No one expects much of them, and publicly they are setting modest goals for themselves, but quietly, the Russians are aiming to do more than just make up the numbers at their first Rugby World Cup starting in New Zealand on Friday.
The only debutant team at this year’s competition, Russia are rank outsiders for the tournament starting Friday, and most commentators consider it an achievement if they can avoid thrashings at the hands of Pool C opponents Ireland, Italy and Australia.
But coach Nikolai Nerush is targeting an opening win against fellow underdogs the United States on September 15, and says decent performances against the other sides might even bring a chance of qualification for the knockout stages.
“In the most favorable of scenarios, it’s possible,” Nerush said in Moscow before the team flew out. “It’s a difficult one to predict. Our main problem is that we don’t have the experience, but on the other hand, that could be a plus because no one expects anything from us,” he said.
Team director Kingsley Jones was perhaps more realistic about a nation that some bookmakers have at odds of 1000/1 to win the competition outright: “If we’re going to get a win, that’s our best opportunity,” he said of the U.S.
The Bears are seeking to make up for a 39-22 defeat to the Americans during last year’s Churchill Cup, and team captain Vladislav Korshunov, a veteran hooker with 54 caps, sees the rematch in New Plymouth as a chance to destroy stereotypes about Russia’s rugby naivety.
“It’s within us to beat the Americans,” Korshunov said. “The main thing is to approach the match in a good psychological state, but not to overcook it. Everyone in the team has desire, the important thing is that it doesn’t come out as nerves.”
Should doubts creep in, Russia can look to the debut performances of Western Samoa in 1991 and Uruguay in 1999 for inspiration. Western Samoa got to the quarterfinals in Britain, while Uruguay registered a pool win against fellow debutants Spain in Scotland.
Expectations among Russia fans are understandably lower than for those two nations, where rugby is one of the most popular national pastimes. Russia’s contact sport of choice is ice hockey, and few have heard of rugby. There are only 177 clubs in the country; compared to 600 in New Zealand, whose population is 30 times smaller.
To some degree Russia compensate for their shortfall in international experience by including five foreign-based players in their 30-man squad, which also counts Jones and former dual code international Henry Paul among its coaching staff.
The five are Melbourne Rebels lock Adam Byrnes, who qualifies to play for Russia through Soviet-born maternal grandparents; Northampton Saints wing Vasily Artemyev; Sale Sharks lock Andrey Ostrikov; Viatcheslav Grachev (France); and Konstantin Rachkov, who plays for Jonah Lomu’s Stade Phoceen in Marseille.
The Bears side that arrived in Auckland on Tuesday also features wing Andrey Kuzin, who needs one cap to equal USSR legend Igor Mironov’s all-time record of 74. It also includes the country’s two most-capped forwards, Alexey Khrokin and Grachev, and another four players on more than 50 caps. A further three could reach that milestone in pool play.
Youth has also been given its chance with Denis Antonov and Mikhail Sidorov; two of a promising batch of young Moscow players. The Slava pair are two of three forwards to have won less than five caps, the third being Novokuznetsk hooker Valeriy Tsnobiladze.
Fourteen of the squad play for Russian champions VVA-Podmoskovye, from the Moscow region town of Monino, the highest number of single-club representatives among any team at the World Cup. The sleepy town, population just 20,000, is considered Russia’s rugby capital.
Russia qualified for the World Cup, their greatest achievement to date, thanks to a second-place finish in the 2009-10 European Nations Cup, a second-tier Six Nations tournament. But the immediate buildup to New Zealand has been less successful.
They were thrashed in all four games of their August tour of Britain, where weaknesses in the scrum were persistently exposed on the way to conceding a total 190 points against Gloucester, Northampton Saints, the Ospreys and the Newport Gwent Dragons. Centre Igor Galinovsky suffered a broken leg against the Dragons that ruled him out of the World Cup. He was replaced by Sergey Trishin.
Jones told RIA Novosti that 18 of the tries they let through on tour were the result of turnover scrums and dropped balls, and added he wished he could cram a decade’s worth of experience into the side’s young props. Lethargic play at the breakdown, missed tackles and bad coordination at set pieces were also among Jones’ concerns.
It was a tough lesson that left the Bears in no doubt that if they are to make the right kind of impact at the World Cup, they must sharpen their teeth.