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Challenger Series host city Munich has a forgotten rugby past

By Ian Cameron
Players of Germany celebrate after the 5th place match between Argentina and Germany on Day 2 of the Rugby Oktoberfest 7s tournament at Olympiastadion on September 30, 2017 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Munich is set to host World Rugby’s Challenger Series this weekend, the gatekeeper competition to the HSBC SVNS circuit. The top four-placed men’s Sevens teams in Munich will secure their spots in the promotion and relegation play-off competition at the SVNS Grand Final in Madrid.

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While the city is best known for its exploits in football and athletics, rugby union has established more than a foothold in the sprawling south German municipality.

In fact, elite Sevens visited the city as recently as 2017, when the Octoberfest 7s saw the shortened code’s best sides compete at the world-famous Olympiastadion, with Australia Sevens winning the trophy.

FC Bayern Munich is of course the city’s most famous sporting export. The club has dominated German football for decades. Established in 1900, Bayern Munich has won numerous national titles and international trophies.

Yet most are unaware that Bayern Munich once had its own thriving rugby team. Moreover, many football clubs in imperial Germany played rugby football prior to and after the turn of the 20th century alongside the round ball sport.

Indeed the DFB  (the German FA which was founded in 1900) was originally an association for both football and rugby, and the rugby division was to become the first subdivision of FC Bayern.

According to FC Bayern Munich’s website, in 1922 a group of rugby fans in the city sought to establish the sport locally. Despite challenges, Bayern promoted rugby under department head Emil Friz. Training began and after nearly a year the team was ready to face foreign opponents. The sport gradually gained traction in Germany, largely thanks to Bayern’s efforts.

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Other Munich clubs like FC Wacker, DSV and the gymnastics association all followed Bayern’s lead and formed rugby teams.

In 1927 they united as the “Local Group of Munich Rugby Clubs.” Bayern’s rugby matches were held at Dante-Stadion – where the Challenger Series will be held this weekend.

Success extended beyond Munich as the team became Bavarian rugby champions in 1927 and 1928. Their greatest triumph came when they defeated the German champions, Heidelberg Rowing Club, 3-0 in a friendly match. Bayern also secured victories abroad against teams in Vienna and Zurich.

Sadly, political events led to the disbanding of other rugby teams by 1933 and Bayern’s own rugby club ceased operations in 1936 due to a lack of young players.

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Rugby union would lie dormant for the guts of 50 years until the establishment of Munich’s main contemporary rugby club – Munich RFC –  in 1977.

The club’s inaugural game on 10 June 1978 was the first proper rugby match in the city since the sport was effectively disbanded some 45 years previously.

When US soldiers in Augsburg formed a team in 1974 it would be the first post-war rugby club in Bavaria. MRFC was founded by (mostly Welsh) British expatriates; the first civilian club in the state having rather romantically been formed in a pub in the Isarvorstadt.

The club’s first game was against the Bad Tölz US Army. A year later, MRFC played its first German opponent, RC Rottweil, on 30 June 1979. In 1985 – a second non-military team was established in Bavaria – the rugby department of TuS Fürstenfeldbruck.

MRFC was officially registered in 1982 and became incorporated in 1983. Without a regular home ground in Munich, the club played matches in Fürstenfeldbruck. Bavaria lacked a league or rugby federation, so MRFC joined the Regionalliga in Baden-Württemberg in 1984.

In 1990 coach Rory Donoghue joined and led the team to a South German Championship win the following year. The side finally got a home ground in Munich and was promoted to the 2nd Bundesliga South in 1992. Although relegated after one season, the club won promotion again in 1995 and became a founding member of the Bavarian Rugby Federation in 1996.

In 1998, MRFC earned promotion to the Rugby-Bundesliga but was denied a licence and stayed in the second division. Then in 2000 they reached the top tier of German rugby again, but a league restructuring meant relegation back to the 2nd Bundesliga. The club won the 2nd Bundesliga championship in 2002, earning promotion yet again – only to be relegated in their first season back.

Since then, MRFC has played in the 2nd Bundesliga South/East as a mid-table side, with local rival StuSta München joining in 2004. The club had a strong 2012-13 season, advancing to the DRV-Pokal semi-finals. In 2015-16, MRFC won both the 2nd Bundesliga South and the Bavarian Regionalliga but lost the play-off final to Luxembourg Rugby Club.

In 2017, MRFC moved to a new training pitch in Großhadern and celebrated its 40th anniversary. Since 2002, the club has also had a women’s team, with Yvonne Schwarzkopf as its first German international.

Of course, rugby is a relatively small if healthy part of the Bavarian city’s rich sporting history.

The city is renowned for hosting the 1972 Summer Olympics. This event – remembered for both its athletic achievements and the tragic terrorist attack – left a lasting mark on the city. The games introduced world-class sports facilities – including the Olympic Stadium – which has since become an iconic landmark in the city.

Munich is also known for its contributions to winter sports. The city’s proximity to the Bavarian Alps makes it a hub for skiing and snowboarding. The nearby town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen hosted the Winter Olympics in 1936 and remains popular with winter sports enthusiasts.

Basketball has a presence in Munich through FC Bayern Munich Basketball, a division of the larger football club. The team has enjoyed success in the Basketball Bundesliga and competes in European competitions.

Ice hockey is another popular sport in Munich. EHC Red Bull München, the city’s professional ice hockey team, competes in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). The team has won multiple DEL championships and enjoys strong local support.

Munich’s sporting facilities are state-of-the-art. The Olympiapark, constructed for the 1972 Olympics, continues to host various sporting events and concerts. The city has previously welcomed numerous World Cup matches, European Championship games and major athletics tournaments.

Now it’s time for elite men’s rugby to grace the city once again.

“We have seen a really impressive level of rugby sevens in the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 and as we reach the business end of the competition there is more at stake than ever before with the potential for four men’s and four women’s teams to reach the pinnacle HSBC SVNS in 2025 via the new promotion – relegation play off event at the Grand Final in Madrid on 31 May – 2 June,” said World Rugby Chief Competitions and Performance Officer Nigel Cass.

“With the Olympic Games on the horizon, 2024 is a huge year for rugby sevens, and given the launch of the new HSBC SVNS and the increased number of tournaments and competitiveness in the Sevens Challenger, there has never been a more exciting time for the global growth of the game. I wish the best of luck to all the competing teams in Munich and Krakow in what promises to be a thrilling pair of events.”

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