Kazakhstan women will return to the test arena for the first time in two-and-a-half years on Saturday with their sights set firmly on Rugby World Cup 2021 qualification.
The Asia Rugby Women’s Championship has not been contested since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning Kazakhstan’s last 15s run-out was a 15-0 victory against China in Qian’an in August 2019.
That result, which confirmed a 23-13 aggregate win in the Asia Rugby Division 1 play-off, ensured that Kazakhstan would have a shot at qualifying for a seventh Rugby World Cup, and first since France in 2014.
In the intervening 30 months, the make-up of the squad has changed as several experienced players have retired from the international game.
But as Kazakhstan prepare for the opening match of the RWC 2021 Final Qualification Tournament against Colombia in Dubai on Saturday, assistant coach Svetlana Klyuchnikova insists the players will do all they can to book their place at the showpiece tournament.
The winner of Saturday’s match at The Sevens Stadium will go on to play Scotland at the same venue six days later. Whoever triumphs on 25 February will claim the 12th and final place at RWC 2021, playing in 2022.
“Our very experienced players, they know that the next World Cup will be in New Zealand and for many people, it’s great because New Zealand, they’re World Cup champions,” Klyuchnikova said.
“We want to come to this great country to play this game.
“But they don’t know how they will play because [they lack] experience and only with a big heart they will try to win.”
Klyuchnikova and Kazakhstan have been based in Dubai for two weeks leading into the Final Qualification Tournament, thanks to support from World Rugby, in order to escape the inclement weather back home.
Temperatures in Kazakhstan in February can dip as low as minus-18 degrees Celsius, which means the players are unable to train outside.
“WE HAVE A VERY STRONG BACK LINE”
It should come as little surprise that in conditions such as those, a forward-dominated game evolved in the Asian country during the 1990s and 2000s.
However, the current squad includes 10 players who represented Kazakhstan in the Olympic Repechage tournament in Monaco last June, and Klyuchnikova believes that is where the team’s strength now lies.
“It was a tough game. It was a good scrum,” Klyuchnikova said of the nation’s previous on-field attributes.
“We [now] have a very strong back line because all our experienced players are in the back line. But I hope our scrum will show that they can play good too.”
Despite their lack of recent game time, Kazakhstan head into Saturday’s match against Colombia 11 places above their opponents in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
And although Klyuchnikova believes Colombia have a “big advantage” having played a warm-up match against Spain A en route to Dubai, it is Kazakhstan that has the Rugby World Cup pedigree.
Kazakhstan first qualified for the tournament in 1994 and four years later claimed the scalp of both Ireland (twice) and Wales during RWC 1998 in Amsterdam.
“We beat Ireland (in 1998),” Klyuchnikova, who appeared at three Rugby World Cups as a player between 2006 and 2014, said.
“All European teams are very strong and that’s why, when Kazakhstan won, it was great. Nobody knew about Kazakhstan.”
Klyuchnikova and the current squad will hope more people in the rugby world will know about Kazakhstan come 25 February.