The old-timer at Moscow’s Slava Rugby Stadium was keen to tell his story. Long retired from playing, he remembered how the oval-ball code was something of a politically subversive gesture in the Soviet Union. Not exactly banned, somewhat frowned upon – and this in a land where any opportunity to show off the sporting prowess of a socialist system was eagerly embraced and enthusiastically nurtured.
Today, though, was cup final day. Slava, celebrating its 40th anniversary season, had battled its way to the Russian Cup final. Up against a powerful Yenisei-STM team from the rugby stronghold of Krasnoyarsk, the odds were against the Muscovites. However, with Russia’s national team away in Uruguay bidding (unsuccessfully) for a place at the 2015 World Cup, most of the top players were unavailable. That hit Yenisei far harder than Slava and offered hopes of a competitive game.
The downside, of course, was that it rather undermined the sense of occasion. What could have been a showpiece occasion for an emerging sport was downgraded into almost a second XV clash. While the crowd was better than the average league game, and there was a promise of some rare TV coverage, the short walk from Novoslobodskaya metro to the ground did not scream ‘big game atmosphere’. In recent years, Moscow had hosted IRB World Sevens action at Luzhniki and a junior international tournament at Slava, but this was not going to be an occasion to consolidate the interest generated by those events. It was almost like the bad old days: not obscured, but hardly encouraged.
Rugby’s image problem in Soviet times was obvious. It’s easy enough for English sports fans to weary of the stereotypical braying toff reliving his expensive schooldays in a protracted kidulthood. Throw in a hand of old-fashioned class conflict, and your beer-swilling flanker becomes an agent of the international conspiracy against the honest proletariat. State policy wasn’t far off decreeing that ‘four-and-twenty less’ was merely a good starting point.
Even so, there is a long history. Slava’s ground dates from the 1930s – only now, almost 90 years on, are there plans for an extensive upgrade to create a 10,000-seater stadium suitable for hosting international action. The current version has two stands, one covered, atop high walls. The view of the action is good, the distance from the action somewhat off-putting. A small terrace behind one in-goal area completes the spectator facilities, the capacity is estimated a 2,500. Much as it might suit a club like Hartlepool Rovers, it’s hardly the location for a major national cup final.
The ground was built at around the same time as the Soviets established their Rugby Football Union in 1936. The same year saw probably the most famous Russian rugby player burst onto the international scene with a spectacular try on his debut to set up a historic victory over the All Blacks. However, back in the USSR, this was something of a PR own goal: Sergei Obolensky was an exiled prince, a scion of the Rurik dynasty who fled revolutionary Petersburg as a babe in arms. His famous feats came in an England jersey. Had he been a talented tractor driver from Taganrog, the story might have been so different.
Instead, a combination of suspected bourgeois tendencies and wartime strife pushed Soviet rugby into the shadows. It wasn’t until 1974 that the first official international took place. Slava was formed that same year – banners around the ground celebrated ’40 years in the game’. The club grew from a local clock factory, but bad timing hampered Soviet hopes of making a mark internationally. The national team declined an invitation to play at the first World Cup in 1987, protesting the involvement of apartheid South Africa. In 1991, as the country fell apart, there was no agreed successor nation ready to take the USSR’s place in the second edition of the championship. Then came a long sequence of failed qualification campaigns, disqualifications and a battle to secure funding in the face of a push for more investment in rugby league. All the general aggravation of planting the seeds of a new sport on stony ground.
My new friend, though, saw grounds for optimism. Russia’s appearance at the 2011 World Cup brought no wins but plenty of positives. The sight of leading Russian players getting a chance at European clubs offered more hope and Yenisei was preparing to play in the European Challenge Cup. It would be nice to report that his enthusiasm was borne out by a high-quality cup final. However, the reality fell short. Missing so many key players, Yenisei were disjointed but still too strong for Slava. But the quality of play was not high. Too many fluffed line-outs, missed tackles, handling errors. It was a reminder of just how hard top-level rugby is, and how it takes more than a pack of burly blokes willing to go where it hurts. There were some flashes of flair, mostly from Yenisei full-back Igor Kurashov. He scored three tries against his former club to secure his first cup win in a trophy-laden career.
But the overall standard was not high, certainly not in comparison with the big European leagues. And therein lies the problem. In Russia, for a sport to capture the public imagination, the nation needs to succeed. Plucky defeats are of limited interest for a fanbase that tends to cheer first and foremost for medals. Russia has the population and the sporting infrastructure to develop a strong rugby programme, the challenge is to engineer a high-profile success that can inspire the grass-roots to grow.
Slava Stadium, Moscow, Russia
Oct. 5, 2014. Russian Rugby Cup Final
Slava Moscow 22 Yenisei-STM 41
Att: 700 (estimate)