Historically, major sporting clashes between the USA and Russia were once played out on an ice hockey rink. In recent years, basketball has provided the arena for two of the biggest countries on the planet to seek sporting dominance over the other while soccer has also joined the fray with the advances made by the States with the round ball over the last decade.
Thursday September 15th 2011 saw a new forum for the old rivals to engage in hostilities on the biggest stage. Russia's first appearance at a Rugby World Cup was the culmination of quiet progress made by a nation where “ like the USA “ the sport is gaining in popularity and participation. It was followed by matches against three top ten ranked sides; Australia, Ireland and Italy in what was a baptism of fire for the new kids on the block but “ despite four defeats “ they showed more than enough glimpses of a brighter future to come.
Lock Adam Byrnes has one of the more interesting stories regarding his participation in New Zealand. Born and raised in Australia, the Melbourne Rebel responded to a pre-tournament article in which the Russian federation put out a call to any professional rugby players world wide who may be qualified to represent them. Having Russian grandparents on his mother's side, he took a punt, replied and ended up living the dream at the game's showpiece event. He tells Russia's story ¦
Game 1 “ Russia 6 USA 13
The set-piece was a real struggle for Russia in this one, particularly the line-out where they lost six on their own throws and that helped the USA to apply some early pressure didn't it?
Adam Byrnes: "Along with our defensive structure, the set-piece was Russia's weakest link in the tournament. Put simply, we just did not have the time in our preparation to give the set-piece the attention it deserves. Adding to that, the Russian domestic league is currently weak and the World Cup is a massive step up.
The weather for this one was not conducive to running rugby “ it was the lowest scoring World Cup match since the 1991 final between Australia and England “ but both sides did their best to move the ball wide and have a go. Is that the Russian way?
AB: "Yes, Russia have some very good attacking flair. When we do secure our set piece and our backs get good ball, they are dangerous and aren't shy to throw the ball around. Our backs coach Henry Paul has been instrumental in our team attack.
There was a huge tackle count from Alexander Voytov in this match - 28 in all - which was one of the highest in the tournament. Work rate isn't an issue with this side, is it?
AB: "The Russians aren't shy of hard work. They are tough people by nature and this is reflected on the field. It certainly wasn't effort that let them down.
Given the quality of the three other opponents in this group, this must have been the game you targeted for a potential win, despite not having beaten the USA before. So, were you pleased to push them so close but disappointed not to come away with more?
AB: "Yes. In the lead up, we targeted this game as our realistic chance of a win in our first ever World Cup. Everyone tried as hard as they could and gave it everything and we were disappointed not to win. It definitely felt like a missed opportunity, the scoreline was so close and we had opportunities. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
Game 2 “ Russia 17 Italy 53
Looking at your remaining fixtures, was this the one game amongst them that you identified as a potential upset?
AB: "After the USA game, we had little time to dwell. The good thing was, our next game was against Italy and there was a feeling that if we performed to our best then we were in with a chance.
Italy pride themselves on their scrum and they really used it as a weapon in this game, scoring a penalty try and forcing you on the back foot for long periods. It's hard to counter when they're on a roll isn't it?
AB: "Italy have a fantastic scrum, while we do not have a scrum that is up to international standard. We had a very good scrum coach on tour in Darren Morris but he was brought in too late into our preparation for the World Cup. To have a world class scrum takes years of coaching and exposure at top levels.
Again, the team lost four of their own throws at the line out, is it too simplistic to say that the set-piece is a keen focus for improvement over the next few years if Russia are going to take a step up to the next level?
AB: "No, you're spot on. If we simply improve the set piece, along with our defensive cohesion, then we will take a massive leap forward. But of course, there is a lot more to it than just saying 'Ok, let's improve the set piece.'
As well as their powerful forward play, Italy ran the ball more than usual in this game and managed to control most areas but although you lost, three tries in response must be pleasing. Does that reflect the Russian mentality of not going down without a fight?
