Nikita Rukavytsya: Proving World Cup credentials at Roeselare
For FC Twente coach Steve McClaren, Nikita Rukavytsya's move to Belgium was no throw-away loan agreement. The former Perth Glory striker was never going to make an impression at Twente this season as McClaren chased the championship. But the former England manager thinks enough of Rukavytsya to have sent him on-loan to KSV Roeselare in January.
"Of course I had hoped for more opportunities to play (in Holland), but Twente is a top club in the Netherlands," said Rukavytsya. "Competing with some great players, like Bryan Ruiz, I am just not ready, but I've learned a lot from training with them and my technical, tactical and mental level has improved."
For McClaren, Belgium is a tried and trusted option for accelerating the development of young players. While assistant manager at Manchester United, McClaren was at the ground floor of their relationship with Royal Antwerp.
Antwerp are ideal partners for United as they hover between the top and second tier in Belgium, so not only giving the likes of John O'Shea, Jonny Evans and Ryan Shawcross first team football, but also the experience of handling the pressure of a title-winning or relegation-avoiding campaign.
At Roeselare, Rukavytsya is experiencing the latter and thriving in the situation.
Many Australian players, several now running around in the A-League, have been reluctant to leave their European parent club when offered the loan option. But not Rukavytsya.
The maturity and character he has shown in Belgium has quickly established him as a firm favourite of the Roeselare faithful. And with four goals from his opening six games, he is showing no signs of wilting under the responsibility of firing his new club to safety.
"I want to help save Roeselare," said Rukavytsya. "I knew when I came here we were in a relegation battle. It never concerned me. It is good for my development."
Rukavytsya's searing pace was always going to be an asset for the 22 year-old, but standing at 6ft, he hasn't struggled to adjust to Belgium's rough-and-tumble football.
"I'm happy to just be playing regularly. I've scored a few goals, but it could have been more," he says.
"Compared to football in the Netherlands, Belgium is physically heavier and harder. In the Netherlands the emphasis is more on tactics and technique."
Rukavytsya admits he made the move to Roeselare with one eye on Australia's World Cup squad. But with Roeselare now three points away from moving out of the dropzone, the striker says it's his club football that is dominating his thoughts.
"Do I dream about the World Cup? I'm not really thinking about it at the moment. It is my job to give everything in every game while I'm here," said Rukavytsya.
"I've been called twice into the Australia squad. But I know only by excelling with Roeselare can I get to the World Cup."
Even if Australia did boast a raft of top-grade strikers, the way Rukavytsya has taken to his role at Roeselare deserves recognition. But given the dearth of options available to Australia coach Pim Verbeek, it appears a no-brainer that with his pace, goal scoring form and strength in the air, Rukavytsya must be on that plane to South Africa.