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Swiss rugby seeks to convert newcomers

The Swiss rugby community hope the World Cup will encourage more young people to take up the sport (Verdes)

As rugby fans eagerly await the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, Swiss rugby is hoping the tournament will raise the game's profile across the border.

Despite having suitable infrastructure, rugby remains an amateur sport in Switzerland and is still viewed primarily as a game for expatriates.

Switzerland is currently ranked a lowly 51st in world rugby and failed to qualify for the 2007 tournament, which starts next month.

The country currently has 20 clubs, fielding 23 teams, and has 1,600 registered players competing in four national leagues. There are a higher proportion of clubs in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

“We’ve got the necessary infrastructure to develop the sport,” said Carlos Verdes, national technical director at the Swiss Rugby Union.

But efforts to develop the game are sluggish and the sport remains distinctly amateur, with the Swiss accused of lacking commitment and technical ability.

At the same time Swiss rugby gets practically no financial support from the Federal Sports Office or the Swiss Olympic Association.

Another major problem is that pitches are closed from November to March so that they do not get damaged.


“All these handicaps have a kind of catalysing effect, forcing us to work even harder,” said Verdes.

This has been reflected in the good results of the national youth teams. For the second year running the under-18s took part in the European Championship finals in Landes, France, in March, finishing second in group C.

And this season, the under-18 and under-20 sides hope to be promoted to higher leagues.

“Despite fewer registered players and access to facilities for only part of the year, our results have been very promising,” said Verdes.

Better conditions would boost the teams even further, he added.


Rugby is also a relatively young sport in Switzerland.

The sport is said to have originated at Rugby School, England, in 1823 and the Rugby Football Union was founded in 1871, but the Swiss Rugby Union has only been in existence since 1977.

“We have a tremendous amount of time to catch up – at least 70 years,” said Verdes. “We have to try by all possible means. Closing the pitches during the winter season is a big handicap for us.”

He points out that other countries, such as those in Scandinavia, continue to play outside despite the snow.

“The more we talk about the problems, perhaps those in charge will start thinking long and hard about doing something to change certain measures which were adopted years ago,” said Verdes.

But the hurdles are high. The clubs rely on volunteers for help and only a few communes, cities or donors with a historic interest in the sport provide any financial support.

Technical training structures do exist in Switzerland, but without rugby schools to put into practice lessons learnt in the classroom, they remain fairly ineffective.


Another problem is that rugby is not very well known in the small alpine country.

“We function a little bit like a private club with our own values, but we don’t pass them on. We have to make it a priority to inform people about our sport,” said Verdes.

There are currently 1,600 registered players in Switzerland, although the international rugby authorities say the optimum number should be 7,400, based on the size of the population.

“It would be magnificent if we could reach 3,500 in two years,” added Verdes.

The Swiss rugby community is therefore hoping that September’s world cup will help advertise the game and boost its ranks.

“Every four years the tournament provides a window on the sport. We have to put in place small-scale infrastructure in every club to meet the requirements of anyone who might want to contact a club and have a go.”

swissinfo, Marcela Águila Rubín

The Swiss national squad comprises 30-40 players. The Swiss team has an international twist: the trainer is French, supported by a British citizen. The team includes several players with parents of Argentinean, Irish, South African, English and French origin.

To play in the national team a player needs a Swiss passport or to have lived for 3 years in Switzerland.

Switzerland failed to qualify for the 2007 Rugby World Cup by finishing fourth in one of the European group qualifying rounds.

There are 20 clubs in Switzerland, fielding 23 teams, which compete in four national leagues.
There are 1,600 registered players.
The 2007 Rugby World Cup takes place from September 7 to October 20, 2007.
20 nations will contest 48 matches over 44 days. 42 matches will be spread between ten French cities, with four matches being held in Cardiff, Wales, and two matches in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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