Kazakhstan women have come out of the international wilderness and are now hoping to make it to their seventh Rugby World Cup.
In July/August last year, the Kazakhs beat China 23-13 on aggregate in a two-legged Asia Rugby Division 1 play-off, despite lacking competitive game time over the last four years.
The victory over China meant promotion to the top tier of the Asia Rugby pyramid, where they will compete with Japan and Hong Kong for the region’s direct qualification spot for Rugby World Cup 2021. The runner-up will go into the final qualification tournament.
Should they get to New Zealand, it would make up for missing out on the last tournament in 2017 – the first time they had not been involved at that level for 26 years.
Kazakhstan’s absence in Ireland came as a bitter disappointment to people like Ana Khamova, a three-time Rugby World Cup participant, But it was almost inevitable after the focus of rugby in Kazakhstan switched from 15s to sevens following rugby’s return to the Olympic Games.
Now they are on their way back and Khamova, who managed a young and raw team in China, is proud of the way her team came together in such a short space of time to keep their Rugby World Cup dream alive.
Steep learning curve
“We didn’t play international 15s for four years, and honestly it was tough to put all the players together in one team because everyone is playing sevens, not 15s, especially the young players,” Khamova told World Rugby.
“We had a two-week training camp before the competition in China. It was not enough to prepare because I think around 70 per cent of the team had never played 15s before.
“I tried to show them how to play 15s, and how to understand 15s, because this is the game for Kazakhstan ladies.
“It is a very smart game, you have to think first and then do and, of course, it is very physical.”
Kazakhstan lost the first game in China 13-8 but bounced back four days later to win 15-0, also in Jiujiang.
“We lost the first game, I think, due to the weather conditions; it was very hot, and the humidity was very high. Also, it was a long way for us to travel.
“But for the second game, we just told them they now know enough (about 15s) and to just go out there and be smart and play.”
Other than their last appearance in 2014, Kazakhstan have won at least one match at each of the tournaments they have competed in.
Proud to wear the jersey – any jersey
For Khamova, who started playing rugby aged 20, the most memorable tournament from a personal perspective is her first in 2006 in Edmonton in Canada.
“Before the World Cup, we were training back at home and I wasn’t in the starting XV. But once we got to Canada, I became the scrum-half. My first reaction when the coach told me was ‘what!?’
“It was my first big tournament and I was really nervous before the game against Samoa. But when I got onto the pitch I calmed down and said to myself, ‘okay, this is your moment to shine’ and I tried to do my best.
“I think I played in about six or seven different positions in that World Cup. Our coach was a big thinker of the game and believed you should be able to play anywhere in 15s, but maybe not the front or second row as they are specialist positions.”
Also an international-standard referee, Khamova retired from playing after the 2014 tournament.
While her contribution to Kazakhstan rugby has been huge in so many ways, her biggest influence arguably came in October 2009 when she was part of the delegation that persuaded the International Olympic Committee to include rugby sevens on the programme for the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Games.
That historic decision paved the way for sevens to attract funding via the National Olympic Committees, and, like in many countries, Kazakhstan decided to focus on the shorter format of the game.
While 15s remains her first love, she is sure of one thing – she needs rugby in her life, whatever the format.
“I am always around rugby; I couldn’t live without it,” she said.
“It’s good that rugby sevens became an Olympic sport because awareness of rugby has increased. Rugby sevens got all the attention but, to me, 15s is classic rugby.”