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Poland turning to their 'French connection'

Article Published: Tuesday 3 November 2009
Edited by: Rugbyweek.com.
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Poland turning to their 'French connection'
Way down the ranks of rugby union, Poland have a secret weapon as they try to convert themselves into minor powers of the sport: the French connection.
Coach and former Poland international Tomasz Putra has forged a squad where the names end in the typically-Polish "ski", but the banter betrays the southern twang of France's rugby heartlands.

Since taking the helm in 2006, he has brought on board a rugby-honed Gallic contingent to lift the level of the locals' amateur game.

They sometimes form half the squad, but he rejects suggestions that they are ringers.

"There are Polish players, and there are players with Polish blood. It's Poland's national team," Putra, 47, told AFP.

Les Bleus may have got their hands on Polish-origin Frenchmen Dimitri Szarzewski, Romain Millo-Chluski, Frederic Michalak and David Skrela.

But Putra, whose side stand 34th in the International Rugby Board's 95-nation ranking, has kept headhunting as he tries to to climb the ladder.

He brushes off upsets like a recent 5-19 loss to the Czechs which foiled their run in the minnows' qualifying pool for the 2011 World Cup.

Poland plan to cast the net beyond France to England, Australia and South Africa, which are likewise home to hundreds of thousands of people with Polish roots.

The IRB allows teams to tap foreigners with the right ancestry.

Italian-origin Argentines are a fixture with Six Nations' newcomers Italy, for example.

Prop Bastien Siepielski, 29, was among Putra's first picks.

"We all try in our own way to add a brick to the building, and help move Polish rugby forward," said Siepielski, whose grandparents were Polish.

"It's also a kind of homage to my ancestors".

Siepielski played for Stade Francais in France's Top 14 professional first division - and featured in its racy "Gods of the Stadium" calendar - before moving to second-tier Pro D2 club Union Bordeaux Begles.

Edged out this season, he is keeping his hand in with Marmande-Casteljaloux in the Federale 1 amateur third division.

Captain and flanker Stanislas Krzesinski, recruited two years ago, said joining Poland never crossed his mind, until his phone rang.

"It was Tomasz Putra who called me. And here I am. It's a fantastic experience. I don't see why I would have turned it down," he said.

Gentle giant Krzesinski played for the Top 14's Albi, but shifted to Federale 1 club Mazamet this season because of injury and age - he's 33.

Hooker Yann Lewandowski, 30, also got the call in 2007.

"I'm 50 percent Polish, and 50 percent French," said Lewandowski, of Federale 1's Cahors.

"There's a double draw. It's about playing for Poland, and playing at international level full stop," said the grandson of emigrant miners.

The trio can't speak much Polish, although Lewandowski, visibly moved, made a convincing stab at the national anthem at the October 25 Czech match.

Language isn't a big problem, however.

Putra knows France inside out, playing and coaching there since 1988. He flips effortlessly between French and Polish.

"Things work really well. In the team, we speak a bit of Polish, a bit of French, a bit of English. It's really enriching!" said Lewandowski, adding that the players prefer earthy Polish swearwords.

Poland also boast Top 14 young guns like prop Eric Piorkowski, 22, of Castres, and less obviously-Polish full-back David Chartier, 20, of Bayonne.

The Frenchmen are a boon, said winger Tomasz Rokicki, 22, of Lechia Gdansk in Poland's eight-club Ekstraliga: "Our team-mates from France bring a level of play that we haven't achieved. They help us play better rugby. Their role is really important".

Putra also feeds young Poles with potential into the French league, hoping to emulate flanker Gregor Kacala of 1997 European Cup winners Brive.

Among them: flanker Mateusz Bartoszek, 19, at Albi, and towering lock Michal Kruzycki, 21, at Pro D2 side Lyon.

"The idea is - as we say round our way - to mix some good mayonnaise with the French and Poles and raise our game," said Krzesinski.

The mix has worked already: in 2008, Poland were promoted to Division 2A, the second of seven European tiers, minus the top-drawer Six Nations.

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