Forgotten Nations of Rugby: Russia
Welcome to the ultimate guide to the forgotten nations of world rugby.
Each time we'll profile a smaller rugby playing country, so when world cup time rolls around you can amaze people with your knowledge of Portugal's back row options.
In all likelihood, rugby and Russia are not two terms that are readily associated in your mind. Rugby in Russia is very much a minority sport, but it is one on the rise in popularity, with increased press coverage and live attendances at matches steadily, if not alarmingly, growing. With some notable exports, world cup appearances, and Challenge Cup exploits placing them firmly on the European Rugby map.
In the national scene, rugby is certainly fighting an uphill battle. With an impending Football World Cup in the coming summer, rugby has a lot to do to force its way to the sporting forefront
But this wasn’t always the case. As with all Russian culture and sport, rugby was tried and influenced by the Stalinist regime. In 1949, despite having progressed alongside football, Stalin deemed rugby to be “inconsistent with the moral foundations of the Soviet man.” So rugby was prohibited and the National Championship was disbanded.
Fast forward to 1957 and rugby is restored; however, gone was the chance for rugby to develop as a national sport. So in this day and age how can rugby work its way back to national recognition.
Well, safe to say, 2019 World Cup qualification would be a fantastic start. Russia are very much still in the hunt for qualification to Japan. They’ll be looking to make their first appearance since they faced Ireland in the New Zealand hosted tournament in 2011.
They lost all 4 pool games that year but will still be proud of their performances, scoring the most tries of any debutant team in the professional era.
This year the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship will double as qualifier for the upcoming World Cup. Come the end of this tournament the best ranked team over 2017–18, Georgia aside, will qualify as Europe 1 and take their place alongside, Ireland, Japan, Scotland and other nations yet to be confirmed. The next-best team faces a play-off against Rugby Europe Trophy winners Portugal, with the winner then taking on Samoa in a cross-continental play-off.
So, there is still quite a way to go and quite a lot of rugby to be played.
Russia's rugby profile:
World Ranking: 19th
Biggest Win: Denmark 7 – 104 Russia
Most Tries: Vasily Artemyev
Biggest Export: Vasily Artemyev
Most Caps: Yury Kushnarev, 92; Viktor Gresev, 92
Most Points: Yury Kushnarev
Professional League: Yes
World Cup Appearances: 1, 2011
Best Finish: Eliminated at Pool Stage
The Home scene
What of the domestic rugby scene?
Well it’s actually quite healthy for the Tier 2 rugby nation. The top level is the Professional Rugby League which is contested by 10 teams and decided by 4 a team playoff come seasons end.
The last decade has seen 3 teams virtually dominate the final standings. VVA Saracens, Enisei-STM, and Krasny Yar have been ever present in the top 2 since the Russian Professional League was introduced in 2005. Recent years has seen record title-holders VVA drop off the pace slightly, with Enisei-STM taking full advantage and claiming 5 of the previous 7 titles.
Home domination is no doubt a tremendous achievement but the growing Russian league has a larger goal within their sights: competitive European involvement. It’s a lofty goal for sure but one that has to be the focus for the coming years.
Both Enisei-STM, and Krasny Yar took part in this year’s Challenge cup. Both finished last in their respective pools with just a single win between them. But what a win it was.
Krasny Yar claimed a major scalp when they shocked defending champions Stade Francais with a 34-29 win back in October. Considering this is their first outing in European Competition it’s a refreshing and encouraging sign of growth.
Undoubtedly the road ahead is a difficult and challenging one but for Russian rugby to evolve and improve they have to keep competing with the best in Europe. Continued European involvement and a World Cup appearance will be a huge step in the right direction.
Russian born, Irish trained
For those who are familiar with Irish Schools Rugby, you'll recall the years that Luke Fitzgerald’s Blackrock team claimed Senior Titles. Having impressed consistently Fitzgerald was welcomed into the Leinster set up and received an Irish cap not long after leaving school; a remarkable achievement indeed. But Blackrock had several stars in those years; another shining light in their triumphs was Russian-born Vasily Artemyev.
Having moved to Ireland to learn English, Vasily found himself a home at the beacon of Irish schools rugby. However, a successful school and university career led to a period of frustration and unrest for the talented winger.
He was denied the chance to represent Ireland at the Sevens World Cup when the IRB ruled that his residence was still technically Russia. His Leinster academy journey also eventually came to an end and Vasily was forced to find a new route to achieve his rugby goals.
He returned to Russia and landed himself a contract at VVA-Podmoskovye. From here he forged a successful career both domestically and internationally, and was a key figure in securing Russian qualification to the 2011 World Cup. It was here that he gained a chance to demonstrate his skills to his adopted country. A consolation try it may have been, but it must have been a sweet moment for the winger to touch down against guys he would have shared a school’s pitch with.
A spell with Northampton followed the World Cup and an eventual return to his native Russia. From here he’ll hope to continue to grow and prosper alongside the sport of rugby in Russia.