Russia target USA scalp
October 25, 2010
Diamond will steer Russia into their first Rugby World Cup next year © Getty Images
As the spotlight falls on the world's best for the forthcoming feast of international rugby, one sleeping giant is busily preparing in the shadows for their day in the sun at next year's World Cup.
Russia will make their first appearance at the sport's showpiece event next year having secured their place via an epic European Nations Cup campaign. As a reward for their historic endeavour they will line up alongside two-time champions Australia, Ireland, Italy and the USA in Pool C when the world descends on New Zealand in a little over ten months time.
And while that testing schedule will be of no concern to England or Wales with the likes of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa looming on the horizon, two of their countrymen are focused on things a little further afield due to their roles at the heart of Russian rugby. Former Sale and Saracens coach Steve Diamond was appointed as Russia's director of rugby in 2008 after being lured east by Howard Thomas, the ex-Premier Rugby and Sharks chief executive, who currently performs the same role for the Russian Rugby Federation having joined arguably the world's most ambitious union two years previously.
Together they are relishing the prospect of gracing the world's biggest stage with Diamond in particular setting his sights on one key target while admitting his fears elsewhere. "Our targets are to play well and beat America," Diamond told ESPNscrum. "We hope to be able to challenge the other sides defensively if we can and elsewhere it's a case of damage limitation."
His thoughts were echoed by Thomas who recently underlined the clash with the USA as a make or break clash. "I think we have to be realistic," he told Total Rugby. "We have our first match against USA, which is to be really honest our cup final and that one match will define whether we achieve our targets or we don't."
But Thomas has also promised that Russia will make an impression - win or lose. "We don't want to go to New Zealand and just sit back with a defensive game of rugby and do our best to mitigate the score line. We play a positive game of rugby and we want to leave there with some tries that people can remember us by."
The task facing Diamond's charges is magnified by the fact that they face four games in 16 days during the pool stages - in comparison Australia's four games are spread over 21 days - but the former rugby league player is not one to complain.
"I don't think it's unfair because it is the same for most nations. We are facing high standard games against Australia, Ireland and Italy but it's up to us to come out of there with our heads held high. We just need to put in a good defensive performance each time and make sure we are one of the trickiest teams to face in the competition."
Russia had a taste of things to come earlier this year when they made their Churchill Cup bow in the United States. A defeat to World Cup opponents the Eagles and a more crushing reverse at the hands of the England Saxons were followed by a morale-boosting victory over Uruguay.
"The only way to improve is to be exposed to better teams and we were certainly up against it against England and the USA," admitted Diamond. "But in the main the Churchill Cup went very well and we've been invited back again next year for the tournament in the UK which will be good for us."
Thomas and Diamond have overseen the latest developments in Russian rugby with the country now boasting a 12-team professional league that provides the bulk of the current international squad with Castres lock Kirill Kulemin one of the few to be playing elsewhere in Europe. Diamond tracks the progress of his players with the help of his assistants - dual code rugby international Henry Paul and Nigel Ashley Jones - and singles out the talents of back row forward Viktor Gresev, fly-half Yuriy Kushnarev and winger Vasily Artemiev as those to watch out for over the coming months.
"We are out there 26 weeks a year, six months a year, and we have full access to the team whenever we want them really," explains Diamond who combines his duties with his role as a scout for Premiership side Northampton. "I see all the eastern European players and second tier nations before anyone else and if anyone catches the eye we can have a look at Northampton."
Like every other nation outside the top tier of international rugby, Russia welcomed the return of Sevens to the Olympic programme and Diamond is hopeful that increased funding could cement the sport's growth in the country.
"The Olympics decision is huge," enthused Diamond. "In the former Eastern bloc countries the Olympic sports are the ones that get the most funding so we are hoping there will be extra resource available. But the national team is funded very well at the moment by Mr Kopiev (Kopiev Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich, President of the RUR) who along with the IRB provide in the region of 3-4 million pounds a year."
In fact, resource is not a pressing issue in the country according to Diamond. "The key for us reaching out and getting further exposure for the game," he explained. "That is why the Russian union pulled the IRB out of the mire to host the Junior World Trophy and why they won the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2013. Many other nations are under pressure in the financial crisis but we aren't and are able to fund such event with the aim to expose the sport to the wider Russian population."
Thomas has also hailed the progress made so far. "There is no doubt that the Olympic vote has had a significant impact in how rugby has been accepted by the government here, the schools take up has already been noticeably great in terms of interest. We are on a high and the confidence within the country, the huge progress that our President Vyacheslav Kopiev has made within government to get support is fundamental to then getting regional support, getting more people in schools playing the sport and more clubs and players taking up the sport."
Russia line up ahead of their recent 40-20 defeat to the Argentine Jaguars © Getty Images
Russia's preparations for the World Cup intensified last weekend with a 40-20 defeat to the Argentine Jaguars in Moscow and they will face the second string Pumas again this weekend and despite the lack of high quality opposition on a regular basis, Diamond is happy with his side's forthcoming schedule.
"We are off to play in Japan next month and then we will play two Super 15 franchises in January before returning to the FIRA Nations Cup where we face Georgia, Romania and Portugal. After that it is the Churchill Cup and we're happy with our lot," said Diamond who accepts his side are still a long way from becoming the 'giant' of the game that many see as their future.
"It comes down to investment," added Diamond. "We are running a national team on around £4m a year and an English Premiership club operates on about £10m so we're way off that. And if you look at Italy's finances, something like 95% of their revenue comes from the Six Nations so the chances of us challenging one of the top six or ten nations are pretty remote at present."
Diamond's focus stretches beyond their autumn campaign and even next year's World Cup with the long-term future of the game in Russia his primary concern. "We are trying to create a legacy for the future of the game in Russia, an infrastructure, an academy system that the next person who comes in, hopefully a Russian coach, will be able to build on and carry forward."
And far from accepting their job is done - Thomas insists the work has only just begun. "In some regards we have actually done the easy thing, now what we have got to do is show that we deserve to be at the World Cup in New Zealand."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.