Heidelberg

Beneath the gothic turrets of a glowering medieval castle, in an ancient cobbled town that’s inspired Twain, Turner and Nobel Prize winners, plays out a rugby tale with so many twists even brothers Grimm couldn’t make it up. Welcome to Heidelberg.

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Heidelberg is a fairytale town in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region. Snuggled up in a river valley, with a protective ancient forest on all sides, overseen from a mountain perch by a once foreboding – now somewhat forlorn – 13th-century castle, Heidelberg has been a muse to painters, poets and storytellers for centuries. It’s inspired poet Goethe, author Mark Twain (who stayed for three months) and artist William Turner. And they’re far from alone in being drawn in to its medieval charm. Heidelberg brings in close to 12 million visitors every year who come to see the castle, the university, the dramatic 14th-century Heiliggeistkirche church and the intricate gothic detail of the Baroque architecture that decorates the town. They visit also for the absinthe stores, violin makers and curiosity shops that line the cobbled-alley maze of the Altstadt (old town) in wooden-shuttered, timber-framed buildings. But this is a ‘town’ that punches. For a start, it’s not technically a town. Despite the 150,000 residents, it gets the all-important square symbol on maps the world over. Its university, dating back to 1386 and the brainchild of none less than Pope Urban VI, is not only the oldest in Germany, but has an incredible 33 Noble Prize winners affiliated.

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And for a good chunk of the past decade, it’s been the setting for an epic tale full of twists and turns that charts German rugby’s rise in the global game.

You may have never heard of it, but Heidelberg is definitely a rugby city, with no fewer than five clubs, four of which are in the country’s top flight. When you walk those cobbles, you’ll not only see the occasional nod to student life – such as a ‘discoteck’ called Club1900 (once very ahead of its time) and a bar poster describing Thursdays as ‘Party, Party, Party’ – but also that rugby is everywhere. Crusaders, Leicester Tigers, Wallabies, even Saints; replica shirt sellers seem to have done a thrifty bit of business in Heidelberg. 

Rugby also walks the streets in 6ft 6in lock form, with former Saracens and England second/back row Mouritz Botha walking past us – complete with small child, presumably a mini Botha, on shoulders –  as we head to meet the main storytellers for this, in parts grimm, tale.

Many great yarns have been relayed in an Irish pub, and so The Dubliner in the main Heidelberg high street is a fitting place to begin. It’s not just because of a thirst for Guinness, it’s also a sponsor for HRK, the side that tomorrow will play-off against Timisoara Saracens for the right to compete in next year’s Challenge Cup. Technically, the game is the semi-final of the Continental Shield, Europe’s third-tier club competition, but the winner will gain promotion to level two, which is the only thing that really matters. Facing the likes of Northampton, Connacht and Harlequins, German rugby would experience a level of the game which, even just five years ago, it could never have dreamt of playing.

We’re meeting Robert Mohr and Kobus Potgieter. Although the reason we’re here is really the Heidelberg-born billionaire Dr Hans Wild, the man who made the foil-packed orange juice drink Capri-Sun a global name and earned himself more than a few euros in the process. 

Robert and Kobus are his lieutenants. Former La Rochelle and German international Robert is the man Dr Wild leaves to run his rugby operations (which includes Stade Francais) from the business side. South African Kobus, a former Blue Bulls academy coach, is director of rugby for Wild Academy – a project that began in 2007 with the sole aim of developing talent in the country. “Maybe I give you a summary of what’s happened so far, what our goals were, our structure?” offers Robert, pre-empting our questions. “Dr Wild’s father played rugby at HRK, he was actually an Olympic rower too,” he begins. “Back then, the club did both rowing and rugby, that’s why they’re called HRK – Heidelberger RuderKlub.

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“Although Dr Wild didn’t play himself, because his father wouldn’t let him,” he continues. “But there was the connection, so the rugby club asked him to help out a little bit financially. He started supporting the club and I guess he fell in love with rugby and the spirit of it all.”

