The Bears played in only their second Rugby World Cup, but what is support for the game like in the largest country on the planet? And how can Russia’s rugby improve? This feature first appeared in Rugby World in October.
Russian Standards: A look at the state of rugby in Russia
ACCORDING TO Sport in the Soviet Union, a 1980 book by Victor and Jennifer Louis, rugby was on the up there in 1958. By 1960, they write, “Leather melon” drew 100 teams from 30 cities to compete in the Soviet championship while finishing schools for both coaches and athletes were springing up.
As the book goes, “In 1962 alone, ten new teams were formed in Georgia, four appeared in Tadjikistan (sic), and four in Uzbekistan.”
Between 1978 and 1989, the Soviet Union would beat Italy nine times. They toppled Romania three times between 1985 and 1989. In 1988 they beat the USA, 31-16 in Moscow.
Yet the authors added: “It seemed in the early 1960s rugby was burgeoning throughout the Soviet Union, but today it is clear the game is played, above all, by students and mostly in Moscow.”
That was 1980. Change was inevitable upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Though Russia played in a second World Cup this year – their first outing was in 2011 – they have known struggles in the game since the Nineties began. And more significantly, while Krasnoyarsk in Siberia holds firm as a rugby heartland and former Soviet state Georgia continues to love rugby, the huge Russian metropolis of Moscow had to start over in the modern era.
“I am 48 but I started playing at the age of 11 in Moscow,” says Piotr Khutiev, a lock or No 8 who played for Spartak Moscow in the Soviet era. He is now tied to the Moscow Dragons, a social side where he has served as president.
“During the Soviet time, everyone was ‘amateur’ but really professional – the high-level teams had salaries but they were officially working for some company. There was no social rugby. There was no idea that when you finished school or university you could play just for fun. There was the option to play ‘professionally’ or not at all.
“But after the close of the Soviet Union we started to play more social rugby.
“At the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no money for rugby, only for Olympic sports. In Moscow, for example, we lost four ‘professional’ clubs – all of them were very good, champions of the Soviet Union.
“We basically started from new.”
If you look at where the Russian game is said to be now, the official figures suggest that things have built since that “new” start. World Rugby’s most recent participation figures (given in their review of 2018), claim that the number of registered players in Russia is 28,158, with total players given as 108,566. If you trust the numbers, this suggests that since the 2016 figures came out, 2,600 more players have registered in Russia and 10,356 more people have played.
Khutiev says the numbers playing social rugby have climbed in the past ten years. He says free-to-air coverage of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups laid the groundwork and then Russia being in the 2011 tournament added oomph.
According to a source who was with Russia in 2011, that group was realistic enough to know losses were coming their way, but the aim was to make the official World Rugby highlights reel after the tournament concluded. Despite losing every game they did just that, thanks to a fine try and dedication to attacking rugby.
Yet speak to some within Russian rugby and there is talk of a hangover from the union being run with rank inefficiency and shady operating down the years. They suggest this has only been properly addressed in the past 18 months, with a new regime coming in. The union is now headed by Vladimir Putin’s minister for the anti-monopolies service, the constructive Igor Artemyev.
Many praise an increase in on-field standards for the national team over the past year, but they’re coming from a low base. The Bears lost to Romania and Georgia four times in four years, Spain three times (they beat them once) and USA twice. Canada are the only RWC qualifier they beat between 2016 and going to Japan, and in warm-ups they were bested by Jersey and Connacht.
World Cup qualification was a surprise lift, as they took Romania’s place amid a player eligibility fiasco. World Rugby would go on to give high-performance support.
So what has the legacy been post-2011? Alan Moore, the sports host on Capital FM Moscow, takes a hard stance, saying: “Despite the efforts of some clubs and aficionados, rugby doesn’t register on the sporting radar, except in Krasnoyarsk where the sport trails a distant fourth behind football, bandy (a winter sport similar to hockey) and ice hockey.
“Where there were small sprouts of growth, in regions where rugby could easily take hold, develop and then flourish, it was killed off by box-ticking.
