With a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) cage fighter leading them into battle, it is no wonder that the Czech Republic continue to punch above their weight as a rugby nation.

While rugby comes down the pecking order in terms of national sporting interests, behind football, ice hockey and basketball, Robert Voves’ side are ranked 32nd in the World Rugby Rankings and slowly but surely plotting a path to Rugby World Cup 2019.

Having won the Rugby Europe Conference 1 North 2017 title by some distance, scoring 23 tries with only two conceded, they now face Conference 1 South champions Malta in Prague on Saturday in the first of the region's RWC 2019 qualification play-off matches.

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“The boys are looking forward to the game and are hungry to get another victory,” Voves (pictured in red), the Czech captain and Prague police officer, told World Rugby. “We are on a good roll (winning seven matches in a row) and we want to keep that going.

“I think we can beat Malta as we have done on two previous occasions, but we know it’s not going to be easy. The last game between us in Malta was quite close (Czech Republic won 20-13) and it was a tough forward battle, because they play a tight game like us.”

IMPOSING

At 6ft 8in, Voves cuts an imposing figure and clearly likes the physical side of the game given his other pastime, cage fighting.

He has won three of his four fights in the heavyweight category of the MMA European Championship and is now hoping to deliver another knockout blow to Malta, as his team look to take another step on the road to Japan 2019.

Victory on Saturday would set up a meeting against the winner of the Conference 2 North and South winners' play-off between Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina, played in Esztergom on Saturday.

“There’s a lot of games to win to get to the World Cup so I don’t like to look too far into the future,” Voves said.

“Everything is possible but we have to take it game by game. The most important thing is to win this Saturday. After that, we can see where we are at and what is in front of us.”

FRENCH EXPERIENCE

A pillar of the Czech lineout, Voves spent his prime years playing second-tier professional rugby in France with Limoges, Bordeaux-Begles and Narbonne before returning home to play for the Czech Republic’s most-decorated team, RC Praga.

“To play against players like Victor Matfield and Anton Oliver and stars like that was awesome," he said.

“Quite a few of our forwards play in France now, as well as our fly-half Václav Jursík, and that’s good because the level of rugby is obviously higher because it is professional there, with all the facilities and support that entails, whereas we are all amateurs in the Czech Republic.”

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While Voves loves nothing more than a good physical battle, he recognises that the team needs to continue to develop if they are to reclaim their highest-ever ranking of 24th, held for a single week only back in November 2005, and one day turn their dream of appearing on the game’s biggest stage into reality.

“Rugby can grow here, we just need to modernise the way we coach the game. A lot of coaches are too old-school in their ways. We need to focus more on coaching the kids running and passing skills like they do in New Zealand and everywhere else, to enable us to play a more rounded game in the future.”

DREAM END

At 35 years of age, Voves knows that his 14-year international career is winding down. But the Czech Republic’s most-capped player, with 44 tests to his name, would love nothing more than for his final hurrah to be in Japan.

“I went to the last World Cup with my dad and my brother; we went to both semi-final games at Twickenham. I enjoyed the crowd, the stadium and the ambience.

“If I could get there with the team it would be a very nice end to my career. If it doesn’t happen, that’s life. I would finish knowing that I’ve given it my best.”

Should the Czechs fall short in their qualification bid, it has still been a remarkable time for rugby in the country.

As well as enjoying a clean sweep of wins in Rugby Europe’s third tier, the Czechs played host to the world-famous Barbarians back in February.

“It was an experience that will stay with me forever. Opportunities like that probably only come around once in a lifetime.”

The same is true of the Rugby World Cup for great, unsung servants of the game like Voves, but one thing is certain – he won’t give up on the dream without a fight.