That was in 2007 with the club in the second division of German club rugby. “I think he was a jersey sponsor at first,” says Kobus. “Then, when they got promoted, he had the idea of starting an academy to develop German rugby, not just for the club, but for Germany as a whole.”

“We were going to develop the sport through youth coaching,” says Robert, picking up the thread. “So he founded the rugby academy – which is a not-for-profit – and employed rugby coaches. He sent them to schools to teach rugby and to make the sport more popular with the goal to attract those kids to go and join clubs afterwards.”

“We’d invite young players to come for weekend camps, coach on weekends,” explains Kobus. “We even sent some kids to experience rugby in rugby countries, like South Africa. And we went to a lot of schools just to introduce the sport.”

It wasn’t just about working alongside local schools in and around Heidelberg either – they now partner with 38 in the region – the Wild Academy coaches took close to 900 sessions at clubs and schools right across Germany, reaching some 24,000 kids in the process. Working with three coaching bases – Heidelberg, Berlin and Hanover – they also targeted the next generation, specifically 17 to 19-year-olds, those that could help German rugby quickly.

Kobus had been recruiting coaches from his native South Africa, “there’s a shit load of Germans there,” says Kobus. “But the coaches were still young enough to play, so they played for HRK,” he adds. 

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With the player-coaches (of which Kobus was one of the first) often antipodean, they had a rugby pedigree that helped develop HRK. Having not won the Bundesliga since 1986, the influx of talent propelled them to the title in 2010 – the first of five consecutive league wins.

The improved fortunes of his home-town club encouraged Dr Wild to get more involved, sponsoring the national team. “But the results weren’t there,” says Robert, who had joined Dr Wild’s operation in 2015. “He’s obviously a really successful entrepreneur, so he said, ‘either I do it right, or I do nothing at all’.

“He decided to really invest in the national team and then things changed very quickly. From 2015, the plan was really to develop sevens and 15s – and have success with both.”

Kobus global recruitment of German-qualified player-coaches meant South African, Australian and even Venezuelan accents could be heard at the academy. But he knew he had the raw material to give the national side a more Germanic accent. “There was potential,” he says. “I’d never met a German who played rugby but I actually thought, ‘well you guys can actually play’, they had a good skillset. We scouted players across Germany and, wherever they lived, we would support them with training programmes, gym fees, nutrition advice and obviously coaching. Coaches from our three bases would go and see them to do some coaching and in the summer they would come to Heidelberg for camp.”

Kobus took charge of the national team in 2013, on an amateur basis, but still made an impact. “When Kobus took over the national team, it improved a lot, it got a lot more professional,” says Robert, “so you did imagine that, if we had success without the manpower or funding, then what could we do with everything in place?”

This open-ended question is Robert’s parting comment. With another meeting to attend, he leaves Kobus to finish this opening chapter.

In the first stage of upping the ante, Dr Wild had funded a professional structure of 40, including players (who coached the youth and schools), dedicated coaches, admin and backroom staff. His plan to take Germany to rugby’s higher echelons, paid almost immediate dividends. Promotion back to the Rugby Europe Championship (REC) was one thing, but they had done that before, as recent as 2008. What they hadn’t done, was stay up. “Last season was very special for us,” says Kobus. “We beat Uruguay in a Test [24-21] and then in the REC we beat Romania [41-38] for the first time in 30 or so years, which was very special. Then we ran out of steam. By week four [of the tournament] they were physically tired, by week seven they were mentally tired and we couldn’t get anything out of them anymore and we lost our final two games to Spain [31-15] and Russia [52-25]. So we decided that if we want to go the world cup, we needed to be serious about it, we needed to have a full-time programme for the German national players.”

For the bulk of the German 15s squad, 22 professionals in total – most of which were playing their rugby at HRK – that meant becoming full-time players without the ‘coach’ prefix.

