Rugby League World Cup: Reward for Russian resolution

Dave Hadfield heralds the most remarkable of the emerging nations
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The Independent Online
THE very idea of Russian rugby league players might appear unlikely - not least in Liverpool, where they took up residence yesterday in preparation for the Emerging Nations World Cup - but back home they are men in demand.

Although the code was only launched in the then Soviet Union in 1990, when virtually the entire top echelon of their rugby union came to league, they already occupy a special place in the game's folklore. It was league players who formed the core of Boris Yeltsin's bodyguards when it appeared he might be ousted. They have a claim, therefore, to have played a role in determining Russia's history. Not even Wigan can say that.

Kevin Tamati, the former Salford coach who has spent time grooming the Russians, says they have also attracted interest from another direction. "Some have been sought out by the Russian Mafia, in the belief that if they are tough enough to play rugby league, they must be tough enough to handle anything," he said.

That Russian toughness will be tested in the Emerging Nations' World Cup this week, starting with their match against Scotland at Featherstone tomorrow, continuing against the tiny, but in league terms worldly wise, Cook Islands at Leigh and ending with the battle of the superpowers against the USA at Warrington.

The signs are that the Russians will make a reasonable hand of it. They beat the USA in San Francisco in one of rugby league's more remarkable events last year and, although they lost to a British police team in Moscow earlier this year, they beat Pia, the champion club in France, during a pre-tournament tour. Tamati has noticed a steady rise in standards. "I feel that the Russians see rugby league as a way out for themselves and it's very much the hungry fighter syndrome," he said. "They want to succeed so badly. Players can be a bit naive on the field, of course, but it is just a matter of time before they progress to an acceptable level."

The short history of the game in Russia reflects the turbulence that has racked the state over the past five years. Set up by a small act of revolution, it has been subject to the same forces of fragmentation. The game in Moldova is now run independently and they have their own team, competing with Ireland and Morocco, in the other group.

In Russia, the infighting has resolved itself with a national amateur organisation and a separate nucleus of professional clubs, glorying in the inappropriate title of Sodruzhestvo, which means harmony. It is from those clubs in Moscow and Kazan that the men unpacking their suitcases and checking out Liverpool's markets for cheap jeans all come.

"It will surprise a lot of people, but they are professionals," the tournament's organiser, Neil Tunnicliffe, said. "While they don't get paid like Hanley or Offiah, in their own society they are pretty well off."

Tamati, who has been involved with them since an unforgettable week at Pontin's holiday camp in Blackpool in 1990, believes that they will show that the trouble in getting the game off the ground in Russia has been worth it. "They have always played with tremendous enthusiasm and the players seem to handle pressure reassuringly well," he said. "They will get there."