A little bit of history was made last weekend, when Russian champions VVA Podmoskovie became the first Russian Rugby Union team to play against a top flight English club. And not just any old top-flight English club – VVA took on the English champions Northanpton Saints (in their Wanderers guise – a mix of first team and developmental players).
Predictably, VVA were hammered – the final score was 61-17. But by all accounts, the game was a good one, and VVA performed well against a team of full-time professionals who ply their trade in Europe’s toughest domestic league.
The match came about because former England A coach Steve Diamond – who currently has consultancy roles with both the Rugby Union of Russia and the Northampton Saints – wants to give Russian teams more experience of top-level European club rugby.
“VVA have toured South Africa in the past, but climatic differences between our winter and their summer combined with long travel times have forced us to look elsewhere for international opponents,” he said.
“We need competition. It is time for us to move to the international stage and we want to play in the European Challenge Cup.”
Given that Romanian side Bucharest Oaks (a scratch team made up of players from the Romanian domestic league) have been playing in the European Challenge Cup for a few years now and performing reasonably well, it can’t be long before Russia is invited either to send a scratch team like Bucharest, or to send their domestic champions.
Russian clubs are certainly doing their best to prepare for rugby on the international stage – Moscow News Weekly reports that VVA are investing heavily in their future:
Backed by Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov, VVA is building its own 12,000-seat stadium in Monino. “We hope its completion will bring ECC entry,” head coach Nikolai Nerush said. “Inquiries have started and we are confident the stadium’s full under soil heating will help overcome concerns over climate.”
I can’t think of anything that would boost Russian rugby more than the chance for a Russian team to play regularly against some of Europe’s most establish club sides – and hopefully a Russian team will be joined by teams from other emerging European rugby nations, like Georgia and Portugal, whose clubs are also in desperate need of regular top level competition if they are to develop further.
The profile of Russian rugby has also been boosted by Rugby Union Russia’s recent decision to withdraw its ambitious (foolhardy?) bid to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and to instead bid to host the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in Moscow. RUR President Viatcheslav Kopiev told reporters that, although the Russian Government had guaranteed £96 million needed to host the full World Cup, the RUR felt that:
“the best focus of our resources for growing the Game within Russia is the identification of single-city tournaments and the role of Sevens in attracting new men, women and children to Rugby.”
I think that this is a really sensible move from RUR – Moscow is a perfect place to hold a short, glamorous Rugby Sevens tournament, and will not only boost Russian rugby, but the image of rugby worldwide – I really wouldn’t bet against Russia being selected to host the 2013 World Cup.