Interview / Kirill Yashenkov: "We should convince World Rugby that European rugby has great untapped potential"

Kirill Yashenkov arrives to the presidential elections of Rugby Europe -that will be held from tomorrow until Saturday- with the firm intention of, if he wins, change many things. He leads the opposition candidacy to that of the current president, Octavian Morariu, the face of European rugby since 2013. Kirill Yashenkov is by no means a stranger among the unions for his active role on the continental scene as Vice President of the Russian Rugby Federation and, most recently, as one of the main faces of the Russian bid to host the 2027 World Cup, along with RUR President Igor Artemyev. Its program is full of intentions and actions aimed at renewal, highlighting the importance of competitions, collaboration and financial management to update European rugby in the times of professionalism. He provides us much more detail in this interview that he has given us.

What are the main challenges European Rugby are facing?

This is actually a very serious question that is difficult to answer in a few sentences. I would divide the problems of European rugby into two large groups - these are systemic issues that require correct decisions and endurance over a long distance, and situational ones that arise depending on the circumstances. To the first group, I would include the absence of growth points. It is quite obvious that in modern conditions it is impossible to develop rugby in the same way, even within the same country, not to mention the continent as a whole. For example, there are Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands - these countries do not have strong club championships, but if you create a tournament of the three strongest clubs, this will spur interest not only among players, but also among fans, and young rugby players will see an incentive to develop. Rugby Europe must define, create and help these clusters grow. The unions whose national teams are in the Trophy division are the most promising for my work.

Also, to the category of systemic problems, I would attribute the lack of effective communication between Rugby Europe and the unions. In the process of communicating with the leaders of the unions, this issue has become very acute, because often, some do not have enough support. Roughly the same can be said about educational programs - developed unions should share their experience and knowledge regularly and methodically. Nowadays, such processes often take place only at the initiative of the unions themselves. Of course, there are tasks that neither the PE nor the unions can solve - the development of infrastructure, the creation of academies, this requires large financial investments, which only the state is capable of. But I am sure that if you create a quality product, show the dynamics of development and prospects, then you can find a way out of the situation. As for situational problems, then all of European rugby, as well as the entire world sport suffers from the consequences of the pandemic. Plus, the lack of an effective managerial and management vertical leaves its mark. It's 2020, and Rugby Europe only after my nomination began steps towards the formation of a single pool of television rights. And in general, look how many interesting announcements and undertakings we have seen in the last month. You need to be calm about this, since this is a rule of the pre-election period.

Sometimes, in the last years, Rugby Europe can be seen as untidiness. Why do you think lot of people perceives that Rugby Europe is old fashioned, immovable government body? Do you think Rugby Europe did not take the chances to progress properly in the professional era after decades? 

Of course, we see a large gap between the countries of the six nations and the rest of the unions. In my opinion, this is a natural process, rugby only became a professional sport in 1995, and in 25 years, even in the same six nations, there are enough conservative views. But we must understand that the acquisition of a professional status by a game does nothing. In order to make money, you need either a market formed over centuries, as, for example, in Great Britain and France, or active development, as in Italy, for example. All other unions are physically and financially unable to develop at such a pace. In fact, a full-fledged professional club championship in the Tire-2 is only in Russia, Romania, Poland, Ukraine and Georgia, in all other countries the players, with rare exceptions, are amateurs, and upon reaching a certain level they leave to earn money by playing, for example, to France. Therefore, no, I would not say that European rugby missed its chance to become professional, but I would say that it is not taking advantage of this opportunity and I intend to change that.

You mentioned that there are federations that have reached their maximum and cannot progress or growth because it seems there is no action from current Rugby Europe. How much of this inaction is due to the current status quo within the international government bodies like World Rugby? Is there enough autonomy to progress and built from inside Rugby Europe and, if so, how you will strength the internal autonomy of Rugby Europe?

