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Sports

German rugby breaking new ground

Throughout Germany, soccer is all-encompassing. But in the town of Heidelberg, nestled between round-ball strongholds Stuttgart and Frankfurt, a forgotten ‘traditional’ sport is slowly trying to change the landscape.

Walking through Heidelberg's old town, visitors are immediately taken on a trip through history. Amid the 17th century buildings, one of Europe's oldest universities and the imposing castle overlooking the city, there is a legacy beaming out of the many pubs lining the cobblestoned streets.

Rugby memorabilia covers most of the space on the walls, pointing to Heidelberg's place as the home of a once popular sport. While soccer reigns supreme in the rest of the country, Heidelberg stands as a bastion for German rugby.

"Rugby was introduced in Heidelberg by university students and it has remained popular ever since,” explains German Rugby Federation (DRV) sporting director Manuel Wilhelm.

"Some German rugby clubs are over 125 years old and some soccer clubs – like Hannover 96 – were originally founded as rugby clubs.”

Rugby once rivaled soccer in the popularity stakes; the national team used to regularly beat nations such as France and Italy and also claimed silver at the 1900 Olympics.

Yet Wilhelm says the casualties during World War II decimated rugby's playing stocks and the sport never recovered. Soccer flourished, partly thanks to the Miracle of Bern, where a semi-professional Germany won the 1954 World Cup.

Struggle to break through soccer saturation

"Nowadays in Germany it's basically just soccer. It's very hard to find any space,” Wilhelm laments. "But it's a very exciting time for us, we're starting to get organized on a more professional level.”

German rugby struggles to break into public consciousness in a market saturated with soccer. But one thing can help the sport break down barriers - qualification to a World Cup.

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The last qualification campaign saw Germany come within three games of sealing a place at the 2015 World Cup. This week, their qualification campaign for the 2019 showpiece in Japan begins.

The Rugby Europe Championship is the continent's second tier, just below the Six Nations, and over the next two seasons every game carries a weighting towards World Cup qualification.

Georgia are guaranteed one automatic place, while Romania are favorites to secure the second automatic spot. A third team from Russia, Spain, Germany and Belgium will qualify for the repechage stage, where they will play an Oceania side for a place at the 2019 World Cup.

World Cup dream 'within reach'

Sean Armstrong, Germany's Australian-born captain, says the repechage is well within the country's reach.

"We're ranked fifth, but it's not good enough to just stay in this division anymore. We want to rise up the table. If we beat Spain and Belgium two years running and add a win against Russia then we're in the race for that repechage spot,” he says.

Germany face a tough task first-up, hosting Romania in Offenbach on February 11 before traveling to Georgia on February 18.

Armstrong is under no illusion that victory in either fixture is likely - both nations boast players plying their trade professionally in Europe's top leagues. The must-win games against Belgium and Spain arrive in March, followed by the 2017 season's final match in Russia.

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"Having a slip-up [against Spain or Belgium] would mean ruling ourselves out of the next World Cup and we've come too far to let that happen,” Armstrong says.

"Professional structures off the pitch are starting to fall into place, it's now up to the players to get the results on the pitch.”

Financial assistance makes the impossible possible

The rugby landscape in Germany has moved fast in the last few years, despite a lack of public funding. That's largely thanks to one man - Dr Hans-Peter Wild.

The billionaire entrepreneur has a deep love for rugby unrivaled in Germany and almost singlehandedly finances the sport.

"Without Dr Wild it would be impossible,” DRV sporting director Wilhelm admits.

"He started a foundation, the Wild Rugby Academy, to spread rugby all over the country through school coaching. And he sponsors all activities in the national team, paying for preparation camps, coaches, travel costs, junior teams, everything.”

The German government provides no funding because rugby isn't an Olympic sport - they do support Rugby Sevens, however, a stripped down version of the game which was played at the Rio Olympics - and sponsors are hard to attract.

"You can talk to all the big sponsors, all big German companies, but there is no market there,” Wilhelm says.

"It's tough to attract sponsors away from soccer, but we're picking it up slowly.”

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There is hope, however. World Rugby, the sport's governing body, has taken notice of Germany's recent positive results and held a meeting in Heidelberg last year to help instigate a plan for future investment.

"Germany is Europe's strongest economy, we are 82 million people strong, so there's economic potential there. But there's also potential on the playing field,” Wilhelm says.

With the help of World Rugby, Germany hosted its first ever home Test series last November, defeating Uruguay and Brazil, and a three-week training camp prior to that tournament has given them a solid base to tackle the Rugby Europe Championship.

German public starting to pay attention

Germany's South African-born coach Kobus Potgieter says the increased preparation has fostered a team culture and collective mentality that had been difficult to develop in the past.

"We have a more balanced squad now and a very strong forward pack, which has improved immensely in the last year,” he says. "These are exciting times for German rugby. A lot of people are starting to look at us and take notice.

"But we have to be realistic. This year we have to beat Belgium and Spain and then hopefully next year surprise Romania or Russia. It's a doable goal, but we still have to work hard to achieve it.”

Come Saturday, rugby has a chance to impress the German public. And for the first time, all the country's Rugby Europe Championship games will be broadcast live on Sport1.

"The German public is waiting for something different to soccer, and rugby is a niche that we can tap into and build up,” Wilhelm says.

"There are exciting times ahead, we just need to capitalize on the exposure.”

Qualification for the 2019 World Cup may be a long shot, but a strong showing in front of a television audience over the next two years could help elevate German rugby to the next level.

Germany kicks off its Rugby Europe Championship against Romania on Saturday, February 11. The match will be broadcast and streamed live on Sport1 from 13:00 (CET).