“Pick four to six cities or towns where ex-players are living – check. Bring down a few lads from Moscow for the weekend – check. Hold a clinic and give out a few jerseys and balls – check. Come back a few months later to organise a one-day blitz – check. Then forget… but remember to get paid.
“Rugby is a hard sell, not least for a perceived lack of professionalism and some of the shadier characters knocking about. Add in the appalling lack of promotion and it’s only ever going to grab a few second- or third-generation players, passers-by or outliers.”
Moore is at one end of the spectrum, but even Khutiev concedes other sports dwarf rugby in popularity. He adds: “The problem is growth. We have people eager to play and train but we are short of qualified coaches, qualified referees. Infrastructure is a problem. And it is difficult to find a club to train with.
“Now we have to invite foreign coaches over – a big problem in Russia. Yes, we need to coach coaches. The union is starting to do it but it takes a long time.”
In talking to James Campbell, an Irish consultant who spent 18 years in Moscow and who advises EPCR on operations in Russia, it is suggested that you will only get around 1,000 or maybe 1,500 spectators at a pro game.
He goes on: “Only about 5% of the population of Moscow will be into rugby. About 15-20% of Krasnoyarsk will, but they play it there. That’s why I proposed they get into the schools and that’s what (president) Artemyev is doing. Women’s sevens is going well and Krasnodar is an improving area. They (the union) are going the right way about it.”
Take the winless 2019 World Cup out of the equation and for those in love with rugby there is hope that things will climb. Slowly.
Kiwi coach Phil Werahiko, former director of rugby at Belvedere College in Ireland, tells Rugby World that he was pleasantly surprised by the skill levels he found when taking over Rugby Premier League side Kuban, in Krasnodar. The team have shone, in a region where it’s hoped rugby will rapidly grow. They’ve claimed scalps of heralded Siberian sides.
In elite Russian rugby, logistics can be stressful and the daily politics a tangle. Scouting vast lands is difficult and the ‘development’ of players and coaches, as well as tactical awareness, will always be key. But Werahiko is positive.
Kirill Kulemin, the former Bears lock who is now high-performance manager, also tells us that the Premier League is increasing from eight teams to ten next season, with CSKA Moscow and Kazan joining up. He is already casting his eyes ahead to the 2023 World Cup.
Considering plans for rugby standards to swell in certain areas, he says: “We’d like to bring (more) to European parts, particularly in big cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg. We are particularly targeting the Moscow region. And don’t forget the South, where we can train all year (during extreme cold elsewhere).
“It’s also difficult for (elite) teams in Europe to play when you aren’t at home. Enisei from Krasnoyarsk can’t play at home all this year (in the Challenge Cup). They have to play in Sochi or Krasnodar, a five-hour flight from their base.
“But I don’t think the future for us is the European competitions. It is really difficult for players to travel all year. Most in the national team today are away from home for quite a while.
“Maybe the future for us is to create our own competition in Eastern Europe. This is the plan. It would involve Russian clubs, Georgians, maybe Romanians, the German clubs. It is in discussion but it is difficult to say just now.”
Kulemin also explains the changes that have occurred under union president Artemyev, saying: “We cannot hide from the fact his name has attracted many more sponsors than before. He tries to develop rugby in more regions around Russia. Not only for high-performance coordination but to develop rugby in the army, which is a good idea.
“He wants to make it more popular, to have people recognise the sport. But the main thing is the finance he’s brought and management resources as well.”
Sponsors like Aeroflot have helped hugely. The union has plans for big cities a few time zones closer to Europe. More than 14 months ago, a few union-backed rugby academies were set up within famous sporting clubs in Moscow.
Khutiev concludes: “I’m really positive about rugby in Russia.”
You could dig into Olympic sevens versus 15s, Test losses or the logistics of servicing a truly huge nation. But for now, let’s watch and wait with Piotr…
This feature first appeared in Rugby World in October. Let us know any subjects you would like covered by emailing rugbyworldletters@
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