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.”