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Aiming For The Summit: How Rugby In Switzerland Is On Its Way To The Top

What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of Switzerland? Gourmet chocolate? Cratered cheese? Perhaps it’s the famous Swiss Alps.

After all, there are over 450 mountains in the country, and mountaineers from all over the world come to conquer its demanding peaks. They are not for the faint-hearted.

For rugby lovers in Switzerland it is a similar struggle to establish the sport when up against more established rivals such as winter sports and soccer. It is a challenge, though, that those at the Swiss Rugby Union have embraced.

In recent years the sport has seen tremendous growth, with the number of registered players doubling between 2013 and 2016. With that has come the introduction of a U16 and U18 national championship, as well the establishment of a women’s commission and a women’s development league. These changes were brought in after the women’s national side finished second place in the European Championship, the men’s u20s team won the European Championship title in 2015 and the women’s 7s national team were promoted to the top 12 in Europe in 2014.

(Credit: Urs Muehlematter)
(Credit: Urs Muehlematter)

Additionally, the men’s senior team were last year promoted to the top 18 teams in Europe by advancing into Division 2A of the Rugby Europe International Championships (more commonly known as the ‘Six Nations B’).

Work has been done behind the scenes to continue to bring Switzerland closer in line to the best nations in Europe.

Veronika Muehlhofer is the CEO of the Swiss Rugby Union, the country’s first fully professional rugby chief executive. The Swiss Rugby Union has also brought in a full-time technical director and marketing manager.

(Credit: istuffi.ch)
(Credit: isteffi.ch)

Muehlhofer spoke exclusively to Pundit Arena about the work the country’s governing body are doing to take advantage of the recent successes of the nation’s rugby sides, but also the immense difficulties they have found in trying to promote a minority sport in a country where rugby only began in the 1970s.

“The greatest challenges are funding, infrastructure, and competition with other sports.

“While Switzerland is a wealthy country, the government does not fund sports in the same way as it does in many other countries. It is virtually impossible for a ‘niche Sport’ like rugby to get any government funding.

When looking for commercial sponsorship, rugby’s virtually unknown status is also a challenge in Switzerland. Due to the overwhelming availability of numerous sporting disciplines and properties in Switzerland, sponsors are somewhat “spoiled” and only tend to focus on the prestigious, high-visibility sports properties.”

(Credit: istuffi.ch)
(Credit: isteffi.ch)

The SRU has also struggled to overcome a lack of sporting infrastructure in the country, where football rules supreme:

“In Switzerland, there are no rugby pitches. There are football pitches, where football gets absolute and unshakeable priority, Almost all of them are owned by the municipalities in which they are located. No rugby club owns their own pitch and certainly no club has a club-house. Since land is very scarce and very expensive in such a mountainous, small country, buying some and building a pitch is generally not an option.

“In addition, all Swiss grass pitches close from mid-November through mid-March for “winter break”. That means all grass sports including football, rugby, and all others, spend those 4 months training indoors, unless they can get access to one of the very few artificial grass pitches.

“It is a long-term goal of the Swiss Rugby Union, to establish a National Rugby Training centre, where young and adult elite players have access year-round to rugby training facilities.”

“Switzerland is a very sporty nation. For such a small nation it does remarkably well in both winter and summer sports because people are very sporty from a very young age. This includes all manner of competitive sports but also hundreds of different leisure sports.

“On Switzerland’s lakes and mountains, which are literally outside everyone’s doorstep, there is an amazingly large selection of outdoor sports people can engage in from hiking to climbing to mountain biking to skiing to skating to wake- and kiteboarding to windsurfing to trail-running etc. And Swiss people do engage very regularly in all these types of sports. This makes it hard for a lesser-known sport like rugby to compete for participants, for infrastructure access as I mentioned before, but also for media and sponsor attention.”

In order for Swiss rugby to move forward it needs to secure long-term sponsorship and financing to ensure the survival of the Swiss Rugby Union, but also to ensure there right infrastructure is in place so that players can train effectively and efficiently all year round.

(Credit: istuffi.ch)
(Credit: istuffi.ch)

“What we are very fortunate to have a lot of, on the other hand, is competence and expertise from countries where rugby is more established and has more tradition. Thanks to Switzerland’s location in the centre of Europe and the Swiss Rugby Union’s good relations with many other Unions, we are able to benefit a lot from expertise from France, Italy, England, and other rugby-nations in Europe.”

Despite these aforementioned issues and the need for funding, the SRU has set itself a number of ambitious targets for the future.

“In the short term, our goal is to secure additional commercial partnership and sponsorship relationships and to build on the ones we already have, in order to secure financing for all programmes and all development plans we are implementing. In addition, a short- and medium-term goal is to continue the professionalization of the Organization of the Swiss Rugby Union, by adding a women’s development manager, some regional development staff, and expanding our marketing and commercial department.”

Another short-term goal is to continue the expansion of the Rugby in Schools programme, to bring the sport of rugby to as many school kids as possible, with the aim of continuing to expand our player base.”

Furthermore, Muehlhofer hopes to oversee the further development of girls and women’s rugby programmes, to expand the coaching education programme, which has recently gained official recognition by World Rugby.  

“On the sporting side, the long-term goals are to aim for Rugby World Cup qualification for our Men’s XVs National team in 2023 as well as Olympic Qualification for the Women’s 7s National team for 2024 (if rugby remains a part of the Olympic Programme).”

(Credit: istuffi.ch)
(Credit: isteffi.ch)

With considerable challenges but ambitious aims, Muehlhofer and the SRU certainly have their work cut out, but when this writer asked her about what makes Switzerland unique as a rugby nation, her passion and her belief in the potential of the country comes through:

“Switzerland is unique in that it is a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures, including the French culture in the western part of Switzerland (with its geographic proximity to France and with French being the official language spoken there), the Anglo-Saxon cultures brought by the millions of expats living and working in Switzerland, particularly in the banking, insurance, and pharma sectors, and the local Swiss culture including its sportiness and resilience. This makes Switzerland unique as a country and also gives it the potential of developing its own unique style of rugby, an ideal blend of the best of the French, Anglo-Saxon, and other rugby cultures.”

Rugby in Switzerland has colossal mountains to climb in the future, but the sport is well on its way to reaching the top.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.