Goals were set on three levels. At 15s, with world cup qualification taking place over two years of the Rugby Europe Championship, they needed to beat Belgium and Russia to at least set themselves for a crack at the play-offs against Portugal. At sevens, it was to qualify for the World Rugby Sevens Series via the Hong Kong Qualifier. And at club level, they were to continue their progress in the Continental Shield and win that spot in the Challenge Cup.

However, with a chunk of the 15s also involved in the sevens, there were only so many players to go around, which is why things began to unravel.

Robert arrives at the ground of HRK early on matchday to meet us. Later today, HRK will face Timisoara Saracens for a defining match in German rugby history, but right now he’s filling us in on what happened next with the national side. It doesn’t make for pretty reading.

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Both the German sevens and 15s were in a rude state of health going into this season. The 15s had followed up the successful Rugby Europe campaign – that had made third place and a world cup play-off a distinct possibility – with a summer win over Kenya. Meanwhile, the sevens were showing the kind of form that could set them up for a place in the 2018/19 World Rugby Sevens Series. “Our issue was very clear,” begins Robert. “We can only beat the teams we need to beat if we are at 120 per cent, because we don’t have the strength in depth to furnish two separate squads – we felt that the world cup qualification was just as important as the World Rugby Sevens Series. We thought if we won one more match in the REC then the door was wide open for us to qualify. My suggestion was to focus everything on the 15s for the first three months [of 2018], then in March we’d be finished and could then switch focus to the sevens. The union said ‘no’.”

Talks went on, but as the next round of Rugby Europe Championship matches approached, the deadlock couldn’t be broken. The union wouldn’t release the sevens players to play 15s. Without key sevens players to support the 15s side, it was felt that Germany would struggle to win the games they needed to get the results needed. Even without kicking a ball, in the eyes of some, the world cup dream seemed to be over. With no agreement in place between Wild and the union – and contracts long-since lapsed – the union retook control of the 15s side. Kobus was replaced as national coach and, without him at the helm, the Wild Academy players made their own decision not to play.  “I couldn’t ask Dr Wild to invest if I wasn’t sure we were going to meet our goals,” explains Robert.

Without the team that had brought success, Germany plummeted. A year after beating Romania, they lost 85-6. A year after beating Belgium, they lost 69-15. A tight 32-15 loss to Spain became an 84-10 crushing.

The sevens fell at the final hurdle too, in the narrowest of defeats to Japan.

“The final result was that we didn’t manage to qualify for the world cup or the World Rugby Sevens Series either,” says Robert. “If you cut off the 20 best German-based backs and backrows and then 20 more in the development squad, that’s going to be an issue. And, put simply, you can’t expect someone to invest a lot of money and have no say whatsoever. You look at Bayern Munich with Allianz and Adidas, they aren’t just sponsors, they’re shareholders. They have someone on the board that controls it. If you only have one big sponsor then he has to have a lot of say. But these opinions weren’t shared by the German rugby board.”

At the time of meeting, talks had all but come to a halt. Both parties agreed they wanted to work together, yet no  agreement as to how that could happen had been reached. “For me, developing 15s is key to developing the sport,” says Robert. “If you qualify for the World Sevens Series, great, but if you want to have a rugby legacy in Germany then you need a strong 15s game.

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“The first thing that happened after our contract was stopped was they sent two teams to Dubai for sevens and cancelled all under-20 activity, which is the most important step between under-18 and seniors,” says Robert. “It proves the point I made before about developing talent for Germany. Germany is getting attention to  the game through sevens, but I don’t believe you get more players through sevens, you just split what you have.”

Negotiations between the two parties had been going on for 18 months but failed to reach a conclusion. “That’s why the contract [between Wild and the DRV] expired last year,” says Robert. “Then, when everyone saw it was impossible to have a competitive national team without us, it led to new meetings and negotiations but it’s pretty easy to say you want to work together but if you don’t address what went wrong before…

“We’re losing a lot of time now, but for me, the national team has already gone three steps backwards.”

