Germany have a long history of women’s rugby, with a first test match as far back as 1989 – only eight months after England took the field for the first time and a year before New Zealand’s first test. With almost as many women playing the game in 2013 as Scotland and the Netherlands put together, Germany should be one of major powers in Europe, but in recent years success has been hard to come by.
In the first of two article Viv Bahlmann updates us on the state of the women’s game in Germany with look at the travails of the national team.
For many years the German national team belonged to the Top 12 teams of European Rugby, they had a professional training base and trained together every day headed by professional coaches. But at the European Championship 2015 they lost most of their matches, were relegated into Division A and were called the “flop number one” of the German rugby year in 2015 by online-rugby-community Total Rugby.
A look at the table of the European Championship 2009, the small rugby nation Germany reached an incredible fourth place. After that and with an eye toward the Olympic Games 2016, a squad of contracted players was started. Jenny Naruhn, Svetlana Hess, Tilla Dier and Lisa Kropp are the first four female “sport soldiers” in Rugby Sevens, as they became part of the Germany Army.
The support of the promotion section of the German Army is an important part in German sport in general. It gives male and female athletes from different sports the perfect base for high-performance development as well as in offering an occupational career. After a basic education of about six to eight weeks in the army base, the athletes get paid to prepare themselves for competition in their sports – next to a few military courses every year.
Mainly responsible for the positive development in Germany’s sevens women’s rugby was former national coach Susanne Wiedemann. She convinced the German Rugby Union, the German Olympic Sports Confederation and the German Army that the women sevens site is the team which deserves “sport soldier” positions. It’s an absolute privilege for every athlete in Germany to be part of the German army and to be a full time athlete - there are only a few spots provided for each sport in the country.
In 2012, for the first time, all sport soldiers have been based in the Olympic centre in Cologne, as they prepared for the qualifying road to the 2016 Olympics. Other national players were invited to move into the area of Cologne to attend to the daily rugby and fitness sessions. There was no team in the history of German rugby who trained in such professional conditions like the women’s sevens team. At the Olympic Centre in Cologne, which works together with the popular German Sport University Cologne the German team lacked for nothing: next to two professional S&C coaches they also had a nutritionist, doctors and performance tests were regularly held.
There were some changes among the contracted players but their number increased to eight in 2013 (Svetlana Hess, Lisa Kropp, Jenny Nahrun, Steffi Gruber, Laryssa Stone, Alysha Stone, Julia Peters, Vivian Bahlmann).
Despite the good conditions, the results in the European Championship tournaments deteriorated. A fourth place like in 2009 was never achieved again and after 2012 the team was not able to secure a place under the Top 8 in Europe. Project “Rio 2016” seemed to fail.
Before the start of the finale season to qualify to the Olympics 2016, Susanne Wiedemann quit her job as national coach. After seven years most of the players and Wiedemann didn’t believe they could have a fruitful collaboration.
New head coach of the women national team became the Australian Michael Hooke in cooperation with a new Under-18 coach, the South African Melvine Smith. But big changes couldn’t be made in one year.
In the first leg of the European Championship 2015 Germany ended up at the bottom of the table, in the second tournament they’ve reached the 10th place. Instead of fighting for a ticket to Rio, it was all about remaining in the Top 12. But Germany didn’t stand a chance, and this season they will be part of the “European Trophy” (Division A). With that relegation there were consequences: all the sport soldiers lost their contracts with the German army.
But the women’s rugby in Germany has new hope. The Under-18 coach Melvin Smith was lucky to work with a talented group of young girls, who used to train with Susanne Wiedemann for many years.
Wiedemann always knew the importance of developing the future rugby generation. She organized many U14, U16 and U18 training camps, tournaments and internationals against the Dutch development team. And last year, at the second European U18 sevens championship, these girls amazed the German rugby community. The only team they lost against was European champions England. Melvin Smith and team manager Marc Brüggen, led the team to a remarkable third place of the tournament.
And now? No sport soldiers – no Olympic games, shattered dream on the road to Rio. But there are more Olympic games to come. NOW it’s the perfect time to restart and to prepare women to be competitive in future competitions.