Veronika Muehlhofer did not introduce rugby union to Switzerland, but she has done more than most to ensure that the sport thrives in the European country.
Muehlhofer, who grew up in the Italian-speaking city of Lugano and therefore played football as a youngster, was introduced to an oval ball while attending university in the USA.
It was the start of a 20-year playing career and by the late-2000s, having begun her coaching journey while still in the States, she was volunteering her time to coach the Swiss northern region’s women’s 15s team.
Although Switzerland’s traditional rugby base is in the Francophone west, it was from the ex-pat communities around Zurich and Zug in the German-speaking north that the women’s game flourished.
Holding training camps and playing against regional sides from Germany, Muehlhofer’s side became a de facto Swiss women’s 15s national team in lieu of an official one.
Soon Muehlhofer was picking the best players from across the country and so decided to approach Suisse Rugby to ask about making things official. “We went to the Union and said ‘Look, why don’t you want to have a Swiss women’s 15s team?’” she recalled.
Embracing women's rugby
The reason was one of funding so Muehlhofer offered to continue coaching the team as a volunteer as did another former player, Christa Hermann, who came on board as team manager.
“So, it became the Swiss women’s 15s national team,” Muehlhofer added.
Despite the team’s new official status they continued to play against club and regional sides until Switzerland faced Belgium on 4 September, 2011 in Brussels, winning their first test 15-7.
“Since then the Union has fully taken on board the women’s programme and has put in place all the structures and coaching and everything,” Muehlhofer said, eager to point out that many others – staff, players, coaches and volunteers – have also contributed to the game's development and success in Switzerland.
Fast forward just over seven years, to 17 November, 2018, and Switzerland have just lost narrowly to Czechia in Yverdon in a double header with the men's side's Rugby Europe Trophy meeting against the same nation.
Muehlhofer is still involved with Suisse Rugby as CEO, and her work on Rugby Europe’s Age Grade, Competitions and Development Commission continues to help shape the game in the country and on the continent.
A starting point
Switzerland’s 10-5 home defeat to Czechia was the second match of the Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy 2018-19. The competition and the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship were brought in this season in order to align female 15s rugby with the men’s game, and provide regular and more even matches for teams beneath the Women’s Six Nations.
The shake-up was the brainchild of Muehlhofer, and in its inaugural campaign features four teams in the Championship and three in the second-tier Trophy.
“The goal is then that next year it will expand,” she said. “More teams can join the groups and it could go up to six teams like the men’s groups are.
“In women’s 15s rugby the problem in Europe has been for a while that below really the Six Nations, after that there’s been very little playing opportunities.
“Even Spain, who is at quite a good level, I’d say up there with some of the Six Nations, hasn’t had much opportunity to play.”
In order to take part in the competitions, teams must fulfil minimum requirements, which means unions will have to do “homework at home by creating a domestic competition,” according to Muehlhofer.
Switzerland’s own domestic women’s 15s structure has expanded to 12 teams across two leagues and it is hoped that countries around Europe build a stable player base from which they can pick a national team rather than starting with the latter.
Bridging the gap
“In some countries it was kind of the cart before the horse where they would select the 23 players they could find and that would be their national team,” she said.
“All they would do is play in European championships, which obviously isn’t the right way to go.”
Currently there are around 6,000 registered players in Switzerland. Of that number, 450 are women. That represents more than a 100 per cent rise in recent years, but Muehlhofer admits there is still much work to be done.
Hermann is now the Suisse Rugby’s Development Manager and as well as expanding the league has been able to get rugby into local schools, exposing “several thousand” children aged six to 10 to the sport, according to Muehlhofer.
This is a considerable step for the Union, but one that has been taken with known risks. Girls are able to play on boys’ teams until the age of 14 in Switzerland, but there is no immediate next move until senior women’s rugby kicks in at 18.
“Switzerland is a very sporty nation and they really have so much on offer, and they love their skiing and their hiking and their biking, and there are so many other sports they can easily go do if really rugby doesn’t offer them a good interesting two years to bridge until there’s senior rugby,” Muehlhofer said.
“Obviously that’s where we lose them quite easily.
A solid base
“So, the other big step in that is to help to support the clubs in providing these structures of where can the kids actually go if they want to keep playing rugby that they learn in school.
“So, that’s a big push that we’re doing now in club development, and obviously at that age we’re looking at girls and boys, and then over the last couple of years we really developed the under-16 and under-18 category competitions for boys because that’s where we had more.
“Now the boys’ structure is in place and now it’s obviously a big priority to translate a similar structure on the girls side.”
As she looks to the future, Muehlhofer, a World Rugby Council member, hopes to build “a solid pyramid with a broad base which helps push up the top to better performance” across all areas of Suisse Rugby.
“The aim is certainly to keep growing the sport, obviously at all levels,” she said. “It’s to keep growing the player base, in kids, youth and adult.
“With that, obviously, we’ll keep growing the leagues or the championship because there will be more clubs, more teams participating.
“And that translates into more and better quality players to select for the national team, and therefore it should push the success also of the women’s 15s and also sevens, certainly sevens, national teams.”
Photos: FSC Media_RFL, LeMultimedia-ch, iSteffi-ch