Just 240 minutes stand between Germany and a place at their first ever Rugby World Cup. Yet, as the squad gathered a fortnight ago to begin preparations for November’s Repechage tournament it still felt to many like an improbable dream.
For the past two weeks the 20 or so national team players who ply their trade in the country’s Bundesliga have been meeting in Heidelberg at 8am, some travelling as much as two hours to be there, training until 1pm and then departing for day jobs and evening work with their clubs.
Overseeing the sessions is Mike Ford, the former Bath and Toulon boss who has been brought in with the help of World Rugby to try to navigate a route to Japan alongside director of rugby Kobus Potgieter.
Their task is not an easy one. Ford has been unable to work with a full squad since starting work as head coach on September 3, the number of German players overseas having swelled since the WILD Academy was disbanded this summer.
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Lineout work and set-piece strategy will have to wait until next month, when those foreign-based players will arrive for two week-long training camps. It is not ideal, especially when you consider Canada – who Germany face on November 17 – have been together since early July.
But, according to Ford, it is not a hopeless situation. The carrot at the end of the stick, a place in Pool B alongside New Zealand and South Africa, has fostered a drive within the squad that has energised their esteemed coach.
“You’re humbled by their commitment,” Ford tells RugbyPass. “They do it because they dream of playing in a World Cup.
“What it means to these guys to go to Japan and just be on the same pitch as the All Blacks or South Africa, it will be a dream come true for these guys.
“You have one career, don’t you, and they’ll be the first players that take Germany to the World Cup. For themselves, they can tell their grandkids that they played at the World Cup in 2019.”
It has been quite a journey for the majority of Ford’s squad already. Some had to cope with the abrupt end of their lives as full-time professionals when Dr Hans-Peter Wild withdrew funding from his eponymous academy in June, others whose international careers were only ignited due to last season’s strike that resulted from the Heidelberg-born businessman’s stand-off with the German Rugby Federation (DRV).
In the meantime a potential route to Japan opened up as Romania and Spain fell foul of eligibility rules and a play-off win over Portugal set up a two-legged clash with Samoa. A heavy defeat in Apia effectively ended any hopes of direct qualification but the Pacific Islanders were given a scare in the return leg, fortunate to end the match 42-28 victors.
“You want to give these guys the best possible chance to have a crack to get to the World Cup,” Ford adds. “When you’re working with players who are that committed and that driven to do something, and yet it’s not all there for you, it’s not on a platter for them, it makes you want to be part of it.
“I want to grow that and encourage that motivation from within the squad. I think we might not be the best team or we might not be the highest ranked, but I want us to be the team with the most desire to get there.
“And that could go a long way.”
Preparation could prove pivotal in Marseille. Canada, for example, who spent August in France and played friendlies against Castres and Clermont-Auvergne, are planning to use the Americas Pacific Challenge as a final warm-up.
Kenya, meanwhile, have organised four warm-up matches, with opposition including Namibia and culminating against Romania a week before the Repechage. Hong Kong too will have had four months to prepare by the time the action in Marseille kicks off.
By contrast Germany’s plans were only signed-off by the DRV in mid-August. Potgieter spent much of last week on the phone as he secured two friendlies in October, both against club sides.
The director of rugby, who has worked with the national team for the past decade, is also in contact with four German-qualified players – one with Super Rugby and Gallagher Premiership experience – as he attempts to bolster a squad hampered by retirements and injuries.
Working in this environment has reminded Ford that there is a world away from the bubble of professional rugby where people get involved “because of the love of the game, and it’s not about the money”.
“One or two players have stood up already and said things which are quite humbling, that these guys, who do what they do, have this dream,” he says. “I just want to help them as much as I can. I want to do my bit so that they have the best possible chance of achieving that.
“There’s a togetherness in the group of players I’ve coached. There’s a togetherness and for those guys the task is the Rugby World Cup.”
Whether Ford stays in Heidelberg beyond November is dependent entirely on qualification for the World Cup.
He gets on well with DRV president Robin Stalker and while talks about extending his contract in the event of winning the Repechage have not taken place, he is confident he would be able to combine his role on a part-time or consultancy basis with his commitments at the Dallas Griffins.
But while he attempts to fire his players’ World Cup dreams, he insists he is not driven by a desire to be a head coach on the Test game’s biggest stage. The glory would be reserved for the players, and for Potgieter and the coaching staff: Mouritz Botha, Paul Healy and Pieter Jordaan.
“It’s not about me being head coach leading a team to the World Cup, I wouldn’t see it like that at all,” Ford explains. “I would just see it as me coming in and helping that group of coaches and that group of players achieve what they’ve put a lot of time and effort in for.
“If we did manage to pull off the dream for this group of people then I would sit down and talk about going to the World Cup together.”
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