This question also cannot be answered in monosyllables. There are nations that have reached the ceiling due to their effective development, for example, Georgia. Look how great the Lelos players are performing in the Autumn Nations Cup and demonstrate that the gap between them and the first echelon is not that great. You just need to keep moving in that direction. But Georgians have been systematically developing rugby for at least 20 years and they are doing it right. The opposite example is Germany. The team developed well, even played in repechage for the 2019 World Cup and won the legs of the European Grand Prix Sevens, but due to internal problems it rolled back. Different solutions are required in each specific case. Georgia needs to be helped by developing the European Championship, encouraging other teams to grow and creating serious competition for Georgians. Then the level of the whole tournament will naturally rise. Germany may need more involvement in communication with the government, demonstration of support, joint visits to government bodies, so that the local union gets more involvement from the German authorities. In each specific case, we need our own solutions, which for the most part are not designed for an instant effect, but will certainly give a result over time. And, most importantly, Rugby Europe has enough autonomy and strength to deal with such issues.

Sometimes I perceive the interaction with World Rugby itself and World Rugby policies can be stronger or, at least, more fluent in order to be more beneficious for Europe. Do you agree with this opinion? How can be Rugby Europe more like a World Rugby partner rather than a minor-body?

Of course, this is one of my key tasks. We need to establish effective and systematic interaction with World Rugby, we need to convince World Rugby that European rugby has a huge untapped potential, that not only money can and should be invested here, but also the huge media and educational potential of the organization. And yes, I see Rugby Europe as an effective and reliable partner for WR in the long term. After all, let's be objective and look at the example of football. Probably 80% of all financial resources on a global scale are concentrated in European football, why shouldn't rugby repeat this path?

What do you think are the biggest challenges of the current competitions at Senior Men’s level? Which are the main things that need to be reformed? I’d like to know what will be your guidelines and tactics to create the conditions for growth and progress and to improve the quality of competitions?

It should be noted that one of the key achievements of the current Rugby Europe leadership is the creation of an effective and fair system for the European Championship. The teams are divided into groups according to their geographic level and sportsmanship. There is a transparent system of promotion and demotion in the classroom and I do not think that anything needs to be changed here. You just need to more actively stimulate teams to grow and gradually improve the quality of the competition. Let's be frank, it is impossible or extremely difficult to sell a match in an outdated stadium to a modern spectator without basic comfort conditions. This is not a product that can be successful, not a product that can attract the attention of big TV channels and serious sponsors. Therefore, the first step that we must take is to bring the organization of matches and work with fans to a new level in the top division of the European Championship. 

As practice shows, even people unfamiliar with rugby are ready to fill large arenas with the proper organizational approach. For example, the final of the U18 European Championship in Kaliningrad, there were more than 10 thousand people at the matches for the 3rd place and the final, in my opinion, this is a record among youth competitions on a global scale. I do not understand why this cannot be the case at the matches Spain - Portugal or Romania - Georgia. It can! And this will create a completely different image of the European Championship - the image of a modern, popular and successful tournament. And to achieve this, you do not need to move mountains, you just need to change the approach. In the future, I intend to interpolate this experience in the rugby sevens competition, which, using the example of the World Series, have shown their success in attracting spectators and gradually, step by step, change the approach throughout the entire vertical.

This untidiness I mentioned before has its own reflection in the tournaments with, for example, the fact that until next season TMO was not there…

Yes, you are absolutely right, until now the matches of the European Championship were held without TMO and without HIA. I am glad that Rugby Europe was able to take a step forward in this direction, however, it is not yet clear to me at what cost these tasks will be implemented, and after all, it was announced that all expenses will be covered by Rugby Europe. Nevertheless, it is good that this step has been taken.

2020-21 Championship season will be one of the most matched ever with the rise of Portugal, the good performance of Belgium and the usual “Top 4”. What do you think is the cause of this growth within these national teams? Do you think they made by themselves with not enough help from Rugby Europe?

Indeed, we will see a very interesting and unpredictable tournament, in which some teams will unexpectedly show their best side. This once again speaks of the great potential of European rugby - look how many bright, interesting and dramatic matches were played, I am sure that with the right approach, they would find their audience all over the world. As for the progress of Portugal, this is the result of many years of systematic work at youth level. The process of changing generations of Os Lobos was quite long, but look at the result. The guys who showed their level at the European Youth Championships now defend the colors of the country's main team. The Belgians use selection very effectively, finding promising young players with roots in the French championship (the Portuguese have such examples). This is exactly what you need - after all, the more high-quality players there are, the higher the level of the tournament itself, the more incentive for all participants to show their better qualities.

