Russia are making their World Cup debut this autumn – but they are planning to stick around for a long time
Russia will make their first-ever appearance at the Rugby World Cup in 2011 – and face a punishing Pool C schedule. Russia face three games – the USA, Italy and then Ireland – in 11 days before facing Australia on 1 October.
The standout match in Russia’s fixture list is their opening game against the USA on 15 September. There is so much history between the two countries that Cold War clichés are sure to litter the press – and the Russians will be looking to take advantage of the Eagles’ four-day turnaround after playing Ireland early doors.
Many see this match as the two teams’ ‘final’, but Russia wing Vasily Artemiev is quick to dismiss talk of this nature: “We simply cannot go into that fixture with the mindset that it’s a final. We have four massive games at RWC and will respect each opponent. Yes, we’re targeting one win, but we will play each game as it comes and give our all for Russia every time we take the field. Hopefully our trip to New Plymouth in January will have paid off with the locals coming out to support us.”
Russia’s qualification for the tournament was achieved via their European Nations Cup results, the draw with Romania securing their place and sparking celebrations amongst the fans. For the players it was slightly different, however.
“I remember feeling happy but also empty somehow,” says Artemiev. “It was a strange feeling because we had focused so much on the goal that it took over everything we did, and when we finally achieved it many of us had this empty feeling. It took a while for us to gather ourselves and enjoy it. It meant so much to so many people, not just the players.”
Russia have come close to qualifying in the past and their history is tied in with matches against all of the teams in Pool C except Australia. Following a play-off for RWC 2003 between Ireland, Georgia and Russia in 2002, Russia went on to play Spain in the repêchage, winning convincingly. However, after the game questions were raised about the eligibility of three South Africans who had played in the Russian side, unfurling a Grannygate-like scandal that saw Russia disqualified from the tournament and fined heavily by the IRB.
In 2007, Russia won the majority of their games in regional qualification to earn the right to a play-off with Italy. But Italy proved far too strong, running out convincing winners in Moscow. With Italian teams now playing regularly in European competitions and the Magners League, it remains to be seen if the gap has widened. The Russian union has been pushing for a spot in the Challenge Cup to further aid their own development.
Howard Thomas, CEO of the Russian union, describes 2010 as “the perfect wave” for Russian rugby with success on a number of fronts – qualifying for RWC, winning the right to stage the 2013 World Cup Sevens, hosting the IRB Junior World Trophy, their Churchill Cup performances and the form of Russia in the IRB Sevens series. He adds: “The significance of RWC qualification for Russian rugby cannot be underestimated, but this is just the first step.”
If 2010 was the perfect wave, then 2011 has been a year to cause concern. The departure of Steve Diamond to Sale has caused real disruption to the team’s preparations for their World Cup debut. Kingsley Jones has come in to pick up the pieces and Henry Paul has remained as backs coach, but results have been worrying this season, with Russia losing 21-19 to Portugal at home, 33-3 to Romania away and only narrowly beating Spain 28-24 in Madrid. Injuries to key players, such as Kirill Kulemin of Castres, haven’t helped either.
“Pre-World Cup we’ve been focusing on conditioning and trying new players and combinations. For this you have to accept short-term losses in favour of long-term gains,” says head coach Nikolai Nerush.
So can Russia emulate the near upsets of Georgia and Namibia against Ireland in 2007? “Ireland have demonstrated that they’re one of the top teams in the world,” says Nerush. “They didn’t fire on all cylinders at the last World Cup, but their performance against England this year shows you what they’re capable of. The Georgia game was four years ago and this team has a new coach and new players. We’re a long way off the level of Ireland and the idea of us causing an upset is beyond the imagination.”
Russia are taking part in the Churchill Cup this month before holding a camp in England in August. The Diamond connection remains strong with games against Northampton and Sale lined up.
The Russians also have ambitions that stretch way beyond their World Cup debut, as Nerush explains: “We’ve targeted further qualification for RWC 2015 and 2019, and aim to be a top-12 team by 2019. Our appearance at this World Cup is just the beginning for Russian rugby.
“Since Olympic inclusion and our qualification for RWC 2011, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of people playing rugby and the number of clubs.”
This is encouraging news for Russia and an ominous sign for the rest of the world.
Russia in numbers
IRB world ranking 19th
Registered players 14,519
Senior male players 3,633
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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