Sporting life

Banned by the Tsar and pardoned by Khrushchev, Russian rugby has a long history
September 21, 2011

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 have been far removed.” The Soviet style of play led French writer Denis Lalanne to enthuse that they “produced more open rugby in 20 minutes than Romania had in 20 years.” When in 1988 the Soviets defeated New Zealand and England to reach the semi-final of the Student World Cup, Rugby World magazine saw them “defeating the New Zealanders comprehensively at their own game.” In the same year, the senior team beat the US in Moscow in a Superpower Challenge, described as “ill-tempered but spectacular.”

But the Romanian writer Chris Thau noted in the late 1980s: “The mechanistic nature of [the Soviet] tuition system does not allow for the creativity normally associated with the game of rugby.” The record of Soviet football might also support this view.

Rugby in any case never rivalled the popularity of soccer and the break-up of the Soviet Union brought both economic chaos and the splitting off of Georgia. This left the Russian game with a rump of 16 clubs, divided between Moscow and the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, 3,000 miles away. When Russia’s World Cup qualification looked possible in 2003, the campaign was derailed when an imported group of South African-born players was ruled ineligible.

That fiasco brought reorganisation. The Rugby Union of Russia moved from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow under the presidency of businessman Viatcheslav Kopyov, who helped fund a new national championship in 2005. Standards vary and league membership has been unstable, but the leading clubs offer pay that Russia’s assistant team manager Sergey Markov reckons is “comparable to levels in the second and third divisions of the French league.”

Rugby’s international bodies have also helped. The International Rugby Board provides £400,000 a year to fund Russia’s international coaches, facilities and fixture list. Moscow will host the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup and the admission of sevens as an Olympic sport, says Markov, “means we can get much more support from government and other sources.”

This progress helped Russia to qualify for this World Cup. Russia should win friends with a playing style that echoes the one that charmed Lalanne a generation ago. Yet it is asking a lot for a rookie team ranked 19th out of the 20 qualifiers (only Namibia is lower) to do more than make a good impression, particularly given a brutal programme of four matches in 16 days.

The squad, though, is young. By the next World Cup in 2015, those young players will be experienced campaigners. Perhaps by then the next Red Russian menace will be to rugby’s geopolitical inversion.