Rugby World Cup debutants, Russia, will finally get their campaign underway on Thursday with an opening match against the USA Eagles in New Plymouth.
Although the first recorded game of rugby took place in Russia in the 1880s, it was variously outlawed and then struggled to compete alongside football and state-sponsored Olympic sports.
But they are through to the 2011 tournament after qualifying second from Europe behind Georgia - their big rivals and former teammates in Soviet days.
It is sure to be a tough task for the Russians against the Americans, who impressed despite losing their opener 10-22 against Ireland at the weekend.
"The USA are the favourites for this match," said Russian Team Director Kingsley Jones, an experienced coach at various levels of the game.
"They are a good side and they have got some very good players playing at a good level, but we believe we have a very good chance of getting a win.
"But we have to play at our best to get the first upset (of this tournament)."
The Welshman added: "We have worked hard on getting things right but we have all learned that mistakes at this (the World Cup) level cost you dearly.
"We played a tough tour in the UK and we didn't get a win, which we would have liked to get, but we certainly learned a lot on that high level."
Russia will be the final team - of the twenty countries at the World Cup in New Zealand - to get their 2011 RWC campaign underway, and head coach Nikolay Nerush commented: "I look forward to seeing how my players will react to the World Cup.
"We can be ready tactically but, to achieve a good result, we should also be mentally consistent," he added.
"This competition will show the result of the work that was carried out by the Russian rugby union and the country's various clubs."
US captain Todd Clever was left buoyed by his team's performance against Ireland... but concerned by an under-powered scrum display.
"I thought we played really well, and played with a lot of heart," said Clever, who - as always - led from the front for the Eagles; both defensively (where he made over 20 tackles) and with ball in hand.
"We're having trouble in the scrum. It's tough to say (what went wrong). It's maybe the timing. We got beat by the hit a few times. It's definitely something we have to focus on - that and some of the other set-pieces.
"Russia are a big side and it's definitely one of the things we need to nail down, to make sure we win our own ball and get possession."
Players to Watch:
For Russia: Winger Vasily Artemyev became the first-ever Russian to join a professional club in England when he signed on the dotted line at Northampton Saints. Squad mate Andrey Ostrikov - who will not be playing against America - is set to join Sale Sharks next season, but, for now, you will want to keep your eye on Artemyev. Despite a broad Irish accent gained from his time studying in Dublin, Artemyev - who played alongside Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald whilst in Dublin - shot to prominence in the 2010 Churchill Cup.
For the USA Eagles: Fullback Chris Whyles is a top player in England's Premiership for reigning champions, Saracens. He has speed and vision and does not need a second invitation to the tryline. His back three mate Takudzwa Ngwenya is an obvious man to watch - surely he must ALWAYS be watched? - and veteran centre Paul Emerick scored his team's only try against Ireland. Up front, you will, also, always watch energetic captain Todd Clever - who made tackle after tackle against the Irish.
Head to Head: It's an obvious match-up; speedster v speedster - Vasily Artemyev against the fastest man in world rugby, Biarritz's Takudzwa Ngwenya. Ngwenya made a name for himself at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when he rounded Springbok star Bryan Habana - en route to the tryline - in a pool match against South Africa. Artemyev, who is yet to make his Northampton debut, will be hoping for a similar effort against his better-known opponent.
2011: USA won 32-25 in Worcester
2010: USA won 39-22 in Glendale
2004: USA won 41-11 in Tokyo
2003: Russia won 30-21 (v USA XV) in Krasnoyarsk
1998: Russia won 31-16 in Moscow
Prediction: Based on their impressive showing against Ireland, you would have to back the Eagles. We will do just that - America to win by 15 points.
Russia: 15 Igor Klyuchnikov, 14 Vladimir Ostroushko, 13 Konstantin Rachkov, 12 Alexey Makovetskiy, 11 Vasily Artemyev, 10 Yury Kushnarev, 9 Alexander Shakirov, 8 Vyacheslav Grachev, 7 Artem Fatakhov, 6 Andrey Garbuzov, 5 Denis Antonov, 4 Alexander Voytov, 3 Ivan Prishchepenko, 2 Vladislav Korshunov (captain), 1 Sergei Popov.
Replacements: 16 Valery Tsnobiladze, 17 Alexander Khrokin, 18 Vladmimir Botvinnikov, 19 Adam Byrnes, 20 Victor Gresev, 21 Alexander Yanyushkin, 22 Andrei Kuzin.
USA Eagles: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 Takudzwa Ngwenya, 13 Paul Emerick, 12 Andrew Suniula, 11 James Paterson, 10 Roland Suniula, 9 Mike Petri, 8 Nic Johnson, 7 Todd Clever (captain), 6 Louis Stanfill, 5 Hayden Smith, 4 John van der Giessen, 3 Matekitonga Moeakiola, 2 Chris Biller, 1 Mike Macdonald.
Replacements: 16 Phil Thiel, 17 Shawn Pittman, 18 Scott LaValla, 19 Pat Danahy, 20 Tim Usasz, 21 Nese Malifa, 22 Blaine Scully.
Date: Thursday, September 15
Venue: Stadium Taranaki, New Plymouth
Kick-off: 19.30 (07.30 GMT)
Expected weather: Rain from morning, clearing at night. Westerly winds expected, too. High of 15°C, low of 8°C.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Carlo Damasco (Italy)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
AFP & rugby365.com
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