Exploring the rise of Jugger

Maximilian Henning explores the inner workings of this chaotic sport

“Three, two, one, Jugger!” Two teams of five started sprinting on a collision course with their opposite numbers. In their hands are long staffs, wrapped with foam. In the middle of the pitch is a pink dog’s skull, also made of foam. As the teams come to a stop in front of each other, one unarmed player grabs for the skull, and the teams plunge into a sudden chaos as staffs clash with staffs. Some went through, and the hit players sink on one knee, a hand behind their back. Through the shouts of “Left down!” and “Defend! Go back!”, they count the claps of the referee on the sideline. Suddenly, the winning team lets out a great cheer, and both sides return to their starting lines. Meanwhile, the spectators in Sean Moore Park are baffled as to what they just watched.

“In terms of Irish sports, it’s fencing mixed with rugby”, says Ann Marie Burke, one of the coaches of Rampage Jugger. “It’s a unisex field sport – and it’s not quidditch.” The goal for each of the teams is to place the skull in the other team’s ‘mal’ – a goal – but like many other things in Jugger, the German term is used. The same is true for the foam staffs: “The Irish call them weapons, but that sounds a bit aggressive – in Germany, they call them ‘pompfen’.” They are not designed to hurt, and hits do not have to be with force to down a player. Four players on each team use them to keep the other team away from their goal, while the unarmed player, the ‘qwik’ or runner, deposits the skull.

Jugger was not German at the beginning. Its origins can be traced to the 1989 movie The Blood of Heroes, set in a post-apocalyptic world where players fight in scavenger outfits. “It’s an entertaining B-movie”, Burke says. “It’s not awful, but it’s old. It hasn’t aged very well.” 1993 marked the year that the first team tried to play the game from that movie. “The old style”, as Burke refers to it, did not have organisation or standardised weapons. Some teams prefer this system, including Australian teams who stuck with the tradition of having the runners start the match in a wrestling fight over the skull. Another team from Berlin, Rigor Mortis, started changing things: “Up to that point, it was a game. They turned it into a sport.”

By 2000, the rules of the game had been laid down, and teams had evolved out of the primeval Jugger essence.”

By 2000, the rules of the game had been laid down, and teams had evolved out of the primeval Jugger essence. The first Irish team, Setanta, was founded in 2006 at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), Dún Laoghaire after Mark Hill returned to Ireland after playing with a German team for two years. “In the beginning, it was essentially German punks”, he says. By 2010, the club structure that now exists had taken form, and different codes of play, including Irish, German, and Spanish codes, were measured against each other. “The pattern has been toward the more technical, more professional”, says Seamus Cassells, another coach for Rampage. “The rules are evolving along these lines: safer, smoother – everything where players have to stop and ask ‘okay, what just happened?!’, that’s just not good – and fairer.”

As there is no central authority in Jugger, and no FIFA to decide on how rules should be changed, proposed changes are piloted at tournaments, which are organised by teams on a case-by-case basis. Cassells explains: “Recently there was a tournament between teams from Britain, Belgium, and France, just because they were near to each other. It’s more bloc tournaments instead of big ones.”

In September, both Rampage and Setanta competed at this year’s biggest tournament, the Jugger World Cup, in Darmstadt, Germany. “I can say that the Irish were responsible for positive playing experiences and a pleasant tournament this year in Darmstadt. And in that way, their performance was top notch”, says Paul Seesemann, one of the organisers. 64 teams from 16 countries participated under the scorching September sun, with Setanta placing 9th and Rampage 43rd.

It’s a great way to know people in a different city. If I know a Jugger player in a city, I have a place to crash.”

Jugger has spread across the globe. Germany now has around 200 clubs, with Spain second in Europe with around 100. There are also teams in the United States, South America, and Australia. “There are a lot of ties between teams,” says Burke. “It’s a great way to know people in a different city. If I know a Jugger player in a city, I have a place to crash.” This hospitality of Jugger teams towards each other also worked the other way around during the recent Irish International Tournament, says Hill: “We had all the Costa Ricans over, all the Australians.”

“It’s a positive community because it’s a small one,” Cassells believes. With that niche status comes the dreaded spectre of not being taken seriously. “There has been a lot of negative coverage that was essentially ‘look at what those geeks are doing’”, he says. “This is a sport. We want to be treated as a sport by the media and by the government.”

It is an issue that Jugger players around the world aim to resolve. In several countries, they have been recognised – in Sweden and Spain, some teams receive official funding. Setanta was recently invited to participate in the Dublin Sportsfest, something that Hill says he would “absolutely not” have thought possible even five years ago.

Jugger right now is in trouble. We’re getting very big. It’s the tipping point – do we want to do a united organisation, or do we want to stay in groups?”

The topic is also being debated within the community. Jugger players, especially in Germany, have always prided themselves on their independence, and the fact that the sport is not commercialised. This has led to resistance against attempts to make some structures more formal. “The majority of people want to develop the sport,” Cassells says. “Personally, I don’t want Jugger to be a professional sport. I want it to be a professional approach, but a community sport.” On the other hand, Hill stresses that making necessary changes to rules is already difficult in some cases. “Jugger right now is in trouble. We’re getting very big. It’s the tipping point: do we want to do a united organisation, or do we want to stay in groups?”

“In Australia, it is already completely normal for teams to have sponsors for jerseys and other equipment”, says Kieran O’Leary, an Australian player currently staying in a fellow player’s flat in Dublin with Austrian Nina Neuwirth, who also plays. They all first met at a World Cup in Germany four years ago. As O’Leary recalls, he joined Jugger because “a friend came over and told me ‘you can hit people, and it’s legal’”. The story is similar for coach Burke; on her first day, she was told to “take that stick and go try to beat up that guy with the giant chain with a ball at the end”. She laughs and adds: “We’ve learned since then!”

“It’s an easy sport for everybody to begin. It’s very simple, very easy to understand. But if you want to get better, it’s an incredibly giving sport because there is so much to learn”, agrees Hill. “We don’t give a fuck if you’re a girl or a guy. Runners tend to be athletic males, but once you’ve got a weapon…” Neuwirth shrugs and says, “just try it. There’s a place for you. Everybody’s welcome.”