When asked on the eve of the USA – Russia World Cup match if they had a better name for the rivalry than what the media’ labels the “Cold War Match” Eagle forwards’ coach and team analyst Dave Hodges had a quick look at team captain Todd Clever and said he should take the question as he was older. The Cold War ended in 1991 with the final dissolution of the Soviet Union because of the collapse of its communist economic system and failure to maintain military control over its satellite countries. Dave was playing rugby for Occidental College then. The team the USA faces today is not the Soviet Union. It is Russia, a country with a capitalist economic system and a democratically elected government. It was once controlled by the Soviet Union just like two other participants in this World Cup, Georgia and Romania. Dave labeled the match-up as a developing one between another tier 2 nation just like our rivalry with Canada.
Although this match is just another tier 2 rivalry against a team the USA has never (as far as I could find) lost to since a national team was formed in the Soviet Union in 1936, it has big implications for both sides. Russia is playing in their first World Cup and are hoping to come away from this tournament with a win and the USA is their best chance. They refused an invitation to the inaugural 1987 World Cup for alleged political reasons. For almost a year now the Russian coaching staff has made it very clear that they are targeting this match, and USA coaches and players are well aware of this. This match also represents the Eagles’ best shot at leaving this tournament with a win. Something they have only been able to do twice (both wins against Japan) in the 5 previous World Cups they have attended. With a win Russia will edge in front of the USA to 18th in IRB world rankings. It is highly unlikely either team will get out of the pool stages of the tournament or win another match in this World Cup, but there are sizeable bragging rights and good feelings involved in leaving Taranaki Stadium the evening of Sept. 15th with a win.
The Russian side is much larger physically than the Russian squad that played in the 2010 Churchill Cup. Russian Coach Kingsley-Jones (former Welsh flanker) said this was largely his doing. He stated at a press conference on Sept. 14th that players (forwards) below 110-115 kg. were not really competitive and he felt a need to ‘beef up’ the team. The narrow loss to the USA in the 2011 Churchill Cup was considered a non-indicator of what will happen in the match on Sept. 15th. Coach Kingsley-Jones said various factors including little prep time for the Russians and USA not playing a full strength squad made it not representative of what the Sept. 15th World Cup match-up will be like. The impending wind and rain that is forecast for the Taranaki area has both teams planning wet, muddy, blustery weather strategies.
Kingsley-Jones felt Russia has rapidly closed the gap with USA’s rugby program. There is definite indications that Russia is taking rugby a lot more seriously than the USA. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Zhukov (Putin’s right hand man) will be in attendance at the USA-Russia match as will Miss Russia. A World Cup media organizer stated that Mr. Zhukov’s attendance is also part of the launching of promotion for the 2013 Rugby 7s World Cup to be held in Moscow. Rugby is now part of the Russian school curriculum, and as 7’s is a sport in the 2016 Olympics it has gained considerable Russian government support.
Although players and coaches are playing down the political side of this rapidly developing tier 2 rivalry, there is no doubt that it will be cold in New Plymouth on Thursday night and there will be a ‘war’. And if Russian efforts to develop the sport continue and USA public and governmental apathy continue, this could be the USA’s last good chance at a win for quite awhile.
Where is Joe Biden?