Middle Eastern Technical University of Ankara are again atop the ladder, though a few weeks ago they were stunned 47-19 by Istanbul’s Ottomans, a club comprised largely of expats.
Another team from the capital, Haceteppe, are in second place, followed by Trakya from Edirne near the Greek border. The Ottomans and Eskisehir from near Ankara lie mid-table, while Istanbul suburban team Firuzkoy and Mugla from the Mediterranean region are yet to register a point.
There is no representation from Turkey’s third, fourth or fifth-largest cities, the Black Sea region (once on the rise), nor the entire eastern half of the country.
Added to this picture of gloom is the absence of any organised age-grade competition, notwithstanding various sevens tournaments.
The Turkish national team, meanwhile, is back in the European development competition, where the regulations evidently serve as no impediment. In their first hit-out of 2019, a couple of weeks ago, they crushed Estonia 61-20.
This is a return to the somewhat farcical situation of six or seven years ago, when they were thrashing teams like Slovakia and Azerbaijan, along with Estonia itself. In fact, their average score in the development league overall is about 46-6 and no team has got within 26 points of them.
It also appears that their only other opponent, Montenegro, has withdrawn from competition, meaning Turkey’s return-match with Estonia at the end of May will be their only other match in Europe this year.
This should be cause for concern among the global rugby community. It would be a shame to lose a nation with such vast potential as Turkey to the rival code.
They have a young population of 80 million and an unbridled passion for sport, while their history in wrestling and other power-based events suggest all the right physical requirements to excel in rugby.