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Poland tapping into French rugby's roots

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Article Published: Tuesday 24 November 2009

The Polish national team's recruitment drive in France taps right into the roots of rugby union in the country.

Poland's first club, named the White Eagles after the national emblem, was founded in Warsaw in 1921 by Frenchman Louis Amblard, rugby historian Jacek Wierzbicki told AFP.

Soldier and sportsman Amblard had come to Poland as a post-World War I military adviser to the new-born Polish army and stayed on.

"He only got a few volunteers, barely enough for one team, but he used his contacts in the military mission to get soldiers to come to training so they could form two sides," said Wierzbicki.

Polish exiles who had tried their hand at rugby in France were returning home around the same time, after carved-up Poland won independence from the defunct empires of Russia, Austria and Germany.

The two teams -- known as Blacks and Whites -- played Poland's first recorded match in 1922. Blacks won 6-3.

Poland's first club international came in 1924. The White Eagles were thrashed 42-0 in Bucharest by Romania's Probables.

Despite the creation of clubs in other cities, the sport failed to flourish. The first Polish Rugby Union was disbanded in 1928.

Rugby re-emerged after World War II under Poland's communist regime.

In the first official post-war match, held in 1956, Warsaw academic team AZS-AWF Warszawa beat Silesian miners' side Gornik Kochlowice 3-0. AZS-AWF won the new-born championship the following year.

The Polish Rugby Union was also revived in 1957.

Poland's international debut came in 1958, against East Germany.

They won 9-8.

Despite some modest successes in the ensuing decades, rugby remains a minority sport here.

International Rugby Board figures show there are 46 Polish clubs and 4,912 registered players, equivalent to one Pole in 7,736.

France boasts 1,683 clubs and 282,121 players, or one in 219 of the population. Rugby-worshipping New Zealand has 595 clubs and 139,968 players, around one Kiwi in 30.

IRB rules allow nations to draft non-citizens who meet any of three criteria: they were born in the country; at least one of their parents or grandparents was born there; or they have lived there for at least three years before the call-up.

To stop team-hopping, a player cannot switch allegiance after playing for another country's senior side.

The rule-policing has got stricter: in 2000, Welsh rugby was rocked by scandal when two New Zealand-born internationals were ruled ineligible because a grandparent hadn't been born in Wales as originally thought.

The pool of Polish internationals is potentially huge.

According to Warsaw organisation Wspolnota Polska there are around 17 million people outside Poland who have Polish citizenship or recent ancestry. The home population is 38 million.

The diaspora results from over a century of economic migration, a tortured history of invasion, and four decades of post-World War II communist rule.

There are some 1,050,000 in France.

The figures in other rugby-loving nations are also impressive: an estimated 500,000 in Britain and 250,000 in Ireland, most of whom came to work after Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

Argentina's Polish-origin community numbers 450,000, and Australia's, 200,000. There are 35,000 in South Africa and 6,000 in New Zealand.

"Right now we have quite a few people with Polish roots getting in touch with us, from England, Australia and South Africa, who're interested in joining the Polish team. But unfortunately, most of them aren't high-level players," said Grzegorz Borkowski of the Polish Rugby.

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