The 2017 Rugby League World Cup European qualifying competition kicks off on Saturday in Moscow, when outsiders Spain take on Russia in Pool B. With seeded Ireland the favourites to win the group, the winner of this match could well have one foot in the final eliminator at Leigh on 4 November.
“The team has put a lot of effort into preparing for the qualifiers,” says giant Russian forward Kirill Kosharin from their base in Fili. “Each and every player had fire in their eyes in training, because for many it is their last chance to get to the World Cup. We will not underestimate Spain but we believe in ourselves.”
Former international Denis Korolev took over as Russia coach from Igor Ovchinnikov for the final match of European Championship B last year, defeating Italy to steer Russia to a second-placed finish which confirmed their participation in these qualifiers.
He has been putting his squad through an exacting build-up. “We are at the final stage of preparations for the match against Spain. There are a lot of new players in the team who have fitted in perfectly,” he notes from the camp. “All the players have been totally dedicated to the training programme. I would like to wish Spain the best of luck and may the best team win.”
Spain, who began their march towards the World Cup last May, have defeated Latvia, Malta and Greece to get this far, but now the opposition will be the stiffest they have yet faced.
Coach Darren Fisher has responded by drafting in fresh players from the French championship to mix with his tried and tested core, although the withdrawal through injury earlier in the week of experienced front rower Mathieu Griffi is a blow.
“The squad has been in camp this week and we’re looking forward to getting out there now and putting things together,” says Fisher. “I have selected a squad with a good mix.
“We know the challenge is going to be very difficult for us physically and we have prepared mentally for that, and the players are in good shape to be able to compete. We’re excited now for the game and hopefully it will be a great clash.”
Chris Lopez, one of nine overseas-based players in the 19-man squad, is certain Spain won’t be phased by the daunting trip to the two-time World Cup participants and 2012-13 European Championship B winners.
“There has been plenty of effort among the boys,” he confirms. “The morale is high at the minute and it’s up to us to keep it there. Training has been challenging for this one and we have put everything into our preparation.”
Rugby League International Federation chairman Nigel Wood will attend the game, which kicks off at 3pm in Fili Stadium, Moscow.
RUSSIA 19-MAN SQUAD
Viacheslav Eremin, Andrey Kuznetsov, (Dynamo), Kirill Kosharin (CSKA Moscow), Ivan Troitskii (Ivanovo White Sharks), Vadim Buryak, Leonid Kalinin, Maxim Tsinkovich (Lokomotiv Moscow), Petr Botnarash, Mikhail Burlutskii, Sergey Gaponov, Sergei Konstantinov, Aleksandr Lysokon, Maksim Suchkov, Denis Tiulenev, Vladimir Vlasyuk, Nikolai Zagoskin (Nara), Dmitry Bratko, Igor Chuprin, Vadim Fedchuk (Moscow Storm)
SPAIN 19-MAN SQUAD
Chris Lopez (Army Rugby League), Antonio Puerta, Daniel Moreno (Custodians Madrid), Ivan Ordaz (Irreductibles), Clement Laguerre (Los Gossos), Alex Doutres, Cedric Bringuier, Leandre Torres, Pierre Negre (Palau Xlll), Kevin Aparicio (Paris XV), Matt Dulley (Paterna Dragons), Miguel Charters-Blanco (Seaton Rangers), Gonzalo Morro (Tonneins), Aitor Davila, Juan Pablo Rango (Torrent Tigres), Adria Alonso, Andrew Pilkington, Luis Thorp (Valencia Warriors), Daniel Garcia (Woolston Rovers)