AB: "Italy didn't seem to take us lightly. They came out firing and looking back at the game, they were comprehensive across the park but my experience of Russian rugby has always been one of positive play. It's good to play in games where we lost but did not give up.
Half-Time Quick Hits
Best match you saw not involving Russia?
AB: "The final - as a neutral spectator, it had everything. The nerves and tension were evident, it was extremely physical and right from France's reaction to the haka it was entertaining. I loved it.
Six of the best players of the tournament (three from the Northern Hemisphere, three from the Southern Hemisphere)?
AB: "Richie McCaw, Ma'a Nonu and David Pocock. Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland and Victor Gresev!
Best emerging individual talent?
AB: "I was impressed by Toby Faletau of Wales given his age.
Best try “ if you remember or can think of one?
AB: "Tony Woodcock's in the final. Without this well executed set piece try, the All Blacks would not have won.
Best team other than the All Blacks?
AB: "Wales, until they self-imploded in the semi-final.
Ones to watch in 2015 “ players and/or teams?
AB: "Now that the All Blacks have gotten the monkey off their back, I think that they might go back to back.
Game 3 “ Russia 12 Ireland 62
If you were to have any chance in this one, you couldn't afford to let Ireland get away early but that's exactly what happened and they were 17-0 up after 13 minutes. Tough to claw it back from there?
AB: "Extremely tough and also tough to keep your spirits up. I found that in these 'bigger' matches against Ireland and Australia, as a team we didn't have self belief at the start of the game. Then, when the game was well and truly underway, we realised that once we had the ball we could actually break the line and score tries. It is the first time Russia has played on this stage and against such formidable opposition, the self belief will come once they realise how good they actually are.
As usual, the Irish crowd were out in force and coach Nikolay Nerush said that the players were intimidated by the noise and weren't used to playing in front of that many people. Is that the impression you got?
AB: "Personally, I lapped up the atmosphere. The whole stadium was virtually green and during their national anthem - 'Irelands Call' - I had shivers down my spine, the whole stadium was singing and it was electric. I don't think our players were intimidated by the noise or the crowd, I just don't think that they believed they were good enough to compete with Ireland, which was reflected in the opening minutes.
From 36-0 down at the break, you only lost the 2nd half by 14pts, again scoring two tries and having a real go. As you mentioned before, this team doesn't lie down in the face of adversity and they proved that again?
AB: "The team has a lot of spirit and heart. It was too late, but once they realised that they were good enough to have a go, then we put some phases together and scored a couple of good tries. Compared to other teams I have played in, the Russian team don't know how good they can be. They hold individuals and other teams on pedestals, when they themselves have the potential to make it anywhere.
It was an impressive all round game from yourself, topping the stats with 22 tackles. Do you think that you really started to find your feet as a test player in this game and feel like you belonged on that stage?
AB: "All my life I have been playing rugby and making tackles. Out there against Ireland it was a dream come true, I just wanted to be as involved in the game as much as I could.
Game 4 “ Russia 22 Australia 68
This must have been the one you were looking forward to “ a chance to go up against former team mates and the country of your birth. But how was it in actuality?
AB: "I am not going to lie. I was born and raised in Australia, I am Australian. But I thank my mother and her parents for the opportunity to represent half of who I am and play international rugby. Russia has given me a priceless gift and at the same time helped me reconnect with my roots.
What was it like playing against guys you knew - particularly your former Queensland Reds team mates such as James Horwill at the line out “ was there plenty of 'friendly' banter?
AB: "Everyone knows me, I wanted to get stuck in and smash them. Nothing stupid, just enjoy the game and come away with a good memory of it.
In fairness, they were on a different level in that 1st half weren't they, showing what a great attacking side they are and exactly what they hadn't shown in their loss to Ireland?
AB: "It was nothing new, the Wallabies have always been a world class team. David Pocock was outstanding in the game time he had and Berrick Barnes showed again that he is a reliable, level headed player that Australia have in their stocks and who maybe should be used more.
