Moscow welcomes the rugby world     24 Jun 2013

Just 10 minutes down the road from the Rugby World Cup team hotel, a few hundred metres from the Moscow River which defines this city and you will find the Slava Rugby Club, founded 1974.

Flanked by office buildings and apartments, its ground is a small, character filled home for the club and its senior team which plays in the Russian Professional Rugby League. They’ll draw a thousand or so fans on a good day.

And on this balmy Sunday, with Slava away playing a league game in Siberia, the All Blacks Sevens attract a few dozen fans keen to see rugby, New Zealand style. In the stands, it’s easy to spot the odd black shirt, even, a group of fans with a silver fern flag. Some are pretty passionate about rugby from the other side of the world; one fan’s lower leg boasts a large tattoo of Tana Umaga in full flight.

The coming weekend’s Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 is a big deal for Slava’s fans and all in this country’s small rugby population.

“We are very jealous to have sevens here,” says Paul Nikishin. He loves his rugby. Plays for the Moscow Dragons RFC, an amateur team founded by British expats in 1997.

“In this country rugby’s a cult. We want to use the Cup to make sure everyone is getting familiar with rugby. Sevens is easy to watch, it’s entertaining and we have a lot of New Zealand fans here.”

And the Russians are pouring more into the game, the Olympics one reason. The women’s sevens team finished a creditable sixth in the inaugural World Series, the men a distant 17th. In fifteens, the men’s team is even lower at 19. But hopes are high the Cup will help the game get real traction in this country which has just 22,000 registered players.

Certainly All Blacks Sevens coach Gordon Tietjens treats his Russian opponents with respect.

“I have never seen a weak Russian team, they enjoy the game, they are physical, big, fast and they may not have the depth, but over the years I believe they will build depth now that sevens is an Olympic sport.”

How many will flock to the huge Lushinki Olympic Stadium come game day Friday is anyone’s guess.

But for Moscow rugby fans at Slava Rugby Club on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it was just enough to have the All Blacks Sevens at their place, signing shirts and balls, posing for some treasured memories, spreading the word.