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Russian rugby begins new chapter

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Ben Dirs | 14:22 UK time, Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Kingsley Jones – former Wales captain, ex-Sale Sharks supremo and now head coach of the Russian national team – is scanning the walls of Slava Moscow’s clubhouse: the framed shirts and pendants, the tankards with inscriptions, the yellowing newspaper cuttings and the beer-stained programmes.

He has seen a thousand clubhouses which look exactly like this. It confirms what Jones already suspected: that wherever you travel to in the rugby universe, the essential elements of the sport’s DNA remain the same.

Suddenly he spots his old man, peering out from a tattered old photograph, and a shiver scuttles up his spine.

“How’s that?” says Jones, the man charged with leading Russia in New Zealand at their maiden Rugby World Cup. “The fella who showed me the photo didn’t believe me at first, but then he explained they played against my old village, Blaina, in 1976. Rugby is an amazing thing.”

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Russian rugby has history – it was first played there in the 1880s – and it also has some form.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were regularly beating Italy by 50 or 60 points and even managed a draw against France,” says Jones’ predecessor Steve Diamond. “Under the former Soviet flag they were a powerful nation.”

But with the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, interest in rugby fell away, so that when Jones took over from Diamond earlier this year, he had approximately 70 registered players to choose from, from a total population of 140 million.

“There are about 60 other professionals from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Moldova, and unfortunately a lot of my players are props. Even then, if I lose two tight-head props, I haven’t got another tight-head. I have to stick a loose-head in instead.

“There are two good teams down in Siberia and there are two in Moscow – Slava and VVA Monino. Sport in Russia is driven by the Olympics and now rugby is an Olympic sport [sevens will be played at the 2016 Rio Games] there’s money from the government and the facilities for the national side are the best you can get.

“Now you’ll start getting boys who might have been basketball players or wrestlers going into rugby instead. They have a rugby history, a culture, and a huge population, 12 million in Moscow alone. There is massive potential and I just hope we perform well in this World Cup, so that a few more people pick up a ball.”

While Jones sees a bright future for Russian rugby, expectations for the team’s performance in New Zealand are rather more prosaic. Australia, Ireland and Italy await them in Pool C, as do the United States, their first opponents on 15 September. With the Americans only one place (18th) above Russia in the world rankings, and pitted against Ireland only four days earlier, victory is a possibility.

“The goal will be to beat America, challenge Italy offensively and not lose by more than 40 points,” says Diamond, who led Russia to World Cup qualification before swapping roles with Jones at Sale. “And to score a try against Ireland or Australia and not lose by more than 70 points.”

You won’t hear it from any of the Russian players - ostensibly they will be playing for their country, their fans and their team-mates - but for all of them the World Cup will be a shop window, with coaches from professional sides Europe-wide looking in.

Winger Vasili Artemiev was spotted by Northampton coach Jim Mallinder at last year’s Churchill Cup, where he scored three tries before being snapped up by the Saints. And although Artemiev, one of two Russians plying their trade in the English Premiership (the other is Sale lock Andrei Ostrikov), played rugby as a boy back in Moscow, it was as a student in Dublin that he honed his game.

“There were some thoughts at one point of playing for Ireland,” says the 24-year-old Artemiev, who represented Ireland schoolboys and Under-19s and whose accent when speaking English might be best described as Moscow brogue.

“But all my family live in Russia and I really wanted to try to qualify for the World Cup with the Russian team. This is going to be a big chance for a lot of the guys and hopefully there will be plenty more players coming to Europe.”

So what should rugby fans expect of Russia in New Zealand? A forward-based game driven by bent-nosed, knuckle-grazing men with only malice on their minds? Well, no, actually.

“It’s the total opposite of what you’d expect,” says Jones. “I expected to turn up and see lots of big, gnarled men from deepest, darkest Siberia, but we’ve had 100kg props and locks, and nowadays you get scrum-halves who are 100kg.

“There are actually a lot of strong, fast guys, around 6ft 2in, who run well with the ball. They don’t have a great deal of defensive structure in their club game. There’s more space, which is possibly why they’re confident with ball in hand.”

