Old values point the way for buoyant Germany

(IRB.COM) Tuesday 13 May 2014
Old values point the way for buoyant Germany
Germany flanker Umberto Pilla takes the game to the Netherlands during his side's 17-7 win in Amsterdam last Saturday. Photo: DRV/Jan Perlich

Germany’s 17-7 away victory over Netherlands kept alive their hopes of Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification – here Kate Rowan investigates the values and traditions of the country currently ranked 24th in the world.

Most people, when asked to list the great European Rugby cities or hotbeds of the sport in the northern hemisphere, would probably start talking about places like Swansea, Limerick and Toulouse.

Heidelberg may seem to be a surprising Rugby destination but it has played an important role in the development of the Game since the 19th century and continues to do so today.

The city famed for its university and fairy-tale architecture is situated in the southwest of Germany and is home to the country’s oldest club, Heidelberger RK, which today is one of two semi-professional clubs playing in the Rugby-Bundesliga. Heidelberg is also where most of the preparations take place for the German national side and Sevens programmes.

Ian Rawcliffe, the English-born President of the Deutscher Rugby Verband (German Rugby Union) explains: “Rugby is a lot older in this part of Europe than people in Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand might think. Rugby has been around here since the 1870s.

Germany beat France in the 1930s

“Before the Second World War, Rugby was very popular. Germany was playing France at the standard of the French first team so it was quite a good level. The last match Germany played against France in the 1930s, Germany won 3-0.”

Fast forward to 2014 and although Germany may no longer be playing regularly against its more celebrated Rugby neighbour, they have had a strong campaign this season getting promoted to the FIRA-AER European Nations Cup Division 1A, which is the next international level of competition just below the RBS 6 Nations.

This has also led to qualification hopes for Rugby World Cup 2015 and last Saturday’s 17-7 victory over the Netherlands in Amsterdam keeps them very much in race. If Germany can beat Russia on May 24, they will go into the repechage for the final RWC qualification spot. The win has also given Germany a two-place lift in the IRB World Rankings, moving ahead of Portugal and Korea into 24th, their highest ever position.

Following Saturday's victory, German winger Clemens von Grumbkow said: “We've worked hard as a team. You can see the progress we have made. Against the Dutch we were in trouble with bad weather conditions and we felt under a lot of pressure to win this game. But now, we're really looking forward to the game against Russia.”

Flanker Umberto Pilla added: “It was a tough game. Most of the time we played in our opponents’ half but we didn't capitalise on this domination because we didn't score. But we didn’t panic and as time went on, we just controlled the ball and the game.”

Positive side-effect of soccer on Rugby

When associating Germany with World Cups, most people will think of the country’s success with the round ball. On one level, Germany’s strong soccer culture has hindered Rugby’s progress but it does perhaps have an interesting side effect on the mentality of young German Rugby players.

Head coach Kobus Potgieter says: “We have a lot of natural backs. The Germans like to play and run with the ball, they have got the ability to play but struggle to fill specific positions in the forwards.

“Maybe, it is because of football that they are naturally inclined to run around. A lot of the players do have very good natural skills with running and stepping around. A lot of those guys will have played Rugby but also many would have played football from a young age, so maybe the football is one of the reasons why we have so many good backs.”

Flanker Alexander Hug explains how growing up Heidelberg is like existing in an oasis of Rugby surrounded on all sides by soccer. “The region where I live is not as football-mad as other areas. But when I get outside of Heidelberg and tell people I play Rugby, they are very interested and always want to know more about my sport. They have heard of Rugby but for them it is an exotic sport they know little about.”

The 29 year-old construction engineer tells of how his passion for Rugby is received positively for the most part by his colleagues.

More sports than just football

“Some people at work are very interested and also started to get involved in the Game. Others are very focused on their football and don’t care about other sports. But in general people around me give me the support and think it is great that there are more sports than just football.”

Potgieter’s perspective, having grown up playing and coaching in South Africa, comes from a very different place to many of those he coaches in Germany who play rugby as a minority sport.

“I did some work with the Blue Bulls rugby academy in Pretoria and they had a request from people in Germany to assist them in setting up a academy, to have a look at what the needs were. So in 2008, I came over to help them a bit and I never went back.”

Currently the German coaching set-up has a strong influence coming from abroad with the likes of Potgieter and backline coach Pieter Jordaan (another South African), which helps to expose the indigenous German players, who make up about 80 per cent of the current international squad, to a strong Rugby culture.

The head coach gives a fascinating insight into cultural differences when it comes to Rugby.

Change in mind-set

“The way I grew up in South Africa, you live, eat and sleep Rugby, it came before everything. But here that is different as Rugby is a hobby. First the young players look after university or school, their families and then there is the time for Rugby.”

“We had to bring in the mind-set that you don’t miss training just because it is somebody’s birthday. You can celebrate that after training. That mind-set change came from guys who grew up living the Game. Although, they do not get money, it is about bringing that professional attitude of ‘I must work on my own to work on my fitness. What should I do after a game to look after my body?’ That comes from guys who have been through that.”

An interesting juxtaposition exists between striving for success on the international arena and the reality that the bulk of the squad is amateur helps to sum up the German Rugby spirit.

“The guys do it for each other. I don’t see why you would put in so much effort. Although, we try to be a semi-professional team and we have some semi-professionals in our squad and our aim is to be successful, a lot of what we get out of the Game are those amateur values like the camaraderie and friendships.

“I can just give all the credit to the players. No matter what I throw at them, they just keep on coming back for more.”

This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing aroundtheregions@irb.com.