In all his years of playing in the Rugby Europe Championship, Russia winger Vasily Artemyev has never known the standard of play to be so high.
To underline his point, last weekend saw Portugal end Georgia’s 20-match unbeaten run in the competition by holding them to a 25-25 draw in Tbilisi.
From being a team that tended to yo-yo between the Rugby Europe Championship and the Rugby Europe Trophy, Portugal are now in a very good position to qualify for only their second Rugby World Cup.
Russia have competed in two tournaments to date, in 2011 and 2019, but face an uphill battle to make it to France 2023.
The Bears were beaten 34-25 by Romania in a forward-dominated encounter in Bucharest and are now fifth in the Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification table and nine points off the top two places that guarantee automatic entry to the tournament.
“Every game is a must-win game if we do cherish a chance to qualify, which we do, but obviously we have put ourselves in a very difficult position now,” said Artemyev.
“The level of competition within the Rugby Europe Championship has grown massively. There is so much improvement demonstrated by teams like Spain and Portugal over the years.”
This is what it means in the qualification race for #RWC2023 with the combined 2021 and 2022 standings.— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) February 6, 2022
The top two teams will directly qualify, with the third placed team going into the Final Qualification Tournament.
All to play for with four rounds still to go pic.twitter.com/bORcddW7xk
Roller coaster ride
The Bears, if anything, have taken a step back to move forwards and are in a rebuilding phase under new head coach Dick Muir.
Muir inherited the team from Welshman Lyn Jones in time for the Rugby Europe Championship 2022 and the former Springbok assistant took charge of his first match last weekend.
“We have had our ups and downs and our progress has stalled a bit recently. There has been a generational change and obviously, the COVID-19 situation didn’t help us develop the younger players and give them an opportunity to play for the national team and gain international exposure,” said Artemyev, who made his test debut back in 2009.
“There is a big step up from club games to international games and you do need to play at those high-level games to improve. Obviously, it is the same with everyone else but, unfortunately, the Russian league doesn’t always provide those types of high-intensity games.”
At 34 years of age and approaching 100 caps, Artemyev was the most senior international by far in the Bears’ line-up last Saturday.
Now that Yury Kushnarev has retired, Artemyev and Viktor Gresev are the only players to have appeared in both of Russia’s Rugby World Cup appearances.
Former Northampton Saints winger Artemyev will be 36 by the time the next tournament comes around but is still in very good shape and running hard for club side CSKA Moscow.
Artemyev, who has captained Russia a record 39 times in his 97 caps, is sensibly just taking each game as it comes and says the prospect of potentially playing in a history-breaking three Rugby World Cups has not entered his head.
“To be honest I haven’t even thought about it. If that happens, obviously I would be very proud to represent my country again on the biggest international stage in rugby,” he said.
“I am just really working hard to help the younger guys in the team to get accustomed to what the level is like and what the training is like at this level.
“We have to fast track them through because we don’t have many opportunities to camp together or to play friendlies. Pretty much the whole time we spend together is competition time, so there is not much chance to make errors before you move up.
“We had eight debutants in the game against Romania, I myself cannot remember the last time that happened.”
✍️ | Report from all three matches in Round 1 of the Rugby Europe Championship 2022. @RugbyRomania and @ferugby recording victories and @GeorgianRugby and @PortugalRugby sharing the spoils. @rugbyworldcup qualifying for @France2023 is in full swing! https://t.co/vUTAkQhXfp— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) February 6, 2022
Changing the system
Rugby Europe’s Super Cup is helping to bridge the gap to a degree and the re-introduction of the national A team will also give game time opportunities away from the Russian domestic league.
Improving the connection between the clubs and the national team is another area of focus, and Artemyev is confident the right steps are being taken to improve the national team.
“Dick has come in and there is a big plan for the next few years for the national team to grow and improve,” he said.
“It is more of a system-type thing so Dick has a big job ahead of him. He is planning on moving to Russia for the next couple of years and that will help him liaise with the Russian clubs where the majority of our players play.
“It is important to oversee and correct if needed, the systems within those clubs to make sure the national team players are in the best possible condition.
“That will be a big part of it and also getting the U19s and U20s through faster into the national team.
“Hopefully, the COVID situation will ease a bit more in the next few months and we’ll have fewer cancelled games and be able to arrange more fixtures.
“There is a plan to get the Russia A team started again, which will give a lot of youngsters a chance to play at the international level.”
In the here and the now, however, Russia’s focus is on the match against Spain this weekend.
Win in Sochi and Russia would be back in with a shout of qualification, certainly for third place and entry into the Final Qualification Tournament.
Spain have won the last five meetings between the teams and Artemyev says they will have to at least repeat the strong mauling performance from the Romania defeat as well as sharpen up their attacking skills to be in with a chance of ending that sequence of results.
“We looked a bit rusty when we played through the backs but we were missing a good few experienced players who perform better under pressure,” said Artemyev, scorer of 29 test tries.
“When you do get a few opportunities you need to put them away and without that experience, I think we missed that cutting edge a bit.
“But the mauling was good and hopefully we can keep on building on that because Spain loves to maul as well.
“We’ll have to work very hard to stop them and hopefully we can do some similar damage as we did against Romania.”