German rugby strike: dispute over egg

Germany’s rugby team loses to Chile. No wonder. Because the federation is at odds with its patron, all the regular players had pulled out.

Captains Michael Poppmeier (left) and Sean Armstrong at a press conference on November 7 Photo: imago/Elbner

When Rafael Pyrasch received the invitation to the international match of the 15s selection of the German Rugby Federation (DRV) against Chile by phone last week, he was already surprised, the 31-year-old veteran told after the 10:32 defeat against the South Americans on Saturday in Offenbach. Pyrasch’s last nomination was a long time ago, in the summer he led SG Odin/Dohren into the First Bundesliga as player-coach. On Saturday, however, the scrum-half once again acted as captain of the German 15. He was happy about the glimpse of an outcome, Pyrasch said: "But it’s an honor to wear the German jersey."

This had to be emphasized on this memorable day for German rugby at the Bieberer Berg in Offenbach. The 15s rugby experienced an upswing in recent years, the big goal, the first participation in a World Cup, seemed no longer utopia. But since last week everything is completely different again.

Against Chile, the 15 of the DRV competed with an emergency selection, consisting of the current squad of the 7s national team and some Bundesliga players, trained by the coaches of the 7s national team. The country’s best players, who had still played in the previous November tests against Brazil and the USA, boycotted the match in Offenbach.

After last Saturday’s match in Wiesbaden against the USA, captains Michael Poppmeier and Sean Armstrong had expressed their dissatisfaction with the federation’s management and then announced the strike during the week, which they eventually went through with. "A unique occurrence in the history of German rugby," DRV President Klaus Blank laments this scandal.

Unresolved marketing rights

The background to the bizarre development is a dispute between the DRV and the Wild Rugby Academy (WRA) and the Gesellschaft zur Forderung des Deutschen Rugby Sports (GFR) of Heidelberg entrepreneur and patron Hans-Peter Wild (Capri-Sun), which has been smoldering for about a year and a half and has now escalated. All of the 22 national players on the roster, as well as the six coaches of the DRV’s 15-man squad, are employed by the WRA. On Saturday, not a single one of them was on the pitch.

Wild is the biggest promoter of rugby in the country, with at least 10 million euros invested by the 76-year-old billionaire in the WRA in Heidelberg. However, the entrepreneur did not extend a cooperation agreement with the DRV in the summer, but for the three games this November the secondment of the players and the coaching team seemed to be settled. But last week, the Wild side also terminated this agreement. At issue are marketing rights.

The federation has become fatally dependent on a promoter

Wild’s sponsoring company, GFR, was formed with the intention of marketing the 15-man national team. But the federation wants to do this itself through its (so far not very successful) Marketing GmbH. A renewed cooperation with the DRV fell through in the summer, partly because the association returned a signed contract after the agreed deadline.

Funding from the federal government only flows into the 7s variant of the sport because it is Olympic. Wild, however, wanted the federation to focus fully on 15s funding. The Francophile rugby patron owns the Top 14 club Stade Fran├žais in Paris. German rugby legend Robert Mohr acts as sporting director in Paris and also as sporting director of the WRA in Heidelberg. He had stated last Tuesday "that the players feel left alone because the board has alienated the main sponsor Hans-Peter Wild." There was talk of unprofessional structures in equipment and support for the 15-man national team. The strike scandal made headlines around the world.

Perplexity at the association

On Saturday in Offenbach, DRV President Blank and Managing Director Volker Himmer expressed their views. The latter called the strike an "economic frontal attack" on the DRV. How any sponsors will react to this development remains to be seen. DRV President Blank announced tough sanctions against "some, but not all, of the striking players." Suspensions are apparently also being demanded by the international federations. According to Blank, the DRV had "seen the yellow card" from them because of the influence of a single sponsor on the national team.

In fact, the Wild side has recently tried to influence the association’s affairs, for example in the search for sponsors. The impression is certainly not wrong that the Wild side wanted to force a change in the association’s leadership with the boycott. There is a sense of perplexity about how to proceed. DRV President Blank still wants to keep open the possibility of an agreement with Wild, but perhaps the "point of no return" (Managing Director Himmer) has already been reached.

The DRV is in a dilemma into which it has maneuvered itself by its dependence on Wild. The goal of participating in the World Cup, declared by both sides, now seems as utopian as a world championship title in soccer for the Lithuanian team.

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