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Kazakhstan: Heroes of central Asia

While it was no surprise to see that the top three teams in the Olympic Repecharge last weekend were the three World Series teams. But what about the team that finished fourth?

"You arrived unknowns.... and left heroes" was one comment on social media about the Kazakhstan team at last weekend's Olympic Repecharge.

But Kazakhstan women's team have always stood out. They are the most equal rugby society – very nearly 50% of players in Kazakhstan are women, and it is the women’s team that is the more well-known. This can be no surprise as Kazakhstan’s women have a long and impressive rugby history, having appeared at every Word Cup since the creation of the republic and having won many Asian titles at both 15s and 7s.

However, the central Asian republic’s team remains something of an unknown quantity, especially outside Asia, so we took the opportunity of their visit to Dublin to speak to their coach, John Phelan.

Our first question was what is how an Irishman came be coaching Kazakhstan?

“My wife is Vice President of the Kazakh National Airline, Air Astana,” said John. We arrived there in May 2013 and I quickly became involved in youth rugby, mainly due to my sons playing the game and there being a lack of coaches at the age grades.

“When Murat Uanbayev, who I knew, became president of the KRF almost a year ago, he approached me straight away and asked me to get involved in both international relations and coaching the women's national teams, both 15s and 7s. The rugby is BY FAR my preference!

Kazakhstan has made the headlines recently following the sudden withdrawal of both its men and women from the Asia XVs Championship. What is the state of the game in Kazakhstan?

“Regarding the state of women's rugby - it's a tough question - one I can't answer any way other than honestly.

“The group of girls I've been working with are great - you'll know many of them as they've been on the circuit a while now. We've worked hard this year on core skills, game patterns, defensive line speed and general toughness, particularly at our breakdown areas - the improvement in this particular area has been tangible and I'm pretty happy with the girls’ commitment to this work, often with me personally - these girls aren't afraid.

“We've been in (live in) camp a number of times now this year and in preparation for both HK & Dublin and intend to do more of this as its paying dividends. These girls love their work. I think it's fair to say we punch above our weight compared to some of my counterparts teams and what we achieve on our comparative budget is something we should be proud of - I think we had more than a few eyebrows raised in Dublin last weekend.

“More generally, we don't have enough registered players, male or female, in Kazakhstan to have great strength in depth. We have a plan to address this and intend to fully support the World Rugby "GIR" [Get Into Rugby] programme but really need a dramatic increase in interest from the Sports Council of Kazakhstan to make real inroads there. The place we JUST missed out on for the World Series last weekend would really have helped us out in this area. As for the the slightly more ambitious but not unrealistic, final Olympic place.... well... this would have been a godsend for rugby generally in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

“We didn't "drop" 15s rugby at all, well, certainly not by our own volition anyway. Having been pledged the money to travel to the Asia cup, the govt. pulled that finance at the eleventh hour and we simply could not afford to travel to our away commitments. It's been a particularly difficult time in Kazakhstan over the last two years with two currency devaluations and our economy being so closely linked to the Rouble and the oil-barrel price - all available sports monies were simply redirected to Olympic causes this year.

“Obviously, the implications of all this are far reaching for our beloved sport with now not being able to qualify for next year’s World Cup but more so... It's just sad for a few girls who may be at, or reaching the ends of their careers - that's the killer for me personally. Not to mention how it upset our competitors and Asia & World Rugby.”

What are you chances of getting to the sevens world Cup in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo?

“If I can get more time with this bunch of girls and bolster it with an elusive out and out speedster (or two), and drill the core rugby skills into them quickly, we have no reason to fear any 7's team. That being said, the World Series tourists certainly look to be pulling away from the rest of us more and more, as you'd expect, being exposed to that level of training, coaching and competition on that circuit. But I would be very hopeful that we should be present at the 2020 Olympics.”

It was good to see the brilliant Anna Yakoleva in the team in Dublin. Will she still be available for 2018 or beyond?

“How long Anna can go on for will be entirely her decision. She is obviously hugely important to everything we do and is a talisman off the pitch as much as she is a warrior on it. I will have a sit down with her very soon about her future plans but as we saw last weekend, her work rate has not dropped at all in line with her growing years - she's 32 now and as competitive as ever, maybe more so.

“There was no talking her missing out of playing in the semi-final following her nasty mouth injury but once she'd been stitched up by my old friend, clubman and IRFU doc, John Ryan, she was raring to go again.

“I've recently appointed Baljan Koishybaeva as vice-captain and see her as a very natural successor to Yakovleva - a very tough and talented young player with a great mental attitude and approach to her rugby. I'm in discussions to send her to one of Ireland's top women's clubs, Railway Union RFC, in Dublin this winter and should it work out as I'm hoping, it will be a great for her and her game development all during Kazakhstan's off season too. All that said, I'm hoping Anna will be available for a couple of years to come yet.”