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Q&A Sessions: ‘I want to leave a legacy in Russian rugby’ — Vuyo Zangqa

Vuyo Zangqa, a former rugby sevens player whose career was cut short by a car accident, has found himself in the unlikeliest of coaching assignments — taking the reins of the Narvskaya Zastava Rugby Club in St Petersburg, Russia. Now on tour in his home country, he talks to Luke Feltham about building a legacy and growing the sport on snow-baked fields

You’ve found yourself in South Africa again only a couple months after arriving in Russia. Was your network of contacts useful in organising this tour?

Yes, a bit of both. We have a budget for camps, but Europe is closed for everyone. South Africa was the only place where we could go and play games. The moment I spoke to the South African guys they were keen on playing, which is good competition for us. 

Your journey has been something else, taking you across different continents and multiple countries.

Yeah … When I first started coaching I was with South Africa [Blitzbokke], assisting Paul Treu. Then we went to Kenya together in 2013. And in 2015 I got back into the country and worked with the [Southern] Kings, and then later in 2017 that’s when I went to Germany. Towards the end of 2019 I accepted a contract again [with the Kings] and then obviously lockdown happened and we got liquidated. The Russian opportunity came and I decided to take it. 

Russia is certainly not the first name that springs to mind when you talk about rugby …

For sure. So what happened was that we heard they have a fully professional sevens series, during which they travel all around Russia and Europe. I was quite interested as soon as I heard the team is fully professional and the company sponsoring the team was behind them 100%. 

When that opportunity came it sounded like a better option than going to an amateur side. The team being professional makes things a lot easier …

I mean, these guys are more professional than the national Russian team! That was the selling point for me and why I decided to take the job.

That’s really interesting. So the entire league is professional?

It’s almost like the Currie Cup … even the World Sevens Series. They go around different countries, play tournaments, come back — train, train, train — and then play again. 

Has that translated into a big fan culture there? Are you getting recognised in the streets? 

No, no, no: it’s not big at all. A lot of people still don’t know about rugby. But I think that’s what they’re trying to achieve, because as soon as I was signed, our team had a conversation with a TV company. They did a short piece on my career and the team. It was the biggest sporting channel in Russia, so to get such coverage was really good and I think that’s what they’re pushing for in the next few years — to get more rugby on TV. 

They are already showing our tournaments live, but there’s not a lot of viewership because they don’t know the sport. We’re already in a good position in St Petersburg with the fields that we have, so a lot of people might be asking themselves “whose training there?” When there are tournaments we can also invite a lot of people from the public to watch. 

Would you agree that sevens is a good entry point for people to come to the game? I would think it’s less complex and easier to grasp for new fans than traditional fifteens.

Yeah, look, it’s very difficult when it comes to people understanding the game. It’s also about us getting the numbers at the moment. We have good numbers in terms of players coming through our ranks, our team’s systems. 

But when it comes to Russia in general, I mean, it’s a huge country … if they could get numbers behind rugby then they’ll definitely make more of an impact. 

And Russians are known for hard sports like judo and boxing, so it would be quite an eye-opener for the public if they learned rugby. Now, with the kids growing up, we want to start a generation where we give them the rugby ball at age 14. Most of the time, these guys are playing soccer.

Given such a huge potential, as you say, could you realistically see Russia becoming a top-tier rugby nation one day?

It’s difficult to say. It all depends on how much money people are willing to put behind the sport. The moment you invest more money, you do get rewards. 

But with Russia it will always be competing with soccer and their track-and-field athletics. So they would have to strategise and, obviously, allow rugby in schools. 

The weather will make it a bit difficult because obviously we don’t have a lot of indoor facilities. Playing in the snow is not nice, so parents will most likely not allow their children to come train. I had one training session in the snow and I said to myself that I could never see myself playing this sort of sport in this weather every day. 

Before taking up the gig, you intimated that you would have preferred to continue working in South Africa. Have your goals changed at all?

You know what, when I first got the offer, my main concern was the reason why I came back from Germany: I’ve got two kids — they’re quite young. I was a bit reluctant to take the job, because it would mean leaving South Africa again. 

But I said to the guys from the moment I took the job that I’m fully invested, because I saw an opportunity to grow something from nothing. 

If we could make this club a powerhouse club … most of the guys there have never won a tournament; then I first arrived in November they won their first tournament. 

Our discussions after that was that we wanted to create a legacy for the club so that 30, 40 years from now it’s something they could look back to and say this is where it all started. 

The selling point to the players is that they can actually have youngsters playing for the club and have their names up there in terms of what they’ve achieved.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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