What do you think Rugby Europe need to do for reinforce the growth of these federations?

In my opinion, if we stimulate the creation of short-term, but regular tournaments between the best clubs in such countries as Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Germany, this will create additional conditions for the growth of players and coaches. In addition, Rugby Europe should work a lot on educational projects, which I mentioned earlier.

You said in your programme that an important part for rugby development in Europe -and mainly for all those federations that currently have a lack of international exposure- is to work on a wider calendar exploring test matches against non-European countries. Are you aiming to work closely with World Rugby as partner to achieve this goal or do you prefer to work with agreements with other continental federations?

We need to look for any ways to develop international cooperation in this direction. We will primarily rely on support and work with World Rugby as the parent organization, but of course I intend to build partnerships with other continental unions. I will say more, I am sure that even within the framework of communication between European countries there could be many more international games, just no one is doing this.

Recently, there were a statement from Rugby Europe mentioning a professional club competition for non-Six Nations’ union’s clubs. Is this new competition a need or a first step to reach some level from the clubs before going next into major businesses? Why to back the Six Nations’ unions’ ‘apartheid’ instead of strength professional rugby with their implication?

This is a very good and important question. Let's start - this is not the first attempt to create such a tournament. Until recently, we witnessed the Continental Shield drawing under the auspices of the Rugby Europe and EPCR, the winner of which went up to the Challenge Cup. Unfortunately, this tournament was curtailed for a number of reasons, the main of which: it did not attract spectators, it did not develop, the teams did not compete in the Challenge Cup and did not arouse the interest of their rivals there, and so on and so forth. An attempt to revive these competitions is definitely needed. I myself organized the Continental Club Rugby League, but due to certain circumstances and not without the participation of the Rugby Europe leadership, it did not take place, although agreements were reached, but we will not talk about it. On paper, the draft of the new competition looks good, it looks like there is even an investor there, which means it will be built according to a commercial model, which is correct. Will it be possible to create a real product out of this? It is difficult to say now, the organizers need to look at least a five-year perspective, there are definitely no quick ways to achieve results.

Can you detail a while your proposal of creating competitions, “where both clubs, franchises or even national teams which are close to each other geographically, can compete against each other according to their level of skill”, aimed for 2022?

As for my idea, the key task of club clusters is to create points of growth in the regions. I will give a real example - there are people in Ukraine who are ready to invest 500-600 thousand dollars a year in a club, but in the domestic championship they have only two games a year with a strong team. I am sure that the same people are in Hungary, Austria and other countries. But often people find it difficult to agree with each other at the same level, because a kind of hog the blanket begins. When we take the organizational part to Rugby Europe, and the clubs just need to play, the issue is resolved by itself. This is the problem of many championships of countries of the 3rd Tier - there is one team that has no competitors, and this stops progress. By creating small local competitions, we solve this problem - players get practice, clubs get an incentive to develop and good equal rivals, young people from other regions of these countries who want to dedicate life to rugby see an incentive. Probably, a number of underdeveloped unions - could play with U20 teams, why not? Rugby is a game, you need to play the more often, the better, with equal opponents - this is the goal!

What do you think is the role that Six Nations’ unions should lead in strengthening Rugby Europe and the rest of the European Unions?

We talked a lot about this with the representatives of the Six nations. In my opinion, this should be a movement towards each other. We have no right to demand something from countries that for centuries have proven their status as the best in the world, but we can cooperate. I see several directions in which this cooperation can be effective.

First, education. Six nations can share their experience with developing unions on a regular basis by delegating teachers and mentors, providing coach-consultants to the national teams who will devote part of their time to this work. Secondly, support. Can you imagine what a talented guy from Bulgaria or Poland will feel when he finds himself in an open training session of the England national team or in the stands of Aviva Stadium? I believe that by giving such opportunities to young people, we will show them the right path. Third, the media. I am sure that it is not difficult for the Six nations to tell the multi-million army of fans about the Rugby Europe tournaments. The main thing is to start collaborating and do it regularly.

After the events of 2018 involving Spain, Romania and Belgium (and Russia, later absolved) for fielding non-eligible players, the relationship between some ‘strong’ unions were damaged. How this impact nowadays? What is the main goal to strength the relationship between the unions with more impact in Rugby Europe? 

