Russian rugby begins new chapter
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.”
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.”