Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at Russia.
Russia had probably the craziest qualification that a team has faced. With Georgia automatically qualified, the other 5 teams in the 2017 and 2018 Rugby Europe Championships were competing for the Europe 1 spot, with their results from those 2 tournaments – excluding the matches against Georgia – creating their own table and the most successful team qualifying.
Russia’s 4 wins and 4 losses should have left them in 3rd, behind Romania and Spain, who both managed 6 wins. However, points deductions for Romania, Spain and Belgium for fielding ineligible players saw the Russians elevated to the top spot. Following appeals, it was confirmed on 7th June 2018 that the points deductions would remain and that Russia would be appearing at the World Cup as Europe 1.
Considering that on pure results Russia were not expected to appear in the World Cup, it is probably no surprise that their build-up to the tournament had limited success. They finished 4th in the 2019 Rugby Europe Championship with wins against just Belgium and Germany. In the 2019 Nations Cup, they lost in Uruguay but won at Argentina B and Namibia to finish 2nd. In their final warm-up matches, they were hammered 85-15 away to Italy before losing 22-35 to Jersey and 14-42 to Connacht, however they did manage a 40-0 victory over a Russian Club XV.
- Pool Stages (5th in Pool A)
- Japan 30-10 Russia
- Russia 9-34 Samoa
- Ireland 35-0 Russia
- Scotland 61-0 Russia
While Russia did not come close to winning a match, they were certainly able to come away from the tournament with their heads held high, especially considering they weren’t expecting to compete in the tournament.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one expecting them to get routed in their matches following their poor warm-up performances, but in the tournament opener against Japan, they looked very dangerous and it was only late on that they fell off in the game, while a number of their attacks came to premature ends due to the heat and humidity leading to handling errors. Despite a short turnaround, they put in another strong performance against a fresh Samoan squad and can feel aggrieved that they did not play over half of the match against 13 men after Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u both got away with yellow cards for clear red card offences.
Despite Ireland fielding a heavily changed lineup, after 2 tries in the opening 15 minutes it looked like the Irish would run away with it. However, despite not making many chances of their own, the Bears made themselves incredibly hard to break down and limited their opponents to just 5 tries. Unfortunately, the Scotland match was a step too far and an overly passive defence was ripped to shreds by a free-flowing, attack-minded team.
Throughout the tournament, there were some fantastic performances, most notably from Tagir Gadzhiev, who was monumental throughout the tournament with great all-round performances. Wingers Kirill Golosnitskiy and German Davydov consistently made metres while also looking good in defence and int he kicking game, while captain Vasily Artemyev led the team with good performances, even if I feel that he struggled at times when forced to kick.
This is certainly an interesting time for Russia. Their squad for the tournament was the oldest in this year’s edition of the competition – almost half of the squad were aged over 31 – with no players from their last 5 years’ worth of U20s squads. It feels like this is a squad that could be about to enter a hard time. Of course, following recent news, it may be that Russia are unable to compete at RWC2023 anyway, as Russia has been given a 4-year ban from all major sporting events, so it may be that the next 4 years becomes about rebuilding with a view to qualifying for the 2027 tournament.
Whether they are aiming for 2023 or 2027, they have some great players to build a team around. Fly half Yuri Kushnarev may be reaching the end of his career, but they still have an experienced option in the form of Ramil Gaisin, who put in some strong performances in Japan. Gadzhiev, Davydov and Golosnitskiy are some of the youngest members of the squad, who the team should be built around over the coming years, as is prop Valery Morozov – the only member of the squad currently playing in one of the top European leagues.
While the youth needs to start coming through from the U20s and the 7s pathways, Russia needs more players playing in the elite leagues if they are to have any chance of being competitive in the World Cups and when pushing for qualification. It’s hard to imagine that teams would not have Gadzhiev on their radar and players like him could excel if they can get regular minutes in the Pro14, Premiership or Top 14. However, much like Georgia, I feel that for more long-term success, Russia needs to look at getting a franchise into the Pro14. Enisei-STM (7 wins) and Krasny Yar (2 wins) have won the Russian domestic league between them for the last 9 years and have both appeared in the European Rugby Challenge Cup over recent years, so one of these would be an ideal candidate, unless they wished to create an entirely new franchise. Regular rugby would allow Russia’s top players to compete at an elite level against the best of the best and, while it may take a while for them to be super competitive, I can’t help but feel that right now this would be more beneficial for the growth of the game than having the Southern Kings taking up space in the Pro14.
Are we seeing the end of Russia as a competitive team for the near future? I hope no, but only time will tell.