More positive, you’d think, was the club side of things. Reaching the Challenge Cup would surely be good for the whole of German rugby. “Our plan had been to set up rugby like the New Zealand or South Africa system,” explains Robert. “All our best players would go and play in different teams across the Bundesliga, strengthening all the sides, but then come together to play in the Challenge Cup, like Super Rugby, completing a pathway to the national side. It makes no sense if there’s no national side at the end though.”

For the players who take to the field today, victory would also give them some reward for what has been a tough season of politics. “I’ve got so much respect for this group,” admits Robert. “What they’ve been through in the last six months and to still stay together, work hard and train together is incredible. I’d love to see them win.”

Inside the clubhouse of HRK is arguably the greatest demonstration of rugby’s off-the-field social spirit you’re ever likely to see. The old boys of the club have built their own little bar in a room no bigger than a spacious refs rooms – complete with own proper beer taps – including proper English ales – and a healthy selection of single malts. Walls are covered with rugby memorabilia and best of all, in one corner, adjoining the bar, is what looks like a ‘confessional’ box. Inside the windowless wooden cubicle is a tiny table with a small bench either side. In one corner there’s also a little tray with six [currently] empty glasses that slides through a small hole in the wall between the confessional and the bar. “When two people have a disagreement they must go in there until it’s resolved,” explains Roy Francis, an English club stalwart who’s been in Germany since the 1960s. “They have to finish three drinks each and then they’re allowed to leave.”

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Its creation is not only the act of a genius, but a reminder that HRK is still 100 per cent a members’  club in both the technical [the players aren’t paid by the club] and philosophical sense. It’s not a professional rugby club, even if it does have a few of the trimmings, thanks to its sponsor kitting it out with a new gym and pitch. The players that take to the field aren’t paid a penny by the membership, there is no marketing or press department, the ‘stadium’ that today will play host to 1,000 or so spectators is a clubhouse with a few rows of plastic chairs put out for the occasion. The barbecue and gate is run by and the matchday announcer is a veteran who has surely been in confessional once or twice.

Wild is a club sponsor, like The Dubliner, although the giant Capri-Sun foil pouch that floats above the ground, together with the countless logos surrounding it, suggests that he may have bought a few more training tops than the Irish pub.

In one of two offices above the clubhouse, resides Kobus and his coaching team, which includes Mouritz Botha, although this time without having a small child aloft on his shoulders. He’s been part of the Wild Academy team since the beginning of the season. “I signed my papers to retire on the Friday and flew out here on the Saturday,” he says. “I spent a week here and after Kobus asked me to come and coach. It’s not top tier professional, but we’re on the verge of achieving something pretty remarkable. Up until a few years before I retired, I wasn’t sure what to go into. I had friends in insurance and stuff like that living in Bermuda and thought maybe that’s something I should get into. But I studied sports management, and always been interested in coaching, so I’m stoked that I’ve been here and been pretty successful in my first season.”

On the desk next to Mouritz is Pieter Jordan, a long-standing coach of the Wild Academy, who tells his story. “I wanted to go and play in France,” begins Pieter, “but I got opportunity to be a player-coach here and, as I was 31, I thought this was probably a better option to come here. I’d played for the Bulls and Leopards and  a little bit of Currie Cup for the Falcons.”

“He played for the Falcons, when they were good,” chips in Mouritz.

“We almost beat England one year,” agrees Pieter. “2000, I think it was.”

“To coach and play was my brief,” he continues. “I didn’t even know they played rugby here, but I had to go to Berlin to coach there – everything from under six right up to seniors. We built a good team here too, and then got involved with the German national side.”

Now purely a coach, Pieter has also been key in setting up a coaching structure and developing a nationwide programme for coaches on how the game should be played and taught. “Most of the coaches in the youth system hadn’t even played rugby, so we needed to give them structure and show how to build sessions.”

The view from Pieter’s desk overlooks one of the bigger investments by Dr Wild, namely an artificial pitch. “I think that pitch was €1.8m, they say it’s the best pitch in Europe at the moment,” he explains.

