Rugby waited decades to be taken seriously in both countries – in Russia, it was briefly banned under Stalin as bourgeois, while the US tended to dismiss it as a sport for college girls or those not tough enough for American football. Source: Mihail Mokrushin /RIA Novosti
The United States and the Soviet Union's relationship during the Cold War was not unlike an immense staring contest, with a few sly kicks under the table – proxy wars, espionage and the like.
But in the sporting arena that rivalry was surprisingly graceful. Gymnastics and figure skating were typically the focus, the Cold War played out by twirling teenagers, with the rare exception of the Americans’ bruising surprise 1980 Olympic ice hockey win.
Now, as the Russia-US relationship again bristles with tension, there’s a perfect physical outlet, although it’s one that doesn’t come naturally to either country – rugby. This Saturday in London, Russian and US forward packs will collide in a match being billed as the “Superpower Challenge.”
Rugby waited decades to be taken seriously in both countries – in Russia, it was briefly banned under Stalin as bourgeois, while the US tended to dismiss it as a sport for college girls or those not tough enough for American football.
Now it’s on the rise. Fired into life by the inclusion of sevens into the Olympic programme from 2016, Russians boast one of the few professional leagues in Europe outside the Six Nations countries and hosted the World Cup Sevens in May. The target? To become a “rugby superpower,” according to Vyacheslav Kopiev, head of the Russian Rugby Union.
Russia’s growth has been fuelled in classic Soviet style, with funding and control from the national Sports Ministry aimed at an Olympic sevens medal in 2016. In true capitalist style, the US game has had to rely on donations and making a profit out of national team games, something that’s getting easier and easier now a burgeoning fanbase means the Americans can draw crowds like the 18,000 who watched their battling defeat to the New Zealand Maori earlier this month in Philadelphia.
Being at a Russian rugby game is an experience in itself. As with rugby fans everywhere, the Russian crowd tend to be middle-class and relatively educated. When it comes to the intricacies of the sport, that education is second to none, with obscure opposition players dissected and analysed by the experts in the stands. There’s passion, too – the crowds may be small but they love the game, which many see as a healthy alternative to Russia’s troubled football culture, plagued by hooliganism and match-fixing.
Russia only came to most rugby-watchers’ notice when they debuted at the last Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, four years after the Americans made their first appearance. A pool featuring Australia, Ireland, Italy and the US meant that reaching the quarter-finals was never on the agenda. Indeed the Russians lost every game, but won praise for their fearless attacking style, running 22 points past the Australians even as they conceded 68.
The star is Northampton Saints winger Vasily Artemyev, who speaks in an upbeat Irish-Russian accent, the legacy of growing up in Dublin. But his expat story is the exception rather than the rule.
Much like their regional rivals Georgia, Russia have a reputation for relying on their beefy forwards as a battering ram rather than playing an attractive passing game. Indeed, that’s often the case – it’s no coincidence that most of the Russians who’ve played for foreign clubs have been forwards like Sale Sharks lock Andrei Ostrikov and the former Wasps duo of Viktor Gresev and Vladislav Korshunov. Russia’s Welsh coach Kingsley Jones is well aware that having power in the pack could lift Russia to some shock results, so much so that he’s looking to bring in ex-wrestlers from the North Caucasus.
That’s not so say the Russians have no flair. After one World Cup Sevens game I watched, five-foot-five tall Alexander Yanyushkin was smothered by a huddle of children seeking autographs. But the tiny fly-half shoots around the pitch, making tricky jinking runs that liven up any game.
For now, the biggest weaknesses are the Russians’ often-appalling kicking and patchy discipline, the latter of which told last week when a sin-binning for Artemyev early in the second half turned an even contest with Japan into a 40-13 thrashing as the Russians lost all cohesion. But on the whole, things are looking up.
Even the venue for Saturday’s game against the Americans oozes hope for the Russians. The game will be played at Allianz Park in Hendon, north London, the home of Saracens, who are a driving force in Russia’s rugby revolution.
The 2011 English champions have taken eight-time Russian title-winners VVA-Podmoskovye under their wing, sending coaches to the rugby-crazed town of Monino, just outside Moscow, to train up local youngsters. The partnership also brings a change in branding for the newly-named VVA Saracens. Other rugby islands in Russia are thriving too – the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk boasts fierce derby matches between its two clubs, who have contested the last two Russian league finals.
While still a long way from being a full-on battle of the superpowers, this weekend’s clash with the US in London will see another stage in rugby’s quiet Russian revolution.
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