Sport Tuesday, April 26th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Brasil Rugby, João Neto/Fotojump

Dale Garner, The Unintentional German

Sport Tuesday, April 26th

Dale Garner, The Unintentional German

It wasn’t until last winter, 27 years after he was born on a German army base, that Dale Garner returned to the country.

Boarding a plane from Birmingham and heading for Heidelberg, about an hour west of Frankfurt, he spoke little of the language.

Then a bar manager, the Herefordian didn’t know his Herzogs from his Hasselhoffs. He thought Beethoven was a 90s film about a St Bernard, and the closest he had come to an authentic Bavarian sausage was the end of season BBQ.

And yet he was about to try out for Germany's national rugby team.

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Fast forward 16 months and the Luctonians hooker, who now lives in Dilwyn, has toured Brazil, helped secure Germany’s place in European rugby’s 2nd tier, and learned most of the national anthem.

He's also perhaps the only international hooker to have hit a drop goal for his country.

“If someone had asked me three or four years ago where I’m from, I would have said, ‘I’m British, but I was born in Germany’. Now I’ll turn around and say ‘I’m German’.

“The first time I went back after being born in Germany was to play for Germany.

“But going over there – it’s weird to say it – I actually feel more accepted as a German than I have as an Englishman over here.

“I have tried to play for England. And I’ve tried to do my best over here but I never really got the breaks.

“So I’ll sing the German anthem, and I know what it means, and I agree with it. And actually the message of brotherhood probably makes more sense than God Save The Queen does in the 21st century.

“I’m not at the point where I’m getting emotional about it but I get pretty pumped by singing the anthem because it’s now a part of my life.”

Garner’s not alone. Rugby in the east of the continent is on the rise.

Georgia’s European Nations Cup win last month only added weight to the rumbling of voices calling for their inclusion in the 6 Nations, either alongside or as replacements for the recently hapless Italians.

Close behind them are Romania, whose squad is spread around their own professional league and France’s top tier ­– and against whom Garner struck his historic three-pointer – and Russia, whose emerging domestic scene is viewed by many as a sign the sleeping giant is almost ready to wake up.

Germany are now the fourth side from that part of the world currently playing in Division 1A.

Promoted last year at the expense of Belgium, they went winless in the first half of their campaign. But a home victory over Portugal, and a final-day 17-17 draw with Los Leones – Spain – was enough to preserve Germany’s 2nd tier status and sink the smaller of the two Iberian nations.

As an emerging international programme, it was arguably Deutscher Rugby-Verband’s greatest achievement since a silver medal in the 1900 Olympics.

And front and centre was Garner.

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After 24 months of rugby – teams are promoted or relegated in the Nations Cup based on how they fare over a two-year period – there was nothing between the bottom two sides.

Although, Garner would miss the final game with a rib injury, his team only went in to that game on equal footing thanks to surprise moment of finesse from a player otherwise known for hard-hitting.

Playing against the Romanians, and trailing by three-points, the German side were finally establishing some field position in a grinding affair in Heidelberg.

Still getting to his feet after a previous ruck, the ball squirted out of a breakdown, stopping at the feet of the head-guarded hooker.

Without hesitation, and to the shock and awe of both the Romanian lock standing closest in the vicinity and anyone who regularly trains with the front-row forward at Luctonians, Garner snapped off a quick-fire drop goal which – though unlikely to go down as the cleanest-struck ball in history – easily cleared the crossbar and levelled the scores in a game in which Germany would earn a hard-fought and crucial bonus point for finishing within seven points of their rivals.

In the game footage, still available on YouYube, Garner turns, one arm aloft to the fans, and instantly heads for the half-way line. When you know, you know.

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As a player, Garner is known around Mortimer Park as physical presence on the field, and an effervescent one off it, having returned to Lucs in August after a spell with National League rivals Stourbridge.

In his time away from Kingsland, few opposition players were personally responsible for as many bruises handed out to Lucs players as Garner, and his return was seen an opportunity to add a degree of edge to a developing pack.

While the Autumn was not kind to the Kingsland side, who spent considerable time at the foot of National Two North, they have since pulled out an astonishing turnaround – less surprising to those within the club who knew of the underlying talent and industry of the young team – and now sit on the brink of safety, as they continue to punch above their weight in rugby’s fourth tier.

For Garner, he has set that same mindset to a rugby career in which he has knocked on many doors, but where his persistence has not always been matched by good fortune.

