World Cup debutants Russia set modest goals

MONINO, Russia, (Reuters) – Russia believe they can  win their opening match on their rugby World Cup debut with  coach Nikolai Nerush saying their inclusion is a big boost for a  set-up which receives “peanuts”.

A struggle to find talent has led to eligibility problems in  the past but with two players now at English clubs and a  Melbourne Rebels lock with Russian ancestry, the fledgling rugby  nation is targeting victory over United States on Sept. 15.

Russia then face Italy, Ireland and Australia in Pool C.

“We go to New Zealand with a simple goal in mind — hoping  to win one match,” Nerush told Reuters in an interview in  Monino, a sleepy Moscow suburb surrounded by century-old pine  trees where the Russians were getting ready for the Sept 9-Oct.  23 tournament.

“They beat us recently,” he said, referring to last month’s  39-22 defeat by the U.S. at the Churchill Cup in England.

“But we feel that the two teams are evenly matched and it  would be our best chance to get a win. As for the other three  teams in our group, they’re all in a different league.”

As three dozen players were going through their workouts  following a gruelling three-week training camp in the Black Sea  resort of Sochi, Nerush discussed the problems facing Russian  rugby.

The lack of major international experience is his team’s  biggest handicap, he said, pointing to the disparity between the  sport’s major powers and smaller nations such as 19th-ranked  Russia.

“In other team sports like soccer, smaller nations have at  least a chance to play big powers in qualifying, either for the  World Cup or European Championship.


“But rugby is different. Take the Six Nations tournament for  example — it’s like an exclusive club,” he said.

“So the World Cup is our only chance to face major teams but  the gulf in class is so huge that it often becomes a mismatch.”

Rugby Sevens’ inclusion in the Olympic programme starting  from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, however, would be a huge  boost to Russian rugby, Nerush feels.

“All Olympic sports in Russia are financed by the state and  we get peanuts but I hope that would change soon,” he said.

“With sound financing the game would be much more popular.”

With only 4,000 registered players and eight clubs playing  professional rugby, Nerush, who replaced Frenchman Claude Saurel  in 2008, struggles to find good enough players for the national  team.

“We only have a couple of guys who have played at top level  internationally,” said Nerush, who also coaches Russian  champions VVA (Air Force Academy) Monino.

Winger Vasili Artemyev earlier this year became the first  Russian to join an English Premiership side when he signed a  two-year contract with Northampton Saints.

Second row forward Andrei Ostrikov soon followed him to  Britain, signing with Premiership rivals Sale Sharks.

Nerush could also count on Australia’s Adam Byrnes, who has  Russian ancestry. The 30-year-old lock, who plays for the  Melbourne Rebels, has expressed his desire to represent Russia.

“I think his grandmother was Russian and he has the papers  to prove it,” Nerush said, adding that the International Rugby  Board (IRB) has already given its approval. “We’ve checked with  the IRB and they’ve given us their permission to use him.”


The Russians have taken all the necessary precautions before  including Byrne in their preliminary World Cup squad this time  round after they were disqualified from participating in the  2003 edition for using ineligible players in the qualifiers.

Then, following a protest by Spain, the IRB ruled that three  South Africans — Johan Hendriks, Reiner Volschenck and Werner  Pieterse — had been ineligible to play for Russia because they  could not prove their Russian ancestry.

Byrne will join his new team mates on a two-week tour of  Britain — Russia’s final test before departing for New Zealand.

“We’ll see if he really wants to play for Russia and gets  along with the rest of the team before we make a final decision.  We don’t want to create any animosity in the team,” Nerush said.

“The British tour, where we’ll play four matches against top  teams, including two clubs from the Premiership — Northampton  and Gloucester — should give us a good indication of where we  stand in terms of our preparation.

“In Sochi we worked mainly on our fitness and conditioning.  In Britain we’ll concentrate more on tactics and strategy.”

Despite all the shortcomings, Nerush wants his players to  enjoy their first trip to rugby’s greatest spectacle.

“Don’t get me wrong — it was a great achievement for  Russian rugby just to qualify for the World Cup,” he said.

“Look at Russian soccer — clubs have multi-million dollar  budgets, still they couldn’t find enough good players to qualify  for (last year’s) World Cup in South Africa,” he added.

“But we finally made it after several unsuccessful attempts  and it should give a huge boost to our game in this country. We  may have modest goals in New Zealand, but we want to show the  world that Russian rugby is not dead despite all our problems.”

Britain’s Steve Diamond, who coached Russia’s forward line  in 2009-10, thinks rugby has a bright future in the country.

“By getting to the World Cup, and if they have a good  competition, I’m sure that the game will grow,” he told Reuters.

“What they have got is a brilliant structure. In the last 20  years since perestroika sport went out of the window but it is  back now.

(Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin, (Chelsea’s  billionaire owner Roman) Abramovich — those people are firmly  into sport. Rugby now has the same credence as soccer.”

Around the Web