According to Katharina Kuess, her love affair with rugby union began with a scene more akin to the set-up of a terrible one-liner.
“My career started, I think, like a bad joke,” Kuess told World Rugby. “I met an Englishman and a South African in a bar.”
It was while studying abroad in Budapest in 2010 that the Austrian, who was a Thai and kick-boxer at the time, was convinced to give rugby a try.
Two days after Kuess first stepped onto a training pitch she would make her playing debut at a sevens tournament, and has not looked back.
Since returning to Austria five years ago she has dedicated herself to growing women’s rugby in her homeland. In 2016 Kuess co-founded the Austrian Women’s Sevens League and a year later was voted onto the Board of Rugby Austria, where she serves as Vice-President and Head of Women’s Development.
Last year, drawing inspiration from the Rugby Football Union’s ‘Inner Warrior’ campaign, Kuess launched ‘Entdecke die Kriegerin in dir!’ [Discover the Warrior in you!].
Having secured funding from the Austrian government, Rugby Austria was able to put on eight camps around the country designed to encourage more women and girls to take up the sport.
Giving women an opportunity to play
“I started playing rugby myself quite late, sadly,” Kuess added. “I think we should try to give younger girls the opportunity to experience the sport faster and earlier. To give them the opportunity to just play.”
In March, Kuess’ work was recognised as she was confirmed as one of 14 recipients of World Rugby’s Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship for 2019.
Although rugby is starting to gain a foothold in Austria, “it’s going slowly” according to Kuess because it is not offered in the majority of state schools.
That could change given trainee Austrian PE teachers now have the option to do an elective course on the sport during their training. But at present most schools that offer it do so only because they have a member of staff who plays on the weekend.
“Now the average player starts usually at university, which is a bit late.
“It would be better if we got them already at 12, 14 or at least [help them] play a little bit of rugby then and then go into university with a higher education of rugby.
“So, I think this is something we need to work towards and just generally grow the rugby community.
“For me, to be honest, I would like more girls to experience this kind of community that I got to experience in my student life and later, and the friendship I had with people I played with in muddy or very hot or rainy games.”
It was that feeling of belonging that initially hooked Kuess when she was first convinced to pick up an oval ball in Hungary.
“I was always a sporty person but a lot [of its appeal was] the community,” she said.
“Everybody there was super friendly, it was quite international and it was, yeah, the community, it was the situation, it was fun.
“It was physically hard training but it was still fun, there were giggles in between and at the end I felt a lot for the community and later also for the sport, for the physicality.
“I liked the technical aspect, I liked the physical aspect but I also think you need a brain for rugby.”
Since that initial encounter with the sport in Budapest, Kuess has played rugby across Europe.
“I was working in different countries and wherever I went I played for different clubs and it was really nice to always have straight away a community that took you in quite quickly,” she said.
“It’s always good to have new friends but you have straight away someone who will show you around, give you tips, where to go, what to do.
“So that was always quite nice to have that community somewhere.”
Whatever the sport has given Kuess, she has put back in with interest. As a dentist she juggles running her own practice with her unpaid role at Rugby Austria, often working long hours, and still finds time to train and play herself.
That passion for the game came to the fore when Kuess returned to her homeland in 2014 and signed up with a new club, ARC Leoben. Soon, she had unwittingly become both a coach and administrator.
Thrown into 'cold water'
“I was messaging with them and they were like ‘Yeah, yeah we have girls too, don’t worry’,” she explained.
“I went there and there were basically no girls because most of them had moved away, and there was no coach either.
“And I was like, how is this going to happen? And they were like ‘Well, you can coach them’. I always wanted to start coaching but not that soon!
“So, it happened that I started doing the coaching for the girls, taking over and building up the club for mostly sevens because of the numbers.
“It was quite fun to start the coaching, actually, I was just thrown into cold water and I started coaching and the managing of the girls’ part of the club.
“And then after a while I was asked by another girl who was running a league if I wanted to join and we’d do the league together, the women’s league.
“We [then] formed the Austrian Women’s Sevens League.”
Nine teams now compete in the competition with clubs from as far as Ljubljana, Slovenia, represented. The success of the sevens league gave Kuess the opportunity to take her place on the Rugby Austria Board, and it is one she has taken with both hands.
She will meet with her scholarship mentor Jennifer Gray next year as she learns the approach both Rugby Americas North and USA Rugby have taken to growing the game in their territories.
Kuess is excited to “get a little bit out of the Rugby Europe bubble” but as ever her focus is on applying her findings in Austria.
Her dream is to “have for every boys team a full girls team as well” while she is hopeful of building a sustainable player base for the women’s league.
“I would like all the clubs to be stable themselves so I don’t have to worry about them,” Kuess said.