The Blues rugby team faces an enormous challenge this Sunday when the full Russian National rugby team comes to Iffley Road Stadium at 2pm. This will be second international team to be hosted at Iffley road in as many years, the Blues lost out to a Georgia XV last year. This builds on an International history that boasts the rare scalp of the Springboks in 1969 – the Springbok head is still proudly on shown in the Vincent’s Club.
Russia arrive in Oxford for a warm up match for their Autumn International Series looking to develop a squad to take to the 2015 World Cup. The Russian Bears will face their old adversaries, the USA, on November 9th, where former Oxford Blue (2011) Derek Asbun will be representing the Eagles. Rather worryingly, after some very amateurish research, I couldn’t find too many of the Russian players who weighed in under 100kgs and most of them looked like they have spent the last ten years hacking down trees on the Siberian steppes. They all have unpronounceable names and researching them reminded me of some of the more trying portions of ‘War and Peace’, but they all seem to have very impressive rugby pedigrees.
And so this game shapes as a season-defining clash for the Blues. The squad has been rotated throughout the first 4-5 games to identify new talent but the final squad that will form the core of the Varsity team will be selected shortly. Sunday may mark the first time that the notoriously wily coach, James Wade, shows something close to his ideal 1st XV.
Alas, at this stage, the Blues are yet to register a win (a draw against Moseley being the closest result this season). In addition, their most recent performance against Henley did not have the fluency the coaching staff might have been hoping for with Varsity 5-6 weeks away. In contrast, the previous game, a spirited loss to a strong Northampton side, showed the potential of the team and their capacity for some pretty heroic defence.
There are also a number of individual Blues who are looking to build momentum in the lead-up to Varsity. Captain John Carter is returning from a one game suspension and seeking to regain the form that made him the dominant player in the 2011 Varsity, along with the departed Karl Outen. Equally, fly-half Charlie Marr will be looking to convert his imperious training form into a dominant match display. Marr is returning to rugby after a year break with injury and will be central to the Blues hopes in December. Former England U18 Captain Gus Jones played a superlative game last week and will be looking to secure his position in a back-row that boasts size, speed and a ferocious work-ethic.
The squad is also juggling a wealth of talent in some positions. Returning Blue Sam Egerton, a superb ball-runner, Stu Commins, a product of Western Province and London Irish, and Andy McCulla, a slick passer, are all top drawer No. 9s and it will be interesting to watch how the selection panel utilise their diverse abilities.
It promises to be a belter of a match and the highlight of the pre-Varsity games. It remains to be seen whether the Blues can play Rocky Balboa to Russia’s Ivan Drago.