When Germany played their get out of jail card and beat Portugal in last year's European Nations Cup (ENC) Division 1A basement battle, it was a game-changing result for a country where the sport has a long and proud history dating back to 1850.
Arguably that 50-27 win against Os Lobos at the Rudolf-Kalweit Stadium in Hannover was every bit as significant as the victories achieved over France, Italy and Romania during the inter-war years when Germany was in its pomp as a rugby-playing nation.
Not only did the emphatic victory save them from relegation into the third tier of European rugby, it also instilled a sense of self-belief in Germany’s amateur players and broke the cycle of the side promoted into Division 1A, now known as the Rugby Europe Championship, going straight back down.
“It was a big result, vital in fact. It was something that needed to happen – for people to believe in German rugby again and to show our players that it was possible for us to compete at that level,” said Germany’s South African coach Kobus Potgieter.
“Our confidence as a team had been growing since we narrowly lost the first game against Portugal (in 2015). We could and should have won that game, and then, in club rugby, we beat the Portugese champions and Italian side Mogliano at home. The players drew confidence from those results and from beating Brazil in Brazil.”
A crowd approaching 9,000 spectators watched Germany preserve their status and Potgieter, the national team head coach since 2013, says interest in the sport is on the up.
“I’ve been here for about 10 years now and the amount of people interested and taking part in rugby is definitely increasing. There are now over 110 clubs in the country from Munich up to Berlin.
“The biggest crowds we get are when we play in the north, in Hannover, which used to be the German rugby stronghold back in the day.
“We sold out our ENC game there last year and in Cologne, and we had decent crowds for our November games against Uruguay and Brazil (both wins) in Frankfurt and Heidelberg so it is getting much better. When I first arrived, we’d be lucky to get 1,000 spectators.”
Having a presence at Rugby World Cup 2019 would clearly promote the sport onto another level altogether.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
While Georgia have already qualified for Japan 2019 courtesy of their third-place pool finish at England 2015, their five rivals, Germany included, begin their bid on 11 February.
Rugby Europe Championship results over this year and next – other than those against the Lelos – will count towards qualification and Potgieter says his side will embark on the journey one step at a time.
“We’ve set ourselves the target of improving our position in the table by one spot every year. Last year we finished above Portugal and this year our aim is to finish above Spain and Belgium. Fortunately, we’ve got both at home.
“After that, we’ll look to finish above Russia because to be in with a chance of going to the World Cup, which is obviously everyone’s dream, we’ll have to be third in the table at least.
“We believe that it is a doable target but we just have to take it one step at a time.”
Firstly, as assistant to Torsten Schippe and now as head coach in his own right, Potgieter (right of picture) has been putting the building blocks in place to ensure Germany unlocks its undoubted potential.
“Lack of preparation time together was a real problem when I first started, we were lucky if we had two training camps a year,” he said.
“Now, we have once-a-week training sessions. Everyone from Heidelberg and Hannover comes together. That wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Hans-Peter Wild and our sponsors at Capri Sun.”
Germany’s success can also be attributed to a more robust and competitive playing schedule.
“Up until this November, we only played test matches in February and March,” Potgieter added.
“After winning promotion to the ENC, it quickly became clear how big a step up in quality it was. So, over the last two years we’ve sought more opportunities to play and test ourselves against better opposition.
“Before the ENC in 2016, we toured Namibia and took on La Rochelle’s first team from the French Top 14 and got some hidings along the way but that was all part of the learning process.
“Having drawn against Spain and then got the result we wanted against Portugal, the improvement was clear for all to see.
“Then this November, thanks to World Rugby, we got to play against Uruguay and Brazil. For a three-week block, we had 90 per cent of the squad together, which was excellent because it enabled us to do a lot of the groundwork in terms of our preparation for the Rugby Europe Championship.”
In the space of 12 months Germany have gained over two rating points and currently site 24th in the World Rugby Rankings.
WILD ABOUT RUGBY
At the heart of the transformation is the Wild Rugby Academy, named after the union's principal sponsor and headed up by Potgieter.
Based in Heidelberg, a small university town in south-west Germany, it employs many of the national team players as rugby development coaches and its facilities are developing all the time.
“Last year we built a full-sized heated pitch and we have a smaller pitch under a roof, so, for the first time, we can now train all year round. Through our sponsor, we’re also building a new facility with an accommodation block and offices.”
The Deutscher Rugby-Verband may be oldest organisation of its kind in continental Europe, but these are new and exciting times for its national team who are aiming to write their own chapter in the country’s rich rugby history by breaking new ground and reaching a Rugby World Cup.
“It’s not an easy route, especially after the changes which have seen Europe lose a spot to Oceania, but we still believe we are on the right track," Potgieter concluded.
Main photo credit: Felix Winkelnkemper