Rugby in the raw in the land of Kafka and absynthe

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It’s a reasonable bet that Prague’s favourite son, Franz Kafka, never saw a rugby game in his life. Yet next year the Czech Rugby Union (CSRU) will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Indeed Martin Kafka – the grandson of one of Kafka’s nephews – is fly-half for the Czech national side and plays for La Moraleja Alcobendas of Madrid; a clear sign of rugby’s metamorphosis into a global game.

“The lack of money in the Czech game is why our best players are leaving to play in other countries”

B046ut that development is not without growing pains as junior nations strive to build the infrastructure needed to support the game. Take the Czechs, who have stepped-up to replace Holland in FIRA-AER Division One and will host Romania in their opening fixture on February 15th. They struggle to survive on an annual budget smaller than David Beckam’s monthly salary.

Bruno Kudrna is President of the CSRU and Vice-Chairman of reigning champions, TJ Praha. Their compact ground lies at the end of a narrow potholed lane amongst the urban allotments and disused railway sidings of Prague 9. In the clubhouse Kudrna chatted enthusiastically about the state of Czech rugby whilst on the pitch RC Tatra steamrollered TJ Praha in a reversal of their play-off final meeting.

Formerly a gutsy fly half or centre Kudrna is the most-capped Czech international with 59 caps between 1971 and 1987. He captained his county for ten years before taking over as coach for a further ten years.

Kudrna described how the seven metre deep floods that hit the Troja region of Prague on August 13th – devastating the city zoo with tragic consequences for many of the animals – also dealt a body blow to newly promoted Slavia Praha who’s ground was destroyed.

CSRU Vice President and patron of Slavia Praha, Milan Razny, said: “The clubhouse, the floodlights, everything we had worked to build-up was washed away. The club house roof literally floated off.”

“Three years ago we renovated changing rooms, six months ago we have renovated clubhouse, two months ago we have built new stands,” Razny explained. “Now all this has been destroyed by the wild stream of river water, mud and water pressure. The grass is decaying, fences were washed down the river and the remains of the buildings and all equipment are mouldy.”

A fighting fund was established to help Slavia – now ground-sharing with rivals TJ Praha – with the Czech national team planning a fund-raising game against Gloucester Colonials XV on November 24th; their first ever match in the UK.

That match is important for Czech national coach, Jiri Stastny, who is keen to select a full strength team as he prepares for the forthcoming FIRA-AER Division One season.

Since stepping-up to Division One the Czechs have appointed Michel Bernardin – Director of Sport with French Fédérale Division 1 outfit, Union Sportive Bressane – as advisor to Stastny. Ranked 33rd in the world a full strength Czech side defeated Holland 54-12 in May but playing without foreign-based players they went down 56-12 to a Provence XV in Prague on October 12th. The Czechs also face a French Army XV, a Languedoc XV and a training camp in Béziers ahead of their clash with 16th ranked Rumania.

Kudrna is realistic about prospects in a tough division saying: “Having got into Division One our aim is to stay there but this is a test season for us. We need to find out if we can maintain our standards at that level.

“We are more comfortable in Division Two where we can compete with Holland and Germany. But we will have to wait and see how we cope with the stronger teams in Division One. I think we can play against Spain, Russia and Portugal but it will not be easy to take on the likes of Rumania and Georgia.

“We will just have to wait and see. This is our first time in Division One for a long time. When I was a player we did it too but it was a different game then – an amateur one – now it is professional.”

Twelve of the Czech national team play their rugby outside of the Republic and whilst that has led to a higher standard of play it is not without problems, with TJ Praha seeing three of their best forwards leaving to play in France during the close season.

“The lack of money in the Czech game is why our best players are leaving to play in other countries,” Kudrna admits. “We have seen good players like Jan Macháček (Montferrand), Martin Jágr (Toulon), Pavel Štastný (Biarritz) and Kafka (Madrid) have to move away.

“That is good for the players but for us (CSRU) it is a problem because when we need them for international games we have to pay to fly these players back to train and to play.

“Also we don’t have the strength in depth to replace such good quality players. And here there is a problem with money again because the game is not played in schools so we have to fund all the development ourselves.”

But it’s tough to find the money to introduce youngsters to the game and that’s a worry for Kudrna.

090“Our budget for the whole year is just €200,000,” Kudrna explains. “That’s for 2,000 players at senior level, B level and under-15 to under-21 levels. With that we can only just run the national teams at the various age groups. There is nothing left to help the clubs.

“If you compare that to a country like Portugal you will see that they get €1,000,000 from the state alone.”

Half the annual CSRU budget comes from the government, a quarter from IRB grants and the remainder from commercial activities.

“It’s unlikely that we will get much more money from the government unless maybe we can show them that we are an Olympic sport,” Kudrna says. “But even then it will take years for that money to come through in terms of improved playing standards.”

But with the financial impact of the floods still to be fully assessed Kudrna is worried about next year’s state funding, saying: “It will be even worse next year, the money will be less I am sure. If it is then don’t know how we can survive afterwards in Division One.”

Adopting the entrepreneurial attitude prevailing since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 Kudrna is striving to attract top sponsors to support Czech rugby, explaining: “We are talking at the moment with a French commercial bank, Société Générale, who are big supporters of world rugby and we are hoping that they will also support Czech rugby with some financial help.

“They are one of the largest commercial banks in the Czech Republic and would become our biggest sponsor,” Kudrna adds. “Hopefully we can secure that deal in the next month or so and other sponsors may come along because of that.”

Securing such commercial partners is vital to the future of rugby – and not just in the Czech Republic.