Banned by the Tsar and pardoned by Khrushchev, Russian rugby has a long historyby Huw Richards / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Rugby union inverts conventional geopolitics: the US and Japan are lovable underdogs and the superpower is New Zealand, where the World Cup is under way. The tournament’s cast is familiar and of the 20 teams participating, 19 played in the last World Cup. The newcomer is another geopolitical giant turned sporting minnow—Russia, which qualified for the first time.
Yet rugby has a long history in Russia. It was introduced in around 1886 by a Scotsman named Hopper and played in Moscow with such vigour that the Tsarist authorities banned it for being “brutal and likely to initiate demonstrations and riots.”
The first Soviet-era match was in 1923, between Moscow River Yacht Club and the Society for the Physical Education of Workers. Education Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky called rugby “a gentlemanly battle that encourages courageous qualities… a sport that should be widely practiced.” It was introduced to schools and colleges in 1926. The game grew in the 1930s and in 1936, the Rugby Union of the Soviet Union was formed. National championships took place every year from 1936 to 1939, until the second world war intervened.
In 1949 there came an official policy shift: rugby was declared “a game not relevant to the principles of the Soviet people.” It was banned until 1957 when, during the Khrushchev thaw, an exhibition tournament was played alongside the World Student Games in Moscow. The final, between Llanelli, the Welsh club side and Grivitza Rosie of Romania, was a brawl. Nevertheless Llanelli outside-half Carwyn James, a Russian-speaker trained during national service as a coding specialist, recalled: “After a fortnight in which the Russians took copious notes about everything that Llanelli did, their parting words to us were ‘come back in 20 years and we’ll play you.’” Sadly the offer was never taken up.
In the 1960s, the USSR increased spending on sport and the Rugby Federation and the national championship re-formed. There was development in Siberia and non-Russian republics, notably Georgia, where the game was especially strong. Four consecutive second-place finishes in the FIRA (European Continental) Championship, always behind France, show how far Soviet rugby had developed by the 1980s.
In 1992 Chris Rhys, the author and rugby journalist, argued that “had there been just a little more organisation, a little more finance, a little more coaching and better communication with the outside world, then their emergence as one of the stronger rugby nations might not…