Artemiev, who acts as Jones’ chief interpreter on the training field, says Russian rugby’s on-field identity is still being built but that, under Jones, the cement is beginning to set.

“We’re only starting to develop a playing culture,” says Artemiev. “We’ve been playing against some good sides over the last few months [Russia lost warm-ups 40-12 to Newport Gwent Dragons and 46-19 to the Ospreys] and it’s only now we’ve started to realise where our strengths lie.

“We want to be strong and physical in the forwards but we don’t want to create too much slow ball. We want to set the platform for our backs to use the ball and create some scores.”

For Jones, his time with Russia - far removed from the professional cynicism that permeates the Premiership - has reminded him why he started coaching in the first place.

“I’m spending 70% of my time focusing on rugby, which is what I enjoy,” he says, admitting that his time as director of rugby at Sale left him jaded.

“It’s very rewarding when you see people improve. But I’ve learned about rugby culture as much as anything else. It reminds you what’s right and what’s good about things, how you enjoy rugby and the value of it. And it reminds me that the simple things are the most effective things and how the best teams in the world aren’t flash, they just do the basics well.

“I’ve been to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but to be going now to Moscow, to Siberia, all these little pockets where the game is played, making friends through rugby, it reminds me that language is one thing, but rugby language is the same wherever you go.”

 

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It should be a decent game against the USA, and I hope they win, but all in all its great to see the game expanding. It will be a good learning curve for the Russian side, and hopefully a few more players will get picked up by the more 'professional' sides. Signs looking good for the future and ever more competitive hopefully. Enjoyed the blog!!

  • Comment number 2.

    They also lost a warm up game to Gloucester, or do we not count as a "good team"?!
    I was the same as Kingsley Jones, in that i was expecting to see a team based around a large pack and a forward oriented game plan. so i was pleasantly surprised to see them looking to run from deep and get the ball wide at all opportunities. However, without a better pack and stronger set piece (front row in particular) the backs wont get the quick ball and space to work with; the only time Artemiev got his hands on the ball was running backwards and returning kicks.
    I expect Australia to put a cricket score past them, but i know they will make a lot more fans with their style of play and if the investment manages to tap into even a small amount of the potential in the country the balance of power in European rugby could shift quite quickly.

  • Comment number 3.

    Can England beat Georgia without Lawes and Sheriden?
    After the way they played against Scotland it will be a tough battle but England are good enough to just hold on for a slim victory.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ben, I'm really enjoying these articles about 'the rugby minnows.' It's brilliant to see how quickly the gap is closing (no doubt helped by Sevens) and I think by Japan 2019 we could have a very different rugby landscape.

    Given the performances of Georgia and Romania do you think some changes should be made to the Six Nations? I would like to see something like two divisions of four, or a rolling 7 Nations with the current European Nations Cup champions joining.

  • Comment number 5.

    Ben
    Please accept my apologies with regard to your previous blog. Your criticism of Wayne Barnes was not as severe as I had thought. What annoyed me was the following paragraph in your report on the Namibia - Tonga match:-
    "With 10 minutes remaining, Samoa were awarded a penalty try by referee Wayne Barnes - the man caught up in controversy in the match between Wales and South Africa when he failed to award a potentially match-winning James Hook penalty."
    I note your apology for the incorrect reporting and the fact that the "offending" paragraph has been changed.
    Another good blog on a "lesser team". Perhaps your strong point?

  • Comment number 6.

    “It’s the total opposite of what you’d expect,” says Jones. “I expected to turn up and see lots of big, gnarled men from deepest, darkest Siberia, but we’ve had 100kg props and locks, and nowadays you get scum-halves who are 100kg."

    Bit harsh to call them scum-halves? ;-)

  • Comment number 7.

    I hope Russia go well...good for the game worldwide and for Kingsley who is a proper rugby man and a good guy.I watched the Ospreys play them a few weeks ago in a warm up and Kingsley certainly has them communicating with each other, more chatter and bawling during 80 mins than I ever heard..They'll score a couple of nice tries maybe but defensive lapses will give them a hard task in all their games..

  • Comment number 8.

