Surprise qualifier Russia hopes for Rugby World Cup breakthrough
Russia's rugby team squeaked in as a qualifier to the World Cup but has big dreams of winning a game in the tournament for the first time ever.
With little rugby tradition in Russia, the team trained by Welshman Lyn Jones has faced an uphill battle to gain recognition at home and respect from other rugby nations.
This will be Russia's second World Cup after it debuted in New Zealand in 2011. They scored an impressive nine tries and ran the United States close, losing 13-6, but took heavily defeats against the more heavyweight Italy, Ireland and Australia.
This time, Jones says the team simply wants one victory and he is focusing on its first matches against Japan and Samoa.
"If we could win a game of rugby, that would be just fantastic for us," Jones said at a press conference in Moscow.
The opening game against host nation Japan will be the "biggest game of Russia's rugby history," he said.
The former Welsh international -- brought in to train Russia's team a year ago -- admitted the match in Tokyo would be a "huge challenge" as Japan has been preparing for seven years.
"We have a plan, a few surprises," he said. "The good news is that we can beat them."
Russia unexpectedly qualified for the World Cup after Spain, Romania and Belgium were disqualified for using ineligible players.
The team is captained by Vasily Artemyev, a 32-year-old who trained in Ireland and played for Northampton Saints in England before returning to Russia to become a driving force in promoting the game.
Preparations for the tournament have not been as smooth as Jones would have liked. The Bears won just of their five matches during the Rugby Europe Championship -- a shadow Six Nations for tier two sides -- and were hammered 85-15 in their only warm-up match against Italy in August.
"We didn't expect to lose so badly, we were all extremely upset," said Artemyev said.
Russia's rugby is in its infancy, held back by vast distances and long snowy winters that rule out play for a large part of the year.
The domestic league contains just eight clubs and the top two, Yenisey-STM and Krasny Yar, captained by Artemyev, are based in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk some 3,400 kilometres (2,000 miles) east of Moscow.
© 2019 AFP