German rugby set to get a helping English hand

German rugby set to get a helping English hand
Photo: DPA
Germany are set to get a helping hand from their old sporting rivals, England, on the rugby pitch.

While Germany and England have been football rivals for more than a century, in rugby terms the Germans are minnows compared to their English counterparts.

With around only 125 clubs and 14,000 players, rugby is a minority sport in football-mad Germany, but is one of the country's fastest growing team sports with playing numbers up from 8,000 in 1996.

Germany are top of the second group in the European Nations Cup (ENC) — the tier below the Six Nations — and are still in contention for a place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.

To help boost rugby on the continent, England's RFU has launched the 'Unity Project' to help 17 European nations grow their game ahead of the 2015 World Cup.

The English counties of Hertfordshire and Hampshire have been paired with the German Rugby Union (DRV) in what will be an exchange of knowledge.

The DRV will receive help and advice on running and coaching the game from the junior levels up with German coaches to be sent to the UK and vice versa.

In the future, it is hoped German representative teams from all age groups will play against their English counterparts.

"I think it's a great idea, rugby lives on friendships like this and by working together," current international and DRV development officer Manuel Wilhelm told AFP.

The towering RG Heidelberg lock was at Twickenham earlier this month for the project launch and met representatives from Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

"It's basically a transfer of knowledge, we have a lot in common with the English counties, given that we both work mainly with amateur players," he said.

"It'll be a big help to have the knowledge to fall back on from a coaching and administration point of view."

A Rugby World Cup berth is the DRV's ultimate goal, whether for the 2015 tournament or beyond,

Having been relegated in 2010, Germany are aiming for promotion back to the ENC's first group — which includes the likes of Georgia, Romania and Russia, who have all played at previous World Cups.

The DRV nearly went bankrupt in 2011 and funding is still an issue, as DRV president Ian Rawcliffe explained.

"We have a budget of around 700,000 euros per year – much smaller than most professional clubs," Lanchashire-born Rawcliffe told AFP.

Having come to Germany as a captain with the British Army in the 1970s, the Oxford graduate played as a flanker for the occupying force's rugby team.

This is his second stint as DRV president, but selling rugby to Germans is not always easy.

"In the past, we have had to send people to convince some German States, who banned it from their schools, what rugby is all about," he said.

It's not just England who are helping German rugby. France has worked closely with the DRV for decades.

In 2008, a Wales XV played Germany in Berlin and last weekend's conference for coaches of Germany's top teams in Hanover was attended by the Welsh Rugby Union's Coach Development Manager Gerry Roberts.

English immigrant teachers first brought rugby to Heidelberg and Hanover in the 1870s.

The sport flourished and was originally part of the German Football Federation (DFB).

The Germans achieved a 3-0 win over France in 1938 and the match-ball still holds pride of place in Germany's rugby museum in Heidelberg.

German rugby was a strong presence on the continent until the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler would certainly not have approved of the alliance with England.

"In the late 1930s, Adolf – I think you know his family name – decided he didn't like rugby, preferring field handball," explained Rawcliffe.

"There were reports of players being dragged off rugby fields to go and play handball during that era.

"Then after the war, many of the players were either too old to continue playing or were dead."

German rugby's revival after World War II was a slow process with the occupying British forces helping out in the 1950s.

For now, Germany need wins at home to Czech Republic and away to Sweden in April to help earn a repechage slot as group winners and keep their World Cup dream alive.

"I think we'll know rugby has made it in Germany when it is televised HERE and with rugby set to be an Olympic sport in 2016, who knows?", mused Rawcliffe.

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