A copy of The Rugby Journal came through my letterbox this week. It is always a treat. In a world where sports journalism can feel like a frenetic scroll through clickbait and listicles, the magazine prides itself as the “home of big rugby reads,” providing a platform for thoughtful in-depth articles illustrated with beautiful photography.
From grassroots to the elite game, The Rugby Journal focuses on the strength of the human story and its cultural context. It has also treated women’s rugby with equal respect long before the rest of the oval ball media caught up – a striking portrait of Jaz Joyce graces the cover of the current edition.
And for me there was an even more compelling reason to read this particular edition – it contains a tale of European rugby that is very close to home. This is the headline: “Stories of resistance attacks against the Nazis, Soviet show trials and the hell of wartime Poland filled their heads. They didn’t need to understand every word spoken by their Welsh coach. This was the team talk to end all team talks. Germany never stood a chance. ”
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That Welsh coach is my nephew Christian Hitt. And the feature, written by rugby commentator and journalist Jack Zorab, tells the remarkable story of how Chris and his backroom staff of former Scarlets and Wales full-back Morgan Stoddart and Cross Keys coach Gwesyn Price-Jones, have propelled Poland into world rugby’s second tier at the end of their first season in charge.
Entry was secured last weekend with the bonus point win they needed against Lithuania to gain promotion to the Rugby Europe Championship – the tournament below the Six Nations where the likes of the World Cup-qualifying Georgia and Spain reside.
But the pivotal match in Poland’s campaign came in November against their fiercest rival Germany – a 21-16 victory that saw an intense second half fightback from the home team. My two brothers were there to see it in Gdynia while the rest of the family streamed it live back home.
We took a huge pride in Chris’s achievement. He has lived and breathed rugby since donning his first Pontypridd kit as a five-year-old. His route to international coaching has been self-made – he has not benefited from the fast-tracking an ex-international can enjoy.
Coaching has been his dream since they began work as a WRU development officer straight from university. After stints with Wales Sevens, Samurai Rugby and Germany, they looked to Europe more permanently, realizing his destiny was in his own hands.
As he explained in a recent interview: “The opportunities I was looking for weren’t available in Wales, so I created my own path. I’ve built my own reputation because I’m not an ex-professional or former international. My background is that I’ve worked with everyone from three-year-old kids to senior internationals. I’ve always known if I want to be a coach, I’d have to do it better than other people because I haven’t got that player background to fall back on. ”
If Chris’s own journey to Polish rugby is a source of pride to his Welsh family, the way he has encouraged his players to think about their own family roots has enriched team culture off the field and inspired their performance on it.
Chris viewed it as a powerful method to build the bond between his Polish-born players and those who qualify through their ancestry, by underlining the history they share.
The Rugby Journal feature describes how the squad were taken on a visit to the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk in the build-up to their crucial match against Germany.
Jack Zorab writes: “The timing of the visit, not only on the eve of the country’s most important rugby fixture, but also in the same week that Poland celebrates its independence, would seem to be out of coincidence. ‘It was heavy, it was hard-hitting and you realized a bit more about the sort of things that went on and what Polish people went through,’ explains Polish lock forward Ed Krawiecki.
“Ed lives in the West Midlands but his great grandfather, Aleksander Krawiecki, was a Polish war hero who was awarded the highest Polish military honor, the Virtuti Militari, for his role in World War I. He signed up to fight again in World War. II only to be captured and sent to a Soviet show trial in St. Petersburg, after the Russians recognized who he was. He and his family were sent to a Siberian labor camp until being released when Russia and Poland became allies.
His other great grandfather, Boleslaw Kozubowski, was a key figure in the Polish resistance movement and was involved in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 – the single largest military operation undertaken by any resistance movement during the war – before being thrown into the notorious Pawiak Prison , and also sent to a Nazi concentration camp.
“’With one great grandfather who was fighting the Russians,’ continues Ed, ‘and the other who was in the middle of the Warsaw Uprising, the museum connected me to my family’s story. It was definitely emotional. ‘
“Afterwards, Ed – a Bromsgrove RFC player – gave a speech to his Polish team-mates about his great grandfathers’ lives and what it means to him to be playing for Poland. It’s a speech everyone we speak to the Polish camp seems to reference, as a high point of connection in a highly charged week for the squad. ”
His words touched and galvanized his fellow players. They channeled that intensity of feeling into their performance. Ed described how it sustained them even when they were 13-3 down at half time. “We were hanging on a bit and they were definitely the dominant team. It would have been easy to let them score the next try and let them run away with it. But there was definitely an emotion of not wanting to give them the chance and getting stuck in and we just kept on battling, and we did it. ”
The only emotion at the final whistle was sheer joy – celebrations replicated at the other end of the streaming link in the Rhondda too. It was the breakthrough moment in what has proved to be a breakthrough year.
In Jack Zorab’s words: “The 2021/22 season may one day be looked back on as the start of the boom years for rugby in Poland. No period in the country’s rugby past comes close to resembling how rosy things are looking at the moment. ”
It’s a positivity that has captured the public imagination in Poland. The media has taken an unprecedented interest, the matches have arrived on free to air television and there’s been an impact on grassroots development with the Polish rugby union aiming to double participation across every level of men’s, women’s and age-grade rugby.
It’s a Polish success story with a Welsh accent. Chris and his Welsh wingmen have instilled discipline, professionalism and tactical rise into Polish rugby, but they have tapped into hearts as well as heads.
Chris inspired his players to think about their shared history – and now they are creating their own.
The Rugby Journal is available for subscription at www.therugbyjournal.com