Yuri Kushnarev’s experience of the Rugby World Cup is one of highs and lows.
In 2011 the fly-half was a member of the first Russian squad to compete at a Rugby World Cup, but he was also part of the group that failed to make it to England 2015.
And the 32-year-old doesn’t mind admitting he cried his heart out when Russia lost out to Uruguay in the repechage. Russia led the tie 22-21 after the first leg and were ahead at half-time in the return fixture in Montevideo, but three tries in the second half saw Uruguay home, 57-49 on aggregate.
“It was a huge disappointment for us, I remember how I could not hold back my emotions and cried like a kid on the field after the whistle,” Kushnarev told World Rugby.
“It seemed like we’d done what we needed to do but we lost control of the game. It was difficult to take. Four years of hard work dissolved, and I thought deeply about how I could find the motivation to move on and realise my ambitions.”
The introduction of Enisei-STM, one of Russia's leading club sides, followed a year later by Krasny Yar, into the European club competition qualification system was just the catalyst that both Kushnarev, and rugby in the country in general, needed to put the disappointment behind them.
“I think it was about a month later that I heard the news, I was on holiday in Thailand at the time. Everyone was so enthusiastic when we returned to training,” said Kushnarev, who has scored 646 points from 92 tests.
“My club, Enisei-STM, has taken part for the last three seasons and has won some games (four out of 18 Challenge Cup fixtures) over that time despite the difference in financing between ourselves and the rest.
“It’s a good opportunity for Russian players to compete with the best players in Europe.”
Spain match is "decisive"
Kushnarev hopes that European club rugby experience will translate into success on the international stage when the Rugby Europe Championship 2018 kicks off on Saturday and the Bears resume their quest for a place at RWC 2019.
Results from last year’s campaign and this, taking pre-qualified Georgia out of the equation, will decide which of the teams progresses through to Japan.
While Romania are the favourites to claim the Europe 1 spot in Pool A, a win for Russia when they take on rivals Spain in their opening match in Krasnodar, near the Black Sea, would put them right back in contention for a play-off against Rugby Europe Trophy winners Portugal at the very least.
“At the moment the team is preparing in Turkey and the match with Spain will be decisive in seeing whether or not we will be in the fight for a ticket to the World Cup,” said Kushnarev.
“I’ve played against Spain a number of times and every time it is has been a struggle to the last. They are very fond of attacking rugby and are full of surprises. Most of their players have roots in French rugby and we respect them. We’re looking forward to the match immensely.”
Should Russia go all the way and make it to Japan 2019, Kushnarev says he will be better prepared than at New Zealand 2011.
“Getting to the World Cup was a childhood dream, I was very happy and proud because it was the first time Russia had participated," he recalled.
“I think I under-estimated the pressure and responsibility in the first game and I didn’t play my best game. This was a good lesson for me to take forward.
“Despite losing to the USA, I think the team performed well. We created chances in every game and enjoyed the atmosphere of being involved in the tournament. Hopefully, I will get to experience that feeling again.”
For more on the European qualification process for RWC 2019, visit www.rugbyworldcup.com/qualifying/europe.