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Yesterday, I stayed in to watch the Rugby World Cup Final, in which England took on South Africa, the latter being the runaway winners. It would have been unheard of in years gone by that I would not watch in a bar, especially given the fact that the smoking ban in gastronomy has now entered into force in Austria, but with a young family having kept my powder dry, I could have had a pass-out. Instead I watched at home, with my eldest son, who changed allegiance from “greens” (South Africa) to “red” (the refereeing team), while I supported the country of my birth, and until 2018, part of the country I held citizenship of.
Staying home did have benefits. Not only avoiding the “walk of shame” past jubilant Springbok fans, but it also meant that I was able to get down to watch an Austrian rugby international – against Norway – a brief hop down the S45 in Hernals at the stadium of Wiener Sportklub. I’ve fallen in love with the amateur nature of the rugby in Austria, having myself last scored a try back in the era of the four point try, since my playing days were ended in 1991 around the time of the second Rugby World Cup being held in England. My own rugby playing was curtailed by a knee injury that ended up costing me nearly two years off exercise at school, two operations on each knee, and a year with titanium staples in my leg bones to correct the knock-knee that I had developed due to the injury.
At that time, Rugby Union was about to turn professional, and this was to make a massive difference to the sport. I remember bunking off double maths after a doctor’s appointment to see Jeremy Guscott at the British Gas showroom in Taunton, remember the old Five Nations where the England team was full of policemen and punches were known to fly. Had I had my knee surgery a few years earlier, I might have had an England full back as my anaesthetist, and some of my teachers played in the higher echelons (e.g. a County Championship final at Twickenham or top flight rugby). Two other teachers had received full caps for England – and the school even had an RFU office, and I remember the Soviet Union (or at least their rugby team) using my school as a training venue in the late 80s and again before their appearance in the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
When I arrived in Austria in 1997 on my year abroad, I adopted GAK Graz as my football team to follow for the year, having realised that Sparkasse Stockerau – once paired against Tottenham Hotspur in the Cup Winners’ Cup – were not in Austria’s top flight. After a dalliance with Austria Vienna (due to living closer to Favoriten than Hütteldorf) in the noughties, I decided to back my local heritage team, First Vienna FC, and used to attend their games semi-frequently in the third flight. During that time, I also started going to the Derby der Liebe with colleagues, and became acquainted with Sportklub, a couple of stops down the S45. Indeed both sleeping giants (FVFC and WSC) have hosted Austrian rugby home international matches in recent years, and I have started to attend them regularly.
I know a few Austrian rugby players from being here nearly two decades, and a former Vienna CC (cricket) team mate was running the line yesterday. I enjoy the fact that a home international sees a full-ish main stand at Sportklub, with beers and sausages for sale, no fixed seating and there is more of an atmosphere in this still very much amateur sport. There is a refreshing rawness from the wooden bench seats, the sight of the rugby posts being removed within minutes of the final whistle being blown, and the crackly and tinny rendition of the national anthems over the tannoy/PA system. I usually catch up with a few friends and acquaintances to have a chat and a beer, and the social nature of the occasion is what really makes it appeal to me.
The Sportklub ground also sports an elementary TV camera gantry, if the game is being broadcast live, otherwise there are a few cameramen alongside the pitch. It is refreshing that it is not the sanitised highly polished professional game, where the players seem to have grown in stature, physique and commanding eye-watering salaries as professionals that only a generation ago would have been unthinkable. The good thing is that now there is starting to be more coverage of rugby in the Austrian press – due to its Olympic status – and also the game is being played from a younger age. As an Austrian friend remarked, who himself played cricket as a native Austrian, “for the sport to really have made a mark, you need the pathway for Franz, in Stiege 4 of the Gemeindebau to be able to become a national team player” – so that the game is not just the reserve of a representative XV but that the “Corinthian spirit” is also upheld.
In the summer I attended a Sportklub vs (Glasgow) Celtic friendly match. In the UK there would be no need for parentheses around the city of origin of Celtic, but in Austrian newspaper reporting there is. I saw travelling fans get stuck into their own team during a pre-season friendly and abuse them with every insult under the sun. This was not the done thing at Sportklub. I dutifully rattled my keys at corners, enjoyed the sunny afternoon and a good chat with friends, the game unfolding in front of us, being almost secondary in importance. That is the ethos of WSC or FVFC, and this is possibly why national team rugby feels right being played at these kind of stadia. For me it is also a matter of principle – I would like to see the sport flourish in Austria, and if my contribution can just be to drum up a few paying supporters to home games, and hopefully in the future my children, then surely that is a good thing.
As I boarded the train to go to the match yesterday, I realised that I was on a train that many Rapid fans were on – as they made their pilgrimage to the Allianz Stadion in Hütteldorf at the end of the S45. Even before boarding there were Rapid Ultras stickers and any Austria Vienna slogans in sight at the various stations down the S45. All sorts of green and white merchandise was being worn, although the phenomenon of FKWs has fortunately not made it to Austria. I saw the withering looks as I got out at Hernals from some of the green and white brigade, who would probably not have realised that the team shirt I was at the game in was a Japan away rugby shirt. That made reading that Rapid had lost to St. Pölten even more satisfying when I got the train back (I’ll no doubt get a blow-by-blow account from the excellent The Other Bundesliga podcast). I was glad I made my choice to attend the rugby at Sportklub, rather than the game in Hütteldorf.