Russia's first World Cup marks the biggest step yet in its designs for world rugby domination.
The Russians have a plan, and it's picking up pace. When they knew their bid for the 2019 World Cup wouldn't succeed, they withdrew and targeted the 2013 Sevens World Cup - and got it. They proved to be successful hosts of their first IRB 15-a-side tournament last year, the Junior World Trophy, the second-tier Under-20 championship, and finished third. This year, at the Sevens' crown jewel in Hong Kong, Russia reached the quarterfinals for the first time at a major event.
Since rugby Sevens' new Olympic status brought aboard government support, the sport is being adopted by schools. There's a professional league of eight teams, the top four of which wouldn't embarrass themselves in British competitions, says Howard Thomas, executive vice president of the Rugby Union of Russia.
They want to become a top-five sport in Russia, and don't see why not.
"When Russians sample rugby they enjoy it," Thomas says. "It's a sport that's fast, physical, aggressive and skilled, and that's a Russian sportsman."
Thomas adds they want to be one of the world's top 12 teams by 2015, and a quarterfinalist at the 2019 World Cup, which will be staged in Japan. And they're going to bid for the 2023 Cup. The stadiums and infrastructure will be in place thanks to Russia hosting the 2018 football World Cup.
In the meantime, they haven't forgotten they've got 140 million Russians, most of them unaware the Bears - as the national team is known - exist, to impress while in New Zealand.
"We are on a high and now what we need to do is follow through," Thomas says. "We have got to show that we deserve to be at the World Cup. Everyone here understands that we have got more difficult yards ahead of us than behind us."
Georgia and Romania have already plowed difficult yards and reaped rewards.
Georgia will be making its third World Cup appearance. Since France 2007, the Lelos have proved to be the best side in Europe outside of the Six Nations teams. It's no surprise. All but seven of the 30-man squad ply their trade in France, where they just spent seven weeks preparing for the cup under former Scotland flanker and coach Richie Dixon.
"For Georgian rugby, another World Cup appearance means a big surge in popularity," lock Ilia Zedginidze said. "It will bring a fresh wave of children and teenagers into youth rugby teams, another boost for development, another chance to go forward."
Four years ago, Georgia beat Namibia for its first World Cup win, and gave Ireland an almighty scare. Romania is in the same Pool B this time, and it will be Georgia's game to lose. It has lost to Romania just once in five years. But the Georgians are also desperate to get stuck into England, Argentina and Scotland.
Georgia lost to England 84-6 in Perth at the 2003 World Cup in Australia, but left the Englishmen counting bruises that day.
"I have played with and against Georgians in France and they are great rugby players now. They've just got better and better," England hooker Steve Thompson said. "They are not just massive men and strong, but they are organized as well. That makes it even worse."
Romania, the last team to qualify for the 2011 edition, could be one of the first heading home. They're missing longtime captain Sorin Socol, who withdrew from the team in March in a dispute with coach and former teammate Romeo Gontineac, and another 2007 veteran, 22-try winger Catalin Fercu, who shockingly withdrew this week because of a fear of flying.
Gontineac, who played in four World Cups, became coach of the Oaks in May 2010. They have notched a win in every cup barring 1995, and Gontineac has his work cut out to post another. Romania was the sixth-ranked team in Europe in the 1980s but the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime brought a decline in state funding and the sport deteriorated. The game is starting to rebuild now in Romania, where it has been played since the 1920s.
"I know there is a perception of how Romania plays and we won't renege on that," he said. "We do have big forwards, but we will try to play a more modern game."
Russia has grasped the modern game, with no little ambition. Winger Vasily Artemyev has so dazzled Northampton Saints that he'll be playing for them after the World Cup.
"It's our chance to play against the superstars of rugby and test ourselves ... make our people stand up and notice where we're from," Artemyev says. "Whether you're from a little town outside Moscow or from Moscow itself, we're putting ourselves on the map."
Rugby has been on the Russian map since the late 19th century, when foreigners building the Trans-Siberian Railway introduced the game. The spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, was even a player, and Russia frequently shaded Italy in the 1980s.
The fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union set back progress. Russia tried fast-tracking through 2003 qualifying but was disqualified for using ineligible South Africans, then Portugal knocked it out with a three-point win in 2007 qualifying. But less than two decades after the RUR was formed, it's finally at the cup.
The Russians don't go in rusty. They seem to have been playing since January, when they were in New Zealand buttering up the New Plymouth locals in hope they'll support them more than the U.S. when they meet there on Sept. 15. It's each team's best chance for a win in a pool with Australia, Ireland and Italy.
"At the end of the day," Thomas says, "we want people to look back at the tournament and say 'Russia did well. They performed well.' We hope to be on the highlight reels for positive reasons, for running and scoring tries. We play 15-man rugby and we're going there to show it."
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