“It’s the same as the ones in England,” adds Mouritz, “but it’s the nicest one I’ve ever seen.”

“Although on a hot day like this, when those black granules are just keeping the  heat you have to be careful,” says Pieter, “that’s why we’re watering it now.”

A Heidelberg resident for ten years, Pieter describes himself as ‘half-German’ and admits it’s not been the easiest of season s on the international side. “We were involved [in the national side] for five years, and it’s sad for us to see what’s happening, but it’s out of our hands.

“It’s massive, especially for the programme, to win today,” he says, switching to the Timisoara Saracens game. “If we can win today, it’s a massive thing for German rugby, if we get into the Challenge Cup, kids will be come to watch the games because we’re playing European rugby.”

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Kobus arrives and picks up the baton. “It’s massive today for German rugby,” he repeats, “it’s huge, because so many people will notice. You’ll get more people who want to invest and more people who’ll want train professionally. But, at end of day, win or lose, for what these guys went through this year, fuck, they’ve already achieved something. They could’ve thrown in the towel in January when the shit hit the fan. I said to a lot of these boys, whatever happens, if the programme stops tomorrow, it will be sad but I can only say thank you to the sponsor for bringing together guys and for what they’ve done. We’ve had a great journey so far.

“One thing I’ve learnt in last few months is you can’t control life, what it throws at you,” says Kobus. “I was very different when I came here, I always wanted stuff to be done now and I was getting very pissed off when it didn’t happen. Now, I don’t stress about what I can’t control anymore. To be honest, if I’m going to be bitter I’m just going to fuck up my life, so whatever happens we just make sure we’re ready for whatever comes next.”

HRK need to overcome a six-point deficit from the first leg in Romania to reach the Challenge Cup. No side has ever wanted the chance to possibly visit Northampton and Newport as much as HRK. It’s the last chance for Kobus and his team to save a season that once promised so much. At this point, the world cup opportunity had gone, the World Rugby Sevens Series had gone – both dreams for another day. But there was still the Challenge Cup.

With a strong Pacific influence – including two Tongan-born big-hitters in Tevita Monumua and Fonovai Tangimana – the opposition has plenty of Romanian international experience too and looks formidable. They’ve even got an Umaga [Jack] on the bench for good measure.

From the off, both sides look nervous with chances going begging as hands become feet at vital moments, balls spill and players slip. While the Romanian backs look to make the most of the sunny conditions on a fast-running pitch and smash holes using their Tongan battering rams, HRK are patient. The home side soaks up the attacks, making the hard yards through their pack before eventually finding an opening. A close-range tap penalty from scrumhalf Sean Armstrong feeds lock and captain Michael Poppmeier dives over to give them five of the seven-point margin required. It’s narrowed shortly afterwards with a Saracens penalty making it 5-3, before HRK extend it again, this time with centre Raynor Parkinson converting Pierre Mathurins’  try to give them a nine-point cushion at 12-3. Two more penalties from Parkinson and a half-time lead of 18-3 makes it look comfortable. First-class European rugby and trips to Franklin’s Gardens and Rodney Parade are just 40 minutes away.

Two more penalties within the first ten minutes for HRK, 24-3, and coasting.

Saracens aren’t ready to give up yet, they hit back with their first try of the game on the hour mark. A second follows ten minutes later and suddenly, at 24-15, with just nine points separating the sides, that Challenge Cup debut isn’t quite so certain. A single penalty or drop kick from the Romanians could end the dream.

It’s HRK who score next, but it’s only the three points, and the Saracens backs still look capable of breaking at any moment. A converted try would still win it for the Romanians.

