Friday dawned and it was going to be another hot one with temperatures reaching 32c, a record for Moscow in June. It was the first day of the Rugby World Cup Sevens but England weren’t due to play their game until after 5pm so we thought some more sightseeing was in order. We decided that a tour of the Kremlin would increase our cultural stock so after a late breakfast we headed off.
I have to mention the Moscow Metro which is an attraction in itself. The stations above ground are quite pleasing to look at, the one local to our hotel having a Greco-Roman theme, but once you take the escalator deep underground you find yourself in a world of vaulted ceilings, classical columns, mouldings, lighting and marbling with each station having a unique style. A student of neo-classical architecture or design could happily spend days travelling the Metro studying the characteristics of each station without ever seeing the light of day. Although the trains themselves aren’t that modern the service is frequent and punctual and well used by Muscovites and tourists alike.
We emerged near The Kremlin and made our way to the main entrance. All of a sudden I hear someone behind me call ‘Uganda!’. I was wearing a cap I was given on my trip to East Africa last year bearing the logo of the sponsor of Ugandan Rugby, Nile Special. When I turned around I saw a bearded front-row shaped man who introduced himself as Jerome who had recognised the logo. Now I think my Polish/Nigerian connections are a bit convoluted, but Jerome’s is something else. He is a Frenchman living in Nairobi and working for the Kenyan Rugby Union as a youth coach. He was in Moscow for the Sevens with tickets courtesy of the Tunisian Union who he acted as translator for at the Mombasa Sevens and he will soon be going to live and work in Cambodia as a PE instructor in a French school.
We immediately hit it off and decided against the Kremlin tour, rather spending time walking and talking about rugby and the friends and colleagues we have in common, Fred Ollows and Terry Sands to name two. While strolling through Red Square we came across three students from Brunel University and as rugby folk do we went to a bar and sat outside drinking the local Russian beer and taking rugby.
For me this epitomises what I love so much about our game. No matter where you are you will find friends united by rugby, and the respect the game engenders crosses national boundaries and generations.
After several beers and something to eat we headed for the Metro to make our way to the Luzhniki stadium. This was the main arena used for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 but coming out of the station it wasn’t clear where to go, although for the first time I saw billboards advertising that the Sevens World Cup was being played in the city. We followed people who looked like they knew what they were doing and eventually we got to the stadium which is very impressive. It is now primarily a soccer venue which unfortunately meant that there wasn’t any alcohol on sale and you were discouraged from sitting anywhere but in the sector for your ticket. This meant Jerome and our student friends were in different parts of the stadium.
The Luzhniki has around 80,000 seats but for the first day of the competition I doubt that more than 5,000 were taken. I applaud the IRB for trying to take the showpiece events to new areas but I was disappointed at the lack of promotion in the city or in the local media. Perhaps numbers will be much better for days two and three.
The first days’ games saw each competing country play once with all the games won comfortably by the favourite. England had a mediocre game against Portugal, to whom they have lost twice this season, but overcame them 21-7 and they have Hong Kong and Argentina on Saturday. Realistically they need to win both these games to get through to the main quarter-finals.
The game schedule had a break of an hour for the opening ceremony which saw a couple of hundred dancers in space suits on the field. It took me some time to work out that this must be connected to the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned flight into space.
Games played we wended our way back into the city, stopping at Cafe Anna for some lamb with rice and Siberian dumplings, then tired but content we got back to our hotel. The Saturday games will see the intensity increase with some great matches to look forward to, in particular Kenya v Samoa, Fiji v Wales and of course England v Argentina. The women start their campaign with France, Japan and Russia in England’s pool. England women are one of the pre-tournament favourites but the heat may prove to be a decisive factor.
Games are being streamed live at www.rwcsevens.com