    Given the performances of Georgia and Romania do you think some changes should be made to the Six Nations? I would like to see something like two divisions of four, or a rolling 7 Nations with the current European Nations Cup champions joining.
    ----------------
    No not yet.

    Romania are actually still not as good as they were 20 years ago when they were actually considered most likely to join the 5 nations ahead of Italy. Neither are good enough at present.

    What I would like to see though is these teams being given games against 6 nation sides more often. The Autumn internationals as they stand are boring and quite pointless. It used to be an event when Wales played the All-blacks but now we see it every year it has lost it's shine, same with Aus/Saf. I'd rather see each six nation side playing one of the tri-nations, one European team and one other each year. It would keep the matches fresh and allow more teams to participate.

  • Comment number 9.

    Another good blog on a 'little' team. (Although little doesn't sound the right word to describe 100kg "scum-halves".) I hope Russia do well in the WRC and that they continue to aid others (Namibia, Georgia) in closing the gaps to the top teams.

  • Comment number 10.

    Definitely agree that bringing these strongly emerging nations through into regular european competition would aid the game. However adding another fixture to an already exhaustive international season is out of the question. I would rather have two european competitions with the bottom team of the current 6N each season being relegated and the top team from the other euro league being promoted. It may well be that two teams just keep swapping, but with the money that would come into the smaller nations then in time they will be able to become competitive teams and perhaps when we are all dead and gone it the RWC will be as competitive as the football one!

  • Comment number 11.

    Don't think they need to fear conceding 70 points against Ireland. I think that day is gone. But it's true the Rugby world is a small one. Coming from Ireland and living in the South of France, everyone here loves Ireland and has been to Munster etc; .... Rugby folk seem to make more connections than footie folk

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree with a two division european competition every year with the bottom team in the top tier being relegated and the top team from the second tier being promoted. it would be great to give some of the lesser european teams a chance.
    England, Ireland, Italy, France Wales, Scotland, Georgia, Russia, Portugal, Romania.

    Two leagues of five would be great!

  • Comment number 13.

    John of Burgundy - do you actually think that the author of the blog pays your criticism any serious thought? What is it with people thinking they have importance and clout just because they have the ability to log onto a website's comments section?

    Looking forward to see Russia play - a lot of these so called lesser teams are playing some fine rugby. Good stuff!

  • Comment number 14.

    @13 to be honest, I think it's the so called greater teams, not playing some fine rugby has a big part to play.

  • Comment number 15.

    Ben you may not like half backs but "scum-halves" is below the belt!...

  • Comment number 16.

    Ah damn you Eric Morcambe getting in there before me.

  • Comment number 17.

    Actually split the whole European rugby set up into divisions of 6 with promotion and relegation in each - allows potential for teams like Spain, Germany and Norway (where Magnus Lund's brother is Captain) to climb also with the likes of Russia, Romania, Portugal and Georgia. The bottom division would have the likes of Gibraltar, Liechtenstein etc...

  • Comment number 18.

    11.At 14:58 14th Sep 2011, collie21 wrote:

    Rugby folk seem to make more connections than footie folk

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I'd say if rugby folk were prepared to put as much effort into being as myopic and drunkenly obnoxious as footie folk, they too could be disliked as widely.

    It's not by chance that footie folk have gained their reputation, a lot of time and effort has gone into creating the perception. Credit where credit is due please!

  • Comment number 19.

    Its nice to have more countries joining in. It was once only ever played in British Commonwealth countries and only a dozen or so at that. Now its taken up by many European countries and in the Americas too.

    With heavier and more physical players now abound, there's a need to modify some aspects of the game, especially in scrummage. If neck and shoulder joint injuries are to be avoided, perhaps less players should engage in the scrum, and the ball should be released within half a minute of a put-in, and whichever side the ball is in incurs a penalty when the thirty-second limit is infringed.

    This in my opinion keeps the game flowing and avoids the obvious injuries from neck and shoulder charges.

  • Comment number 20.

    I need to agree whole-heartedly with the comments from everyone hoping for more games between the minnows and the pikes.

    I was delighted when Italy won their first Six Nations match, overjoyed when Bangladesh trounced Australia in the cricket and I'll be willing on Russia to upset one of the major teams in this world cup.