Two minutes to go. Saracens take a quick lineout on halfway, surprising HRK and charging deep into German territory. Every fan – those who have chairs at least – is out of their plastic seat, even the inflatable Capri-sun seems to have frozen mid-air. It’s what they’d feared all along. The forward charge is only stopped as the stampeding Romanian hooker is hauled down by five desperate HRK players, but they can’t force him into touch and the ball is fed quickly wide to the livewire backs, the field seeming to open up for the opposition. The effort to pull down the charging prop has left the defence threadbare, the Romanians have a two or even three-man overlap. One more pass can set one of those men in for the easiest of touchdowns. But, sensing the opportunity, the backline’s eagerness causes complacency, the pass to centre Umaga is behind him – or rather, he’s in front – either way the ball drops to the floor and the opportunity ends. HRK clear their lines and the Capri-sun bobs around once more in celebration.

One minute to go. Deep in their own half, but in possession, Saracens are attempting to run it through the phases, slowly making a yard each time, working from one side of the pitch to the other, the ball barely moving a metre from player to player. It pays dividends, eventually winning a penalty that they use to get into HRK’s half. More phases, but the Mouritz-drilled defensive line is holding. Saracens force every metre as if the line is the one that matters, but they’re still no further than halfway. As the clock ticks to 85 minutes, the ball slips from Saracens ’ grasp, a wild pass leads to a knock on and it’s over. HRK are in the Challenge Cup.

As the players celebrate and, perhaps typically Germanic, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life begins to play on the tannoy, Kobus is a relieved man. “That last 20 minutes was the longest 20 minutes of my life,” he admits. “I’m just going to have a few beers and whiskies, it’s been a very tough year and we’re going to enjoy it.”

Scrum-half Sean Armstrong, a long-term Wild Academy player-coach, is overcome. “At the moment it’s tough to put into words, for some of us this has been a ten-year  dream,” he says. “We’ve always had that goal to play European rugby and now we’ve finally achieved it.”

More than a month passes since the qualification. HRK went on to the Continental Shield final in Bilbao, and although they lost to Russian side Enisel-STM,  it makes no difference – the Challenge Cup awaits. At least, that’s what they thought until a letter arrives from the EPCR telling them they wouldn’t be playing in the Challenge Cup. “When I got the letter it was like somebody had punched me in the stomach,” Kobus explains. “When you’ve earned something the hard way…

“They basically said that to ensure the integrity of the competition because Dr Wild was owner of Stade Francais and our main sponsor, there’s an assumption that games could be manipulated to benefit one side or the other.

“I had to tell the boys as soon as I could because it would’ve been out on social media,” he continues. “Now it’s whether or not we fight the decision – but that’s down to the board. It’s had such a negative impact on them, we might not be here next month and German rugby will have been put back 20 years.

“You could never predict anything like this…  it’s unbelievable. Everyone was so happy about a German side getting on a European stage – we’d put in ten years of work to reach a goal that would give us a base to go further and then someone pulls the mat from under you. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, I’ve learn that our beloved sport doesn’t always live up to its values in the boardroom as it does on the pitch.”

For Kobus and his players what makes it worse, is that it was never brought up before. There’s also the fact Dr Wild doesn’t own HRK. “I don’t think we ever thought there’d be a big issue,” he admits. “We knew the details that you can’t have the same ownership, but he’s not the owner of the club, he’s an honorary member. It’s an open club, owned by the members. We spoke to the EPCR after the semi-finals, our lawyers met their lawyers in London before the final and everyone said it was a formality. There would be some things we’d have to stick to, even the CEO of EPCR spoke to us after the final against Enisel-STM and said everyone was very impressed with what we’d done.

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“We were just waiting for them give us a list to say you need to put this in place, that in place, do this, do that. And then suddenly we got this letter to say we can’t take our place. 

“This can have massive impact on development of rugby in Germany, our main sponsor wants to pull out because he’s so negative. He’s just thinking, what is the reason to continue? If you work so hard, put so much effort in and it just takes one decision to take away everything you’ve done. I don’t see how they can be scared that a little old German side can embarrass them.

“Everyone’s always talking about developing rugby, that they want Germany to be there and it’s the biggest untapped rugby market, blah blah blah, and all that bullshit, but it’s not the case when it comes to making decisions for the benefit of the game. For me, the most ridiculous thing to happen is, if it’s not possible, then tell us before final, before it is announced all over social media.”

