A gentleman, but with a dirty mouth on him in the scrum
Stephen Whittaker captains and manages the world's worst national rugby fifteen
By Tuomo Väliaho
Those living in Finland could perhaps be forgiven for not noticing that the Rugby World Cup is being played in New Zealand, and that the hosts face France in the final this weekend.
Although American football is played here with some success, rugby is not a discipline that is very high on the Finnish sporting agenda.
Not yet, at least.
One might have thought that it would piss one off to be known as the world's worst, but the man sitting opposite me is all smiles.
Stephen Whittaker, 35, is officially the world's worst, or to be more precise, one of the world's worst.
Whittaker captains and manages the Finnish national rugby side, which was recently ranked 93rd and bottom in the International Rugby Board's world tables.
For all that, the captain is positively radiant.
"It was a great thing for Finnish rugby", he enthuses.
"The AP news agency piece, picked up by outlets as diverse as Forbes and the New Zealand Herald, has since found its way onto countless net sites and has been quoted by other papers. There is no such thing as bad publicity."
But is it really so, that rugby here is in such a depressed state that it is worth taking comfort out of being ranked at the very bottom of the heap?
There are a good many countries in the world in which the game is played, but for which no ranking exists. A good many places that actually come above Finland in the IRB's estimation are in reality weaker sides on the field.
"For example, two rungs above us on the ladder are Vanuatu, who have only won one of the ten international matches they have played. We would take them out, but we play in different groups", says Whittaker, and he could also have noted that in the European Nations Cup tournament, Finland have already beaten Greece from their group. Unfortunately, Greece are not on the rankings table as yet, and so it does not affect Finland's current position at the bottom.
And how in the world did Whittaker, a British citizen, wind up as captain of the Finnish national side?
The reason, curiously enough, is the 75-metre-high Puijo observation tower in Kuopio.
In 1993, at the age of 17, Whittaker came from his home Plymouth to work as a trainee in the restaurant there on a student exchange programme.
He was only there for a month, but the experience stayed with him.
He graduated as a chef and spent a couple of years working in the trade in the UK.
In 1996, the principal of a hotel and catering management school called him up and suggested a new exchange programme.
Whittaker applied with Finland as his first choice, and he got in.
Six months of the training were actually spent in Germany, and another six months at the Old Baker's Restaurant in downtown Helsinki.
Whittaker enjoyed his time there and in Finland in general, and after the stint was up he stayed on to work in the restaurant.
"I went back to England for Christmas, and I realised that time had basically stood still over there. The same people in the shops and the same drunks on the streets. I had changed, but my old home town had not."
When one of his colleagues at work then called up from a party and expressed disappointment that Stephen couldn't be there in Helsinki, it gave rise to an odd and unexpected sensation.
"I realised that I was feeling homesick - and for Helsinki of all places. I packed and left for the airport there and then."
Back in Helsinki, Whittaker discovered rugby again. He had played as a teenager, but the game had fallen by the wayside during his studies.
"I was out walking by the Tali playing fields [in Helsinki's Munkkivuori] and I saw a familiar set of rugby goalposts. Whoa! They play rugger here! Then I found the Helsinki Rugby Club through the Net", he recalls.
"I started playing regularly, first with the club and then later with the national side. It was possible to get selected after living here for three years."
Rugby is known for its hard tackling and occasional brutality and skullduggery in the scrums (ears have been bitten), but Whittaker is at pains to point out that it is a game for gentlemen.
There is indeed an old saying, made popular by The Times, that "football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
Whittaker notes that in the old days villages would play against each other, and that people of all shapes and sizes were able to represent their local community on the field.
The opposition is respected: before a game, the feared All Blacks, the New Zealand national side, always present a Haka war-dance designed to strike terror in the hearts of the other team, but they do at least have the decency and politesse to formally ask their permission first.
Rugby was not the only thing that Stephen Whittaker found in Finland in 1999. The British cook and a Finnish waitress at the Old Baker's started dating, and were married in 2001.
Now Whittaker, who lives in Vantaa, is a father of one and a catering manager, and a veteran rugby player to boot.
At 35, he is starting to feel the years in his sizeable frame: there are aches and pains, and it takes longer each time to recover from injury or the exertion of matches.
"I don't dare mention the pain at home, as otherwise my wife would try to put the squeeze on me to quit. I'll give it up when my body tells me to."
There are certain advantages to the added years. An older, more experienced player knows how to place himself economically on the field and also knows most if not all of the dirty tricks that go with the game.
Some of them are verbal rather than physical, and Whittaker is good with his mouth, in a style rather reminiscient of a certain Esa "Tiki-Talk" Tikkanen from the world of ice hockey.
"I talk all the time to wind up the opposition. Every so often one of them will take the bait and lose possession as a result."
A gentleman's game. Yeah, right.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.10.2011
Note: Finland have so far played four matches in the European Nations Cup 2010-2012 campaign, in the bottom group but one, Group 2D. They lost 18-10 at home to Luxembourg, were soundly thrashed 70-10 away to table-topping and unbeaten Cyprus, and then went down narrowly 12-10 to Bulgaria away, before a joyous home victory against Greece in June by 11 points to 7. The return fixture against Greece will be in November, but even another victory will not help - until such time as the Greeks get on the IRB's listings. Sweden, by the way, play in Group 2A, while Norway and Denmark are competing in Group 2C just above the Finns.
Finnish Rugby Federation pages
European Nations Cup 2011-2012, Group 2D
A gentleman´s game played by hooligans (Jottings on Rugby)
Helsinki Rugby Club
Forbes (Associated Press): Finland is officially world´s worst rugby team (21.9.2011)
TUOMO VÄLIAHO / Helsingin Sanomat