Written by Stuart McLennan
School teacher Jon Christie arrived in Russia from Bradford via Beijing and Myanmar in 2017. Since then, apart from inspiring young minds at the British International School in Moscow, he has been working with his Russian Rugby League colleagues to grow the sport and return it to its glory days.
“Russia has a rich rugby league history, we had over 25,000 fans watch the national team take on the USA in 2002 and this was broadcast on national TV. The opportunities and potential remain in place, we are doing our utmost to achieve success despite the obstacles,” Christie who is a Board Director tells Everything Rugby League.
“Unfortunately our sport is no longer recognised as an official sport by the Russian Ministry of Sport. This results in our clubs and governing body receiving no funding. Without official status, the sport struggles to attract sponsorship and so we are hindered massively in growing the game. As a board we are working on gaining official status, our President Alexander Kolikov has travelled across Russia and spoken to many clubs in an attempt to reignite interest in the sport.”
In many countries the global pandemic has put a halt on the momentum in rugby development. No more so than in Russia where 16 clubs had committed to the 20/21 rugby league season with plans to hold women’s 9s tournaments.
“Unfortunately we had to cancel the 16 team cup of Russia competition that was due to take place in October and November 2020. Covid levels in Russia are very high and the restrictions in place differ in the different regions, this of course presents huge challenges and makes it impossible to run our cup competition.
“On the positive side, the fact we engaged 16 clubs is huge progress and we look forward to holding the competition in 2021. 2021 will also see the return of our Russian domestic competition.
“The current plan is for the eight strongest teams to take part, games will be held across Russia. We will have a playoff system and will host a magic weekend. We are also looking to run regular 9s competitions across the summer months.”
Apart from Government recognition and Covid 19, Russian Rugby League has another barrier to deal with in the form of the other rugby code. Rugby union operates from a position of strength in Russia and they are not about to let that slide. However Russian rugby league management have come up with a solution that could suit both sports.
“Unfortunately we currently have no relationship with Rugby Union. In a story that is too common around the world, they seem intent on doing their utmost to stop rugby league developing.
“Our withdrawal from the 2017 World Cup qualifiers was a result of the rugby union powers performing a u-turn and refusing to let newly professionally contracted national team rugby league players (the players signed for a newly turned professional union club at the beginning of the year) to play in our final qualifiers.
“Rugby union in Russia receives a lot of investment and backing, many of the clubs are dual-code clubs, and over the past few years have been offered incentives to focus solely on union.
“We have however decided to move rugby league to a winter sport, this will remove any potential clash over the summer months with rugby union. Hopefully clubs will be under less pressure to have to choose.”
Despite these hurdles Christie, who joined CSKA Moscow in 2017 before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow in 2018, says there is plenty of Russian interest in following rugby league via the NRL and the Serbian competition online.
“Rugby league isn’t shown on Russian TV channels unfortunately. But that doesn’t stop the players watching highlights and games (sometimes not always legally). The Watch NRL app is great and full of good content. The NRL finals series was really popular with the Lokomotiv Moscow players, lots of links and videos being shared.
“It may surprise you, but a lot of the lads enjoy watching the live streams via Facebook from Serbia. There have been some great games recently between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade.”
With the domestic competition hopefully up and running next year, Russia will look to resume international competition.
“We are very much hoping that the national side will take the field in 2021. 2021 is a huge year for the international game with the World Cup taking place at the end of the year.
“We hope that covid will allow for the European Championship B to take place and we look forward to welcoming Greece and travelling to Serbia. The winner of the group will be promoted to Group A and have the opportunity to play nations such as England and France. This is a huge incentive for our players!”
Russia are currently looking for sponsors and support in developing rugby league.
Should anyone or any clubs wish to donate playing kits or balls they would be extremely grateful. Please get in contact with Jon at email@example.com if you would like to help.