Czech Republic

Nyrsko in the Czech Republic counts a farmhand who ‘predicted’ World War Three among its claims to fame. Now the small town in the shadows of the Bohemian Forest, also has a rugby club.

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Even Wikipedia doesn’t give you much when it comes to Nrysko. A town that can’t quite make it to a nice round 5,000 people. Perched on the western front of the Czech Republic, it first made it into the history books in the 1200s with its role as a border town between Bavaria and Bohemia. The ruins of the 14th-century Pajrek castle look down upon it. And there’s a rather splendid, if run down, Baroque town hall built back in 1684. It’s also the gateway to the Sumava mountains, which are lovely too. But Wiki, instead, focuses on the exciting fact it has a 36-metre-high dam.

Despite the excitement of having a dam of such a specific height, which is no doubt a great engineering feat, Nyrsko and its population of 4,957 could probably do with a bit of rugby.

It’s not the sort of place many travelling Brits decide to live or travel, but I moved to the Czech Republic in the summer of 2017 and, while waiting for our flat to be ready in Prague, my Czech wife and I decided to settle temporarily in Nyrsko – an area with plenty of family history for her and several relatives still there.

Like many small Czech towns, it’s a surprisingly sporty place. Skiing, canoeing, football, tennis, kickboxing, yoga, hiking, volleyball and even kickball are all on the menu. Rugby, however, had never been served up.

Which was why it felt like the rugby gods were shuffling in my favour when, just weeks before we set up camp, my wife’s cousin texted us to say a local rugby club had just been founded.

Strolling around town a day after our arrival, I found this fresh outpost of the union code for myself. Several of the team were having an informal summer  session on a former military field. With no posts or markings,  this club was  clearly in its infancy. 

Made up of mainly beginners, the players moved with that unique mixture of joy, hesitation and awkwardness that afflicts all late converts to the wonders of rugby. The minds were willing, but the muscle memory was still to form.

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After a few minutes, a loose ball rolled to my feet and I threw it back with a neat spiral pass to the nearest man. It was like that moment in movies when the former pro throws or kicks a ball back to wide-eyed kids. I could hear the emotional music cue in my head. Except I’m no former pro. Outside a nimble pass, I’m a distinctly average social rugby player. And yet that nearest man was the club’s French co-founder, Fabien Dagoury, and it was all he needed to see. I was immediately selected for the club’s pre-season friendly the following week.

The roots of rugby in the Czech Republic stretch back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A sports publication from 1893 listed the basic rules of a game it labelled ‘Football with Carrying’. Two years later, an unsuccessful attempt to launch the game was made at a Prague yacht club by Josef Rossler-Orovsky, a legendary Czech sportsman who brought several sports, including tennis and skiing, to the country. 

The game’s official start in the Republic came in 1926 in Brno, now the country’s second largest city. Czech writer and artist Ondrej Sekora returned from France with a rugby ball and all the zeal of a missionary. All Czechs know Sekora as an author of a series of iconic children’s books starring a bow-tie-wearing ant named Ferda, but few know he translated the laws of rugby from French into Czech and trained both teams that played in what was the nation’s inaugural rugby match. 

Within four years, Stade Francais were visiting Prague and in 1934 Czechoslovakia became a founding member of FIRA. Today known as Rugby Europe. 

The International Rugby Board seemed to give little encouragement to the Czechs when they tried to join in 1946. Although, legend has it that others were more eager to help out. Apparently, during the 1960s, the nation’s sports minister took an interest, allegedly asking captain Eduard Krutzner what quantity of steroids the team needed to succeed.

Czechoslovakia was eventually granted membership in 1988, one year before communism fell in the Velvet Revolution. Today, playing as the Czech Republic, the country ranks 30th in the world and competes in the second tier of the Rugby Europe International Championship alongside Poland, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Moldova.

As of 2016, in a country of almost 11 million there were 34 active clubs made up of around 4,000 players. Number 35 was RC Nyrsko. 

RC Nyrsko’s roots were seeded from frustration and beer. Roman Kodera, a nine times capped Czech fly-half, was growing sick of his four-hour round trips twice a week to train with his side RC Ricany just outside Prague. Frenchman Dagoury was rowing a similar well-travelled boat. In 2015, in a smoky local tavern, a somewhat optimistic plan was hatched by the pair to build a club on their own doorstep.

“It was perhaps a little ambitious,” said Dagoury. “Awareness of rugby was pretty much zero and we had no facilities or funds.”

