Serbia has become one of rugby league’s latest frontier outposts. A country where our game seems to have been taken to heart by an ever-growing band of passionate enthusiasts, there is now a thriving domestic scene.

Serbian players have trained with Super League clubs like Warrington in the last few years, and the national team, which uses almost entirely domestic players, has improved.

Although results against more established teams such as Wales in last year’s world cup qualifiers were not great, the progress that the country has made to be able to even put a competitive international team out is remarkable.

Jack O'Brien interview

Red Star Belgrade is a famous name in Serbia sport, with the club being one of the country’s most famous football clubs. But it is also a rugby league club, and this year has signed Australian Jack O’Brien as a professional. O’Brien has been on an interesting journey to reach this point in his career, as he explained to Everything Rugby League.

“I am from one of rugby leagues' heartlands: South Sydney,” the 24-year-old told ERL.

“I started playing rugby league for the Coogee Wombats at age four, but owe a lot of my expertise in the game to when I made the move to Mascot Jets when I was nine.

“Mascot is one of the oldest clubs in Sydney. It’s where I was scouted and contracted into the South Sydney Rabbitohs Junior representative system until I was 18.

“At the age of 18, I had become disillusioned with the system and decided to travel the world instead of playing on.

“After a couple years, though, with my love for playing rugby league rekindled, I made the decision to try to combine my love of the game with travelling.

“Firstly I played a couple seasons for the Mascot A grade side, then made the move down the south coast of NSW to play for Berry-Shoalhaven Magpies first grade.”

“That’s where is where I met player-manager Bob Henderson with the Endeavour Sports Group.

“He helped me put together a highlights package. Bob then went on to send this to Troy Perkins the coach at Hemel Stags, who was happy to offer me a contract for the 2017 season.

“In January I was on a flight to England to start my European journey.”

After playing with Hemel, an expansion club based in Hertfordshire, in the South of England, O’Brien decided to try his luck in the Balkans.

“Towards the back end of the League 1 season with Hemel Stags, Troy Perkins our coach posted an ad on the team's online group chat,” he explained.

“The ad stated that the Red Star Belgrade rugby league club was looking for players to bolster their squad for the end of their season.

“On the exact same day that was posted, I was researching a possible holiday to the Balkans after the season!

“Taking this as a sign and thinking it was too good to be a coincidence, I decided to take on the opportunity.”

O’Brien is yet to make his first appearance in the Serbian league, but he is looking forward to his debut. He has had the opportunity to see some of his future teammates in action and believes that Serbia could have a big future when it comes to the 13-man code.

He has also played an international game for a European country, for whom he qualifies through grandparentage.

“I am as of yet to make my debut for Red Star rugby league due to scheduling issues,” he said.

“However, I have witnessed the Serbian national team play against Greece, and I have been training with the lads for a few weeks now.

“On top of that, I had the honour to make my international debut for Bulgaria against the Serbian national junior side for the curtain raiser of the Serbia versus Greece match.

“From what I've seen Serbian rugby league is still definitely in a developmental stage, but in saying that there is tons of talent around here.

“Serbia could be a powerhouse in not only European rugby league but also on the international stage, given the right direction.

“As we know, Jake and Tom Trbojevic are of Serbian heritage, as well as Nick Cotrič.

“These players are the future of rugby league in the NRL and I believe with the right funding and help plenty more talent like them could make an impact coming out of Serbia.”

Despite his Irish surname, O’Brien is not eligible to play for Ireland. He has played for Bulgaria, though, and could also, theoretically at least, pull on an England jersey one day.

“I am not eligible to play for Ireland unfortunately,” he said.

“However I am eligible for England through my Grandma on my Ma’s side, and I’m also eligible for Bulgaria.”

O’Brien is keeping a close eye on the World Cup and is interested to see how Tonga go in this year’s tournament.

“I obviously want Australia to win, but I am definitely interested to see how the Tongan team fare, with the Taumololo and Fifita combo,” he said.

“Ireland look promising as well and would like to see them get into the final four.

“But to be honest I really enjoy watching any developing team improve and uplift the level of the international game.”

O’Brien is a back rower on the field, who likes to affect the game in both attack and defence.

He counts a number of current NRL stars among his rugby league idols.

“I normally play either second row or lock,” he said.

“My style includes staunch defensive efforts, often topping tackling counts, and being dangerous near the line, running good lines.

“My idols in the game include the likes of Luke O'Donnell, Jonathan Thurston, Darren Lockyer, Sam Burgess and Brad Fittler.

“However, my favourite players are Dylan Walker, Aaron Grey and Cameron McInnes, as they are players I played with as a kid, and it's great to see how far they've come.

“But on top of that Jason Taumololo, Jake Trbojavic and Angus Crichton are the most exciting players to watch at the moment.”