Despite having played at Sale and Birmingham and Solihull –  then still a force in National One – it’s through this latest opportunity playing for the land of his birth that the father-of-two has seemingly found a home.

“I would happily move over there.

“All I’ve got to do over there is concentrate on playing.

“The foreign players stay at an Olympic base which is home to weightlifters, to basketball players, it’s got facilities for everything. We’ve got what we need. To be honest, we’ve got more than we need.

“Over here, things are geared towards football. Even the RFU, if you aren’t in the Premiership or the Championship, they don’t care. When I was at Birmingham, they happily watched us go in to liquidation.

“But over there, it’s all sport. Although football is their main sport, they try and develop every sport as much as they can. It’s not just about money.”

Despite an emerging crop of talented native players, based mostly around a Heidelberg club which competes domestically as well as against the best club sides from the likes of Spain and Portugal, there is still a reliance on imported talent.

The coach is South African-born. The captain is Australian.

The team manages its ‘foreign’ players by using training apps, where Garner must log all his strength and conditioning sessions, and monitors their form playing for their club sides.

“Lucs are a great club, and there is a level of trust there from Germany that the sessions that Luke (Bennet, Luctonians strength and conditioner) and Ryan (Watkins, backs/skills coach) put together will have me ready to play.

“But I’d say this level would be the equivalent of Championship rugby. So I try and work harder than anyone else at the club. I do strength sessions and work in extra throwing sessions to my week.

“And I have to be quite open with the coach about my form game-by-game.”

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While there are huge highs – in December, Garner played in a stadium of 10,000 Brazilians drumming out samba beats from the stands in Blumenau – at this second tier of international rugby, these come about following long weeks of grind and sacrifice.

A father of two young ones, Garner also works full-time at Tyrells, as well as fitting in extra training sessions. For the trip to Brazil, his travel log included a 32-hour trip starting in the early hours with a dark drive to Birmingham Airport.

That’s a long journey if the oompah-loving second-row is running the team’s music player.

Even European Nations Cup games mean 2.30am alarms and several days airport-hopping, often doing several legs solo before getting to Heidelberg.

“I was looking at the map to find out where Georgia was,” Garner said. “And I thought maybe it might be nice and hot. It’s not. It’s -5 in the spring.

“The amount of travel is the biggest difference.”

For Germany, who are now ranked 19th in the world, that travel is a necessity if they are to find fresh opposition playing at a similar level.

There is talk of Brazil returning the fixture this autumn, while a year earlier Germany had travelled to Namibia, looking to get comfortable against an opposition with some World Cup pedigree - the union’s ultimate goal.

“Most teams at this level has pretty clear strength and weaknesses," said Garner.

“At the time, Brazil were only a few spots apart from us. Most of their coaching staff are Argentinean and their scrum was one of the strongest I’ve come up against in ten years.

“Georgia might be the exception. At no point did they switch off. They replicate their physicality, their power, through the whole game.”

And, for a hooker who’s first language is something other German, the problems don’t stop with 20-stone Latin Americans, and man-eating back row forwards from Tblisi.

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“I’m used to people banging on the ad boards at Mortimer Park – I like a loud crowd – but I couldn’t hear anything in the warm up in Brazil.

“I understand more German than I speak, but so far I’ve got enough to fire back a few phrases of changing room abuse, and I understand most of the lineout calls.

“In Brazil it was a nightmare trying to pick up the calls in the run-though – on the video you can’t even hear the ref and he’s mic’d up – but actually in the game, you hone in. You read what the call will be judging by where you are on the field. Although a couple of times the noise just hits you.”

The German side regularly pulls in several thousand for its own home games. “And they’re pretty vocal crowds themselves.”

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However, when it comes to the post-match festivities there is one notable difference to an evening at Luctonians Rugby Club.

 “During the Nations Cup, you want to be sociable in the bar after the game, but we’re in the middle of a major tournament.

 “But Germany does a lot of alcohol-free beers. So we get pints of them – you look like we’re having a beer – and still socialise with everyone after the game.

“Although when I was over for a pre-season game against [French Top 14 side] La Rochelle, it was Oktoberfest and it was the Rugby World Cup.

“One of our sponsors is an Irish bar in Heidelberg called the Dubliner so I ended up watching England v Australia, in an Irish Bar, in German.

“Steins, long tables, it was very good. I’ve still got a full oompah playlist on my phone.”

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