By Denis Frank of RugbyPass.com
It isn't until May 2022, when the hosts of the 2027 and 2031 Rugby World Cups will be decided.
Russia's bid for the global rugby showpiece, launched in 2019, came as a massive surprise to many in established rugby nations. While Australia is still the odds-on favourite to be awarded the hosting rights for 2027, the oval ball game has gained significant traction in the biggest country on earth. There's no doubting the ambition behind Russia's bid, which now boasts the explicit support of President Vladimir Putin.
Signing a high profile rugby coach from "hot Africa" for the Saint Petersburg club Narvskaya Zastava was seen in Russia as a "veritable sensation". At least in the words of NTV sports correspondent Alexander Shcherba, who was standing right next to the famous Russian cruiser Aurora in the Saint Petersburg harbour, when he filed his report for Russia's third most popular TV network back in November 2020.
Sports reporter Shcherba faced the camera only a stone's throw away from where the famed historic battleship, now rededicated as a museum, fired the first shot in the Russian October revolution on the Czar's winter palace, a little over a hundred years ago, in what was then known as Petrograd.
That revolution brought the Russian monarchy tumbling down and changed the political landscape of the world forever. Admittedly, the consequences of the ongoing Russian rugby revolution are not nearly as consequential, yet they increasingly have an impact on the global game.
That new coach from "hot Africa" is Vuyo Zangqa. He was previously the attack coach at the South African Southern Kings, up until the PRO14 franchise folded in September of 2020, due to ongoing financial issues exacerbated by the COVID crisis. At the start of the tumultuous year, he could not have foreseen being in the world's northernmost metropolis towards the end of it.
The former Blitzbok, a veteran of 21 Sevens World Series tournaments and a Sevens World Cup, is one of many South Africans taking up the increasing number of rugby opportunities Russia has to offer – despite the cold climate and sizable language barrier . "Coaching gigs in South Africa were drying up at a fast pace and then I got the call from Russia. When I came here, I was really surprised about the level of professionalism. We have an entirely professional squad, perfect training conditions and a very ambitious vision for our club."
Narvskaya Zastava aims to become the most successful sevens club in Russia. The fully professional sevens league includes twelve teams, most of whom also feature in the professional fifteens competition Liga Stavok. Many of its clubs have used the COVID crisis to sign experienced players that have appeared on the HSBC World Series. Three Aussie internationals form the foreign player contingent of the Petersburg outfit, with Sam Myers, the veteran of 170 World Series games and a commonwealth games medal winner, being the most prominent name on the team sheet.
Zangqa's new employer is the beneficiary of a prominent Russian business owner named Dmitry Morozov, who is also the club's chairman. The former judoka made his fortunes, which are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of US Dollars, in just over a decade's time with the biotechnology company Biocad and some high-profile business partners like former Chelsea FC boss Roman Abramovich.
Morozov's spawning business empire is set for another huge growth spur, given it is one of only two producers of the Russian COVID vaccine Sputnik V. The vaccine carries the name of the first Soviet satellite launched into space in 1957. The space programme of the 1950s reflected the unbridled Soviet ambition of the age, an ambition now echoed in Russian rugby, and not just at club level, where wealthy benefactors are increasingly omnipresent.
When the Russian union first hinted at tendering for the 2027 Rugby World Cup, that intention was met with baffled reactions across the rugby world. Yet there can be little doubt, whether Russia would be capable of staging such a high profile event, given its legacy of having hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in recent memory.
"Our chairman Igor Artemyev has the unwavering support of the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. That for us is a very important factor – also we do have the necessary infrastructure after the Football World Cup", insists Anton Yurevich Khalisov, the spokesperson of the Russian Rugby Federation. The former flanker for Torpedo and Slava Moscow has witnessed the rise of Russian rugby over the last decade first hand.
The influx of South African players – more than 50 are currently plying their trade in the top two Russian divisions, many of whom with Currie Cup or Super Rugby experience – have added to the standard of play. Petersburg coach Vuyo Zangqa explains that players with top-level experience can expect to earn as much as they would in England or elsewhere.
That has lured players such as former Springbok winger Bjorn Basson, who boasts eleven appearances and three tries for the Boks, into the Russian league. Former Bulls and Stormers player Basson, now 33 years of age, was lured in 2019 from the Southern Kings to Enisei-STM, one of the two leading clubs from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk that has frequently featured in the European Challenge Cup.
While Basson has moved on to the American MLR last autumn, his former club Enisei has nevertheless expanded its South African contingent to five players, all of whom with Currie Cup experience.
That doesn't mean you should expect to find a load of naturalised South Africans in the Russian Sbornaya any time soon. The 2019 Russian World Cup squad contained no foreign-born players, compared to 16 out of the 31 men selected by Jamie Joseph for Japan at their home World Cup, many of whom contributed significantly to the Brave Blossoms 30 – 10 triumph over the Russian Bears in the showpiece opener at Tokyo Stadium.
World Rugby took a massive gamble by awarding its most valuable event to Japan, a gamble that more than payed off commercially and in terms of reaching new audiences. Giving the hosting rights to Russia, admittedly, would be an even more daring move.
Some hesitancy might stem from the fact that the 2013 Sevens World Cup in Moscow was at best a moderate success.
The massive 83,000 seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which has also been earmarked for the potential final of the 2027 event, was mostly empty over the course of the three-day tournament – a nightmare scenario for World Rugby with regards to 2027.
Russia's union has made some significant strides since though. The national team's home games still have to be played in Russia's deep south, at or near the black sea coast with its mild climate. Elsewhere in the country that spans eleven time zones, conditions are simply too inhospitable during the international window in winter and early spring.
Whereas Russia's matches in the black sea resort of Sochi used to be played at the decaying and outdated Central Stadium dating from the Soviet era, the most recent fixtures were staged at the shiny new Fisht Olympic Stadium. A venue that has hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Olympics, as well as six FIFA World Cup games. Before the COVID crisis, the two 2020 home matches in the Rugby Europe Championship in Sochi and Kaliningrad, drew a combined 21,000 paying spectators.
The domestic league has also become ever more competitive, thanks to wealthy benefactors and in part to a 6 million US Dollar sponsoring deal in 2019 with a sports betting company that bought the league's naming rights. Major Russian corporations, like the country's biggest employer Russian Railways, feature prominently on team shirts. Russia's biggest sports apparel brand, Bosco Sports, is now producing the jerseys for the national team.
All that points to the oval ball game slowly but surely becoming more mainstream in the country of 145 million inhabitants. Thirty years back, just before the Soviet Union dissolved, athletics was the most followed sport in the country. Dominating the medal table at the Olympic Games was somewhat of an obsession for both political leaders and fans alike.
Only since the end of the Union of socialist republics in 1991 has football become the most dominant sport in Russia, reaching its peak during the 2018 world cup. Following the footsteps of football's meteoric rise is a big ask for Rugby, but one that would surely require the national team to become more successful and the World Cup coming to Russia.
Staging a Rugby World Cup could spur interest in millions of Russians, who are yet to be familiarised with the oval ball game. For now NTV correspondent Shcherba, who reported on the arrival of South African coach Vuyo Zangqa, deemed it necessary to explain to his audience that South Africa in Rugby is what Brazil is for football and Canada is in hockey. Maybe just maybe tens of thousands of Russians will be seeing the world-famous Springboks in just six years time on their own doorstep.