On 23 November the Russian rugby team played the USA at the home of London Saracens. Despite a 7 – 28 loss, Russia’s status in world rugby is growing.
The Bears qualified for the last World Cup in 2011, where they scored three tries in a defeat to Australia, and another against Ireland. Since 2006 they have been ever-present in the top 20 of the IRB world rankings. The 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup was held in Moscow, where both the men’s and women’s teams won games. Russia now has national and regional competitions for rugby union, league and sevens.
The country’s best players are on the books of professional clubs in Britain, and when a player leaves a Russian team, his replacement is often brought in from New Zealand. Surprisingly, Russia’s rugby capital is not Georgian-heavy Moscow, or even French-styled St. Petersburg, but the southern Siberian outpost of Krasnoyarsk – a nondescript industrial town where the country’s two most successful clubs, Yenisey-STM and Krasniy Yar, play their games. The Russian championship, whose 18-game season runs from April to October, also has squads from Moscow, its satellite town of Monino, Kazan in Tatarstan, and Krasnodar in the North Caucasus.
Russia’s national squad – its sbornaya – gathers players from all of these regions. Brothers Grigory and Valery Tsnobiladze, hefty veterans of Georgian stock, link arms in the front row but are opponents in Krasnoyarsk. Ramil Gaisin, the new fly-half and goal-kicker from Strela Kazan, is a Tatar. Winger Vasily Artemyev grew up in Dublin and now plays for Northampton Saints, but the rest of the team’s mainstays – flanker Andrei Garbuzov, number 8 Viktor Gresev, winger Vladimir Ostroushko – still play in Russia.
The squad have a Welsh coach in Kingsley Jones, and an English coaching team, as well as PR and social media managers. Their translator is Russian: Artemyev.
Below the professional league, the rugby scene appearing in Russia is strikingly modern. There are hundreds of amateur clubs, who buy their kit from abroad, follow global rugby news on Twitter, and share photos and videos from training on Vkontakte (Russia’s Facebook). Amateur games, from Amur in the Russian Far East to Yaroslavl in the west, are contested in out-of-favour stadiums, or untended parks in the shadow of apartment blocks.
Rugby’s top table may not understand the language in clubs’ Vkontakte groups – a try in Russia is a popytka; props are stolby (after the position that babies are burped in) – but their insights into Russian rugby culture will resonate with players the world over: the bond between team-mates and respect for opponents; the training rituals; the team photos, with mud on faces and children on shoulders.
The players’ skills don’t match their commitment (the New Zealanders are unimpressed at the standard of regbisty coming through), but the fact that the country is producing any rugby players at all speaks volumes for their enthusiasm: Russian schools don’t teach the game, and it isn’t shown on television. Young people who want to play must learn the rules and skills by watching YouTube; very few boys are as fortunate as Artemyev, who could afford to go to school in Britain and, wanting to give himself a chance for his talent to be noticed, chose Brian O’Driscoll’s old college.
Despite the senior team’s disappointing autumn tour to Britain, where they also lost to Japan, Russian rugby is developing. Many of the players that faced the USA flew straight to Dubai for a Sevens tournament, where their women’s team will also play. From there, thoughts will return to qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, with an away match against Spain in February 2014.
Anyone who watched the Bears play in London last week would wish them all the best.
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