    There is something very satisfying about seeing the underdog win, it feeds the Boy's Own fetish in us all: plucky underdog comes through adversity showing true grit. To be honest, they don't even need to win, they just need to try hard enough to make us think they might just pull it off...

  • Comment number 21.

    Every four years (i.e. two away from a WC) miss out the 6N and have a european cup.

    16 teams, 4 groups of four, quarters, semis, final.

    Max any team will play is 6 games so not a big increase in workload from the 6N.

  • Comment number 22.

    @19

    The reduction of the effect of the scrum has already been done. It's called Rugby League....

    League is a great game for sure, but it's different. Let's leave scrums as they are.

  • Comment number 23.

    The romantic notion of promotion and relegation in the European competitions has been tabled many times by FIRA-AER, the regional association for European Rugby. The reality is somewhat different, as the 6 Nations is driven by tradition and commercial reality. Italy has quickly added to the tradition, but as yet not made the breakthrough in results, more than a decade on. The commercial reality is that the 6 Nations rely on the broadcast and sponsorship revenue for their funding and there is no way, at present, that they would prejudice that source. Scotland in particular are heavily dependent on their 6 Nations funding for their development programmes and
    professional teams. Furthermore, whilst Rome has added immensely to the 6 Nations calendar, it is questionable if Bucharest or Tbilisi in February/March will have the
    same appeal to the avid international fan.

  • Comment number 24.

    An article on Russian Rugby that doesn't mention Prince Alexander Obolensky, shame.

  • Comment number 25.

    Anyone who has watched Russian Sevens sides over the years, particularly at the London sevens will know what to expect - big mobile guys who are fast around the field and who support each other well. Always entertaining!

  • Comment number 26.

    Everyone is talking about how the emerging nations need to play more etc. and against better competition so here is a proposal.
    Why do they not make a plate competition during the rugby world cup for teams who finish 3rd and 4th in their groups. Would give more games to the emerging countries and the chance for a disappointed big country (e.g. Wales 2007) to salvage some pride back.
    Is a plate competition at the world cup not a good idea?

  • Comment number 27.

    Good luck to Russia but personally I dont believe the world cup gains much from the presence of 'minnow' nations. Russia should press for a second tier in the six nations with promotion to the top tier possible and THEN progress to a world cup. To hear a team admitting their major aim is not to lose by more than 70 points says it all. The qualification process is wrong.

  • Comment number 28.

    Hi Ben, can you please explain why the BBC is using the former Soviet Union flag to represent Russia rather than their proper blue, white and red flag? I am sure many Russians would be offended by its use in a similar way that Germans would be if you used their former state flag that contains the swastika. It seems to be being used completely out of context and only appears to be indicating a crass stereotypical view of the country.

  • Comment number 29.

    Gav - It's a fair point, I have no idea why the bloke is carrying a Soviet flag, I'll get onto the big nobs about it...

  • Comment number 30.

    re 27:
    FIFA realised the importance of allowing football minnows to play in their World Cup a long time ago. To begin with, nations from Africa, Asia, and North America were out of their depth but over time the playing field has levelled.
    Rugby needs to continue to allow access for the developing nations if it ever wants to have as competitive (and truly worldwide) a competition. And Samoa represent a good example of the benefit that comes from being able to rub shoulders with the big boys.

  • Comment number 31.

    An interesting read this. I wish that cricket was similarly inclusive of the so called lesser nations. There is no possibility of expanding the game if only 10 teams can play in the next world cup and those teams are already decided. I apologise that this is not a cricket blog but I think a change needs to be made in the structure and making it more like rugby would be an improvement.

  • Comment number 32.

    How can you expect to make cricket more popular if you make it a closed shop? Ireland and Scotland play in county cricket competitions regularly and not against the test playing nations; and never in test matches! I would like to see the affiliate nations be invited to the triangular tournaments that you see. An example of this would be England, Sri Lanka and India that could've happened this English summer. Let Ireland join in say and have a 4 team mini league with 3 games each. Then have a final for the top two. This would give associate nations game time against better quality players on a regular basis, thus giving greater chance to improve the world game. Ireland playing England in a one off (heavily rain affected) limited overs game isn’t really much progress, but an improvement of sorts.

