New Czech tome explores rugby. Or should that be “ragby”?

James Stafford

A new Czech-language book maps multiple aspects of the sport of rugby, which has greatly gained in popularity in this country in recent years. Prague-resident Welsh writer and ex-player James Stafford is one of people behind the hefty tome, simply entitled Ragby, and I asked him when the sport had first appeared in the Czech lands.

“Apparently somebody at the Czech Yacht Club brought a ball in the 1890s and tried to start it, but it wasn’t very successful.

Ondřej Sekora and Ferda the Ant | Photo: Moravské zemské muzeum

“But the fascinating way it came here – which a lot of Czechs don’t realise – is through the famous author, illustrator and polymath Ondřej Sekora [creator of the popular cartoon character Ferda the Ant].

“He was a sports journalist and he spent time in France, working as a sports journalist, and fell in love with rugby. He brought a rugby ball back and translated the rules – and picked a few Czech phrases that have caused problems for modern Czech rugby people.

“But Sekora translated the rules and terminology and organised and refereed the first game here in 1926, between Slavia and Sparta, so he was like the father of Czech rugby.

“He made some interesting translation choices, like his use of the word ‘rojníky’ for forwards, which is like ‘swarmers’. And he called the backs ‘útočníky’ [attackers], which is a bit of a counterintuitive thing, compared to other sports.

“He also called the try ‘trojka’ [three], and now it’s ‘pětka’, because it’s five.”

Referring to the number of points [for a try].

Ondřej Sekora - Rugby how to play and its rules | Photo: eSbírky,  National Museum in Prague,  CC BY 1.0 DEED

“Yes, the number of points for a certain score [which has changed over the years]. Which has caused us problems with this book, because depending on what history you’re writing about, the values change.

“So a couple of Czech people have said to me that his translations have caused a few problems. But was the guy who brought rugby here.

“It’s still a minority sport, but until recent years it was very much a minority sport.”

I presume rugby flowered after 1989?

“Yes, but not immediately. Until ’89, although it was a minority sport, because of the Communist system you had a level of state support. There weren’t that many clubs, but they would have had their stadiums paid for and maintained by the municipality.

Rugby ball | Illustrative photo: hirobi,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“A lot of players were keen to play because they got to travel abroad a little bit, because there was some international rugby. And an army team, like Dukla Pardubice, was a very strong team.

“Obviously after communism fell most of the pillars of state support fell away. So the first 10 years it was very difficult. The clubs that survived had to fund their own stadiums, etcetera.

“But in the early 2000s a lot of players went abroad and played, especially in France and Britain. Then they had a couple of players, like Martin Kafka and Jan Macháček, who came back and helped strengthen the national team, and helped found clubs.

“So there’s been growth since the early 2000s, and there’s been particular growth in the last 10 years in the women’s and children’s game – it’s really thriving at that level.”

And you yourself are a trainer, of kids is it?

“Yes, I just started. I coached in Nýrsko for a bit, in Šumava, but a few months ago I started at Ragby Olymp in Prague 6, which was founded by Jan Macháček – one of the famous players.

Photo: Radio Prague International

“It’s an academy, originally formed for teenagers, but it has a seniors team. And they’ve got a great philosophy, which is one thing I think parents here find attractive: the way they teach respect, discipline, fun, enjoyment. They have a very scientific approach in terms of how to train sport. There’s a great mentality at the club.

“So I’ve just started there and it’s really enjoyable. And it’s great to see how many girls especially are playing.”

I guess there are two aspects to a sport like rugby. There’s the number of players, but also the interest in watching rugby. And I got the sense during the recent Rugby World Cup that there was a great deal of interest among Czechs – at least among Czechs I know.

“Yes. When I first came here as a student, 20-odd years ago, nobody knew the difference between American football and rugby. Quite literally – the average person.

“In the last 10 years or so the Six Nations, the premiere European international tournament, is on Czech TV. There’s English rugby on Czech TV, and the World Cup’s been on Czech TV for several cycles now.

“Amazingly the amount of Czech people now who talk to me about rugby and enjoy watching it, even if they don’t understand the intricacies of it, is huge.

“I would say in the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of interest. And this summer, for the World Cup, they had huge outdoor parks in Prague showing it, and posters around town.

“So yes, there’s been a huge explosion in watching the game.”

Ragby - the book by James Stafford,  Petra Nováková and other authors | Photo: Labyrint

Your book is simply called Ragby. Why is it ragby, with an “a”, not rugby with a “u”?

“The million dollar question. We tried to find out but we’re not quite sure. You’ll find in Czech, on TV, they constantly use both.

“One of theories is… for those who don’t know, Rugby is a town in England where rugby effectively originated from. And there’s a theory that in the ‘50s the Communists saw it as a bit of a foreign sport and didn’t like aspects of it and wanted to ‘Czechify’ it, if that makes sense.

“So that’s the theory. We can’t quite prove it, but we think that might be why.”