Ruck and Maul: Russians are coming to the World Cup... with the US in their sights

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The Independent Online

Russia are hopeful that their first-time qualification for the Rugby World Cup will open the game up to a vast new audience. That helps explain why Steve Diamond, the Russians' English coach, would prefer his team to go into Pool C in New Zealand next year, rather than the alternative of a group alongside England. "The USA are in Pool C," Diamond explained to Ruck and Maul, "and a game against them would attract a huge television audience in Russia. The country has around 19,000 registered players and the aim is to double that in the next four years." With two matches remaining, against Germany and Georgia, the Russians are assured of one of the two European qualifying spots, together with their Georgian neighbours. Tensions between the countries remain high after the 2008 South Ossetia conflict, so they will meet in neutral Turkey on 20 March, with the winners joining England in World Cup Pool B; the losers will face Australia, Ireland, Italy and the United States. The Russians have also entered the Churchill Cup this June, when they will play England Saxons in Denver, and in 2013 Moscow will host the Rugby World Cup Sevens. "The Russian people love ice hockey and wrestling so they identify with the physical side of rugby," Diamond said. "But Russia don't just play stick-it-up-your-jumper rugby. We also like to throw the ball around too."

Haskell shoots from hip

Good to see James Haskell isn't taking his triangular trouble with England and Stade Français too seriously. The ever-gregarious flanker tweeted on Twitter last Sunday (the day Martin Johnson let Stade know Haskell wouldn't be released from England training): "I'm taking sum heat at the moment. I've decided 2 arm myself", and linked to a photo of himself apparently in a gun shop, wearing an army helmet and brandishing some sort of automatic weapon. Très amusant, non? The grey area over Haskell's absence from his club's heavy 29-0 defeat to Toulouse at Stade de France yesterday is odd considering the fixtures for the 21st round of the Top 14 have been known since last summer, and the Six Nations dates even longer. Instead of returning to Paris, Haskell went to a benefit dinner with Johnson and the rest of the national squad in London on Wednesday night – and missed training the following morning with tummy trouble.

Johnno's beaten at last

Johnson lost a 13-year unbeaten record in Six Nations' Championship matches at Twickenham when Ireland defeated his side 20-16 last weekend. As manager, Johnson had won all his previous matches at HQ in the Six Nations, against Italy, Scotland and France last year and Wales this season. As player he featured in 19 Championship matches at Twickenham from 1993 to 2003, winning 17 and losing twice, against Ireland in 1994 and France in 1997.

Tindall heads Down Under

Mike Tindall wants to head off to Australia this summer – on tour with England, that is, unlike Melbourne Rebel-to-be Danny Cipriani, who is on the bench for Wasps against Tindall and Gloucester in the Premiership today. Tindall has endured eight international lay-offs through injury since the 2003 World Cup but must have been heartened by England attack coach Brian Smith's hint last week that he would have played ahead of Mathew Tait in the current Six Nations had he been fit.