The first training session was pencilled for March 2016 and, with no field available, was to be held in a meadow. Although, ironically, Dagoury was injured and could not attend. 

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“I was the only person who turned up,” remembers Kodera, laughing. “The first decision I made was that I wasn’t going to try again until we had somewhere proper to train. I couldn’t expect anyone to get changed under a tree. The meadow was quickly scrapped as a venue.” 

Unperturbed, the pair tried again. Salvation came, fittingly, from a local waiter and barman: Viktor Svoboda. A smaller, softer and more smiley Slavic version of Sebastian Chabal. Czech barmen in towns like Nyrsko are well connected. Once he was won over to the idea of playing, he led his own recruiting campaign. The next session, this time held at the local football club’s decrepit spare pitch (boasting almost as much gravel as grass), saw ten players turn up. Success. 

“The football president only thought we’d be there once or twice, so agreed to let us train,” said Kodera. “We’ve been there over a year now.”

With a base to operate from and inspired by a turnout in double figures, the founding pair went for broke. An aggressive campaign on local Facebook groups and through good old-fashioned paper posters brought in a few more players. Calling in favours from the pairs’ previous clubs, exactly a month from their first full training session, RC Nyrsko, in borrowed kit and using donated balls, played its first match against Plzen. 

Even more remarkable than the speed of birth was the match attendance. Such was the novelty of rugby in Nyrsko, around five hundred turned up to watch. Quite incredible, given that figure is roughly one in ten of the town’s population. 

There was, however, nothing remarkable about the fact a squad with around 15 players playing their first-ever game, lost. But they did win the affection of the natives and the players who lined up were definitely hooked. 

One local, Vaclav Vlk, enthused after: “It was super. I had never seen live rugby before. It was great fun, even if I didn’t understand why the game kept stopping so often.”

In response to the universal cloud of confusion among spectators, the club produced a simplified laws guide to hand out at future games. By the time of my pre-season game, 35 players were on the club’s books. Twenty-eight came from the town and you could count on just one hand those who had played before. 

With admirable optimism, Nyrsko decided to dive in at the deep end and begin playing in a new league competition for the first half of the 2017/18 season (Czech rugby splits the season into two due to the harsh winters making grounds unplayable for several months). I was set to play in the final match before the league began. 

The clash was the first with permanent rugby posts in place. A week previously, several of the team stayed behind for hours after training, working in complete darkness, to erect them on the now hijacked football field. Even then, there was no doubt it was a football field they occupy. The posts, to the constant alarm of match officials, stand just a few meters in front of the football posts. The football nets haven’t even been removed. God help any player that overruns the dead ball line. 

For my debut, spectator numbers had dropped to around 100 (clearly my star turns for 3rd XVs in Britain and Ireland had not reached these parts), but it was still quite the event. On a baking hot day I arrive at the ground to find a DJ pitch-side, mixing together various staples of 1980s cheese (think The Final Countdown) next to a smoking barbecue churning out fat, greasy sausages, plonked along thick slices of brown Czech bread with heavy dollops of mild mustard. 

Fresh Czech beer pumped out from the clubhouse – a small cosy football building that barely holds thirty people. Its walls are plastered with decades of photos of local football teams and mountains of trophies stand proudly above the bar. For reasons I’ve not yet determined, a lone Arsenal scarf hangs among more domestic memorabilia. 

The dressing rooms are small, but as clean and sterile as any I’ve ever been in. Just three showers exist for both teams to use but they are hot, which is enough.

For me, rugby dressing rooms are as much the smell of ointment (essential to get bodies like mine remotely ready to operate), the sound of electrical tape stretching over boots and the smacking of Vaseline on limbs and ears, as they are bricks and mortar. Yet I turn out to be the only player using the full combo of tape, ointment and jelly. 

The ambience is unlike any I’ve experienced. There’s no alpha male shouting, banging of heads or colourful exclamations of the violence they plan to unleash on the visiting team. The Czech character doesn’t suit this approach. A more reserved style is favoured. It’s why their successful ice hockey team is technically brilliant, but lacks the brutality of North American culture.  

The smells and sounds I’m accustomed to are rituals picked up and passed on over generations. A glance at the array of shiny boots around me – none held together by sticky tape – confirms this is a fresh team in more ways than one. They’ll make their own rituals in time. 

