One team, one goal: German rugby working hard to make World Cup dream a reality

In the final part of our series from Germany, we take a closer look at the sport in the country and the work being done at grassroots level as the national team attempt to qualify for Japan.

WHAT STRIKES YOU first is the passion. A raw, undiluted kind. Both on the pitch and emanating down from the stands. There’s the colour, too; flags, scarfs, jerseys. Anything with the German colours.

Rugby: Germany vs. Belgium German players celebrate their win over Belgium last weekend. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

‘Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland, Deutschland.’

Then, the anthems. The team, standing arm-in-arm, passionately roar the words to Deutschlandlied in perfect harmony with the rest of the stadium. It reverberates around all four corners, setting the tone for what is to come.

“Unity and justice and freedom,
For the German fatherland,
Towards these let us all strive,
Brotherly with heart and hand,
Unity and justice and freedom,
Are the foundation of happiness,
Flourish in the radiance of this happiness,
Flourish, German fatherland.”

In a national team consisting of locally born players, players from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia with German heritage or those who have qualified through the residency rule, the anthem plays an important role.

‘Einheit’, or unity, is one of the foundational values of the team. Some may not have been born in Germany but they’re tied to the country through ancestry or, at a very basic level, through a passion for the game and an unwavering commitment to the emblem on the jersey they wear.

This group of players — many of whom are still juggling international rugby with academic studies or full-time jobs — are unified by one goal. One vision, one dream.

“Growing up in Australia, I never imagined I’d be running out for Germany but the guys joke I’ve become more German than most of the team,” captain Seam Armstrong tells The42.

“Hearing the national anthem and singing with the guys, that’s one thing that binds us together. Without the national anthem we wouldn’t be at that level and it gives you goose bumps. It’s one of the pinnacles of playing for this team.

Rugby: Germany vs. Belgium Germany have won two of their four Rugby Europe Championship games in 2017. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

“Regardless of our backgrounds, we’re all united by this one goal. At the moment that goal is qualification for the World Cup but week-to-week that goal is to put in a proud display for our country. Whether that’s our adopted country or whether it be the German-born players. We’re all united and that’s one of the strengths we feel in the team.”

The goal, and vision to get there, is clear; the 2019 World Cup is driving German rugby to heights it has never reached before. The team are pushing boundaries in their quest to make history and bring rugby to the consciousness of a population of over 80 million people.

Make no mistake about it, this is football country, and it will always be, but something special is happening here and rugby’s rising is gathering pace every time the national team step onto the field.

Home games provide an invaluable opportunity for the Deutscher Rugby-Verband to attract new audiences to the game and raise the sport’s profile; but work off the pitch will only go so far if the results aren’t there to justify the hype.

Opening their 2017 Rugby Europe Championship campaign with a sensational win over Romania in Offenbach was the perfect start. 3,000 watched that game at the Sparda Bank Hessen Stadium. A fortnight later, 4,127 were in attendance for victory over Belgium and yesterday close to 6,000 came through the turnstiles for the visit of Spain to Cologne.

“Growing the game in Germany is a tough thing to do at the moment,” Armstrong admits. ”We know football is number one and it will stay number one but I think we can offer something for the community here. We’re a country of 80 million, we’re offering an alternative. The only way to have short-term success is to have a national team who pushes that and raises the profile of the sport.

“I started playing with the national team in 2011 and it was tough, we didn’t have many resources and we’d often travel with the 22 plus three staff. Fast forward to where we are at the moment and there has been a huge change not only for the players but for the rugby community.

Rugby: Germany vs. Spain Kobus Potgieter speaks to his players before yesterday's game against Spain. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

“Now we’re starting to provide a product which the rugby community can be proud of and hopefully by putting it out there, it’s also appealing to the wider German communities as well.”

The possibility of qualifying for Japan has piqued interest. Something special is happening, and there is a real sense that this team, with a progressive union behind it, has the capacity to get there.

Kobus Potgieter’s side have emerged as the new shining lights of European rugby and certainly on the field they are heading in the right direction. They have a powerful pack, including an explosive backline with Jarrid Els and number eight Jacobus Otto bringing energy and dynamism to the team.

Out-half Raynor Parkinson marshals proceedings beautifully and has an exquisite right boot with Armstrong, an energetic and talismanic nine, operating inside him. Five of the squad play professional rugby in France and many more are under contract with the union as coaches.

“I’ve been here for nine years and in that time it has grown a hell of a lot,” Armstrong says.

“I’d say the biggest thing that has changed is the mindset. First of all among the playing group but also what’s happening around the scenes. We’re going towards a step of professionalism and that’s irrespective of budgets and what’s going on financially, it’s the professionalised system of training, meeting together more often and training a week before a game rather than two days before.

“It’s changed a hell of a lot for the better but we’re also in a position where we know if we don’t get results it can also go the other way because there are also a lot of other countries improving.

“There is a long-term vision but at the same time this current team has to remain focused on our jobs. If we start thinking 2019 then that dream will be over before it has even begun. One step at a time, we’re working hard to get there whether it be through training or each game. The goal is for long-term success but we know that is interwoven with growing the game in Germany.”

