Russia will enter their first ever World Cup tournament dreaming of victory over the United States, but their more realistic target for this World Cup will be to soak up the atmosphere and learn the tough lessons needed to build Russian rugby for the future.
Russia’s First ever World Cup
Rugby has been played in Russia for almost a century, but it’s only really taken off in the last ten years or so. Supported by a solid domestic game and a well-financed domestic league, Russia’s international performances have been steadily improving.
The Russian team secured qualification by finishing second to rivals Georgia in the European Nations Cup (a kind of Six Nations B tournament), although since then the Russian team has struggled, losing almost all of its matches this season, including all four matches on its warmup tour of the United Kingdom.
Russia has never played in the Rugby World Cup before. The Soviet Union was invited to take part in the inaugural world cup in 1987, but refused to play if apartheid South Africa was allowed to take part. Russia then did well enough on the field to qualify for the 1999 World Cup, but were disqualified when it was discovered that they had fielded (ironically) three South African players in their team for the playoff match against Spain.
Russia are placed in one of the toughest pool, and their opponents get progressively tougher, starting with the USA and finishing with Australia. To add to their difficulties, the schedulers have played an evil trick on the Russian team, compressing all four of their matches into a sixteen day window.
The Russian team has some strengths, notably in attack. Running from deep their backs have the pace and invention to keep any team honest, and they’re more than capable of scoring at least one try in every game – even against Australia. But the team’s warmup matches showed some pretty glaring weaknesses as well. Their forwards looked outmatched in the warmups, particularly in the scrum, which was regularly pushed back, and their defence is worryingly fragile.
Russia’s biggest chance at a victory will come in their first match of the tournament, against the USA on 15 September. The two sides met earlier this year in the Churchill Cup, where the US came away 23-25 victors in a hard fought match. Russia definitely have the ability to come away from this match with a win and they’ll be pumped up for their World Cup debut, but the smart money will probably be on the more experienced Americans.
The match against Italy on 20 September could prove a close one if Russia play to their peak and the Italians, perhaps demoralised by a thumping defeat to Australia, play badly. But realistically you would expect Italy to put at least 35-40 points past Russia.
The Russian team’s two remaining matches (against Ireland on 25 September and Australia on 1 October) will be excellent learning experiences for the Russian players, but they will consider it a triumph if they prevent either side from racking up 50 points. Hope (because it has to be there somewhere) will come in remembering the scare that Georgia gave Ireland at the last World Cup, and that Australia are likely to field a second string team for what will be their final group match before the quarter finals.
The most likely outcome is that Russia come home with four defeats in their pool matches. But the Russian players and team will also come home with the experience of playing top class opposition, and the lessons they learn from that will benefit Russian rugby for years to come. Watch out for the Bears to come back to the next world cup as a much more serious prospect.
The Russian Team
Russia’s team is made up mostly of players from its domestic league – the Professional Rugby League – and boosted with the addition of a few Russians playing overseas.
Undoubtedly the star player in the Russian team, from a media perspective at least, is Adam Byrnes, the Melbourne Rebels Lock. Having never played for Russia before, he discovered his Russian roots when they qualified for the World Cup. He’ll provide a much-needed boost to their scrum, but it remains to be seen whether he continues to play for Russia after the World Cup. Other star players include nippy winger Vasily Artimiev, who has just signed for English Premiership outfit Northampton Saints, and Vladislav Korshunov, the team’s captain.
Although the players on the field mostly come from Russia, the team’s coaches are drawn from around the world. Under Russian head coach Nikolai Nerush, the Russian coaching team can draw on the talents of Kingsley Jones (Wales), Henry Paul (New Zealand/England), Darren Morris (Wales) and Paul Pook (Ireland?).
Russian Winger Vasily Artimiev – “We don’t want to just turn up at the World Cup. We’ve got there and that is great, but we don’t want to waste the opportunity. We want to perform in every game, even against the top teams, and show the world that the Russian rugby team is full of composed, tough and hardworking professionals with a good attitude. Our top goal is to get a win. Our first match is against the USA, and that is our best chance to get a positive result. We’ll be big underdogs for the rest of the games.”
Russian lock Adam Byrnes – “I was reading a rugby magazine at the beginning of the year and it mentioned that Russia had made its first ever World Cup and that they were looking for players who had parents or grandparents that had left the Soviet Union – which included me. […] The first game is against the USA and obviously there’s a bit of history there. Every player will be going out there believing we can win that game and get off to a good start in the competition. After that, who knows?”
Want to know more about Russian rugby?
Check out our Russia Rugby World Cup homepage for more articles about Russian rugby, and for previews and match reports from every game.