A stubborn performance by Russia on the opening day of the Rugby World Cup where they came close to a monumental upset against host nation Japan, suggesting that rugby is a sport very much on the rise in Russia.
Russia took the lead early in the sold-out Ajinomoto Stadium with a try from Kirill Golosnitsky and, despite odds of 5000-1 going into the tournament, the unfancied Russian side held the lead until just before half-time, when Japan seized the initiative to go on to claim a 30-10 victory.
The 20-point margin of defeat is far smaller than many expected going into the game, but Russia have always been a dogged international side. And to fully understand the context of the result, one must delve into the history of Russian rugby.
Believe it or not, rugby union is the oldest non-indigenous sport to exist in Russia, predating football by around eight years. In the late-1880s the sport saw huge growth in various territories across the Russian Empire and clubs (many of which still exist today) formed as working-class communities took to the sport’s aggressiveness, technique and, well, fun.
However, it was later determined by the powers-that-be that rugby was a bad influence on the populace. The sport was “brutal and liable to incite demonstrations and riots“, according to an official release from the government at the time. This led to the sport moving underground as matches took place behind closed doors, far from the watchful eyes of its detractors.
Indeed, records suggest that just one official rugby game took place in Russia between 1888 and 1923, when a Russian club side (which officially didn’t exist) played the crew of a British trading vessel in Moscow in 1908, according to YouTube rugby analysis channel Squidge Rugby.
The crackdown on the sport ended in the 1920s but considerable damage had been done to what, at one point, had been a rapidly developing sport. Despite a governing body officially being formed for Soviet Rugby in 1936, it would be 38 years before they would play their first game.
From 1976 onwards, the Soviet Union rugby side began to see an improvement in form as the sport started to take hold once again at a grassroots level and they were invited to participate in the first ever World Cup in 1987, but turned it down for political reasons.
As the years passed the Russian team, as it then became, failed to develop as they might have. Funding issues were cited by many as the reason, but that changed in 2009 when money was pumped into the sport’s development when a variation of rugby – known as ‘Rugby Sevens’ – was granted Olympic status.
With the sport’s wheels greased, results sharply improved. They played in their first World Cup in 2011 and, while they lost each game, there were some promising performances as they scored numerous tries against some of world rugby’s superpowers, including Australia and Ireland.
This takes us up to the present day. The truth is, Russia will most likely lose all of their group games in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Friday’s defeat to the host nation will be followed up with tough tests against Samoa, Scotland and the world’s top-ranked team, Ireland, but these results won’t be the truest test of where the growth and development of Russian rugby currently stands.
With only a decade of finance backing it, Russian rugby remains light-years behind the top-tier nations – most of whom who have been playing top-level test matches for more than a century – but promising signs are certainly there.
For 38 minutes in the World Cup opener, the Russian team threatened to spoil Japan’s party in what is the first such tournament to ever take place in Asia. Backed by supremely aggressive forward play and excellent tactical kicking from experienced fly-half Yuri Kushnarev.
They have a backline marshaled by the outstanding Vasily Artemyev, the Russian-born fullback who grew up in Ireland in the same academy which produced one of the sport’s greatest ever players, Brian O’Driscoll. In giant lock Andrei Ostrikov, Russia have a player who has played at the top level of the sport in both England and France.
Perhaps the most impressive player currently in Russian rugby is their Dagestani openside flanker Tagir Gadzhiev who was described by one analyst as a “fundamentally violent man,” a characteristic which makes sense when you realize that he is also an MMA fighter.
Rugby flourished in this part of the world once it was allowed to, but now that the shackles have been well and truly removed from the sport, you can expect to see it continue to grow. This upward swing was evident on the pitch in spells on Friday, and will likely show itself again before this tournament is over, but there is more than enough to suggest that rugby can grow to greater heights in a country which is more than capable of providing the type of physical talent necessary to succeed.
The sky, you feel, is the limit.