Poland has been one of the most transient-natured nations in recent European history with the country almost constantly affected by politics and conflict. Not surprisingly, the history of rugby in the nation has been impacted by the state of flux that has existed.
Delve a little into the sport’s past in Poland and will you find out about how rugby was first introduced into the country in the 1920s by a Frenchman named Louis Amblard, only for the Second World War to stunt its development.
Although the sport began a resurgence in the 1970s, the Cold War and the East/West dichotomy that emerged affected games being played, including the demand from the country’s then government to prevent certain players being involved due to their military backgrounds.
Indeed, the Polish Rugby Football Union’s Chief Scout for Players Abroad, Antoni Bohdanowicz, spoke about the country’s historical challenges in making rugby a major sport in the country.
“Back in 1969 rugby was selected as a sport to feature at the ’10-Years Of Commmunism Stadium’ to keep fans interested during the final stage of “Peace Race” (which was a big cycling race in the Communist bloc). The bikes would ride into the stadium for one lap and ride out, and go around Warsaw, and in the mean time the rugby players would play. Their opponents were France. This meant that 100,000 people gathered in the stadium to see Poland get annihilated.
“It didn’t go down well with the communists in power. The secretary general of the Communist party said that was an embarassment to lose to a capitalist country, and so rugby was banished from the maps of sport and instead of gaining from the promotion its popularity dropped.”
However, with the creation of the European Union and Poland’s eventual admittance, the country is experiencing a level of political stability that is allowing its sporting teams to shine. This includes rugby and Antoni talks about the success the Polish RFU have acheived, as well as the current challenges they face.
“I’d say our greatest successes would be promotion of our 7s team to the Rugby Europe 7s Grand Prix Series, and winning the rights to host one of the tournaments. This should be one of the triggers that will finally help the sport attract bigger crowds.”
— Polski Związek Rugby (@pzrugby_pl) June 10, 2016
Unfortunately, despite the nation’s rise as a sevens team, rugby is still having to compete with a number of other sports in the country, but also dealing with an unwarranted image problem.
“There are a few challenges. One is unfortunately the image of rugby in Poland, which by many is conceived to be a sport played by hooligans (not gentlemen), and one that can give you a lot of injuries. This is why it is difficult to get new players.
“In the Polish sport hierarchy football is number one, second is volleyball. These will be followed by speedway, handball and basketball. Even American Football is more popular here, attracting crowds to games and getting many people involved.
“American Football is able to attract bigger crowds. People believe that the armour protects you more than the laws of the game (rugby laws of course). In terms of juniors, then, the barrier is the sport being a contact sport. Parents don’t mind signing kids up for karate and kung fu, but get scared when it comes to rugby.”
When asked to describe the culture that permeates Polish rugby, Bohdanowicz explains that the country is still trying to work out its identity as a rugby nation.
“The rugby union culture is more comparable to that of rugby league in England, where you get more working class people playing it. Of course you will find lawyers, the odd doctor or engineer in the team, but many of the rugby lads are students or bouncers. Nevertheless, this is slowly starting to change, and more and more people from diverse backgrounds are joining the game. Unfortunately the physicality of rugby means it is hard to get someone to run out on to the pitch, or to get someone to give rugby another go.
— Polski Związek Rugby (@pzrugby_pl) June 5, 2016
“It’s a very strange culture, and people are still learning it. Many want to be like the football crowd – you go to a game and just shout the name of your team and clap. Sometimes some clubs have an “overly-professional” approach to the game, and take things too seriously.
“I also act as a vice president of the only expat team in Poland: Frogs & Co, Warszawa. We organise The Warsaw Rugby Festival, which is an event that involves playing rugby and partying. One of our slogans is: “Two days of rugby, three nights of partying!”
“”It doesn’t go down well with many Polish clubs in the top divisions. Many clubs there believe that our social spirit of the game has nothing to do with rugby (singing, banter and so on), and take a more serious approach, so the so-called 3rd half will not be a funny singing session, but more like a few beers, maybe a joke or two. But if you lose, then it’s a problem as players don’t want to celebrate and are gutted. Their journey home will be pretty quiet and what’s the point of that? No one pays us to play.
“On a positive note it seems that in the lower divisions clubs are getting into the social aspect of the game. This is probably because the old guard has their own culture, whereas due to us living in a global village the new clubs learn their rugby – socially – from all over the world. Luckily no one has the football mentality and at least cheer you off no matter if you lose to them or win.
“Sadly, there is no rugby tour tradition in the teams, so for instance my club will have some additions from other clubs who want to learn about this aspect of the game. However, no other team from our country will regularly go on a foreign tour and participate in tournaments abroad. It’s just not in their culture, which is a shame.”
— #RugbyPoland (@RugbyPOL_) November 13, 2015
But despite the challenges that establishing a sport in a country can bring, the Polish RFU has some clear goals and aims for the future.
“In the short term, we want promotion to top flight (Division 1A in the European Nations Cup) in fifteens and staying up in our division in rugby 7s. In the medium term, we want to see the development of the 15s league (so have a proper 3 tier structure – 10 in premier league and 1st division and 12 teams in 3rd division).
“In the medium term, the union wants a two-tier 7s league system, and to be able to develop sixteen women’s teams.
“In the long term, we want to see the men’s XV in the Rugby World Cup, both the ladies’ and men’s 7s in Grand Prix Sevens Series and for the men’s 7s team to be in the World Sevens Series, as well as the development of regional leagues and grassroots rugby.”
In order to achieve those goals, there are a number of strategies and initiatives being rolled out to promote the growth of the sport.
“The Polish RFU is participating in programmes such as “Get into Rugby”, and has its own TAG Rugby programme. The TAG rugby programme, which is in a major way supported by the government’s Ministry of Sport, works around teaching PE teachers the basics of rugby, and later organising TAG rugby leagues. We have currently managed to get TAG rugby going in 11 out of 16 regions in Poland. Our development officers have done a fantastic job, as we have now over 60.000 kids understanding the basics of rugby. Now the aim is to train the PE teachers to a higher level, and get the kids to start playing proper rugby.
“The only problem is a lack of coaches. Many players and ex-players fall out of the game, and don’t continue as coaches, which means that we are still having problems with coaches not only on a junior, but also on a senior level.”
To combat this, World Rugby is assisting Poland with important development funding.
“This allows us to organise training courses for coaches and referees, and organise development camps for women’s rugby, which is still growing. Rugby Europe supports us in a similar way, also offering us its know-how on developing the game.
“Nevertheless, our biggest sponsor is the Polish government. Without its support our Union would be non-existent. The Ministry of Sport is the organisation supporting us the most. The one thing that is probably keeping us back from growing is how people perceive the game.”
Developing rugby in Poland is not without its challenges, but with a sevens team playing against the best in Europe, a fifteens side getting closer to the second division of European Test rugby, and dedicated supporters, Polish rugby is in a great position to excel as a European rugby nation.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena