/ 31 July 2007

Russians target 2011 World Cup

Russian rugby has come a long way since the Stalinist dark days when the former Soviet dictator banned it for being too bourgeois.

Now with a French coach in charge and with a marketing guru in place, the Russian federation is aiming to qualify for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

”Rugby is on the rise in Russia now,” Russia’s Rugby Union (RRU) chief Vyacheslav Kopyov told Agence France-Presse.

”We were just one step away from a place in this year’s World Cup finals and I believe we will be capable of winning a place in the New Zealand finals four years from now.”

In April, the RRU hired 58-year-old coach Claude Sorel.

The Frenchman, who has previously coached Georgia, Morocco and Tunisia, is considered one of the most experienced managers in the rugby world.

”He’s very experienced and we are counting on him,” Kopyov said.

”And most importantly, he has a lot of winning experience.”

The RRU has also hired marketing guru Howard Thomas, a former executive director of the English Premiership as an adviser.

Thomas has promised to develop a strategy for turning the recently-created Professional Rugby League into a money-making venture that would attract plenty of potential advertisers.

”Russia still has huge potential. Just remember how strong was the Soviet national side!” Thomas said.

”I believe it’s possible to raise the Russian league up to the standards of the English Premiership. Otherwise I would never have accepted the RRU proposal.”

Rugby has a longer history in Russia than one might think.

The first official match took place in Moscow in 1923 while the first official championship of the Soviet Union was won by Dynamo Moscow in 1936.

But efforts to revive the game after World War II were doomed.

In 1948, Stalin labelled rugby a past-time for capitalists and introduced a complete ban for almost a decade.

There was a thaw under Krushchev when it was one of the sports played at the International Festival of Youth and Students in 1957.

That match aroused tremendous public interest, but it was not until 1966 that a national federation was re-established and the national championship was re-launched.

However, rugby was still slow to develop, reflecting the difficulties of other sports, which were not a part of the Olympic movement — the sphere of the Soviets’ main interest.

The game suffered from lack of official attention and constantly poor funding.

Nonetheless in 1975 the Soviet rugby ruling body joined the International Amateur Rugby Federation and the national team began to participate at European championships.

While never winning the European title, the Soviet squad did manage to clinch three bronze medals (1978, 1981, 1983) and several silver (1985-1987, 1989, 1990) at the championships.

This steady progress was rewarded with an invitation to the first World Cup in 1987 — held in New Zealand and Australia — but this incentive was rejected by the Soviet authorities, who refused to let their team travel to the event for political reasons.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 did not mean a rapid rise of the game in Russia as the domestic league suffered seriously from the departure of strong players from other ex-Soviet states, notably Georgia and Ukraine.

But today’s Russian league looks increasingly confident.

Seven clubs are currently competing for the title of national champion, while the national side has just re-entered the top division in the European championships.

Sorel, who is on a tour of inspection of the country’s clubs and players, said he was surprised by the strong physical condition of Russia’s players, although he noted that they still fall short in the areas of tactics and team spirit.

Sorel has not been wasting his time however.

He has already achieved his first goal, leading the Russian squad to victory at the European sevens Cup earlier this month. – Sapa-AFP