Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rugby in Poland

When you think about Poland, rugby isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind. Although Poland isn’t a big rugby nation, this sport is growing bigger and year after year is attracting more attention. Some people may be surprised to hear that rugby in Poland exists at all and even more surprised that it has quite a long history. Today, I’d like to tell you more about rugby in Poland and its heritage.

A bit of history
According to some sources, the first Pole who ever played rugby was Sienkiewicz - the son of a Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz. In his book entitled “Le Rugby”, Loys Van Lee writes about a few rugby clubs where Sienkiewicz played such as Racing Club or Stade Francais. Van Lee describes him as a young lad of impressive build, weighing about 100 kg. Sienkiewicz’s played in the second row.

Rugby reached Poland after World War I when Polish repatriates and soldiers fighting in France returned to Poland. Some of them were already rugby supporters who wished the new discipline so popular abroad found its supporters in Poland. The main initiator of Polish rugby was the Frenchman Louis Amblart who set up the first Polish rugby club called “White Eagle” located in Warsaw. The first official and open to public game was played on LKS “Pogon” pitch in Lvov and took place on the 9th July 1922 between teams playing in the club of “White Eagle”. The historic match between two Polish rugby teams “The Whites” and “The Blacks” with 15 players on each side ended up with the latter winning 3:6.  The game refereed by another Frenchman Robineau received very good press coverage. Another club was established by Maurice Bacguet at the Infantry Cadet School in 1923.

Clubs in the period between wars
Between 1921 and 1929 there were a few more rugby clubs apart from the ones mentioned above, namely: Medical Officer School, Anti-Aircraft Regiment, The University Sports Association, Varsovia (scout group), Sports Club KS Rozwoj, Ursynow School, Sports Club in Plock, School of Physical Education in Poznan, Sports Club in Murcki in Silesia. They played numerous friendly matches but no national championship was organized. The first international game took place in Bucharest in 1924. White Eagle was then defeated by the Romanian team called Probables (0:46) which at that time was getting ready for the Olympic Games (they won the bronze medal at the Olympics). The second best Romanian team called “Possibles” defeated Polish White Eagle 0:17 in a return match.
Due to lack of interest in rugby among national sporting authorities, poor marketing strategy, lack of professional team coaches and equipment rugby was deemed to disappear from the sports map in Poland. Last press releases came from 1929 and after that rugby was absent from Polish popular sport disciplines for many years. 

Meanwhile the discipline was thriving around the world and gained popularity in new countries. Only after 26 years, on the 14th December 1955, did rugby become an official sport discipline in Poland which was regulated by the decree number 121 issued by the President of Physical Culture Committee. 

New beginning
In January 1956 three rugby supporters and journalists A. Karpinski W. Wojdyllo and W. Gielzynski called up a National Meeting of Rugby Supporters which resulted in forming of the Rugby Organizing Committee and appointing A. Karpinski the head of the Committee. Thus, the era of rugby re-launched in Poland - 40 rugby instructors were trained by Alfons Zeda from Czech Republic and 22 new clubs were set up. The first official game after World War II was played on “Legia” pitch in Warsaw on 15th September 1956 between Warsaw club AZS-AWF and Kochlowice Club “Gornik” (“the Miners”) with the result 3:0. In the same year the “Sportsman” Editor Rugby Cup took place. In the finals Szczecin’s club “Czarni” (“the Blacks”) lost the game to Warsaw’s AZS-AWF 9:14.

The first national Report and Election Conference took place on the 26th January 1957 and appointed A. Karpinski the head of Rugby Section operating within the General Committee of Physical Culture. Due to reorganization of Polish sport some rugby teams ceased to exist between 1956 and 1957 and only 16 were left. AZS-AWS Warsaw won the first Polish Rugby Championship in 1957.
In 1957 rugby became one of the specializations at the University of Physical Education in Warsaw. On the 9th of September 1957 the Founding General Assembly of Polish Rugby Union (PZR) was held in Warsaw. Wladyslaw Trybus was appointed the first chairman of PZR.

First official international game
On the 24th of August 1958, Polish representation played its first official international match in Lodz where they beat German Democratic Republic 9:8 (0:5). Three thousand fans watched the game refereed by H. Ortelbach from GDR.
Up till now Poland has played 270 official matches.

Current rankings and structure
Poland is currently classified on the 25th position in the IRB ranking and play in the European Nations Cup - division 1B with Czech Republic, Germany, Moldova, Sweden and Ukraine. ENC, sometimes referred to as the Six Nations B, is the European Championship for tier two and three rugby nations.

There are three leagues in Poland. The top division “Ekstraliga” contains eight teams. One level below is the 1st league with six teams and below the 1st league there is newly created 2nd league with up to 20 teams (depends on how many clubs decide to take part). There is no professional rugby in Poland. Almost all players have to divide their time between rugby and other duties such as jobs or universities. For the last few years some of the top clubs have been able afford to pay their players and started attracting players from other countries, mainly from Georgia and Ukraine.

Famous player
The most famous Polish player is Grzegorz Kacala. He was a professional back row player usually playing as a Number 8. In 1997 he won Heineken Cup with CA Brive, he also played for Cardiff RFC.

Future development
Rugby is slowly but surely progressing in Poland. A lot of effort has been put into introducing our sport to children and youth. Most clubs have children groups. Rugby has also been introduced in some schools. 

In the recent years, rugby has been more widely promoted in the media and each year is getting bigger attention. National team matches are broadcast live on TV sport channels. 

Clubs playing in Ekstraliga are becoming more professional, with the top ones aiming for full professionalism.

There is no rugby league in Poland but rugby 7 and women’s rugby started to develop a few years ago. Polish rugby may certainly benefit from the introduction of sevens to the Olympics. It will help build wider awareness of our sport. Hopefully, rugby will attract more passionate and committed people who will be able to further develop our fantastic sport. One day you may see Poland taking part in Rugby World Cup and playing among the best in the world. Who knows...