Rival Review: Russia in 2019

Underdog.

Following the disqualifications of Spain, Belgium and Romania, Russia will feel like kings for a day when they make their World Cup return in 2019 after an eight-year absence. The very definition of ‘underdog’, in a pool containing an Ireland side that is the dark horse for ultimate glory, Russia will almost certainly find their upcoming World Cup as chastening as their last one.

Granted a World Cup berth via extenuating circumstances, the Russians could have found themselves in a far tougher group. Yet, memories of a thrashing at Ireland’s hands in 2011 will still be in the collective mind of the Russian dressing room. The score on that occasion was 62-12 per https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/14992095, marking the first of what would be two occasions to see Russia concede 60+ points.

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Russia’s 2019 group is completed by Samoa, hosts Japan, and Scotland, with the latter exceeding expectations in the 2018 Six Nations. Thus, it stands to reason that all World Cup odds on various sportsbooks, including those at https://www.mrgreen.com/ie/, are superlatively against Russia. The qualification berths certainly appear spoken for in favour of the two European nations, although there can be no telling how much home advantage will benefit Japan.

Yet, despite widespread expectations of ‘nul points’ for the Russians, their trajectory in World Cup qualification was upward, and the nation’s two meetings with Romania during it were illustrative of this.

Russia in action at the 2011 Rugby World Cup

Romanian rumbles provide a clue

When it comes to measuring the amount of improvement made by the Russian team, the nation’s two Rugby Europe Championships meetings (also the fifth round of World Cup qualification) comparisons between the two matches against the tournament’s favourites Romania provide an interesting point of comparison.

Back in March 2017, Russia had home advantage for the first time in that round of qualification, but fell 10-30 to Romania and saw themselves thoroughly outclassed. Flash forward exactly one year, and Russia travel to Cluj for the return encounter. There is, understandably, the widespread expectation that Romania will sweep aside the Russians by a much larger margin this time, but the reality does not honour expectations.

Russia lost, but only by half their deficit produced in the reverse encounter, going down 25-15 on hostile turf as analysed on http://www.rugbyworldcup.com/news/315748. Between those two clashes against Romania, Russia had also scored enormous victories over Germany and Belgium, and run Spain close for the second time in the tournament.

Andrei Ostrikov is the sole representative of an English club in the current (November 2018) Russian national side.

Change of personnel key to improvement

As a nation that prides itself on the value of teamwork over-reliance on a key MVP, the Russians have made it difficult to identify key danger men, but there are a few names to watch. Amongst them, Andrei Ostrikov is prominent as the only England-based player to have been called up for Russia’s test series of November 2018.

Ostrikov is also a surviving member of the 2011 squad, and it will be up to head coach Lyn Jones to enable him to utilise his experience of eight years ago to any positive effect on the team. With Jones being a (Welsh) coach from a nation that continually commands respect on the international rugby scene, the Russians can only improve on the performance of 2011. Jones has only ever operated with a winning mentality.

By the time they face Ireland in their third match of the World Cup, Russia will likely have just pride to play for, but for Ireland, there are inherent risks in tangling with an opponent that has nothing to lose. Ireland have never lost a World Cup fixture against a team drawn from outside the number one pot in the draw, and there is nothing to suggest that this run will be halted – but as the old saying goes, there is always a first time…