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Sports

Sold on rugby: Germany rediscovers its 'rugger' roots

Germany may have won the Football World Cup, but it did not even qualify for this year's Rugby World Cup in England. Still, the sport has a dedicated following, determined to revive German rugby's pre-war glory days.

"People are always astonished when I tell them rugby came to Germany 150 years ago," says Ian Rawcliffe, the president of the German Rugby Union (DRV). Rawcliffe, a Brit, was one of the guests of honor at the presentation of the Webb Ellis Cup - the official Rugby World Cup trophy - in the western city of Bonn.

Being able to admire the trophy, which is on a world tour ahead of the World Cup in September and October, is a rare opportunity on German soil. Following or playing rugby in Germany these days requires dedication in a country that firmly believes that balls are round, not oval-shaped.

Before World War II though, Germany was "playing among the top nations," Rawcliffe explains. Although regular league games started up again in 1954, the number of players went down drastically and never recovered.

That means that, despite the sport's considerable history in Germany, rugby is now considered a start-up sport again here. In the last few years, the numbers have gone up by 50 percent, but coming "from a very low baseline," Rawcliffe points out.

There are now 12,000 members in 125 rugby clubs throughout Germany. Compare that to the nearly 26,000 football clubs here and the word "niche" takes on a whole new meaning.

Deutsche Rugby-Meisterschaft SV Odin Hannover TSV Handschuhsheim Heidelberg

Germany's first rugby-only club was founded in Hanover in 1878. Pictured here is the club's team in the 1960s

Get them involved young

Sean Armstrong, captain of the German national men's team, says he encourages Germans to start playing rugby not just for the love of the game, but also because of the sporting opportunities it presents. Unlike in football "after just a few years of learning, there is a great opportunity to play in the Bundesliga and the national team," Armstrong says.

To be in with a chance though, it is best to start young. Armstrong is one of the players involved in the DRV's "Getting into Rugby" program, which aims to get kids into the sport in German schools. It's a huge change from 20 years ago, when rugby was banned in many German schools, because it was seen as too "brutal," Rawcliffe recalls.

Steffen Liebig, who also plays for the German national team, says many people have a certain image of rugby, but once you take them along for a game, they really enjoy it. "They often ask 'Why isn't the sport more popular here?," he says.

Germany is currently 28th in the World Rugby rankings. That's obviously miles off continental Europe's rugby heavyweights France and Italy, or even Romania and Georgia. Unlike those countries, Germany has never qualified for the World Cup, one of the world's biggest sporting events.

Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour an der Beethoven-Statue in Bonn

The Webb Ellis trophy taking in the sights in Bonn, the home of Beethoven

Olympic boost

And although some of the World Cup matches in England this year will be shown on German television, most Germans will still be bewildered and confused if they decide to watch a match - what with all the tackles, scrums, rucks and line-outs going on, and 30 people seemingly just piled up in a heap most of the time.

"This is where 7s rugby has changed everything," Rawcliffe says, meaning the seven-a-side version of traditional rugby. This format of the game is set to becoming an Olympic sport next year in Rio de Janeiro, giving the sport more funding, in Germany and elsewhere, and a much-needed image boost.

7s rugby is a much quicker game, with two halves of just seven minutes. It is easier to understand and watch and there are more tries and more running and fewer "messy" rucks and scrums.

The fact that it has become an Olympic discipline has also meant more money for women's rugby. While women make up just a quarter of players in Germany, the 7s version, in particular, is gaining traction.

"It's a lot of agility, handling - it's just a fun and fast sport, and every female can play it - if you're big, small, fast or slow," Alysha Stone, captain of the German women's team, told DW. Like Armstrong and Liebig, she plays in the south-western city of Heidelberg, one of the hubs of German rugby.

Rawcliffe agrees it is a sport for everyone and even believes German youths are "well-suited" to rugby. After all, "if you give a kid a ball, what does he do? He takes it in his hands and runs with it," he says. Add to that another kid who wrestles for the ball and you have two budding rugby players in the making, he says.

It is also a great way to instill discipline, Rawcliffe says. Unlike in football, where top players often waste large amounts of time complaining to the referee, there is no such backchat in rugby. If you complain too much "you're off the pitch," Rawcliffe explains.

Who knows, the discipline aspect of rugby may just sway a few more German minds this September if they catch some of the Rugby World Cup. If not, an inspired group of amateurs and volunteers across Germany will try to lead the way with their own brand of German rugby.