Even for a well-travelled, ambitious young coach like Richie Williams, guiding Hungary on the road to Rugby World Cup 2019 would probably have been the furthest thing on his mind when he took England Counties U20s on tour to the central European country back in 2015.
After staying in contact with the union’s former president, 36-year-old Williams was taken on as High Performance Director of Hungary Rugby in August 2016, a time when the only way was up. His adopted nation’s senior men’s team had lost nine on the bounce and slumped to 82nd in the World Rugby Rankings.
Fast forward 18 months and they are ranked 70th and preparing to take on their biggest challenge for some time: a RWC 2019 qualifying match against the Czech Republic in Prague. Hungary earned the right thanks to a last-gasp 19-17 win over fellow Rugby Europe Conference 2 winners, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Williams, who played fly-half for Aberavon and Wales Students and had extensive coaching experience prior to his role with Hungary with Chinnor, Oxfordshire, England Universities Sevens and Antwerp as well as some involvement with the Belgium national side, is realistic enough to admit that Prague is likely to be the last stop on their RWC 2019 adventure, given that the Czechs are ranked nearly 40 places higher.
“It’ll probably be a bridge too far on Saturday, but we have already achieved more than what we set out to achieve in the season. We wanted to get promoted back into Conference 1 and we have done that. Winning on Saturday (against Bosnia and Herzegovina) was a bonus," Williams (pictured) told World Rugby.
“It was pleasing to win the game so late in the day from a psychological point of view, because Hungary had come out on the wrong side of tight scorelines in the past.
“I think the experience of playing against a good Czech Republic side will probably help us for next season when we’ll face some tough teams.
“The Czech Republic won their play-off against Malta quite convincingly and they have a set of uncompromising forwards and players who play to a good level overseas.
“We’ll obviously be going into the game as underdogs, but we’ll prepare as well as we can and hopefully come up with a game-plan that can trouble the Czechs.”
A promising sign for Hungary is the fact that all bar two of the 23-man squad that flew to Prague were either born in the country or qualify through their parents, while there is also a good balance between youth and experience, which is no more evident than in the 10 and 12 channel, where 20-year-old fly-half Martin Sacase is perfectly complemented by another exiled Welshman Gareth Lloyd, whose wife and four children are all natives.
“Martin is only 20 – one of four in the side who are under 21 – but already he’s the type of player you can build the team around. He’s at the Oyonnax academy in France, but he’s the type of player we want to start producing in Hungary," Williams stated.
“If we can spend a bit of time developing the club coaches – they’re still a bit ‘old-school’ in their ways – as well as the players, then hopefully in five years’ time these young guys will be the nucleus of the national side.”
Should Hungary be defeated and miss out on the chance to play Rugby Europe Trophy winners Portugal in the next round of the European qualification process for RWC 2019, it won’t dampen the feel-good factor pervading through the sport in the country at present.
“We’ll go there and give it a go. If we do win, then fantastic. If we don’t, well we’ve probably already over-achieved anyway," Williams said.
“Massive strides have been taken by the union in Hungary in the last 12 months. Everybody works hard there and they are quite an ambitious organisation with a five-year strategic plan.
“There is a long way to go but this season has raised the brand of rugby and the profile of the sport in Hungary.
"As things stand, there are probably 15 to 16 clubs throughout the country, I expect that to grow to 25 in the next few years. The success of the national team is helping.”