Rugby on the rise for Russia's women

CNN World Rugby meets the Russian women's rugby sevens team, who have become one of the most competitive sides on the world circuit.

Posted: Jul 6, 2018 7:31 AM
Updated: Jul 6, 2018 7:47 AM

Few could have foreseen Russia reaching the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup.

The tournament's lowest-ranked team, the host scored eight in its first two games before dumping Spain out on penalties in the round of 16 to set up a meeting with Croatia for a place in the semifinals.

The nation's footballers, however, are not the only team currently harboring World Cup ambitions.

Russia's rugby teams have made significant strides in recent years, and while all eyes are on the FIFA World Cup, the country's sevens players are quietly preparing for their sport's World Cup in San Francisco between July 20 and 22.

The women's side, in particular, found itself among the silverware, winning the European Women's Sevens title four times in the past five years and regularly finishing in the top five spots of the World Rugby Sevens Series.

READ: The rugby great giving hope to Fiji's youth

It took the best part of two decades for Russia to get its women's sevens program up and running; things haven't always been easy.

"At the very beginning when we were setting up our women's team, it was really very difficult because we didn't show any significant results," Pavel Baranovosky, a former player for the Russian national side and now a development coach, tells CNN World Rugby.

"Today in Russia, there is a system where you can only get financial support as soon as you start winning."

In the early days, 70% of women's team were drawn from other sports like athletics and handball. Baranovosky's task, he says, was to "transform them from individual athletes into team players" as quickly as possible.

One such example is Elena Zdrokova, who bagged 18 World Series tries last season, seven of those coming in the opening tournament in Dubai.

READ: South Africa and Australia clinch overall championships in Paris

Her introduction to rugby came about by chance, but now she holds rank as one of the sport's best attacking players.

"At school, I was a ballet dancer up until I was 17 years old, and then I became a sprinter," says Zdrokova.

"I was noticed by a coach and for several years I continued training as a runner. I started playing rugby only four years ago when I was invited into the Krasnoyarski team called Enisei STM. One of my former players recommended me as a player."

World Cup chances

It still remains to be seen whether Russia will truly take to rugby sevens and join the world's elite teams -- the likes of New Zealand, Australia, and England.

The 2013 Sevens World Cup was hosted in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, incidentally the same site as Russia's recent footballing victories -- a 5-0 thumping of Saudi Arabia and shock defeat of Spain.

Five years ago, however, the stadium was not so raucous, with the 81,000-seat venue barely at a quarter of its capacity for the Sevens showpiece.

READ: How becoming paraplegic helped an Englishman tackle HIV in Swaziland

The men's team has found things more difficult than its female counterparts, picking up just 26 points from all 10 World Series tournaments this season, which concluded in May this year.

Neither side will be talked about as favorites for the World Cup on America's West Coast. Those privileges are reserved for the likes of Fiji and South Africa on the men's side and Australia and New Zealand -- the only two previous champions -- on the women's.

Visit cnn.com/rugby for more news and videos

But given Russia's current record in a different World Cup, who knows? Hot on the heels of the football team's success, perhaps the rugby sevens teams can find inspiration.

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