The key facts
World Rugby ranking: 85
Playing record (official Tests): P98 W33 L64 D1
Playing numbers: 1,427 (men), 335 (women), 300 (youth, est)
Rugby Europe division 2017/18:
Conference 2 South: Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia
Results in 2016/17 campaign:
Austria 29-22 Bosnia & Herzegovina
Turkey 0-25 Austria
Austria 13-0 Slovakia
Serbia 29-12 Austria
2016/17 league position: 2nd
Star players in South Africa and New Zealand; a super league with club sides from Slovenia, Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovakia; and fast-improving national teams in both men's and women's rugby – Austrian rugby is on the rise, says the union’s president Bernhard Zainzinger
Rugby isn’t as new to Austria as the official stats suggest. There were games played, albeit social ones, far enough back to pre-date the Second World War, and the first club – Vienna Celtic – was formed in 1978 by a group of locals together with some ex-pats.
While the Austrian rugby union started life in 1990, it wasn’t until 1992 that the national side played its first official Test, a 21-19 defeat to Slovenia, the first of an incredible 17 Tests they’ve played against their neighbours since. Victories weren’t easy to come by, it would take a further eight games over three and a half years to secure their first, a 21-8 win over Hungary.
They’ve won three of their last four games in Rugby Europe Conference 2 South, including an impressive 29-22 win over the eventual champions Bosnia & Herzegovina, a nation ranked 14 places above them.
Fast forward 20 or so years and Austria are a buoyant rugby nation. They’ve won three of their last four games in Rugby Europe Conference 2 South, including an impressive 29-22 win over the eventual champions Bosnia & Herzegovina, a nation ranked 14 places above them. “We had a big boom from 2000 onwards with the number of teams being formed and players coming into the game,” explains Bernhard Zainzinger, the union’s president. “Both the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups were televised and that helped a lot. Now, our national games are on television and even the Austria championship matches are streamed live on the internet too.”
Austria v Slovenia, Conference 2 South. Image (and main image): Thomas Lieser
Vienna was the original heartland of rugby and remains the strongest with another side from the city, Donau Wien, having been crowned champions virtually every year since the league system was formed in 1992. “Originally all the clubs were based around Vienna,” says Zainzinger, “but now rugby is right across Austria, with clubs all over in Graz, Innsbruck, Linz and Klagenfurt.
We did follow IRB rules but we had to make some alterations for ‘Austrian rules’ because we didn’t have proper pitches and we didn’t have proper posts either.
“It wasn’t that serious at the beginning, there were sides that only played sevens tournaments and it was very relaxed, but we put proper structures in place from 2009. Before that we did follow IRB (World Rugby) rules, but we had to make some alterations for ‘Austrian rules’ because we didn’t have proper pitches and we didn’t have proper posts either. We had to be a bit flexible at time.
“The first league had six teams, and now we have three divisions, which includes sides from Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Czech Republic.”
Austria v Slovenia, Conference 2 South. Image: Thomas Lieser
The top tier of Austria rugby features six sides, with Donau Wien leading the five-strong local contingent, and Slovenia team RAK Olimpija (from Ljubljana) completing the division. Beneath that a seven-strong championship comprises four Austrian clubs plus one from Slovenia (Maribor), Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia and Zagreb in Croatia. And then a development league sees Breclav of the Czech Republic and Piestany of Slovakia face off against two rivals from Austria.
Even with clubs competing from four different nations, the proximity means it makes complete sense. In fact, in some instances, local sides travel shorter distances to play in other countries than they do when they visiting fellow Austrian clubs.
Sevens has proven to be a great launchpad for the women’s game, but a step up into the 15-a-side game is next on the agenda.
That same system is applied to the sevens too – the Austrian woman play in a tournament-based league structure that includes six clubs from Austria (Donau Wien, Linz, Innsbruck, Graz, Melk and Krombats) plus one from Slovenia (Olimija).
Sevens has proven to be a great launchpad for the women’s game, but a step up into the 15-a-side game is next on the agenda. “In sevens, the women have been doing very well,” says Zainzinger, “They beat Georgia in the semifinals of the Women’s Sevens Conference, and just lost to Norway in the final earlier this year. The plan is now to get them playing 15s, we have a new vice president whose sole aim is to make that happen in the near future.”
When it comes to star players, few were bigger than Max Navas, a No 10 who made 35 successful kicks from 43 attempts across his 34-caps and has now signed for Utiki, a side based in New Zealand’s North Island. His namesake Max Freydell, also a No 10, is currently in the Sharks Academy in Durban.
Both players may be lost to the national side for the moment, but it’s not about individuals for Austria. “We’re very much about the team,” says Zainzinger, “we could mention players who stand out, but we feel it’s more about the team as a whole. We’re very proud that we currently have such a tight-knit group of players and they’re coming from a wide-range of Austrian clubs too. A few years ago the national side would all come from one or two sides, now it’s truly widespread.
“I’m especially proud that they’re all real Austrian players too, it’s not British or Australian ex-pats.”
Under Australian coach Steve Doyle – who includes sides from Canada, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand on his coaching CV – both Austria and Donau Wien have thrived. It’s a trend you’d expect them to continue, given they finished just a point behind the winners Bosnia & Herzegovina last year.
We’d rather get promoted and stay up and not just get thrashed and keep going up and down between the two divisions.
Such form would suggest they’re favourites this time around, but Zainzinger insists stability is more important than promotion. “It’s about ensuring we have a solid foundation so that we have more clubs playing and more players competing for the national side,” he says. “The level is raising, but we need to have a pool of 40 players fighting for places in the national side, whereas now it’s closer to 20. We’d rather get promoted when we can stay and not just get thrashed and keep going up and down between the two divisions.”
Within five years, Austria aim to have doubled their playing numbers and be nicely settled in Conference One. They have big plans and they’re not afraid to ask for help either. “You can ask stupid questions when you meet the other unions," says Zainzinger, 'whether it’s Switzerland, Germany, Denmark or England, people are willing to help. Switzerland in particular we talk to a lot, asking them how they did this or how they do that, they’re willing to share their expertise and they also have the same rival sports as us – skiing and football!”
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