The Czechs are a tall race and several bodies around me have the potential to make ideal rugby types. But it’s also evident that Czechs are the biggest beer drinkers in the world. While there are notable exceptions, overall, flab triumphs over firmness. A couple of the more nervous players could play under-twenties, but the ages reach up to the mid-40s.  

We enter the field through the twirling batons of local dancing majorettes. The young girls, barely in their teens, bring a welcome energy and grace to the dated soft rock blaring from the pitch-side speakers. It’s a nice, if slightly surreal, touch.

Once on the pitch, players from both sides enact a peculiar Czech sporting ritual. Lining up the way national teams do for anthems, they chant in unison towards the crowd: “Rugby zdar!”. Almost untranslatable, it very roughly means “Success to rugby!” or perhaps as a hailing of the glory of the game. The salutation is repeated for fans on the far side of the field. 

As a newcomer I start on the bench. Our opponents Ricany, founded in 1944, run a number of senior, junior and female sides. The players lining up for this game are a mixture of youth and gnarly, grey-haired veterans. They look and dress like rugby players should. It’s the way they wait for kick-off. The correct (and voluminous) use of head tape and knee strapping. The body motions as they anticipate the coming violence. The instinctive manner they stroll into the correct field position. We look more like Christians in the Coliseum, awaiting the signal that unleashes the big cats and wondering from which direction the teeth are coming (admittedly we’re pretty well-fed Christians). 

If there was any doubt which team was the seasoned club and which side were fledging beginners, the kick-off ends it. Our opponents kick high to our 22 – perfectly placing the ball among several players who are all hoping someone else will step up to take responsibility. No one calls for it, no one moves an inch. An opponent grabs it on the bounce and we are five points down in less time than it takes an Olympic sprinter to run 100m. 

By the time I’m ushered into the fray 20 minutes later there are still more points against us than minutes on the clock, it already feels like an incredibly long afternoon. Determined to help steady the ship – and no doubt taking the opponents by surprise as I started on the bench – my first ten minutes is boys’ own stuff. Powered by adrenaline, tackles broken, turnovers won and big hits made. 

Then reality hits. A mixture of age and an embarrassing lack of fitness combine to say hello and I dramatically fall off the pace. As my lungs wheeze, I start to fade.  

The match continues much how it started, but I’m impressed by the spirit my teammates show despite the relentless score being piled up. From the fiery mini Chabal lookalike to the slim speedster moving like a blur on our wing (a representative of the Czech Republic’s national Fireman fitness team) – there’s no lack of commitment – only lack of technique and know how. It’s on days like these you realise how baffling rugby offside is for outsiders.

I quickly lose count of the score. Back in the UK most sides would have kept the score lower with some gamesmanship and subtle time wasting between breaks in play. But such cynicism is a trait that seeps in over time. We pass the ball back swiftly to opponents when we infringe so they can take quick tap penalties. We rush to kick off again after conceding a score, allowing them to rapidly rack up even more points.  

My game ends with a clattering of heads, colliding with my own player as I try to make a tackle – he’s left with a cut that sprays crimson everywhere.

After the game I have only a vague memory involving players formally thanking the crowd and the players clapping each other off via what seems to be some form of ritualised (yet affectionate) violence. I spend the evening getting an X-Ray, missing out on the post-game commiserations.

I return a few weeks later to help with coaching. When I next see the teammate I clashed heads with he thanks me. The scar and stitches had gone down well with the girls and he had been enjoying the notoriety. Some aspects of rugby culture are universal. 

A few weeks later RC Nyrsko begin to compete in the newly formed regional rugby competition. We are the only novices in the tournament and finish with seven losses from seven. Once we even concede triple figures. There are few sports as cruel as rugby for complete beginners. 

Bizarrely, due to a massive domestic overhaul of the game’s structure, the league also features RA Olymp Praha, a team containing more than a handful of South Africans. 

Yin to our Yang, they finish with a 100% winning record. A selection of their scores read as follows: 116-0; 165-3; 96-5; 101-8 and (this is not a typo) 205-0.

Nyrsko, meanwhile, is very much living out the mantra that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Training continues to be well attended and new players pop up most weeks (often found in local bars by other converts). There are now even weekly training sessions for a handful of curious children. What started little more than a year ago in a meadow with one man (and not even a dog) has now grown into something quite special. Pretty soon, Nyrsko will be needing to rewrite that Wikipedia page.

 
WorldSimon Campbell