Russia will take the narrowest of leads with them to Montevideo in two weeks’ time after they beat Uruguay 22-21 in Saturday’s first leg of the final Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifier in Krasnoyarsk.
However, while no team likes to lose a game of rugby, Uruguay’s Pablo Lemoine will probably be the more satisfied of the two coaches as his side is still very much in contention at what is effectively half-time.
Of course, the fact that the second half will most likely be played on a warm day in front 12,000 home fans will give him cause for optimism after his team held their own in the near-freezing conditions and vociferous Siberian crowd of the first 80 minutes.
But for Russia’s indiscipline and the cultured right boot of fly-half Felipe Berchesi, who slotted seven penalties, the gap would have been more. Two yellow cards, a high penalty count and the spurning of several try-scoring opportunities did nothing for the mood of Russia coach Raphael Saint-Andre but he will know that his team was the more creative on the day and, if they can somehow learn to compete at set pieces and improve their defence at mauls, they too can make the long journey to South America with some confidence.
And it was Russia who scored the game’s only try. A sustained period of pressure was forged through the work of second-row Alexander Voytov and flanker Andrei Garbuzov, creating space for the pacey Russian backline, expertly marshalled by fly-half Yuri Kushnarev. In the end, outside centre Dmitri Gerasimov made a great break into Uruguay’s 22 and, with the retreating defence stretched, scrum-half Alexander Ianushkin recycled quickly and fed loose-head prop Grigory Tsobiladze who rumbled over from short range.
Russia led 16-12 at half-time
Kushnarev converted and it sent Russia into the dressingroom at half-time with a 16-12 lead. The second half continued a similar pattern to the first. Russia looked dangerous when they retained the ball and made space for their backline but Uruguay’s scrum and maul were too much for Russia and their rush defence added enormous pressure, hindering the Bears’ efforts to manufacture that crucial go-forward ball.
On the scoreboard it was a kicking competition with both Kushnarev and Berchesi in fine form. Uruguay took a 21-19 lead on 66 minutes, which was cancelled out by his opposite number seven minutes later. Berchesi had a chance to win the match in the dying moments of the game but he saw his well-struck penalty from about 35 metres out shave the wrong side of the post.
Saint-Andre said: “We need to improve our discipline. We had two yellow cards today that cost us a lot. In the second half we had too many penalties against. It is why they came back into the game. So with a bit more discipline, we have got a chance in Montevideo. Today their kicker was on fire and maybe it won’t be the same in two weeks.
“After 50 minutes our players got really tired and when you are tired you are not as clever when you are fresh. After 50 minutes because it was a hard fight we were a bit tired and that is why we gave away the penalties. Uruguay also put us under pressure and it made us concede penalties when they had a lot of possession in the second half.
We will compete with Uruguay
“We are not afraid. We know Uruguay are a good team but we tried to compete as well as possible with them. We knew their scrum was strong and they were able to make some very good mauls.”
“I am not happy about the final gap because we could have scored a couple of more tries in the first half. It is why I am not really, really happy about the game. We know it is going to be very hard in Montevideo. The Uruguay welcome is very famous and we will try to give our best there in a game between two close teams.
Lemoine added: “It was a close game. We made some mistakes when we had two more players on the field which probably cost us the game. It was a classic game between the sides ranked 19th and 20th in the IRB rankings.
“I feel we were comfortable. We respected our strategy and although we made some mistakes when we kicked I felt our pack was really strong and dominant. We have to be more patient but we are happy with the result. We never like to lose but we know in Uruguay that the ambiance will not be the same. The stadium will have 12,000 there who will really be pushing behind our team. We are frustrated that we didn’t win but we will prepare well for the next match.”
It sets up an enthralling return leg in Montevideo on 11 October, a match that will be streamed live on rugbyworldcup.com. The winner will join Australia, England, Fiji and Wales in Pool A at RWC 2015.