Ironically, but perhaps not surprising, given the rollercoaster ride that is rugby in Germany, the same day they hear HRK are out of the Challenge Cup, Kobus discovers that the deadlock with the German rugby union has been broken. Adding another twist to the tale, the disqualification of Romania and Spain from world cup qualification has put Russia through automatically and handed Germany the play-off against Portugal. “I got the letter on Wednesday and then on Wednesday afternoon, I found out we be doing the national side again – to be honest nothing surprises me. We’re devastated about the Challenge Cup, but now we have to look forward to working with the national  side. We have to focus on the next goal and that’s Portugal. We just need to convince the sponsors to continue with the aim of building the national side and playing again in the Continental Shield. We’ve still got the goal of qualifying for the world cup, 2019, or the next one.

“It’s going to be hard to pick the guys up,” he admits. “It’s such a big hit and because of the Challenge Cup, the contract renewals are all on hold, they’re thinking not just, ‘where am I going to play next year?’ but, ‘where am I going to live? There’s guys with families who are thinking ‘what the hell do I do?’

Five days later, the story comes to an end. Dr Wild is ending his sponsorship of German rugby. “It seems that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Kobus on our second conversation in under a week. “Not allowing us to play in the Challenge Cup, together with everything that happened in the past, means he could see no way forward. “He’s invested so much to help the development of Germany rugby, but feels this just shows it to be a waste of time. There’s not really a chance to develop it on a European level, so it’s forcing him to stop.

“It’s bittersweet,” he admits. “It’s very sad after what we’ve achieved, but to be honest I understand to an extent – he’s spending his private money to achieve something with the best of intentions, and he’s getting grief all the time so there’s comes a time…”

What happens now? “Well, we don’t know. It means we will have to find new jobs, it means some of the guys will move on, away from Germany. It’s losing a job and it’s a bad time for the players because most clubs have their players on staff now.”

How did the players take it? “Devastated, as you can imagine,” says Kobus, “we didn’t think it could get any worse after last few months, but apparently it can.”

And you? “For me, personally, I mean, fuck, yesterday [when I found out] I was shattered – it came out of the blue in a sense. But, being realistic, you can understand where it comes from, it’s not the first sports project to get canned due to funding and it won’t be the last, it happens every year in Europe with clubs going down to financially implication. 

“Unfortunately, it’s part of the lives we chose as players and coaches, but now I’ve got to try and find some homes for the players. And we have Portugal.”

You’re still playing it? “I’ve committed to the union, I will honour that commitment,” he states.

And the players? “Looks like it,” he says. “I spoke to boys this morning and they’re going to be there. It’s easier to commit as a coach because there’s no risk of injury, but they want to play for their country.”

What does this mean for German rugby? “It will be massive,” responds Kobus. “For 15s rugby it’s going to throw us back 10 years, easily.  Giving players the chance to train full-time, bringing in quality experienced players, that’s the reason we had success and now there’s no programme for players to do rugby professionally full-time – I can’t see them surviving in the REC for another year. Other players will be available, but the level of training and competition won’t be there, the depth won’t be there.”

For sevens, Kobus reckons the impact won’t be seen short-term. “They’ve got funding through the Government,” he says. “But in the long term, definitely, the number of players coming through won’t be the same.”

At a rough estimate, Kobus believes, during the Wild Academy’s time, playing numbers in Germany have risen from 8,000 to 14,000 with clubs and general popularity growing likewise.

Right now, he’s finding it hard to see that continuing with the Wild Academy shutting its doors. The pitch – given to the council who the own ground by Wild – might be there and the memories of the win over Saracens likewise, but that’s it. Probably. “My phone could ring next week and it might’ve  changed.”

For now, then, this is the end. But, probably, only for now. 

Words by: Alex Mead

Pictures by: Christopher Kennedy

 
World, Most PopularSimon Campbell