Rugby’s ‘sleeping giant’ eyes World Cup win

Before moving to Russia, Lyn Jones had never tasted vodka, but that’s all changed.

“Since arriving, I’d now definitely recommend it, although after six doubles things can get hazy,” laughs the Welsh coach of Russia’s men’s rugby team.

During his year-long tenure with the Bears, there has been reason to celebrate, too. Russia has qualified for the Rugby World Cup for only the second time in its history.

Russia’s opening match Friday could not be more high profile, either — a meeting against host Japan.

President Vladimir Putin may well be watching from the stands — he was formally invited to attend by former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori in June and said he would give it his full consideration.

“I’ve no idea if Vladimir Putin will be there for the game but it’ll be great for us if he is,” said Jones of the Russian premier, who is reported to be keen on the sport. Russia has already expressed an interest in becoming tournament host for 2027.

But irrespective of results at the World Cup — Russia shares a pool with more established rugby nations Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Samoa — Jones believes it has the potential to be the next powerhouse of the game.

“We’re the sleeping giant of rugby and I saw that with my eyes wide open to how many good players there are,” he tells CNN. “OK, the contemporary game is lacking a bit in terms of skills and tactics for how the game is played. That needs to be updated.

“But the club scene has gone from six clubs to eight and there’s an attempt to make that 10. The union are putting in good plans for the future of the game. Nothing will change overnight drastically but we have the right plan.”

READ: How rugby united a divided Ireland

Getting match-fit

Rugby had its origins in Russia in the late 19th century but the first official game did not take place until 1923, according to the website of VVA Saracens, who play in the nation’s Professional Rugby League.

The Rugby Union of Russia was founded in 1936, according to World Rugby, but the fledgling sport was banned by Josef Stalin’s regime in 1949 for being a capitalist “cosmopolitan” game. It resumed again in 1957, and the Soviet Union, as it was then, played its first international match — against Romania — in 1975.

Now Jones, a former Wales international and longtime coach in the Welsh regional set-up, is bidding to drag the Bears into the 21st century. Along the way there have been encouraging signs, not least a narrow 32-27 defeat by Japan last November.

“I remember half time in that game against Japan, I knew we’d be blowing through our backsides,” he recalled. “So I went in and taped the players who were shattered, lying on the floor exhausted after 40 minutes to remind them at a later stage why we work so hard in camp, to show them you need to feel like this after 80 minutes.”

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The players’ fitness levels have surged in training camps both at home — Moscow, Sochi and Krasnodar — as well as abroad in Argentina, Spain and Italy. However, given Russia is ranked 20th in the world — only Namibia and Canada are lower of the teams at this World Cup — Jones’ men aren’t expected reach the tournament’s knockout stages.

Russia only qualified in May 2018 after Spain, Belgium and Romania were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players, and Jones admits they have had to “cram four years of preparation into just one.”

“My job first is to make them as presentable as possible at the World Cup,” added Jones. “If we’re good enough to win a game that’s fantastic but it’s not just the World Cup but reversing Russia dropping down the rankings.

“That first game against Japan is unbelievable and fantastic, it really is. It’s a chance for the boys in Russia. They’re good players and there they can show how good they can be. I’m confident we’ll put a show up, but it’s a big challenge ahead of us.”

READ: How Wales created a home-away-from-home in Japan

World Cup host ambitions

The breakup of the Soviet Union initially had a negative effect on playing numbers in Russia with the loss of players to other nations as well as defections to rugby league. But though numbers are relatively healthy, Jones dismisses the suggestion a population of about 146 million people ought to make it a rugby powerhouse.

“I don’t think land mass or population is the way to look at it,” he explains. “Take China, India and America, for example. The two best nations in terms of punching above their respective populations and land mass are New Zealand and Wales. The key is the structure, Russia are putting together a good academy structure and there’s a club structure to grow into.”

Jones was approached for the job by another former Russia coach in Kingsley Jones, with whom he worked in Welsh rugby and is now coaching the Canada national side. Kingsley Jones acted as adviser too, talking his countryman through the “stories, characters and challenges of tier two international rugby.”

Japan in 2019 is just the start for both Lyn Jones and Russian rugby.

“There is a plan for success but what does that success look like?” he said. “That comes in many forms for a team ranked 20th in the world. It’s about beating sides but success also comes from the growth of the game and the numbers of people playing the game.”

So is the role of Rugby World Cup host beyond the realms of possibility?

Jones, who attended the soccer World Cup in Russia, said: “They did a fantastic job with that and I hope one day Russia could be awarded the Rugby World Cup. It would be great for the game and the nation. It feels like this is just the beginning.”