Rugby, The Community Sport in the Czech Republic
by Ethan Paki
When you think of rugby in the Czech Republic, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re not thinking anything at all, then you would be sharing those thoughts with myself and, I imagine, a great many others.
On the surface, the sport of rugby seems to be very much in the early stages of developing a presence in the country. Competing against well-established team sports like handball, football, and ice hockey, it is easy to dismiss rugby in this small Central European nation.
However, if you scratch the surface, you will not only find that rugby is already well established, but also that its rich history in this country dates back more than a century.
Josef Rössler-Ořovský first introduced rugby to the national yacht club in 1895, but it didn’t catch on. It wasn’t until writer Ondřej Sekor returned from France in 1926 that rugby found its first real foothold in the country. He, along with Dr. Robert Velg, founded the first two Czechoslovak rugby clubs, SK Moravská Slávia, and AFK Žižka Brno, which played the Czech Republic’s first-ever match on 9 May 1926.
The national team competed in its first international match against Germany in 1934 and later helped establish the Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur (FIRA), which would go on to become the governing body of European rugby, Rugby Europe.
In this period, rugby seemed to be well established in the Czech Republic, but the game would go on to encounter difficulties over the following years. Rugby had always been considered a “gentleman’s sport,” reserved for only the wealthiest members of society. This resulted in resistance from the general population.
This resistance became even more prevalent during the Communist era, with the sport being dominated by police officials and Soviet military personnel. Coupled with the sport’s ties to high-society individuals, this contributed to rugby consistently ranking low in terms of popularity.
However, in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the popularity of rugby soared to new heights in the Czech Republic. Over time, rugby has developed a strong presence, especially in rural communities, where local clubs have focused on the involvement of the youth.
In 2016, the Czech Rugby Union marked its 90-year anniversary with a historical test match against the world-renowned Barbarians at the Marketa Stadium.
Fast-forward to today. According to the CSRU website, there are 34 clubs established across the Czech Republic – from Brno, Olomouc, and České Budějovice to the capital, Prague. Teams play across multiple junior and senior divisions, including a women’s, men’s, and sevens competition.
A successful rugby club is born from two things: participation and the surrounding community. A rugby club can become the beating heart of a community when it is established and run correctly. Whilst the big city clubs have always had the advantage when it comes to numbers, you need look no further than rugby giants New Zealand to see how much regional clubs can offer the game.
Located near the city of Auckland, Ponsonby Rugby Club was established in 1874, making it one of the oldest rugby clubs in the world. The club plays across 18 different division and formats, with over 30 different teams from the club playing matches in the Auckland regional competition at any given time during the weekend. The club has become the country’s greatest contributor to the national side, the All Blacks, with no less than 46 players plying their trade with the club.
They partner with local businesses and sponsors and the community turns out in their thousands to watch their teams play, with parents, cousins, friends, and family in the community actively engaged.
Club rugby is the foundation for national and international success and it seems that while the Czech Republic has had limited success on the international stage, the foundation for future success is now being developed at local level, with clubs like RC Kralupy nad Vltavou.
Founded in 2009 by Pavel Hrubý, RC Kralupy nad Vltavou is located just over an hour outside of Prague, just off the D8. It was established as an opportunity for kids outside of the capital to hone their skills and enjoy the game in a location a little closer to home.
The club gained a lot of traction with the youth in the local community and as interest grew among the kids, so it did with the parents. In 2009, this led to the formation of the club’s first competitive senior men’s side, with a women’s team established the following year.
Now in 2019, as the club celebrates its tenth anniversary, RC Kralupy nad Vltavou fields teams across multiple divisions at both junior and senior level, coming a long way since fielding a solitary under-seven team in its inaugural year.
Speaking with club stalwart Jan Běťák, we asked about how the club has grown since its inception in 2009 and how interest in the local community has developed over time.
“When the club was founded, there was just the team of under-sevens. Since that time the club has grown, with more and more parents from Kralupy and the surrounding towns finding out that rugby is a perfect sport for their children, developing their physical skills as well as logical thinking, fast decision making, teamwork, and a sense of fair play. Also, many of the parents became coaches or participate in the administration of the club”, Běťák said.
“The interest of the community has definitely been growing over time. International matches against men’s teams from traditional rugby countries like the United Kingdom or New Zealand attracted a lot of local fans, who had only seen rugby on TV before, and also motivated many parents to choose rugby as the sport for their kids. Also, live broadcasting of the Rugby World Cup on national TV has helped to promote rugby among general sports fans in Kralupy.”
Those international matches will continue for RC Kralupy nad Vltavou. The club’s fixtures include matches against UK-based side Hammersmith & Fulham RFC, which took place on Easter weekend in April. The club will also take on Chess Valley RFC, again from the United Kingdom, in May.
Whilst the club has been successful, it has experienced its fair share of struggle. Coaching is one key area where more support is needed.
“Coaches are definitely a ‘scarce commodity.’ If you imagine that for each of the seven divisions, the club needs at least one adult person who can spend two evenings a week and one whole day during some weekends with the team, it’s not very easy to find one. Usually, we cover the demand by using active parents, who are willing to help and work for the club voluntarily. In the case of seniors, the coaches are recruited from among experienced players, who usually act as players and coaches at the same time. To find a full-time coach for such a local team is almost an unsolvable problem,” says Běťák
This is not a new problem, with even community rugby clubs outside of the main cities in New Zealand, the UK, and South Africa struggling on this front recently, along with struggles to attract sponsorships and volunteers.
However, these are problems that need the assistance of the rugby governing body in each nation. The success of the national team, most importantly by qualifying for the Rugby World Cup, can lead to new avenues of sponsorship and garner more public interest in the sport.
More sponsorships mean more money, and more interest leads to more participation from the community – not just in the form of players, but also club volunteers, referees, and, of course, coaches. With more money, new funds become available to aid in player development as well as the development of coaches, referees, and an overall higher rugby education for all those involved in the sport.
However, none of that can be achieved without successful performances from the national team, which is directly affected by the players produced by clubs like RC Kralupy nad Vltavou.
The importance of grassroots clubs can never be understated. While they take time to nurture and develop, the positive impact that they can have on a community and a country as a whole can extend beyond the borders of the rugby field in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
That is what makes the game of rugby so beautiful.