Moscow maul: Russians are finally falling in love with rugby

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After decades of indifference to the game, Russia is embracing rugby – it's even hosting a major world tournament next week. Shaun Walker reports from the touchline.

Petr Etko started playing rugby in the late 1950s, just months after the Soviet authorities rescinded a Stalin-era ban that had dismissed the sport as "cosmopolitan" and "bourgeois". On his retirement, he went into coaching, and managed the Soviet Union national side from 1982 to 1989. Now, in the twilight of his life, he has hope that he might see the game that he has always loved transformed from a niche activity to a popular sport in Russia.

"Back in the 1960s we didn't have video footage of rugby to watch, and we weren't able to go to the West, we had to learn all our tactics from reading books," says Etko, who now helps out with training sessions at Fili, a club that takes part in Russia's 10-team professional rugby league. "Now of course, everything is different, but even now, not everyone here even knows what rugby is. Some people still mix it up with rowing." ('Rugby' in Russian is 'regbi', while rowing is 'grebli'.)

That is starting to change, however, as the national side made an appearance at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, and Moscow hosts the World Cup Sevens next weekend, at Luzhniki Stadium, the main venue for the 1980 Olympics, and the stadium that hosted the 2008 Champions League final.

"Rugby requires aggression, an open soul and selflessness," says Etko. "Russians have all these qualities in abundance, and the best and most productive place to provide an outlet for them is on the rugby pitch."

Even the small interest in rugby that existed through the late Soviet period waned during the 1990s, with Russia in turmoil and a lack of funds and interest in the sport meaning that the little infrastructure that was there withered away. But of late, the country's Rugby Union claims that there has been an upsurge of interest in the sport.

"In the seven years since I've been involved in rugby here, there have been huge moves forward," says Howard Thomas, the Vice President of the Rugby Union of Russia, who was formerly the CEO of Premier Rugby in England and before that of Sale. "First we had the national team qualify for the 2011 World Cup, then we had the acceptance of rugby as an Olympic sport." Rugby sevens will feature at the 2016 Olympics for the first time, and with the focus on winning Olympic medals in Russia, the decision made it much easier to secure government funding for rugby. Finally, there was the decision to award the World Cup Sevens to Moscow, with matches taking place next weekend.

Television coverage of rugby is still limited, but now internationals and major club games are televised, and while this does not bring the vast revenues that professional football attracts, until recently, the rugby union had to pay for the television production in order to have the games filmed; now the channels themselves pay.

On a Monday afternoon, I attend a training session at Fili, who play at a small stadium in west Moscow. The club dominated Soviet rugby in the early 1970s, winning four consecutive championships, but has fallen on harder times recently, and now generally finishes in mid-table obscurity. Lacking the big government subsidies that some clubs from the regions enjoy, it is funded mainly by a nearby factory that makes equipment for space shuttles.

Prior to the session, coach Sergei Lysko gives the team a dressing down in a Soviet-era gym room filled with weights and training equipment, over their performance in the last match. I have never before seen such a collection of tall, stacked, healthy looking Russian men in one place. As some of them casually do pull-ups on the equipment, Lysko warns them that their game has to be improved before they take a flight to Siberia a few days later to play against one of Russia's strongest teams in the city of Krasnoyarsk. The huge distances involved are just one of the difficulties involved in running the country's rugby league. "It's a five-hour flight to Krasnoyarsk from Moscow," says Thomas. "That's like Saracens going to play in New York."

Apart from me, the only spectators braving the light summer drizzle at the training session are a quartet of stray dogs, gambolling by one set of goalposts, and Maria, the girlfriend of Evgeny Bystryakov, one of Fili's forwards. She tries to attend every training session, and never misses a home match. She has come to love rugby, and describes it as a "game for real men", though it took her a while to get interested. "When we first started going out, and I came to see a game, I have to admit I thought it was really funny," she says. "I didn't understand the rules, and it looked kind of silly. But now I understand it, I'm hooked."

The 38-year-old Lysko, whose playing career was cut short by an injury, has been coaching for over a decade, first the Russian national youth team, and then Fili. "Of course, it's hard to keep these guys involved in the team," he says. "We should really train twice a day, but it's hard because of Moscow traffic – some of them live up to two hours' drive away, so we can only train once a day. And many of them are tired of the low wages and look for other options."

Nevertheless, more and more people are taking up the sport. Thomas says that there are 28,000 people playing rugby in Russia, which is more than the number in Scotland, and asserts that Russia has every chance to become a "major rugby-playing nation in the future".

Etko says what is really required is for rugby to be introduced into the school curriculum. "In England, in New Zealand, of course they have a massive advantage, because so many young boys are playing it," he says.

"But rugby has always survived here, despite everything, and it will only get stronger in the future."

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