NEWPORT, 27 Sept - Of 620 players at Rugby World Cup 2015, Georgia centre Davit Kacharava is the only one to play his club rugby in Russia’s Professional Rugby League.
Rugby has a patchy history in the former Soviet Union. It was banned by Stalin in 1949 but returned almost a decade later, followed by the establishment of a national competition in the mid-1960s, then a national Soviet team in the mid-1970s.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, rugby union found a heartland in the cold expanses of Siberia, home to Kacharava’s club Yenisey STM Krasnoyarsk.
“In Krasnoyarsk there are two teams, my club Yenisey STM and also Krasny Yar. They are the two best teams in Russia, recently the championship is always won by one or the other,” said Kacharava (pictured, left, in action against Tonga).
“When the two teams play it is always a big derby and we get around 10,000 spectators, which might not sound like a lot but for Russia it’s a very good number. In other parts of the country, like Moscow, they might only get a few thousand at matches.”
Five New Zealanders
Kacharava first moved to Russia in 2008 after a friend who was playing for Yenisey told him the club was looking for talented centres. He played one season before moving to France, where he played three seasons for Nice in the third-tier Federale 1 league and one season with Stade Rodez Aveyron.
Although life in sunny Nice was appealing for Kacharava and his young family, the young centre aspired to play in France’s higher Pro D2 or Top 14 leagues. When that opportunity failed to materialise, he gave in to repeated offers from Yenisey to return to Siberia.
“Rugby is very well financed there. When I returned to Russia in 2013, our rivals Krasny Yar had five New Zealand players. Now there are Tongan and South African players there too, because the money is very good. The level of rugby might not be as strong - it’s similar to the better teams in France’s Federale 1 - but they can get more money in Russia than in Super 15 Rugby. Players in Russia are well paid.”
The Russian championship takes place over the summer months, starting in April and ending in September-October, as the freezing weather makes it impossible to play in winter.
Kacharava, 30, is contracted with Yenisey until 2016 and this year the club qualified for the European Challenge Cup, an important achievement for Russian rugby after the national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.
“It’s not interesting for the sponsors and financial backers of rugby in Russia if there is no international stage to play on, and Russia failing to qualify for the World Cup was a big let-down,” he said.
“So for Yenisey to qualify for the Challenge Cup, it brought a new challenge and interest for Russian rugby. We’re going to play against Connacht, Brive and the Newcastle Falcons, which is a huge opportunity for Yenisey and for Russian rugby in general.”
While Georgian rugby is renowned for its hulking forwards and burly pack play, Kacharava says the style of rugby in Russia is more open.
Japan 2019 target
“They might not be as strong in the rucks and mauls, but technically and physically they are very athletic and play attractive rugby. It’s less static, a bit faster and more open, similar to football in a way.
“At Yenisey we have around 12 players from the Russian national squad, so it’s almost like the default national team.”
Kacharava gained his 85th international cap against Argentina on Friday, tying former captain Irakli Abuseridze in second place on the all-time Georgia selection list. He hopes he will still be around to take part in RWC 2019 – provided Georgia win one of their final two games at England 2015.
“Eighty-five matches have gone by very quickly. If we win our last match against Namibia then we will qualify automatically for Japan 2019, and if I manage to stay fit and healthy I hope I will be there too.”