The wait is finally over for the Malta rugby national team who will play their first home international after almost two years when they host Israel in a FIRA-AER Championship qualifier at the Tony Bezzina Stadium on Saturday afternoon (kick-off: 2pm).
For Damian Neill’s men this is their second outing in the continental qualifiers after two weeks ago they put on a fighting display to see off Slovenia 24-10 in their opening Conference South 1 match in Ljubljana.
For the Maltese players, the past two years have been very difficult, particularly because they were banned from practising the sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malta head coach and technical director Neill related the work done during this difficult time in the sport.
“First of all we missed a lot the social aspect of the game, being together,” Neill told the Times of Malta.
“There was a long period where we had to spend a lot of time in isolation so it’s nice to be back together. It was also an opportunity for some players to recover physically. There were some who were carrying injuries from one season to another, so it was an opportunity to reset.
“During the pandemic break, we worked a lot on coach education and different areas of the game that we could develop while we couldn’t play the game.
“Then at the start of the year we were given guidelines so the sevens national teams could prepare for the European Championships in Serbia but then we had to cancel our preparation due to COVID-19.
“So then we continued our preparation for these internationals albeit a short break in summer before returning for the match against Slovenia.”
Looking at the squad, Neill has at his disposal for today’s match one cannot but notice the increase in locally-based players that have been included in the squad as the MRFU tries to rejuvenate its roster.
“One of the opportunities we had during the pandemic was to try and develop players with their clubs and seeing them ready to be part of the XV’s national team is great,” Neill said.
“They are a breath of fresh air and a much-needed injection of enthusiasm which is very healthy in a team sport.”
Malta are bracing themselves for a formidable challenge from Israel this afternoon but coach Neill is confident that the team will again rise to the occasion and try and bring home the win the home fans will be craving for.
“We are coming into the match on the back of a hard-fought victory in Slovenia,” Neill said.
“The match in Slovenia turned out to be a scrappy affair and you could see that both nations have been away from the game for some time.
“Now we are excited to play again at home where for some reason we always deliver. Israel are very tough opponents as they are physically very strong.
“The game in Israel has developed a lot and they have a professional team that plays rugby in European competitions.
“But we are looking forward to the challenge and hope the fans will be again behind us.”