It was 47-5 at half-time and it honestly looked at that stage like the heaviest defeat in the tournament may be unfolding but a combination of enterprising attacking play from Russia and the Wallabies getting ragged after making a raft of changes, left a 21-17 deficit in the second forty which was a hugely creditable outcome. Were the side happy afterwards or were they hoping for more?
AB: "No we weren't happy. It shouldn't take until the second half to realise that you can score tries and put in a decent performance. Russia did show their true fight in the end but again, lacked the much needed self belief at the start.
This was the first time that three tries had been conceded in a World Cup match by the Wallabies since 1987 “ that's a statistic that the Russian side can be proud of, no?
AB: "Wow! Ha ha... I guess so. The Russian backline has some very gifted players amongst it, I am actually excited to see how these guys progress over the next few years. So, our attack is good, now to build on our set piece and defence.
Looking back at the tournament as a whole, would you call Russia's first World Cup a success, relatively speaking?
AB: "Absolutely. At the moment, rugby in Russia is very small in comparison to other sports. However, that is on the verge of changing very quickly. Firstly, Russia has secured the 2013 Sevens Rugby World Cup. Secondly and most importantly, rugby in the Sevens format will be an official Olympic sport from 2016 onwards. Russia always places a large emphasis on Olympic sports and the game of rugby is suited to the Russian people, who are naturally athletic. So, in 2011, for Russia to play in their first ever Rugby World Cup and to come away with those glimpses of good attack and to play with courage against the best opposition there is, yes, it was a success.
What specifically, can Russia take from their tournament as a learning tool?
AB: "The biggest thing about playing on a world stage like that is experience. A lot of the squad are in their twenties and will still be around in four years time. Those players now have nothing to fear and will have the experience from this World Cup. They have the potential to be a good side and they will realise that.
What has to happen in Russian rugby over the next 4yrs to ensure that they qualify for England 2015 and that they're in a better position to compete when they get there?
AB: "A few important things. The local rugby competition needs to be strengthened as at the moment it is weak. Also - and it's a catch twenty-two really - Russia's best players need to get playing experience in the top club competitions around the world. There are already a few that have picked up contracts outside of Russia post World Cup and the knowledge and leadership that they will bring back to the national team will be invaluable. The team itself has a very good coaching set-up and if they can get a competent support team around them, they will be headed in the right direction.
What are the expectations for the sport in Russia itself - do they see themselves as ever becoming a major player?
AB: "Russia will certainly be a future threat in rugby. It is not a question of if, but when. With the Rugby World Cup Sevens being hosted there as well as Sevens becoming an Olympic sport, rugby in Russia is about to expand. There are both short and long term plans that are being developed to ensure that the path to being competitive on a regular basis is a quick one.
Coach Nerush announced he was leaving the job after the Australia match. Do you think that is a detrimental thing for Russia in terms of continuity or is there a feeling that there are others who could bring more to the role and take them further?
AB: "Nerush has done a great job in bringing Russian rugby to where it is now and it is in good hands moving forward. There have been careful measures put into place to make sure that the coaching team moving forward is of the highest professional standard.
What's your take on the mistreatment of the lower ranked nations in terms of rest days between matches - do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?
AB: "Yes, there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary travel involved for us in between games and they were short turnarounds. It would be nice to be on an even level with the top tier nations in terms of the organisation but I have no complaints. I just played in a Rugby World Cup and got to see Blenheim, Marlborough Sounds, Nelson (twice), New Plymouth, Rotorua and Lake Taupo, plus a couple of other spots!
What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole and does New Zealand deserve another World Cup in the future?
AB: "I thought that it was a fantastic tournament experience. What made it so special were the local people. The volunteers deserve a special mention but it was not just them, there was great support and help everywhere you went. Communities went out of their way to make the event enjoyable and you could really tell it meant a lot to them. The stadiums we played at were smaller venues, they were all packed and the atmosphere was always good. And from a tourist's perspective, New Zealand is a beautiful country and very unique. It was certainly a successful tournament.
This article was previously published on www.ruggamatrix.com