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Swiss rugby hopes for big push in Moldova

The Swiss side will be hoping to keep their feet - and hands - on the ball in Moldova

(swissinfo.ch)

While the Under 17 national football team basks in World Cup glory, young Swiss rugby players also hope to make sporting history this week.

Victory at an international tournament in Moldova will see the Swiss U-20 team promoted and with the chance to play some of the best sides in Europe. This would be a first for Swiss rugby, which is enjoying rapid growth at the grassroots level.

"We're a little country with a little team, but this is a big opportunity," technical coach Carter Croft told swissinfo.ch. "We're going to come across tremendously big Eastern European players. But if we don't get intimidated we'll have a chance."

The Swiss U-20 team is travelling to Chisinau, Moldova, on Tuesday for the Group B final against Moldova and Poland.

The prize is tantalising: the winner will be promoted to Group A, the highest-ever level attained by a Swiss national rugby team of any age group.

Group A teams include Georgia, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Russia. Above that is the Six Nations pool.

"A victory would announce the arrival of Swiss rugby on the international scene," said head coach Andrew Mackenzie.

Small, technical team

Next to the Stade de Suisse football stadium in Bern the young backs and forwards rehearse line-up and passing drills on a training pitch.

Like the U-17 national football team, the current U-20 rugby squad, which has been together for the past two years, is an exciting mixture of nationalities and experience, including several who play in France, England and Ireland.

"We're a small, passionate team and we rely on getting around fast," said Teanuanua Nicole, the 19-year-old Fijian-Swiss number eight, who normally plays in New Zealand.

"All we've got to do in Chisinau is to tackle all day and when we win the ball do what we do best – we're a fit team so we can get them tired and capitalise on that."

"If we win we're into rugby world cup qualifiers, which is a tremendous achievement for a country with a relatively young rugby pedigree," said Croft, a former England B scrumhalf and experienced coach.

Fast-growing young sport

The Swiss Rugby Union has only been in existence since 1977. Rugby is played at amateur level and is developed chiefly through club sides. The 37 clubs here field 62 teams with a total of 2,229 registered players.

But the sport is growing quickly. "In 2004 the basic skills were just not there, but now you have four leagues and each club has two teams. Lausanne has 75 registered players and Zurich has three teams – that's a hell of a growth level," said Croft.

But rather than expats, this exponential rise is being driven by Swiss nationals, who are starting to play rugby, and overseas coaches, he added.

Fribourg hooker Gaby Fox prepares to throw the ball in as the forwards slowly get to their feet for another complicated set-play.

"Come on!" yells the coach. "The only time you don't get into the defensive line is if you are unconscious or have a broken nose."

Oliver Ritter, who plays wing for Nyon and Loughborough University, started playing rugby at 15. He felt Swiss rugby had come on leaps and bounds.

"There's a hell of lot more youngsters now than when I started," he said. "After the 2007 World Cup in France lots more started playing, there are more clubs and it's more organized."

Holding it back

But the Swiss Rugby Federation still doesn't lend enough support, probably due to the lack of funding, said the dual Swiss-British national.

"What is holding it back is a general lack of knowledge that the sport exists here," Mackenzie agreed. "The Swiss Rugby Federation needs to go into schools and offer the sport as an option."

It also suffers from a wrong perception as a violent sport, he added. The coaches are convinced of improvements in game play, however.

"If you look at this drill these guys are doing, they do it with much more skill nowadays and they want to learn," said Croft.

"It won't be long before there is a professional team in Geneva playing in the French leagues."

Rugby is at a very developmental stage in Switzerland, said Eoin O'Faolain, who used to live in Switzerland, but now studies at Trinity University Dublin.

"But look at Italy; they only started the Six Nations in 2001-2002 and they recently lost to the All Blacks 20-6," said the young fullback. "Ten years down the road if the Swiss federation puts in the right structures and does its job, there is no reason why Switzerland can't be the next team to join the Six Nations."

Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch

Key facts

There are 37 clubs in Switzerland, fielding 62 teams, which compete in four national leagues.
There are 2,229 registered players.
To play in a national team a player needs a Swiss passport or to have lived for 3 years in Switzerland.
The Swiss senior side is currently ranked a lowly 59th in world rugby.
The U-20 side qualified for the Group B final in Moldova against Moldova, Serbia and Poland by winning a tournament in Ostrava, Czech Republic in September 2009. They beat Latvia 66-10 and the Czech Republic 32-19.

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