Russia, Crimea rugby clash ends in improbable draw
Russian and Crimean players in action during a rugby match in central Simferopol's stadium on March 15, 2014 - by Filippo Monteforte
Neither Russia nor Crimea is known for its rugby tradition and few in the crowd at a football stadium in Simferopol, Crimea's capital, seemed to be fans of the game.
But the end result -- a 59-59 draw following an improbable second-half fightback by Crimea -- was cheered by the crowd, many of whom said they would vote to join Russia in Sunday's referendum.
"We're very happy," said Viktor Kobus, 47, after his first ever rugby match.
"Everything is equal, everything is fine and it will be the same for us after the referendum."
The odds seemed to be against Crimea from the start.
For many spectators, though, the quality of play was beside the point.
"I'm hoping for a draw -- it's just interesting to see the game. Friendship will win," said Gennadiy Tarasov, 49, who was also watching his first match.
Not only did the Russians occupy the home dressing room before the game but Crimea's team of amateurs were up against a professional Russian side drawn from a new national league set up this year.
There was little to distinguish their strips, with both sporting the colours of their similar flags -- Crimea's shirts were mainly white with red and blue, while Russia's were mainly red with white and blue.
Crimea played woefully in the first half, with sloppy passes and kicks and a weak scrum, while Russia played an extremely physical game, scoring their first try after 10 minutes.
The absence of applause at tries and conversions suggested that most of the several hundred-strong crowd did not know what was happening at first.
Many of the chants coming from the crowd seemed to reference Sunday's referendum, which is set to see Crimea -- currently an autonomous region of Ukraine -- break away towards Moscow.
"Crimea, don't be afraid, Russia is behind you" and "Russia, please let Crimea in" were just some of them.
Russian rugby officials would not specify whether the match was organised before the referendum was announced on February 27.
But Ukraine's coach, Grigoriy Zakhlivny, said preparations started a week ago and were initiated by the Russians.
The presence of Nikolai Valuev -- a Russian former heavyweight boxing champion formerly known as the "Beast From The East" who is now a lawmaker for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party -- at the game also suggested political symbolism.
With the score at 40-17 at half-time, Russia looked set to pull off a rout but Crimea started scoring much more freely in the second half.
The team pulled off an unlikely draw in the final moments of the game, drawing loud cheers at the final whistle from the crowd.
Crimean lock Roman Kartashov insisted that rugby would always remain above politics.
"As always, sport is an envoy of peace so that is why it does not have any political context.
"This is a friendly game. Sportsmen have always friendly and they always will be, regardless of the political situation."
Russian player Sergei Mountian added: "We hope that our friendly relationship will always endure -- Russia and Crimea are united."
On Sunday, the day of the referendum itself, another symbolic sporting clash is set to take place, with Dynamo Kiev playing Crimea's main football team Tavria in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.