Rugby: Germany vs. Belgium Captain Sean Armstrong. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Central to this project has been the financial backing of Dr Hans-Peter Wild, the owner and chairman of the Capri Sun drinks company. He has invested €30 million into German Rugby, including the Wild Rugby Academy in Heidelberg, over the last decade and without his support the organisation would simply not be where it is today. Capri Sun also sponsor the national team.

His own personal goal is to see a German national team compete in the World Cup and the establishment of a youth structure has helped focus resources on the development of the sport in the southern region — a traditional rugby stronghold where several of the Rugby-Bundesliga clubs are based — and the country as a whole.

A visit to the SC Frankfurt 1880 club on a Thursday evening gives some sort of indication of the swelling interest levels at an underage level. One of the most successful youth clubs in the country, the clubhouse is a hive of activity as kids of all ages come and go for training ahead of the weekend’s games.

Again, there are southern hemisphere accents to be heard, as well as one Irish one, but the vast majority are German locals and that’s down to the work of the Wild Rugby Academy coaches who make school visits.

That’s one side of the work being done, with the other side concentrated on hitting short-term targets and achieving instant success. The high-performance centre in Heidelberg has given the senior squad access to the sort of facilities that are often taken for granted by other nations at international level.

“Without Dr Wild, to be honest, we wouldn’t be here at this stage,” Deutscher Rugby-Verband president, Klaus Bank, says. “Without the sponsor it wouldn’t have been possible to come to this level in such a short time and days like today [the game against Belgium last weekend] are steps forward.

“As we say in Germany it has gone like a rocket, up and away but we have a big challenge to make sure our structures are like the high performance one across the board. We have to get that all in line for the future and it’s on the way but there’s a long way to go.

Rugby: Germany vs. Belgium The German national team with backroom staff at the Sparda Bank Hessen Stadium in Offenbach. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

“You’ve to keep in mind that in Germany there is soccer, soccer and soccer. And then maybe handball. We’re a very small organisation and working hard to create a market for ourselves. We see there is an opportunity and there is a real possibility to raise the sport in Germany.”

On the headway made by the organisation over the last five years, Armstrong adds: “It’s huge, a few years ago we’d travel with a coach, an assistant coach and a manager and that was it.

“Now we’re travelling at times with up to 12 staff and that may sound like a lot but when you see what happens behind the scenes then it is actually required. Without the sponsorship we have at the moment it would simply not be possible. The sponsorship money is invested wisely and we aim to create a sustainable programme here.

“It’s not just to pump money in to have short-term success, it’s more developing the German rugby brand or product so we can have a sustainable future. Investing in the U16, U18 and U20 projects so we do have these young guys coming through. It’s more than just about this current team and group of players and we all know that.”

Armstrong — who came to Germany as a 20-year-old and qualified through the residency rule — knows it because he’s involved in it on a daily basis. As one of the players contracted both to play for the national team and coach in the Academy, he sees the growth at both grassroots and international level.

It’s no secret that the national team rely on imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa but part of the strategy is to ease that reliance and be able to create a homegrown production line. To inject some local talent into the rugby landscape in Germany.

Armstrong’s home club, Heidelberg RK, have won the Bundesliga nine times — six of which have been since the Australian’s arrival in 2007. The club now also boasts youth teams from U6 level right up to U18 and Armstrong would visit at least a dozen schools on a weekly basis.

Germany vs. Romania Germany fans celebrate the win over Romania. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

“We’re only talking about a rugby community of 20,000 in Germany,” he explains. “So everyone you get interested in the sport or throwing a ball around is hugely significant.

“There is more pressure on us now to grow the game especially with the increased media pressure. Within three years, we’ve had the World Cup trophy here twice so it seems World Rugby are also interested in our story and looking to grow the game in our region.

“It makes it interesting and does put a bit more responsibility on our shoulders as the national team to represent our country proudly. It’s an exciting time for German rugby as we’re still finding our feet and trying to create our own legacy but we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t believe in it.

“We had our first-ever November series last year and we also played Brazil in two Tests so we’re getting there. We’re giving away a lot to professional teams so we have to work hard and we need luck to go our way too but we’ll make our own along the way. We’re going in the right direction.

“But at the same time we’re also very realistic. We know it’s a very hard qualification process and while getting to Japan would transform rugby here, we have to realise that it’s very tough to get there.

“Our goal is 2019 but we wouldn’t be back to square one or this whole thing wouldn’t fall apart if we don’t get there as we’ve worked too hard. It would be a setback but we’d learn for 2023.”

The union’s president echoes those sentiments: “If we really make it to the 2019 World Cup, that would be a really big success. That’s the high-end for our goals but if we don’t reach that then it doesn’t mean everything breaks down in Germany. Our next target then is 2023 and working to make that dream happen.”

One step at a time, German rugby is climbing the ladder with the dream of one day competing at the sport’s top table.

As a sign in the team’s hotel says: ‘Ein Team, ein Ziel. Go Mannschaft.’

One team, one goal.

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Show podcast here:

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