Team captain Kullar Veersalu told ERR News today that hopes are higher than last year, when the team finished fifth out of eight. He said they are aiming for a top-four finish in the eight-team tournament.
He said the team is strong with few major absentees, but the tournament could be one of the last chances for glory, as many older players are on the verge of retiring. Veersalu said there are young players coming through the ranks, but currently there is no juniors team.
Estonia will face Slovakia first in the group, followed by the hosts the Czech Republic and Belarus. The top two will go into the play-offs while the bottom two will fight it out with the last two of the second group for places between eight and five.
The sport is not a traditional mainstay in Estonia, but has shown signs of growth in recent years with the national team playing, and winning, more often.
Tim Shepherd, the President of the Estonian Rugby Union, said around 100 people in the country play the game on a weekly basis, but they are hoping to double that by the World Cup next year.
He said the union is involved in a number of projects, having recently introduced the sport to the Defense Forces and planning to become more active in schools and also in prisons.
“You can really build community cooperation with rugby,” he said, adding that focus in on low-income areas, such as the KIKZ project which in cooperation with the British Embassy in Tallinn and the Ministry of Culture are bringing football and rugby to poorer areas. Shepherd said it is great to be in the same bracket as football.
Funding is currently the biggest obstacle with the Estonian Olympic Committee (EOC) cutting all funding for the Rugby Union at the beginning of the 2014.
“Their reasons were vague, saying they have cut funding for four (Olympic) unions and that the Rugby national team did not qualify for the Rio Olympic games, which was not a goal for us,” Shepherd said. Finding new sponsors has not been easy, most Estonian businesses have little idea of the sport. He said the British Estonian Chamber of Commerce has helped out.
The trip to the Czech Republic has been funded mostly from reserves and small donations.