  • Comment number 33.

    Why not let the affiliate nations play test matches too? If it's just because they don't have a test match quality venue then find a neutral venue. Pakistan have to play in neutral venues so why is this not possible? Even if the ICC make a second tier in the test match championship that runs over either 2 or 4 years so that home and away series are played it will give the affiliate nations a long time to get plans in place for player and coach development, grass roots development and ground development.

  • Comment number 34.

    This is clearly happening in rugby and it is a pleasure to see, even if it is only at world cups where it is most noticeable. I watch the 7's rugby whenever I get the chance and I love watching Portugal and Kenya as their styles of play are fantastic. It's great to see these tournaments as you can see that there has been great development (a word I feel I'm using too much) in the countries where you would expect rugby to be less popular. I'm very interested to see Russia play. I didn't realise they played rugby at all!

  • Comment number 35.

    Further to all of this, during the coverage of the Scotland vs Georgia game that I watched this morning the commentator said that Georgia came into the match unbeaten in over a year. 8 games unbeaten is pretty impressive. They have played in the European Championships, again a new one on me, and won with no defeats at all. They played a good game against Scotland and never really looked outclassed. I also saw that Steve Thompson commented that Georgia were the hardest hitting team at the 2003 world cup, or words to that effect. He was complimentary about their forwards particularly.

  • Comment number 36.

    I would like to see more inclusion of Argentina, Romania and all other teams too. There must be a way that a proper European competition can be played every 4 years too, like in football. This may take the place of the 6 nations every 4th year but if tradition is standing in the way of progress, particularly in a sport that could do with little bit of spreading the word style expansion.

  • Comment number 37.

    Sorry if this is a little bit off topic/bit of a rant/random/ (delete as applicable) but I can see a lot of similarity and difference with the state of rugby and cricket and both are sports that I really enjoy. The more nations playing top level rugby and cricket competitively the better for both games, in my opinion.

  • Comment number 38.

    P.S. I did write this last night but the page wouldn't accept it. That isn't a surprise really due to the length of the comment. Hope it's not too much and I know that some of it is similar to other posts on here now.

  • Comment number 39.

    I'm amazed at the number of people that supposedly follow rugby yet just make up complete rubbish about it.
    matt-stone #19 "This in my opinion keeps the game flowing and avoids the obvious injuries from neck and shoulder charges." What obvious neck injuries from scrums? The odd one happens but in my entire career (retired now) I never saw a player get a neck injury from scrums. And shoulder charges are already illegal. Do try to keep up, dear.

    #27 - "Good luck to Russia but personally I dont believe the world cup gains much from the presence of 'minnow' nations" you're clearly not in NZ at the moment then! The 'minnows' are the highlights of the tournament so far and it's been quite remarkable how general kiwis have taken to them as various "2nd teams".
    All the pre-RWC talk was that NZ would be myopic about the ABs and other games would have no crowds. On the contrary, it's been great just getting out to watch Test footy without being to worried about the result and just getting in behind the underdogs.
    Japan in 2019 is perfect timing, not 2011. As host I believe they'll be pushing for a 1/4final spot if they keep their current improvement going.

  • Comment number 40.

    Captain-K: you talk far too much sense for my liking. a plate comp would be ideal, but I fear it's a bit too forward thinking for the old dears in the IRB.
    The big games could be played Sat-Sun as they are, and the 2nd tier comp could be Weds-Thurs to keep interest. The biggest drawback of the RWC is you have loads of pool games and then it all dries up to the weekends just when you're wanting things to ramp up.
    It might also help the 3rd/4th game profile if the plate final was played as the curtain raiser.

    Anyway, tonight will be the true Test of how far the minnows have come. 2nd-string ABs beat them 145-17 in '95. Although the ABs have a 2nd-string look tonight, the Japs have also fielded a 2nd-string lineup. We should at least be the first team to crack 50, but to be honest I really hope nobody runs up 100 points this RWC. None of the teams deserve that score against them anymore.

 

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