I have attended Russia’s 3 matches against Japan, Samoa and Ireland and in every game they have really challenged their opposition despite recording 3 losses. The Scottish team can expect exactly the same treatment when they meet in Shizuoka tomorrow evening and with Russia bowing out the competition after this match, they know that this is their last chance at world cup glory.
Don’t be surprised by the nine changes from the starting XV which lost 35-0 to Ireland last week. Lyn Jones their Welsh born coach is as canny as they get and 11 of the players that take the field tomorrow played in the opening 2 games against Japan and Samoa. Although they lost their opening match against Japan by 30-10, they made life difficult for the hosts as much of their game plan is based around their forward pack.
Following that opening game in Tokyo, they only had a 4-day turnaround before they took on a physically abrasive Samoan team. After 47 minutes they were just a point adrift at 9-10 before Samoa found their fluency at the same time as Russia’s fitness started to flounder.
The 34-9 defeat slightly exaggerates the way that game unfolded as Samoa were very lucky not to have 2 players sent off which would have dramatically turned the game in ‘The Bear’s’ favour. Rey Lee Lo and Moto Manu’u were subsequently cited and banned for 3 weeks each but after those 2 opening defeats Lyn Jones praised his charges and they have shown great heart in the way they have responded. In fact, what was more remarkable was that Italy had beaten the Russians by 85-15 a month before the world cup so the turnaround has been profound.
The only players to retain their places after the Irish match are tight-head prop Kirill Gotovtsev, flanker Tagir Gadzhiev, half-backs Dmitry Persov and Ramil Gaisin, right-wing German Davydov and full-back Vasily Artemyev. Tagir Gadzhiev is my pick of the Russian pack. He as an abrasive ball carrier and his work rate is excellent. He was my man of the match in the opening game against Japan and Scotland will need to be wary of the openside flanker as he gives his forwards the lead.
I have got to know a number of the Russian team having seen them perform on the HSBC Sevens circuit over the last few seasons and in the half-back pairing of Persov and Gaisin they have two very good operators. I thought Gaisin’s kicking from hand was excellent against Ireland and the Russian’s are not afraid to have a go with ball in hand although it is fair to say that they sacrifice attacking creativity for route one rugby.
That means using their human battering ram in the centre, Vladimir Ostroushko. He is another star sevens man although he has not seen a lot of the ball in this world cup. Russia’s tries against Japan came from kicks over the opposition defence and the tactics Gaisin used against Ireland were to hoist balls on the back 3 so Scotland need to be wary of his repertoire.
Wings German Davydov and Vladislav Sozonov have both shone brightly in the sevens scene. Davydov is a strong runner and has plenty of pace but what really impresses me is his ability to stay big in the tackle that in turn allows other support runners to latch onto whilst Sozonov is all action on the other wing. I still remember him making his debut on the sevens circuit in Scotstoun back in 2015 and thinking to myself that he is one to watch!
One player though has stood head and shoulders above the rest; he is Vasily Artemyev the full back who has captained his country on a record 33 occasions and will lead out his team for the 34th time against the Scots. Artemyev's 29 test tries for Russia are the most by any player in Bear’s history. He’ll also be winning his 93rd cap. Born just outside Moscow, he went to school and university in Dublin and had a couple of seasons at Northampton. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ducked out of International rugby after this match and there’s not doubt he will want to go out with a bang.