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War, sanctions spell uncertainty for South African rugby players in Russia

Russia's scrumhalf Dmitry Perov passes the ball during a Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match against Scotland at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa in Shizuoka. (Photo: Adrian Dennis / AFP)

The sanctions imposed on Russia as well as the suspension of all international rugby fixtures involving national and club teams could have long-term consequences for South Africans plying their trade in that part of the world.

On Tuesday, World Rugby condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The governing body took steps to ban all national and club teams from international competition and to suspend Russia’s membership “until further notice”.

World Rugby has also suspended the Belarus rugby union for the actions the country has taken in facilitating the attack on Ukraine.

World Rugby and other international sporting bodies have gone to these extremes to show their support for Ukraine and to condemn the actions of Russia. The move will have short- and long-term consequences for the game in this region.

Down the line, Russian rugby may become yet another casualty of Vladimir Putin’s war.

Jaco Engels, the former Namibia and Bulls prop, is now coaching at Strela-Agro in Kazan. He is worried that Russian rugby will regress if there is a mass exodus of foreign players.(Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

World Cup dreams dashed

News of the sanctions has hit the Russian rugby community hard. These days the domestic leagues are populated by more than 60 South Africans as well as a growing number of coaches.

Russia head coach Dick Muir – the former Springbok assistant coach who joined the Bears in December 2021 – told reporters he was “devastated” by the decision.

The team was in Antalya, Turkey this past week preparing for a crucial Rugby Europe Championship match against Georgia in Tbilisi. That match, of course, has been cancelled, and Russia’s slim hopes of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup have been dashed.

Muir pointed out that the Russian players were joined by the Ukraine national side for the recent training camp in Turkey. The two sets of players trained together and took their meals together. Ultimately the two groups combined to produce a positive environment.

The news of Russia’s suspension, however, has been met with nothing but concern. There’s no telling when this war will end and when Russia’s ban will be lifted.

“It’s a stressful and largely confusing time for us,” said Carel du Preez, a former South African sevens player who has been with Enisei-STM for the past two years.

Du Preez and his Enisei teammates were at a separate training camp in Turkey when they heard about World Rugby’s decision to suspend all matches involving Russian teams.

Enisei, the Siberia-based side who won Russia’s premier division last season, were set to play the Black Lions of Georgia in a European Super Cup game.

“We were on track to advance from our group and to reach the final of the competition. That would have been huge for our club,” Du Preez told Daily Maverick.

“That won’t happen now, though.

“It’s been a bit of a scary situation, especially for a South African in this part of the world. You’re not sure about what to expect. You’re not sure about which media outlet to follow for a clear view of the situation.

“The club has been great, though. They’ve assured us that they will continue to pay us until the end of the season. It’s a difficult time, but it does help you as a player to know that you will be taken care of. I have no plans to leave Russia at this stage.”

Russia’s players celebrate with their silver medals after the Women’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2022 final against USA at the Ciudad de Malaga stadium in Malaga, Spain on 23 January 23. (Photo: Jorge Guerrero / AFP)

Russian rugby’s drive to recruit South Africans

Du Preez and indeed many others opted to take the road less travelled in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak and rugby players – even those competing in the semi-professional leagues – were leaving South Africa in their droves.

At that stage, the Russian Federation was recruiting foreign players from countries such as South Africa and Georgia in an attempt to lift the overall standard of their domestic  competition. The method had worked for Japan, both at club and national level in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup staged in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Russia moved forward with plans to recruit foreigners that could potentially represent the national side after serving a five-year residency. They even increased their intake of foreigners at academy level.

Some laughed off Russia’s declaration that they could host a World Cup in 2027 or 2031, but the statement did highlight their ambition. At the very least, Russia appeared to be on track to field a clutch of South African-born players at the latter global tournament.

“Russia has become my second home since I arrived in late 2020,” Du Preez explained. “Prior to that, I had played for the Blitzboks. I was proud to wear that green and gold jersey, and I still have a deep connection to my country.

“However, if the opportunity to represent Russia ever presented itself, I would certainly consider it. That may be a moot point, though, if the current situation persists.”

Rynhard van As was the head coach of the SWD Eagles before he accepted a post with Enisei in late 2019. According to Van As, the game in Russia has progressed a great deal over the past three years, and the injection of foreign players has had the desired effect.

Russian rugby’s momentum will stall, however, if the situation doesn’t change in Ukraine and the ban on Russian teams isn’t lifted.

“We hope that things will be resolved for reasons bigger than sport,” Van As told Daily Maverick. “That said, these sanctions are frustrating in that they have the potential to hurt the sport in Russia in the long run.

“So many good things have happened in Russian rugby over the past few years. The quality of rugby has improved, and the injection of South African players has been telling.”

Uncertain future

Will these players remain in Russia if they are limited to competing in the local league? 

“We had a meeting with the Enisei president recently,” said Van As. “He spoke directly to the South Africans in the group.

“He confirmed that they will continue to be paid until June [two months after the Russian domestic final]. He understands that the players might receive other offers, and that they might decide to explore those options given the current situation.

“It’s an uncertain time, as we don’t know what will happen over the next few months. The players have made Russia their home since arriving. The team has enjoyed some success, and some of the South African players harbour ambitions of representing the national side, after becoming eligible.

“We’re all staying positive at the moment, but things may be different if June arrives and the situation hasn’t changed.”

CSKA Moscow have already lost two South African players. It’s believed that Cody Basson and Andrew Evans are on their way home.

Many more may follow in the coming months.

Jaco Engels, the former Namibia and Bulls prop, is now coaching at Strela-Agro in Kazan. Like Van As, he is worried that Russian rugby will regress if there is a mass exodus of foreign players.

“Russia has been growing with all the foreign players and coaches coming into the game over the past few years. Lyn Jones and now Dick Muir have brought a lot of technical direction to the national team,” Engels told Daily Maverick.

“You saw what happened in Japan, how the game grew and grew with foreigners lifting the standards in the clubs and eventually the national team. We’ve started to see that recently in Russia. South Africans and players from other nations have been coming over with the intention to qualify for the national team and to play at a World Cup.

“What’s happening now, however, might compromise those ambitions.”

Engels hopes that the foreign players will stick with their Russian teams to ensure that the domestic league remains strong and that the sport continues to grow.

“There are plenty of South Africans and Georgians in the league. We even have a Ukrainian [Veacheslav Krasilnik] in our team.

“He’s been living in Russia for the past 10 years, but his mother still lives in Ukraine. Obviously, he is very worried about her and what comes next. We’ve offered him our support. It’s a difficult situation.

“There are a lot of Russian players with military backgrounds. If they get called up to be part of the reserves, that will impact us in many ways. We are trying to keep the guys positive and focused on the game, but it’s not easy.” DM


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