2015 Rugby World Cup
The heartbeat of Russian rugby
Kate Rowan
September 26, 2014
Russia coach Raphael Saint-Andre watching his team during the captain's run in Krasnoyarsk © IRB

The choice of England as the host nation for next year's Rugby World Cup is a fitting one, as it is of course the birthplace of the game. There is a good sense of continuity after the 2011 edition in New Zealand, as the Land of the Long White Cloud is considered one of the sport's great heartlands. There is a sense of the battle for the Webb Ellis Cup moving from one side of the world to the other.

The southern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk may not be the geographical halfway point between Eden Park and Twickenham but it is not too far from it at nearly 8,000 miles from Auckland and almost 4,500 miles from London. So, perhaps it is apt that the Russian city is to play host to the first leg of the Rugby World Cup 2015 repechage final between Russia and Uruguay.

Krasnoyarsk is a city that represents the love and passion for rugby outside the traditional strength of Europe's Six Nations and the southern hemisphere hotbeds of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. Irish rugby fans may be somewhat familiar with the city as it played host to Ireland in 2002 as part of the qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2003.

Howard Thomas, the executive vice-president of the Rugby Union of Russia (RUR), says: "It is the heartbeat of rugby in Russia, it is the number one sport in that region. If I was to liken Russia to England, Krasnoyarsk is like our Leicester and Northampton area where rugby is ingrained into that region and people there are all rugby people. Rugby is embedded in the culture in Krasnoyarsk."

The Krasnoyarsk region has a landmass twice the size of France but with population numbers similar to that of Wales.

This year is the 45th anniversary of the beginnings of this great rugby culture. One of its founding players, Vladimir Grachev, explains: "People started to play rugby in Krasnoyarsk in 1969. It was founded in the university environment with much involvement from students. The first founder of rugby was Leonid Sabinin a teacher in the Polytechnic University, who came from Voronezh. As he tried to involve people in the game, it became really popular. The students of Krasnoyarsk loved it and I was one of those students who were amongst the first to play for an organised rugby team in Krasnoyarsk."

"Although it is a beautiful part of Russia, it gets very, very cold and very, very hot and so like most places where life is that little bit tougher, it breeds tougher people and that suits our sport"

It would seem that the Siberian psyche would have a special affinity with the game. "Rugby is popular in Krasnoyarsk and Siberia for two reasons. Firstly, the values of rugby are very close to the Siberian spirit. Then secondly our weather conditions do not give us much opportunity to have a good soccer team in the Krasnoyarsk region. We have better conditions for rugby because here we play snow rugby, which we can happily play in our very cold winters," says Grachev.

Thomas echoes this point about the Siberian character being particularly suited to rugby. He says: "In Krasnoyarsk, dealing with significant changes in temperature, life is a little bit more challenging. The people there are a little bit harder, they have to deal with extremes in life.

"Although it is a beautiful part of Russia, it gets very, very cold and very, very hot and so like most places where life is that little bit tougher, it breeds tougher people and that suits our sport."

As rugby is deep-rooted in Krasnoyarsk culture, there has been significant government support for the region's two professional clubs, at both regional and municipal levels. The regional government supports Yenisey-STM, while the city council of Krasnoyarsk supports Krasny Yar. These two clubs have dominated the Russian professional rugby league for the past number of seasons.

Local derby matches between Yenisey-STM and Krasny Yar draw the biggest crowds in the league and a fierce rivalry has developed.

Rugby development manager for Viktor Sidorenko says: "Krasny Yar and Yenisey-STM Krasnoyarsk are the foundation of the Russian national team. In fact, more than 50% of the current national squad are Siberians. This is not just for the 15s game but also for sevens."

Another benefit of having rugby recognised by the regional and local governments is that young people get crucial exposure to it as part of the school curriculum. In the Krasnoyarsk region, about 140 secondary schools use rugby as part of their physical education programmes.

The future looks bright for the ongoing growth of Rugby in the Krasnoyarsk area with IRB's Get into Rugby programme set to bolster these efforts to attract youngsters into the game there and in the Moscow region. It is hoped an additional 30,000 children new to the sport will be introduced to it through this innovative mass-participation programme.

As rugby in Krasnoyarsk celebrates 45 years, it looks as though there will be more and more players to carry on the proud traditions. Beating Uruguay to make the Rugby World Cup wouldn't be too bad a birthday present either.

This article originally appeared on IRB.com

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