Gateshead College student Jiri Lacina is jetting out on international duty this week, lining up for the Czech Republic’s Under-19s side in a tournament in Portugal.
Facing Georgia first up, and two further games depending on results, the Prague-born teenager is making the most of his time in England.
Taking the sports studies for team sports course at Gateshead College’s Academy for Sport, Lacina originally arrived in the North East to try out for the Newcastle Falcons academy, taking a place at Dame Allan’s School.
“The level at Gateshead College is more physical than private school, which suits me much better,” said the centre, who is dabbling with a potential move to scrum-half.
“The breakdown and running lines are much harder, and it has been really good to play for the college. It suits me better academically, and I am really enjoying it.”
Taking up the game at the age of 10, Lacina said: “My dad had played a couple of seasons of rugby when he was younger, and I got involved with the Sparta Prague club. I had played football up until then, but I enjoyed the physical side of rugby.”
The Czech Republic’s senior side are currently 52nd in the International Rugby Board’s world rankings, sandwiched between Croatia and Uganda, Lacina admitting: “The game is not very big over there.
“There are 15 or so clubs in the country, which is not a lot, but it is starting to grow a little. There is no rugby on Czech TV, so I had to go on the internet to try and watch the games. That meant a lot of Super 15s, and I followed teams like the Crusaders and the Queensland Reds.
“The senior national team have not being doing so well recently, losing to Poland last week, but hopefully things will get better for them. We need better coaching and more experienced players, but we will do what we can.”
Making the breakthrough to international rugby two years young, Lacina said: “I played in the Under-18s European Championships when I was 16, against teams like Germany, Russia and Poland.”
Not the first Czech to try his hand in the North East, he follows in the footsteps of Ales Stejskal, who starred for Gateshead RFC last season but has since moved on.
“Ales is a good friend of mine,” said Lacina. “He is now in France playing for the Macon club, and him being here was part of the reason for coming over.
“Being in Newcastle and Gateshead has been a great life experience, as well as the rugby.
“It is very different from a lifestyle point of view, and my English has improved a lot. The rugby here is high-quality, and the training facilities are much better.
“There have been some tough times in England as well, but that is just life. There is no real Czech community in Newcastle, mainly just Polish people. I think I am the only one, but I am enjoying it.”
Using his time in the North East to watch Newcastle Falcons’ games in the flesh, his Gateshead College coach Liam Gumbrill has nothing but admiration for the continental prospect, who is also trialling for the Northumberland county age-group squad upon his return from Portugal.
“Jiri was at Dame Allan’s last year doing an A-Level course, which academically did not really suit him,” he said.
“The language barrier was quite difficult for him, and one of our ex-pupils phoned me up to say Jiri would be interested in talking to us. He fitted in really well from day one, and gets on brilliantly with everyone.
“Our academic course is not necessarily easier, but is much more suited to what he can do. His training is going really well, and in the judo sessions he is making a bit of a mark with being such a powerful lad.
“He is a very talented player, and we are looking at what position is going to be best for him.
“For his country he will probably play centre, and he could do a good job there at that level and college level, too. But if he wants to go further in the game I think scrum-half suits his size more, so we are looking to put him in there. If he sticks at it, he could be very good.”
Gateshead College’s Academy for Sport are holding a rugby taster day on Monday October 28, running from 10am until 1pm.