During the Communist era, the Peace Race was a cycling competition organised between Eastern Bloc countries in an effort to create a sense of cohesion between the different states.
Riders from the different countries would race between capitals in this “Tour de France of the East”. What does this have to do with rugby? In 1969, the finale was due to go through the National Stadium in Warsaw which on that day held somewhere in the region of 100,000 spectators. To keep them entertained while the riders approached the Polish capital, the authorities decided to stage a rugby match.
Rugby beneath the six nations, or five nations as it was then, was based on a divisional structure. The 1968-69 season saw Poland in Division 1 alongside Romania, West Germany, Czechoslovakia and France A (Italy were in Division 2). Hence, Poland were to play France in front of a packed stadium and the match was to be broadcast on national television. Never before had the sport received this kind of exposure. Did it in conclude with a Hollywood type ending for the Poles? No. The score was 67-0 – to France. Such was the fury of the on looking Communist party apparatchiks that the television broadcast was cut short and support for rugby fell by the wayside.
For the next 30 years Poland competed largely in Divisions 1 and 2 of the European Championship, staging their international matches at small club grounds with the crowds often sitting on wooden benches or standing round the side of the pitch. With the fall of Communism, the funding generally afforded to sport drastically fell. That said, this had never been that great in rugby’s case as it was not then an Olympic sport, but damaging nonetheless.
Fast forward to 2009 and a watershed moment came in October when the Polish Rugby Union decided to take the risk and stage the first international in Warsaw for 20 years. The Polonia Warsaw football ground was chosen as the location for the match. This is a 7,000 seater stadium, 15-minute walk from the middle of the historic Old Town. Belgium were the opponents and were duly defeated 16-7 in front of a packed crowd. The die was cast for future events and stadium has become a happy hunting ground for the national team over the years.
Taking the Show on the Road
To spread the word of rugby in Poland further, similar experiments of renting football stadia were tried at the old Lechia Gdansk ground as well as that of Hutnik Krakow in 2011, which saw Germany and the Netherlands defeated respectively.
These concrete edifices built in the Communist sporting heyday were beginning to crumble, however, in the past decade Poland has benefitted from a stadium building boom fostered by the staging of the European Football Championship in 2012. This went far further than the 40,000+ seater stadia built for the tournament. Some of these have to an extent become white elephants with the incumbent club sides able to muster regular crowds of more than 15,000. Their creation nevertheless fostered expertise in large construction projects as well as many cities in Poland suffering from a case of stadium envy and so commissioning more realistically sized homes for their football teams.
Several have proved to be ideally located in areas where rugby is popular in Poland and well sized to stage international matches. The Arena Lublin hosted two epic encounters with the Ukraine in 2015 and 2016 and saw crowds of around the 7,000. The latest development came this year in the Polish city of Lodz where the game against the Netherlands was held in the new stadium of Widzew (one of the two main football teams in the city) with the 8,000 mark broken.
The Polish Grand Prix
Below the Sevens World Series, sits the Grand Prix where the 12 best European rugby sevens teams play in events around the continent. Some of these, such as England, Wales, Russia and France compete in both events and last year England and Wales gave up their places to allow two Great Britain teams (Royals & Lions) prepare for the Olympics. Crowds from Exeter to Moscow were treated to the sight of future silver medallists Mitchell, Norton, Bibby and Rodwell in full flight.
While Poland has been looking to improve its standing in the 15-man game, a greater advancement has come in the 7-a-side version. Growth of rugby around Poland has often come by way of sevens as clubs do not need to maintain the larger playing squads and the specialist positions needed in the 15-man game. As a result, the sevens season over the summer has a packed fixture list and solid participation numbers.
When Poland won promotion to the Grand Prix in 2016 the Polish Rugby Union was keen to host an event and Gdynia on the Baltic coast (one of the two Rugby heartlands in the country) appeared on the circuit. Another recently completed football stadium was hired over two days in July and the crowds that turned up were larger than those seen at other venues.
This year another event will be hosted in the Lodz on the 10th-11th June. The city is home to the current Polish rugby champions and is the other main heartland of the sport in the country. The event will again be staged in another recently completed football stadium belonging to LKS Lodz, the fierce city rivals of Widzew.
The Wars of the Pygmies
Watching a rugby match in a new stadium apart, why else should rugby fans from the UK, Ireland or France be interested in attending a rugby match in Poland, or come to that, any tier 2 or 3 nation?
One reason is that games played at these levels have far greater significance than in the 6 Nations due to promotion and relegation. So think of the dynamic that the English Premiership has, but played out on the international arena. This practice has been in place in every European divisional level below the 6 Nations, sometimes by way of a play off, sometimes a straight replacement. Generally, 5 or 6 team make up a division and again like the Premiership on a given day, any team can beat any other.
The first division below the 6 Nations is called the Rugby Europe Championship and contains several teams that have made a World Cup appearance such as Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal. These divisions go all the way down to the Rugby Europe Development Cup where Bulgaria, Montenegro and Slovakia compete.
Attending an International match at these divisional levels can also offer rugby fans a new experience as depending on who has been promoted or relegated, rivalries can be witnessed that make England Scotland pale into insignificance. Take the Eurostar to Brussels to see Belgium Netherlands, fly to Lisbon for Portugal vs Spain, Berlin for Germany vs Russia, Kyiv or L’viv for Ukraine vs Poland, Tbilisi for Georgia vs Russia, or venture into Chisinau to witness the juggernaut Moldovan pack at work. All supported by crowds at their partisan and visceral best.
Going to a match at this level becomes increasingly attractive taking into account that tickets are rarely more than £10 and most games can be easily reached by a budget airline. Many are also often at a destination you might not otherwise consider unless there was a sporting event to attend. When you budget the whole trip, the result is very favourable in comparison to travelling to any far less exotic 6 Nations venue.
Rugby podcast devotees may have heard of the Eggchasers recent trip to Bucharest to report on the Championship decider between Romania and Georgia. While Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones recently reported on Germany’s game against Belgium in Offenbach. Both enthused over the passion and fervour of the game at this level. Fans have the chance to get close to the team, often being able to walk onto the pitch after a match and mix with players in a throwback to the amateur era. Spectators from the UK would be surprized at the standard of play at this level and several unions employ foreign coaches, for example Poland have Blikes Groenwald from the Blue Bulls in South Africa at the helm.
Quo Vadis Poland?
Poland sit in the division just below the Championship, called the Rugby Europe Trophy. After the Grand Prix event, their next home match is scheduled to be at the Widzew stadium in Lodz on September 9th. This will double as the 60th anniversary celebration of the Polish Rugby Union, where it is hoped that the attendance record of 8,000 will again be broken. Lodz sits in the middle of the country and still has remnants of its cosmopolitan past when it was home to large German, Russian, Jewish and Polish populations. It has a 5 km long Las Ramblas-like pedestrianised street running through the centre called Piotrkowska lined with bars, restaurants and beer gardens. It is also served by direct flights from London Stansted, Dublin and East Midlands airports. Any rugby fans interested in joining the celebration will be made more than welcome.
Rugby Europe Game Schedule: http://www.rugbyeurope.eu/all-rugby-europe-games
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