Nathan Cleary has thrown his support behind Ukraine’s bid to qualify for the 2025 World Cup and urged other players with Ukrainian heritage to make themselves available for qualifying matches at the end of the season.
Cleary, who helped Australia retain the Paul Barrière Trophy at last year’s World Cup, has Ukraine heritage through his grandmother Marie, who was born in a German concentration camp after the Nazis invaded during World War II.
With Ukraine now trying to repel the Russian invasion that began last year, the nation is calling on heritage players to play in October’s European Championship fixtures against Norway and Greece, which are part of the qualifying process for the World Cup in France.
Among the NRL players with Ukraine heritage are Cleary and his brother Jett, who plays in Penrith’s SG Ball team, Canberra’s Hudson Young, Owen Hromow and Jonah Anderson, Panthers utility Jaeman Salmon and Wests Tigers second-rower Zayn Sluvinsky-Wilkins.
While Cleary is committed to Australia, the two-time premiership-winning Panther met Ukraine Rugby League president Artur Martyrosian before last year’s World Cup final at Old Trafford and believes a berth at France 2025 would be a boost for the war-torn nation.
“I would love to see a Ukraine team in the next World Cup. It would be an unbelievable story and a shining light for a country going through such a tough time at the moment,” Cleary said.
“The fact is that at the moment, most people probably don’t even know that Ukraine have a rugby league team, so I want to try and help get that awareness out there.
“Anyone that has ties to the Ukraine at the moment is very proud of those, and I think they would do anything to try and help the country. I am a massive advocate for them, to try and help them out.”
After being unable to play last year, Ukraine has dropped to 28th in the IRL World Ranking and most of the domestic players they have relied on previously are unavailable because of their involvement in the war effort, either as a member of the army or Territorial Defence Force.
“Both me and my brother are very proud of our Ukrainian heritage and if I wasn’t playing for Australia I would play for Ukraine for sure, so I think that is something my younger brother would definitely consider doing,” Cleary said.
“I would encourage anyone who has Ukrainian heritage to try and represent. If we could build that up, it would be a bit of an escape for people in Ukraine going through tough times.”
Huddersfield’s Olly Wilson is also eligible for Ukraine, along with former Super League players James Saltonstall, who now plays for Halifax, and Sean Penkywicz.
Cleary’s cousins, Phoenix and Cruz Death, the sons of former Raiders and Warriors hooker Jason Death, play for Mona Vale Raiders in the Manly competition and are also eligible for Ukraine, as Marie is their grandmother.
Cleary is also the nephew of former North Sydney Bears prop Josh Stuart, who is the brother of Nathan's mum Rebecca.
“There is actually more of a rugby league connection on my mum’s side of the family, and that is also where we get our Ukrainian heritage,” Cleary said.
“Both of my Nan’s parents were born in Ukraine and she was actually born in a concentration camp in Germany.
"She came to Australia when she was three, so she doesn’t really remember a whole lot and I think her parents didn’t want her thinking about it.
“I always knew I had Ukraine heritage through her, and it is something we are definitely proud of, but obviously with what has gone there in the last year or so it is pretty sad, and crazy.
"It's hard to think that those atrocities back then could be happening again now.
“It makes you grateful for where we live, and I think that is why Nan sees herself as an Australian, because of the life she has been able to live here.
"But she still has deep feelings for Ukraine and what they are going through, obviously with both her parents being from there.
“We speak about it as a family, and especially now with what is going on in Ukraine it has become a talking point for our family because of the heritage we have.”
More than 4,500 people from Ukraine have arrived in Australia since Russia began the invasion on February 28, 2022.
Ukraine’s European Championship B fixtures are:
- October 21 v Norway
- October 28 v Greece
Both matches will be played away, and the winner of the group will advance to a World Cup qualifying tournament next year to decide the remaining four European nations to join England and France in 2025.
Any rugby league senior and junior players, coaches, trainers, volunteers, and sponsors seeking further information can email: [email protected]