Heidelberger RK: The story behind the Challenge Cup's newest team

HRK, pictured competing in a German Bundesliga match in 2015, have qualified for next season's Challenge Cup. Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images

Residents of Heidelberg, a college town in south-west Germany, might have had their sensibilities tested had they ventured down Speyerer Strasse last Saturday night.

Had they peered across the local sports complex they would have been confronted by the sight of a small group of men running naked around a rugby pitch, pausing in each of the four corners to conduct exercises and consume more beer. "Traditional rugby celebrations," according to former Saracens and England lock Mouritz Botha.

The reason for the jubilation was simple. A 47-41 aggregate victory over Timisoara Saracens had been completed earlier in the day to hand the town's rugby club, Heidelberger RK (HRK), a place in the Continental Shield and with it qualification for next season's Challenge Cup.

Given they will be competing in the second tier of European club competition alongside such star-studded clubs as Bath, Clermont, Harlequins and Northampton it was understandable that the players might get a little excited. But HRK's success did not happen overnight.

Like the German national team, the club has benefitted from the deep pockets of Hans-Peter Wild. The Switzerland-born businessman behind Capri-Sun set up the Wild Rugby Academy with the aim of developing the players that would help Germany qualify for the Rugby World Cup and propel a club from the country into the Challenge Cup.

Just 11 years after he had that initial idea, and less than 12 months after Botha came on board as forwards and defence coach, one of those objectives has been achieved.

Botha had become aware of HRK when Sebastian Ferreira joined the club in 2016 with a view to playing for Germany. Once concussion had forced the former England lock into retirement, his former Newcastle teammate put him in touch with head coach Kobus Potgieter.

He was invited over in preseason to observe a training camp with Stade Francais, the Top 14 club Wild bought in 2017. Impressed with the facilities and setup in south-west Germany Botha decided to stay, and even though he was only starting out on a coaching journey he hopes will be a long one, the ex-England international had a message for his new colleagues.

"When I joined I said to the team and to the coaches, 'That is why I joined and we are going to qualify for the Challenge Cup for next season', so I was pretty determined," Botha told ESPN.

"They all bought into it because it's something they've been trying to do for a while. They're a very driven and ambitious organisation, so it was easy for them to buy into it and that's been our goal from the get-go. It's brilliant that we have achieved it."

HRK are one of only two professional rugby teams in Germany, and currently compete with a squad of just 27 players. "The last few games we had a six-two split on the bench and that's purely because we ran out of backs," Botha admitted.

However, while he is fully aware that HRK and Wild will need to strengthen over the summer, Botha sees no reason why they shouldn't continue to aim high.

"It's a difficult one because I'm not sure the Challenge Cup has made provision for this," he joked. "Obviously Enisei and Krasny Yar played each other over the last two European weekends to determine who stays in the Challenge Cup, which were the quarterfinal and semifinal weekends.

"So, if we are in the quarterfinal next season I'm not sure who's going to play in the relegation match."

Does he really believe they could reach the last eight? "Aim for the moon, maybe you'll hit a star," he added. "But you've definitely got to set your goals high and if everyone works towards a specific goal like we did this season then almost anything is possible."

Before HRK can turn their attention towards Bath, Clermont and the Challenge Cup, there is the small matter of the Continental Shield final against Enisei in northern Spain next month. Unsurprisingly, Botha would like some silverware.

"There's been a day or two of celebrations going on," he said. "But we'll refocus and work it all out and we've already started our analysis on our opposition.

"We want to go there, and although we've qualified [for the Challenge Cup], it would be brilliant to get a medal and a trophy as well this season."