Russian rugby league has faced challenge after challenge in its battle for survival, but a committed band of individuals have refused to give up and are dreaming big.
Unrecognised officially and facing opposition from rival rugby union, it has been anything but plain sailing for the 13-man code in Russia. Rugby league has been played in the country since the late 1980s, but has long had a boom-bust history.
The sport was growing solidly until 2005, with Russian clubs competing in the Challenge Cup, a local league set up and the national team even playing in the 2000 World Cup. But infighting between clubs, politics in the governing body and pressure from the federal government provided major roadblocks.
Then in 2010 rugby league was expelled from the State Register of Sports of Russia and funding disappeared. In the past few years the ‘greatest game of all’ has had to start anew and build from the ground up, brick by brick.
“We are very much starting from ground zero, an emerging nation despite being a full membership of the RLEF,” admits Jon Christie, director of the Russian Association of Rugby League Clubs, to Rugby League Planet.
“There has been no domestic championship for a number of years and the withdrawal from the World Cup qualifiers soured a lot of relationships within the sport. We are working hard to rebuild the bridges that have been burnt and attract new clubs and players to the sport.
“It is important that we do not dwell on the mistakes of the past but learn from them. We must build the sport from grassroots level and create a sustainable domestic model that will allow the sport to grow and flourish.”
Christie, a Moscow-based Englishman, is one of the key figures in the revival of rugby league in Russia. He says getting official recognition from the government is their aim in the next few years, but concedes it is a “huge obstacle”.
“At the moment we receive no government funding and struggle to attract sponsorship because of our lack of ‘official’ status,” he says.
“We do take heart from nations such as Greece and Serbia who have overcome many barriers and achieved some much success. We are lucky that the RLEF have been extremely supportive and understanding of our position and they are committed to helping get rugby league in Russia back on its feet.
“The growth of rugby union and the finances they have present us with many problems, dual code clubs have become under increasing pressure not to play rugby league. This has resulted in the loss of over 75% of our national team since beating Serbia in Moscow in 2018 and many teams reluctant to commit to taking part in our domestic season for fear of possible union penalties for their team.”
A teacher by trade, Christie fell in love with rugby league while studying at the University of Leicester. He has played abroad, in both China and Myanmar, and has taken his passion for the sport with him to Moscow.
“A good opportunity arose in Moscow and I was lucky enough to be offered a job at one of the top international schools there,” Christie explained.
“Being a rugby league fan I looked for an opportunity to play the sport and did so with CSKA Moscow. We had some good moments, we played Partizan Belgrade in Moscow in front of around 500 fans.
“I really thought the game would kick on and develop further but unfortunately CSKA decided to focus on becoming a professional union side and rugby league began to fall apart.
“After the withdrawal from the World Cup qualifiers the former president resigned and I was contacted by the RLEF to see if I was interested in helping to rebuild the sport.”
It is down to the commitment of individuals like Christie and others that rugby league still exists in the former Soviet Union. And despite the spectre of the Coronavirus, the local administrators are doing their best to grow the sport and spread its roots across the vast nation, with its own Super League to start next year.
“Our plans have been hit by Covid-19 but this has been an opportunity for us to organise the structure of the governing body and plan for 2021,” Christie says.
“We face strong opposition from Rugby Union so our aim was to make sure our seasons do not clash. We plan to hold the Cup of Russia in November/December 2020 involving 20 clubs covering five regions, with a double-header semi-final at the same venue.
“January-March 2021 should see the Russian Super League commence with up to eight of the best teams competing, whilst two 9s tournaments are scheduled to take place in July and August 2021.
“We are very excited about the European Group B fixtures next year and the opportunity to achieve promotion to group A. We are looking forward to developing youth players and a huge focus will be put on creating a strong Under 19 national development programme that will in future create a strong and competitive national side.
“In 2021 we will work with the RLEF to run educational workshops for coaches and referees, this is key to making sure that rugby league has a long term future in Russia.”