Rugby has a long history in Russia. Introduced for the very first time in the late 19th century it developed sporadically through the Soviet era. Today, with success on the international field (Russia will play in its first World Cup in September 2011) and financial investment in Russian domestic rugby, the game is gradually becoming more and more established in the Russian consciousness.
So, just how did rugby establish itself in this most unlikely of countries?
Rugby in Tsarist Russia
There are a few reports of rugby matches being played in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly organised by British businessmen and diplmoats living in Russia. There was no organised rugby in Russia during this period, however, and it appears that the Russian police were horrified at the barbarous nature of the game – the folk lore has it that an early match was mistaken for a riot.
Before this, a number of similar games were played in different parts of the Russian Empire, including Shvalyga in Russia and the Ukraine, Buzkashi in Central Asia, and Lelo burti in Georgia (the Georgian team are nicknamed the ‘Lelos’ in recognition of this)
Rugby in the Soviet Union
Rugby’s introduction to the Soviet Union was sporadic, and subject to many setbacks. After being introduced into schools in the 1920s and early 1930s, though, the first Soviet Championship was held in 1936. Rugby tailed off, though, during the Second World War, as other priorities took over, and the game was briefly banned in 1949.
Perhaps the most famous Russian player of the era didn’t actually play a single game in the Soviet Union. Instead, the exiled Prince Alexander Obolensky became an England International. He played four matches in total for his adopted country, and became famous for scoring what is regarded as one of the finest tries ever scored by an England international.
Rugby began to be re-established in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and grew to such an extent that by 1970 the USSR had over 10,000 registerd players. International ambitions soon followed, and the Soviet Union played its first international rugby match on 5 August 1974, beating Czechoslovakia 18-4. From that point onwards, Russia participated regularly in the FIRA Trophy and, although they never won the tournament, by the 1980s they were strong enough to finish second four times in succession.
Soviet rugby continued to develop into the 1980s. Regular domestic competitions were held, and a number of players emerged onto the international stage – notably Dmitry Mironov, who played several times for the Barbarians.
It is thought (although it has never been officially confirmed) that the Soviet Union was even invited to take part in the very first Rugby World Cup in 1987. They supposedly declined the invitation, in protest at the inclusion of apartheid South Africa.
Russian Rugby Today
Rugby was one of the many sports to suffer following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With no state funding, participation reduced dramatically. On the international stage, the Soviet team fractured into fifteen different national teams – Russia and Georgia are the only countries among them to have enjoyed significant success on the world stage since.
Under the Rugby Union of Russia, the sport has gradually rebuilt. Today, Russian rugby has coalesced into a Professional Rugby League (link to official league website, in Russian) and attendances at major matches can reach in excess of 10,000. Rugby in Russia has two major heartlands – Moscow in the West and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia – and almost every Russian title since 1991 has been won by either Krasny Yar (dominant in the 1990s) and VVA-Podmoskovye (dominant in the 2000s).
The standard of play in Russian domestic rugby is increasing rapidly, partly because rugby has now consolidated its position, and partly because increasing amounts of cash are being injected into Russian domestic teams by Russian businessmen. It is likely that a Russian team – probably VVA – will be invited to enter the European Challenge Cup sometime in the next couple of years.
The Russian national rugby team has gradually grown in strength over the past 20 years. Since playing its first match (a 27-23 victory over the Barbarians in 1992) Russia has regularly competed in the European Nations Cup (also known informally as the Six Nations B). Although it has never won the tournament, which is dominated by arch-rivals Georgia, Russia finished second in the most recent tournament to book its place for the first time at the Rugby World Cup.