I don't think this story ruined the relationship between the unions. Rugby is a gentlemen's game, in which there are certain principles. As a direct participant in those processes, I am sure that none of the countries had malicious actions in this direction, no one tried to deliberately violate the rules of naturalization, moreover, I am sure that part of the blame in this situation lies with Rugby Europe. I`m on good terms with the presidents of these unions. The procedure for players of a different nationality to flirt with the national team is a rather complex legal process, in which there are a lot of pitfalls, and the responsibility lies entirely with the union, which deals with it. I am sure that if Rugby Europe had a system for licensing players and applications in electronic form, if unions could ask for help, advice and clarification, then we would not see such precedents. Moreover, something similar happened already in 1999, when Russia was removed, but no conclusions were made at the system level.

I find very interesting your proposal to reform the structure and the organization of Rugby Europe. What are the main proposals and tactics for that and what will be the role of Rugby Europe and the unions in your plan? Do you think unions will be supportive to that?

The essence of the reform that I propose is very simple and consists of two principles. First, to create a team of effective and professional managers who will be able to solve any problems at the level of European rugby, will be able to propose and implement ideas, and bring all projects to completion. Secondly, you need to create a working communication system between the unions and Rugby Europe. Believe it or not, for many small unions my call and offer to discuss their issues was a shock. No one has ever approached them with an offer not only of help and support, but of simple conversation and participation. I will suggest a more personalized approach. Of course, the tasks of Rugby Europe do not include the development of rugby in specific countries and it cannot interfere in internal affairs, but this does not mean that you need to leave small unions to the mercy of fate. I am sure that just effective communication will already be enough to start positive changes in general.


2023 will be a 20-squads World Cup. Is time to think for a 24 or even 28-squads RWC? What do you think should be the role of Rugby Europe in pushing these options and the participation of more European countries?

In my opinion, systemic processes work well when they develop naturally. We see the progress of many countries, such as Spain, Portugal, fantastic results are shown by Japan, but are there any prerequisites for expanding the tournament to 24 teams to make the tournament more competitive? I don’t think so, of course, everyone wants to see more teams, but this should not harm the level and status of the competition. I believe that it will be possible to talk about this in five years, especially since we see that World Rugby is carefully studying this issue. For example, in 2025 the number of participants in the Women's World Cup will increase from 12 to 16 teams, and this is a positive signal, I think that in right time this will happen with the men's tournament.

How to create an independent calendar for Sevens and managing it with the XV’s one (as some federations has no possibilities of a development of differentiated squads)?

I believe that in this matter we need to discuss everything well with the competitors. The calendar of games in the European Championship XV is not very tight, teams play only 4-5 matches a year, plus a few tests with the strongest, we still have enough room for maneuver to find optimal windows for holding rugby sevens tournaments in the spring and summer ... I do not intend to make drastic decisions without first discussing with all stakeholders - any actions must be consolidated.

I can see in your programme there are some financial and market areas you find as key ones from a proper development of professional rugby era in Rugby Europe. Why Rugby Europe is currently so slow in agreeing partnerships and what do you think is the way to do it faster and, over all, more efficient?

A key problem in Rugby Europe slow progress in finding sponsors, investors and new audiences is the lack of a quality product. I hate to repeat the above, but today it will be really difficult for you to convince people to invest in developing a phone that is functionally and externally similar to the iPhone 3. To change this, you need to change the picture, the visual perception of European rugby. In fact, this is a wonderful game that attracts tens of thousands of people around the world to the stands. I am sure that it is enough to organize a rhythmic and high-quality promotional campaign and achieve a match in a decent stadium for us to see a completely different picture. At least in terms of media work, video content creation and communication with fans, we must not lag behind world leaders, and in fact this is not such a global and expensive task.

What about the marketing area? I read you will to make Rugby Europe more accessible to people with the development of media and owned digital channels. How it will be? Is thee 1,000,000 goal something achievable?

I am convinced that the goal of 1,000,000 fans in European rugby beyond the Six nations is a very realistic goal. We work in a region with a total population of over 700 million people, against this background our task does not look fantastic. You just need to establish systematic, high-quality, and most importantly systematic work in all directions. Rugby is a fantastic game that undeservedly remains in the shadow of more developed and popular sports and we must change that!


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