As much as he has enjoyed a winning start to his time in charge of Poland’s men’s national team, Christian Hitt knows that to improve his team needs to be playing better opposition.

An expanded Rugby Europe Championship gives them an opportunity to do that and over the coming three weeks Poland will play two teams going to Rugby World Cup 2023 in Romania and Portugal before taking on another of the promoted sides, Belgium.

Poland have won five of the six tests they have played since the Welshman came on board as head coach in April 2021 but he knows that impressive record will take a hit, if you excuse the pun, as Poland enter into unfamiliar territory.

The last time Poland played at an equivalent level to this was when they finished third in the old FIRA tournament in 1996/97.

“It’s been nice winning … a lot,” he said. “We could have either stayed at the level we were or challenged ourselves at the level we are currently at and, for me, we are only going to learn and get better by playing better teams.

“If you look at the teams who have historically done that, your Romanias and Georgias, they have taken some beatings over the years but they have closed that gap and that is the thing for us, we want to close that gap and be competitive and move the programme forward.

“It’s going to be a challenge and we are not shying away from that. We know that tough games will be coming up and it is not going to be an easy ride, especially over the next three weeks, but it is one the boys are excited about.

“Hopefully we can put ourselves in a good light come the end of March and into next year as well.”

Fresh outlook

With the eight-team Rugby Europe Championship ringfenced for two years, Poland will be able to use the first year to acclimatise at a higher level without the fear of dropping back down to the Trophy hanging over them.

“Our guys are amateur or semi-pro at best so we need to work within our parameters and develop our game within our path,” said Hitt.

“The reality is that we are not going to compete with Romania and Portugal, we know they are going to be tough games for us, so we need to focus on ourselves.

“When you look at the squads other squads will be looking to put out, there is a lot of experience whereas our guys are coming into it with fresh eyes and fresh ambitions to show people what Polish rugby is and that they belong in the competition as well.

“The big thing for us is to stay in the Championship. If we can do that, we can kick on and develop Polish rugby as we go through those years.

“We are quite lucky that it is ringfenced for two years so we’ve got at least two years but we want to stay at this level beyond that.”

Learning lessons

Poland haven’t played a test in nine months but had two camps in Hitt’s native Wales, in November and January, to see where they are at.

Wins against Welsh Championship side Cross Keys and Cardiff Met University in November were followed by a chastening 78-12 defeat to Wales U20s a couple of weeks ago.

“We made a lot of individual and silly errors. We missed touch four times,” Hitt said, reflecting on that heavy defeat.

“Unfortunately we kept giving them opportunities and they were ruthless.

“It was a good lesson for our boys and one that we wanted. The speed of play and the way that they play will be very similar to that of Portugal.

“If the boys don’t learn and adapt quickly, we will keep getting punished. But there are a lot of things we can fix ourselves and we’ll look to correct those as we go through the games.

“For us, it is about where we can show that development in our game, and we are developing. Scorelines don’t always reflect the actual game.”

While Poland’s squad is wholly amateur and made up of local players and those in the lower leagues in England and Wales, Hitt has created a more professional environment to enable the players to make the most of their limited time together.

“We are looking at how we work on field and off field. Professionalism is associated with money and jobs and being full-time but it is also about attitude and how you prepare as well and we have worked hard with the guys on that,” he said.

“Last year we had two games back-to-back in November and it was good to see how the guys approached that. After we beat Germany in the first game there were a couple of beers but then the guys refocused because they knew they had a job to do.”

Strength in numbers

With around 7,000 registered players, Poland has roughly the same playing population as Portugal and like Os Lobos, the national team is trying to maximise its links with the Polish diaspora worldwide to widen the player base.

Former England centre Alex Lozowski, who also qualifies for Italy, has family ties to Poland and would be eligible to play under the recent World Rugby birthright transfer regulation.

Hitt, however, doesn’t expect the Saracens player who won the last of his five caps in 2018, to be pulling on the red and white jersey anytime soon.

“While that opens the door there are quite a lot of challenges around that,” he said.

“There are guys there but at the same time there can be a lot of dead ends when it comes to contract negotiations or impact on contracts and that side of things so it is not as straightforward as I would like it to be.

“I’ve not spoken to him (Lozowski) personally. I know someone in the union had spoken to him in the past and he mentioned on a podcast that someone had been in touch, but the reality for us at the moment is that we know that getting guys like that is difficult, especially with this being our first year in the competition.

“That’s where, from my point of view, we need to make sure we put our best foot forward so there is an attractive programme for them to come in to and add value.

“But, for me, it is spending time and energy on the guys around us at the moment and developing our squad, especially the younger players and bringing them through into our environment.

“If there are guys interested and want to play then we can look at that in the future.”

International quality

While Hitt has carved out an impressive coaching career before he’s even reached his mid-30s, having worked previously with Germany and Wales Sevens, he did not play at the top level himself.

However, his full-time assistant, Morgan Stoddart, and Bradley Davies (lineout) and Scott Baldwin (scrum) have years of experience behind them in professional rugby, at regional level and with Wales.

Baldwin’s emergency call-up into Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad means his input will be limited to some remote sessions, but the Ospreys have agreed to release Davies for the Portugal week.

“They are good guys to have around, they bring a lot of experience and add real value. Obviously the guys are current as well and can add in their experiences there,” said Hitt.