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Profile – Russia: How the Bear came in from the cold at last

Russia head coach Lyn Jones

THERE have been some odd journeys in World Cup history but probably none stranger than Russia this year and how they ended up playing Japan in the opening game of this year’s tournament this Friday.

There are many layers to this yarn that need to be carefully unwrapped like a Russian Doll. John Le Carre would be in his element so we will take it slowly, step by step or should that be steppe by steppe.

First we must wind the clock back to 2002 when Russia unquestionably had one of their better teams with classy forwards like Sergey Sergeev – much coveted by France at one stage and Vyacheslav Grachev – leading the way.

And that was before three jobbing South African born and reared players – prop Johan Hendriks, backrower Reiner Volschenck and fly-half Werner Pieterse – pitched up in Krasnoyarsk to play club rugby, earn a few roubles and enjoy the delights of a surprisingly lively and happening city.

All three claimed to have Russian grandparents and the trio were soon promoted into the Russian national squad for the European Nations championship, playing in the two-legged World Cup repechage play-off against Spain in October 2002 which they won 58-41 to earn a final eliminator against USA.

I had watched the individuals concerned play against Ireland earlier in the autumn and only Volschenck caught the eye, a decent backrower but frankly no better than others Russia had on the bench.

But you couldn’t miss their rasping South African accents and a very miffed and highly suspicious Spain pointed the finger. The IRB investigated and although their judicial officer Tim Gresson was provided with documentary evidence that certainly hinted at Russian antecedents the bottom line is that no birth certificates could be found proving that their grandparents had been born in Russia.

Russia were unceremoniously kicked out of the tournament and fined £75,000 (suspended) which seemed harsh but the IRB were belatedly trying to make a point after soft pedalling a couple of years earlier when Wales got away with playing Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson

Whatever the case Russia were left seething and licking their self-inflicted wounds and those wounds never really healed. A couple of months later, it should be noted, they met Spain in the next European Nations Championship and, fielding an entirely legal team, thrashed the Spaniards 52-19 in Madrid with a venomous performance. What might have been?

Fast forward to the 2017-18 European Nations Cup – with matches home and away – which doubled up as the European World Cup qualifying tournament although perennial winners Georgia were already prequalified. In effect the second placed team would qualify directly to RWC2019 and the third placed side would embark on the repechage process.

Russia were struggling with a non-vintage team and there were other issues. On logistical and financial grounds they were one of two sides in the tournament to veto the use of TMO technology and that cost them dear when they entertained bitter rivals Spain. The Russians were trailing just 20-13 at the death when they clearly scored close to the posts, a touchdown which the referee, on the other side of a ruck, missed completely. It should have been a draw and Russia again only had themselves to blame.

Ultimately they finished fourth in EN1 and out of the World Cup altogether – but hang on a minute! An almighty rumpus was erupting over in Brussels where Belgium – fielding a host of ringers as was soon to be revealed – had claimed a shock win over Spain which saw Romania finish second and claim the automatic World Cup spot.

Russia, like Spain, were not impressed that an all-Romanian team of officials had been appointed to the match – despite vociferous pre-match protests by Spain – and then made a number of contentious decisions. Conspiracy theories continue to rage.

Old Communist block rivalries started to kick-in and Russia had for a long while wondered at the legitimacy of some of the exotic Pacific Islanders playing club rugby in Romania and representing the national team after a three-year residency. Take Sione Faka’osilea for example. Surely he had already played for Tonga in a World Series Sevens in Australia a few years back which rendered him ineligible?

Indeed he had, there he was on YouTube, and the Bears had absolutely no compunction blowing the whistle on Romania and once World Rugby intervened there was never any question of the Oaks avoiding expulsion.

In a tit-for-tat move Romania angrily pointed out that Russian flanker Anton Rudoy used to star for Kazakhstan but, having had their fingers burnt back in 2002, the Russian paperwork was in order this occasion. Rudoy had made a legitimate switch via the Olympic Sevens route, qualifying for Russia by playing for their national Sevens side.

But this was just the start. Spain, having alerted Rugby Europe and World Rugby to the ineligibility of a number of Belgium players before that game in Brussels – five were subsequently ruled ineligible – then found themselves under scrutiny. Whistleblowing can be extremely dodgy, you tend to make enemies.

Spain had been fielding two French-based players throughout their World Cup campaign – both unquestionably had documentary evidence of Spanish grandparents – who had nonetheless appeared for France U20 a decade earlier in their teens. Again under the World Rugby’s complicated capture regulations relating to U20 players – that have since been disbanded – this was illegal despite Rugby Europe having given permission for the duo to play for Spain.

Russia were in no mood to turn the other cheek and armed with all the details – from whence nobody can be quite sure but feel free to guess – they agitated strongly with others for Spain to also be chucked out.

It was dog eat dog with a complete absence of goodwill and rugby fellowship and when the dust settled one of the poorest Russian teams in history were declared automatic qualifiers for RWC2019.

From the outside it seemed a little ill-deserved, but Russians have famously long memories and for the Bears there was a warming sense of karma or a good old-fashioned case of what goes around comes around.

Since then Lyn Jones has been parachuted in as coach, a man well accustomed to working with limited resources, but you hold your breath as to how Russia might perform.

The signs are patchy to say the least. Yes there were a couple of good wins down in Montevideo in June at a quadrangular tournament but recent home defeats against Jersey Reds and Connacht doesn’t auger well, nor did an 85-15 thumping defeat against Italy. Nobody loses 85-15 to Italy.

As a final thought let us just savour for a moment the delicious irony of Russia opening up against Japan whose squad is chockful of Tongans, Kiwis, Aussies, Samoans, Fijians and, yes, two South Africans.

Let’s just hope the Cherry Blossoms have their paperwork in order if challenged.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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