Russian rugby - the history

As the Ospreys prepare to welcome the Russian national team to the Liberty Stadium on Sunday (KO 3.00pm), we give a breakdown of the history of rugby in Russia.


It is unclear when rugby first made its way to the Russian Empire. Games are known to have been played in Moscow well before the Russian Revolution, and around a decade before football first made an appearance. Rugby matches were played sporadically in the early 1880s, making it the first form of football to be played in the country. The sport's popularity was short-lived, however, with Tsarist police in 1886 banning the sport on the grounds that it was brutal in nature and likely to incite demonstrations and riots.


Records documenting the game in Russia following the crackdown are scarce, but there appear to have been occasional matches set up by visiting sailors while their ships were in dock at numerous ports. Certainly at least one game appears to have been played in Odessa in 1908 between locals and the company of a British trading ship.


However, it wasn't until 1923 that the first officially registered game in Russia took place. The teams that day were the Moscow River Yacht Club and the Society for the Physical Education of Workers. That game was organized by a Comrade Kozlov, who was later to become the first coach of the Soviet national football team and both codes had a strong relationship throughout the 1920s and 30s.


Rugby slowly began to establish itself in the Soviet Union, principally in Moscow, although other cities such as Minsk in present-day Belarus also had teams. An exhibition match in the capital in 1934 led to the creation of the Moscow championship, and two years later in 1936, the same year that Russian-born Prince Alexander Obolensky famously scored two tries against in England's first-ever win over the All Blacks, Soviet rugby had one of its most important years.


Firstly, it saw the formation of the Rugby Union of the Soviet Union - which would be marking its 75th anniversary this year, and secondly, the first USSR championship for rugby was held. It was created alongside a national football championship and one original side from both tournaments - Spartak Moscow - still fields teams in the top division of both sports. The game continued to develop, with notable key Bolsheviks pushing the sport's merits in encouraging courage and other attributes desirable in Soviet Man.


The Second World War and the disastrous effects it had on Russia's population meant rugby in the 1940s existed as occasional one off games in geographically disparate parts of the country. What little rugby structure was left in place suffered further hardship in 1949, when Soviet authorities announced rugby was "a game not relevant to the principles of the Soviet people" as part of the USSR's "struggle against cosmopolitanism," effectively banning it.


Rugby revived in the USSR only after Stalin's death with the staging of the World Youth Games in Moscow in 1957. The first documented games in the country in years saw Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium packed to capacity, but the tournament final between Wales' Llanelli and Romanian side Grivita Rosa was marred by violence on and off the pitch, threatening to send rugby immediately back into exile. However, enthusiasts continued efforts to grow the game across the USSR until the 1960s saw its genuine reappearance on the Soviet sporting landscape.


Vast expansion of Soviet industrial manufacturing saw funding for sports rise dramatically, and many factories or combines had sports outfits for their workers, including rugby sides. The same was happening at universities and seats of vocational education and 1966 saw an All-Union rugby championship held for the first time in decades. It was not held in 1967, but that year did herald the re-birth of the country's governing body for the sport of rugby union, the Rugby Federation of the Soviet Union (RFSU). It ran the All-Union championship again in 1968 and the tournament was held every year thereafter until the break-up of the Soviet Union.


It was at this time that rugby first began to establish itself in Siberia, with coal-mining town Novokuznetsk founding a team in 1967. A number of teams also emerged in Kransoyarsk, the city on the banks of the Yenisei which has gone on to become one of the present-day heartlands of Russian rugby.


By the early 1970s, the USSR had over 10,000 registered players and its national championship had expanded to 20 teams. Top clubs such as Slava Moscow began to establish ties with clubs abroad in traditional working class areas such as South Wales, where they toured in 1973. The next year, almost 40 years since the formation of its first rugby union, the USSR played its first international test match, losing 26:6 to Romania. The RFSU was admitted to the International Amateur Rugby Federation (FIRA) in 1975 and began playing in its European Championships the following year.


A series of internationals against other Eastern Bloc countries took place through the second half of the decade, and by the 1980s the USSR was scoring regular wins over Italy and Romania, threatening to become a powerful player on the international scene. By the end of the 1980s only France were keeping the Soviets from the top spot in the First Division, and Russian player Dmitry Mironov was noticed enough to play several games for the Barbarians. Delegates from the RFSU were in attendance at the centenary IRB congress in 1986, and the USSR received an invitation to take place in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 1987. However, the USSR's staunch opposition to apartheid meant South Africa's membership of the game's governing body saw the invitation declined.


In 1991, the USSR finally earned test matches against the world's top unions, including providing opposition for Will Carling's England in their Rugby World Cup warm-up at Twickenham, a match the Soviets lost 53:0 in one of their last tests before the break-up of the USSR. Following that collapse, Russian players played for the interim Commonwealth of Independent States team before the Rugby Union of Russia (RUR) was formed in 1992.


The first game played by the new Russian national team took place on June 6, 1992, when Russia beat the Barbarians 27-23. Russia's first game against a full IRB member was versus Belgium four months later in the 1992/4 FIRA-AER European Trophy. That edition of the tournament, the first time Russia participated in Rugby World Cup qualifying, saw the national side secure its first, and to-date only, win over rivals Georgia.


Since the realignment of FIRA-AER competitions in 2000, the national team has played its regular competitive rugby in FIRA-AER's European Nations Cup (ENC), often referred to as the Six Nations B. At the turn of the century, Russia continued its attempts to qualify for the Rugby World Cup and in 2002 hosted Brian O'Driscoll's Ireland in Krasnoyarsk, losing 3:35 but for the first time alerting the rugby world that something was stirring in the East.


Shortly after, in 2004, the Rugby Union of Russia underwent mass re-organisation, including relocating 4,500 kilometres from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow. Structures began to be put into place with the aim of bringing the Union to the top of European rugby. One of the first steps was the creation of a professional domestic league, which has operated since 2005 and has continued to grow attendances and quality. A near miss in qualifying for the 2007 World Cup spurred Russia on to greater success, and successive second places in the ENC saw the Bears finally qualifying for their first World Cup in 2010. Russia will play in Group C in New Zealand in 2011, where they will face the United States, Italy, Ireland, and Australia.


Rugby World Cup qualification was the first step on what is a decade full of potential for Russian rugby. Both the national team and domestic club sides are seeking increased integration into international competition and the decision to include Rugby Sevens into the Olympics means that significant funds have been unlocked to grow the sport across the country. Rugby is now on the school curriculum and many aspiring young players will get the chance to experience a Rugby World Cup event firsthand in 2013, when Moscow's legendary Luzhniki Stadium hosts the final Rugby Sevens World Cup.


It is hard to argue that Russian rugby boasts a very bright future.