Funded on 'peanuts' but hopes for Olympic boost
Russia believe they can win their opening match in the Rugby World Cup, and Nikolai Nerush, their coach, says their inclusion in the competition is a big boost for a sport that receives "peanuts".
A struggle to find talent has led to eligibility problems in the past. But with two players now at English clubs and a Melbourne Rebels lock with Russian ancestry, the fledgling rugby union nation is targeting victory over the United States on September 15.
Russia then face Italy, Ireland and Australia in Pool C.
"We go to New Zealand with a simple goal in mind - hoping to win one match," Nerush said in Monino, a Moscow suburb where the Russians were getting ready for the tournament.
"They beat us recently," he said [39-22 at the Churchill Cup in England]. "But we feel that the two teams are evenly matched, and it would be our best chance to get a win. As for the other three teams in our group, they're all in a different league."
As three dozen players were going through their workouts following a gruelling three-week training camp in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Nerush discussed the problems facing Russian rugby.
The lack of major international experience is his team's biggest handicap, he said of 19th-ranked Russia.
"In other team sports, such as soccer, smaller nations have at least a chance to play big powers in qualifying, either for the World Cup or European Championship.
"But rugby is different. Take the Six Nations tournament for example - it's like an exclusive club," he said. "So the World Cup is our only chance to face major teams, but the gulf in class is so huge that it often becomes a mismatch."
The inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the Olympics starting with Brazil in 2016 would help Russian rugby, Nerush said.
"All Olympic sports in Russia are financed by the state. We get peanuts, but I hope that would change soon," he said. "With sound financing the game would be much more popular."
With only 4,000 registered players and eight professional clubs, Nerush struggles to find good enough players for the national team. Vasili Artemyev this year became the first Russian to join an English Premiership side when the winger joined the Northampton Saints.
Andrei Ostrikov followed him to Britain, the lock signing for Premiership rivals Sale Sharks.
Nerush could also count on Australia's Adam Byrnes, who has Russian ancestry. The 30 year old, who plays for the Rebels, has expressed his desire to represent Russia.
"We've checked with the IRB [International Rugby Board], and they've given us their permission to use him," said Nerush, who added that all precautions to include Byrne in their preliminary squad have been taken after they were disqualified in the 2003 tournament for using ineligible players in the qualifiers.
Nerush wants his players to enjoy their first trip to rugby's greatest spectacle.
"It was a great achievement for Russian rugby just to qualify for the World Cup," he said.
Published: August 9, 2011 04:00 AM