Rising Bears shine as sun sets on Russia’s 2015

HKRFU Cup of Nations - Russia vs Zimbabwe

Russia plays its last international fixture of 2015 against on Saturday against Hong Kong, host nation of the Cup of Nations, which brings together four of the world’s best teams who missed out on qualifying for England. It may be the end of the year, but it’s the start of a new Rugby World Cup cycle and eyes are already firmly on 2019 and the tournament serves as the first step on the long road to Japan. With that in mind, Russia have sent a young Russian team to the tournament full of rising talent ready to put their hands up as Russian rugby stars of the future. The Union has labelled the selection «Rising Bears» and Rugby Union of Russia Head of Rugby Strategy Howard Thomas explained the concept behind the selection.

 «We have to be able to grow the amount of our players able to play international rugby. We want to be playing two to three fixtures a year where half the squad has maybe less than 10 caps. It’s a halfway house between a first team and a second team, we get interaction between players who have little experience of international rugby,» he said. The Rising Bears has also grown out of necessity. «The tour isn’t in the international window, Enisei-STM have players in the Challenge Cup and we’ve also got the Sevens squad away [in camp ahead of debut in the HSBC World Sevens Series]. So it’s an ideal opportunity to play our Rising Bears at this tournament. The success of the team so far has shown the potential we have at this level.»

Russian Captain Vasily Artemyev is one of the senior players on tour and is excited to see fresh faces in the team. «We’ve already got a number of new players* this tour. We obviously had to sacrifice the availability of our players off with Enisei, and there’s always some injuries, but the upside is the team is very refreshed, it’s a big positive.» Artemyev may be the most visible in his leadership role on the field, but he is also being ably assisted by other senior members of the squad. «We have a few people leading the team, long-serving warriors and my comrades from Krasnoyarsk: Andrei Garbuzov, Igor Galinovsky, Alexei Makovetsky and Viktor Gresev. They all have a lot of experience playing with the Russian national team and they don’t need to necessarily say a lot, but they go out there and they do their jobs and help out the younger players, especially at training.»

The squad have also been bonding off the pitch and watched live online together as 17 players capped by Russia took to the field for Enisei’s match against Connacht in Russian club rugby’s European bow. Artemyev, who plays his club rugby for crosstown rivals Krasny Yar noted the significance of the game. «It was a huge thing for Russian rugby and huge for Enisei to be able to have their first home match, their first game in European competition played on their home turf, not just in Russia, but in Siberia, in Krasnoyarsk. «Enisei and Alexander [Russia Head Coach Pervukhin] have done an awful lot to make that game happen, and to have that game in Krasonyarsk in those conditions, it was huge. We can’t thank Connacht enough for coming all this way.»

The game was played in temperatures approaching -20C, a million miles from the heat and humidity of Hong Kong, and the cold highlighted why the Russian domestic season ends in October, which in turn presents challenges to the national team other sides don’t have to face – playing key international fixtures in the off-season. But Artemyev said the team is seizing the positives. «The worst thing is it’s another 2 weeks away from home, but at the same time it is exciting, it’s a good opportunity for the national team to come together. In the past we’d have had some time off now, but now we have the chance to come together as a team and work on and practice what we’re going to try and implement in the upcoming games in February and March. It means we will have something on our minds when we go off on our little holiday and when we come together in January for the European games, we’ll already have done part of the work so we hit the ground running.»

The Rising Bears have seemingly hit the ground running in Hong Kong as well, with an opening day 23-12 over Portugal being followed up with an 8-try 50-5 win over Zimbabwe, but Artemyev said the team is still facing other challenges. «The biggest positives are the results, getting two wins from two is always good, but we still have a lot to work on. They’re quite short turnarounds between games in this tournament, so that’s one of the challenging things – we have to pack in a lot of work in those short periods, taking the recovery time we need as well. But, you know, that full recovery, a full-week of preparation was never the goal for this tournament – we wanted to challenge ourselves to steepen the learning curve in our preparation, we want to learn and implement those things into our matches that we will try and use in the future. That means we’re not playing in the freshest state, but we’re playing having done a lot of work and with a bit of fatigue. We’re using these games not just as test matches but as a way of setting new ourselves new learning targets.

«This tournament has been perfect for us to come together to get some structure into our game, into our team, introduce new players into this higher level of test rugby – to have a look at them, and we’ve had a good look at a good few, so when we come back into camp in January we’ll have already seen and done a lot of the preparation. We want to come into the tournament better prepared than we were last year when we faced Spain and conceded 40 points. We don’t want to make the same mistake and we’ll be in a better place when we come into our first match in the Rugby Europe Championship.»

But first up is Hong Kong, and Artemyev and the team are looking to end the season on a winning note. «We set ourselves the target before we came here of beating our opponents in our November matches and getting a trophy would be good before we go off on our little break. I think it’s going to be very close, it’s going to come down to the last minute. And whoever has the most energy and makes in the least mistakes in the last 20 minutes is going to take it, so we’ll do our best to get a good result.» Whilst a win is the primary objective, Coach Pervukhin is not losing sight of the bigger picture. «While any team that comes to a tournament is here to win, our main goal is the preparation of a new team for the next four years leading to the RugbyWorld Cup.»

 The Rising Bears play Hong Kong in the Cup of Nations finale at 12:00 Moscow time on Saturday 21 November.

 * Lev Derksen, Tagir Gadzhiev, Kirill Gotovsev, Alexander Ivanov, Anton Sychev