Sochi - Could
Russia one day be a major player in world rugby? The national team has
qualified for the Rugby World Cup for just the second time in its history and a
new coach says the country is full of potential.
"You'd be surprised how much promise there is in Russia," says Lyn
Jones, a former Welsh international who was brought in to oversee the
Russian side in August last year.
When the 54-year-old ex-flanker began talks with the Russian
Federation, there was little question of participation in the World Cup
to be held in Japan this autumn.
But after Spain, Romania and Belgium were disqualified for using
ineligible players at the qualification stages, the little-tried Russian
side found itself thrust into the international spotlight.
Jones, capped five times for Wales, told AFP the qualification was
unexpected but that the team "can get to a standard which will be
competitive and respectable".
Since arriving in Russia, Jones has been travelling the country to
meet local coaches and watch matches with a view to regenerating the
His task presents certain challenges.
The Russian league contains just eight clubs, which are spread across the world's largest country.
The top two, Yenisey-STM and Krasny Yar, are based in Krasnoyarsk, a
Siberian city some 3 400km east of Moscow.
And Russia's harsh winter forces play to stop for a large part of the year.
Nonetheless Jones remains satisfied with what he has seen.
"They don't realise how good they are," he says as he watches a
training session in Sochi, a Black Sea town where the side is preparing
for the Europe International Championships.
"With belief and more understanding, then they can achieve such great
things," the coach says, adding that he has found three areas that need
"Fitness is a problem, some concentration, and playing under pressure are three things we're looking towards improving."
In Japan, where the World Cup will run from September 20 to November 2, the goal will be to win at least one match.
A near-impossible mission in the face of Ireland or Scotland, the two
top teams in their group, but Russia fancies its chances against the
host nation or Samoa.
But the task given to Jones extends well beyond the tournament.
"There's a very real feeling that our team has not yet reached its
limits, that we can improve it," says team official Sergei Markov.
Russia has high-quality infrastructure in Sochi, where the men's and
women's teams train in the same venues. But schools that play rugby are
thin on the ground and travel between them for matches is often
impossible because of the size of the country.
As a result, many young people give up on training or lack certain skills.
"We need a real system to prepare young people... so that they have
the necessary techniques and arrive in the national team already
prepared," Markov added.
Taguir Gadzhiev is an example of the potential of Russian rugby.
Originally from Dagestan, his sport of choice was previously Mixed
Martial Arts (MMA), which are extremely popular in the Caucasus
"I started playing rugby when I was 18. Before that I hadn't even
heard of it," the 24-year-old second row says. Coaches praise his speed
and says he has a huge capacity for improvement.
"Lyn Jones asks for complete dedication but, more than that, he wants
us to be able to read the game. To understand the game in two seconds,
to work out what's going on," Gadzhiev adds.
The sport in Russia also suffers from a serious lack of visibility.
Overshadowed by a motorway, even the small Sochi stadium was not full
when the Russian side crushed Belgium 64-7 in February in a European
During the Soccer World Cup last year it served as a training
ground for the Brazilian team, and each time they appeared there it led
to traffic jams as motorists strained for a view.
Sitting on the roof of the stadium for a clear view of his players,
Jones is optimistic about Russia's chances in the autumn tournament and
"With a plan... anything is possible," he says.