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The Russians in training before the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup against Japan. REUTERS / Issei Kato

Russia will face Japan in the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup (September 20 to November 2), this Friday in Tokyo. The Russians, which will be the second participation in a World Cup, are little puppets of this competition.

One can be the largest country on the planet, by its size, and be the smallest nation in a World Cup, when it comes to rugby . This is certainly true for Russia, which is preparing to play its second final phase, after a first unconvincing experience in 2011.

Eight years ago, the Russians left New Zealand with four defeats in as many games and 57 points against 196 points. The "Bear" had lost 6-13 to the United States XV, their most affordable opponent during this edition, missing an opportunity to shine at the highest level.

Win at least one match

Winning a World Cup match will be Russia's primary goal during this 2019 World Cup . And it will not be easy in the face of selections like Japan (20 September), Samoa (24 September), Ireland (3 October) and Scotland (9 October).

The Japanese may seem to be the most affordable opponent. But the coach of the Russian team, Lyn Jones, does not perish on the eve of the opening match. " Let me be honest: we have a 20% chance to win this game. But it's on paper , says the British technician. The Japanese are favorites. They are fast and they do not make mistakes. We value the game of Japan but we also want to score, do well and be satisfied . "

Captain Vasily Artemyev adds: " We do not have a lot of media coverage in Russia and we rarely have the opportunity to play against Tier 1 nations [the top ten teams on the planet, Editor's note]. So we are in a hurry to play high intensity games that we are not used to. "

In Japan, thanks to sanctions

In fact, the "Bear" presence at the 2019 World Cup was quite unexpected. It is not the fruit of a qualification won in the field. Artemyev and its partners have in fact taken advantage of sanctions against Belgium, Spain and Romania to finish first in the European qualifiers. Belgians, Spaniards and Romanians have in fact lined up non-eligible players (which is not so rare in rugby). And they were thus removed points by the International Rugby Federation (World Rugby).

That qualified a country that was waiting for that to harden a little more. Because only two players selected for the World Cup 2019 are playing abroad: the pillar Valery Morozov at Sharks Sale (England) and the second line Andrey Ostrikov in Grenoble (France). In their only match of preparation, the "Medvedevi" were crushed 85-15 by Italy, a nation far from shining in World Cup, until now ... Even if rugby exists since the 1920s in Russia, this discipline remains relatively confidential, compared to other collective sports.

Report in Moscow, Spartak Rugby training

From our correspondent in Russia, Daniel Vallot ,

Night training for Spartak Rugby, a small second division club. Red hat and white beard, Alexander Kolikov harangues his players. This Friday, September 20, this Russian rugby veteran will of course be in front of his TV, for the match against Japan. " Of course, this qualification is magnificent, it's a miracle! I think Russia can win a match. It is a country so unpredictable. In our hen, we could beat Samoa. They play with their sauce and they can make mistakes. The Japanese, they are at home, it will be very hard ... We are nicknamed "Bear" and it's not for nothing! We are strong, we are physical, it is our main asset! "

But the bears are also aware of their limits. Lack of means, players, clubs ... Rugby is an underrated sport in Russia, as Spartak's Anatoly Shmakov explains: " Here in Russia, everyone thinks only of football. . And parents prefer to enroll their children in football, because it is a sport easier to understand and seems less violent! If you take Georgia, for example, it's different there. Rugby has taken over football, and their players will be formed in France. Clubs here are running out of money, and are not supported ... "

On the lawn of this small club in the Russian capital, it is hoped that the Japanese World will give a new impetus to Russian rugby. But for that it will be necessary to realize a feat, and to snatch a first victory in World Cup.