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'Peter O'Mahony and Andrew Conway, they're good guys and rugby gentlemen'

Russia flanker Tagir Gadzhiev made a major impact at the World Cup in Japan.

RUSSIA FLANKER TAGIR Gadzhiev attracted lots of attention with the eye-catching hat he wore before and after his side’s games at the World Cup, but his intention was not to grab the limelight.

Instead, wearing the papakha hat was a symbol of his pride to be from Dagestan, a place where resilience is a pre-requisite if you’re going to do achieve in life.

Gadzhiev certainly made his mark in Japan, shining in the Russian back row despite their four pool stage defeats, including a 35-0 loss to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

TG Gadzhiev with Peter O'Mahony after Ireland played Russia. Source: Tagir Gadzhiev/Instagram

The openside caught everyone’s eye at the World Cup and has since spoken to some well-known European clubs, but is now set to sign a contract to remain in Russian rugby for the coming seasons while also keeping an eye out for chances to move to a higher level.

Now 25, Gadzhiev admits he is still learning the subtleties the sport in the Test arena, having only started to play at the age of 18. Before that, he had been intensely focused on forging a career in mixed martial arts [MMA].

Dagestan is a hotbed of wrestling – with UFC star Khabib Nurmagomedov and several Olympic champions hailing from the region – so Gadzhiev was heavily involved in martial arts and kickboxing until some local fighters were invited to give rugby a go.

“First of all, I was asking, ‘What is rugby?’” recalls Gadzhiev with a laugh, as he speaks on the phone from Russia’s first national team training camp since the World Cup.

“But I tried it and I liked it so much, so I chose rugby, everything was about rugby and I forgot about MMA.

“The hardest thing when I started to play rugby was the rules! Rugby rules, it took me a long time to learn and still now, there can be 50/50 things, like some referees making one decision and a different referee making a different decision. I’m still learning.”

Gadzhiev’s initial foray into rugby was through 7s, where he was a free-scoring wing but he was soon repositioned into the back row as he joined the Kuban club in Krasnodar and also caught the eye of then-Russia coach Kingsley Jones.

“Kingsley wanted to test me and I thought I would go straight into the national team, but when I went there [to national camp], I saw how they pass, what they’re doing, where they’re running, and I didn’t understand anything!”

Gadzhiev’s athletic potential was clear but he had to learn the game as he developed through Kuban’s U18s team, rapidly into their senior side, then on towards his first Russia cap in 2015, which he calls “a big experience.”

japan-v-russia-pool-a-2019-rugby-world-cup-tokyo-stadium Gadzhiev in action against Japan at the World Cup. Source: Ashley Western

His background in MMA has been unsurprisingly useful.

“Tackles, breakdown, everywhere, you have good reactions to what is happening around you in collisions,” explains Gadzhiev, and those traits were evident in the World Cup as he chopped ball-carriers with impact and counter-rucked powerfully.

One of the important figures in Gadzhiev’s development is a familiar face within Irish rugby circles.

Phil Werahiko – ex-director of rugby in Belvedere College and the former Dalle Salle Palmerston, Clontarf, and Old Belvo coach – has also been involved in Russian rugby in recent years, coaching Kuban.

“Phil is such a good coach,” says Gadzhiev. “I didn’t work with him in the club for a long time but I spoke with him a lot and still speak with him.

“He tells me things to make me a better player, psychological things as well. He is a good coach. He told me about personal growing up, not just as a player, some life skills.”

Russia were catapulted into the World Cup at a late stage in 2018 after Romania, Belgium and Spain were all punished for fielding ineligible players in the Rugby Europe Championship, which doubled as the qualification route.

That meant Lyn Howells’ squad had just over a year to catch up before the World Cup, but they managed to win supporters in Japan with their spirited performances as they lost to Samoa, Japan, Scotland, and Ireland.

The clash with Schmidt’s side was a particularly memorable one for Gadzhiev.

“It was such a good experience,” says the Russian. “The statistics in how we played, the big collisions, tackles everywhere, it was big rugby. It was a big experience because there were so many rugby stars we played against.

jack-carty-with-vasily-artemyev-and-tagir-gadzhiev The 25-year-old impressed against Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Conway, I met with them and spoke with Peter. I spoke with him, they’re good guys and rugby gentlemen.

“After the game, nothing about rugby, just talking about life. They showed great respect and I’m proud of playing against teams like Ireland.”

Gadzhiev says he received one offer from a European club during the World Cup, while there were further discussions with clubs in France following the tournament.

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The flanker doesn’t say which clubs he spoke to, although it’s understood that Clermont were among them, and now it looks like he will sign for VVA PodMoscoveya in the Russian Premier League, moving to the Moscow region from Krasnodar.

Gadzhiev does, however, have ambitions of playing on a bigger club stage in the future and hopes to get a shot even if only on a shorter-term basis.

“There were invites after the World Cup to be a medical joker because the season had started, one good invite from Europe but after, they chose a different player,” explains Gadzhiev

“I think it would be a good experience, so we will see. I think I’m going to sign here and they’re giving me a contract for two-and-a-half years, so I think I’m going to sign.

“But, anyway, that would still mean I could go for a season in Europe because here in Russia the season is until October or November, so maybe if I hear something I can go and play somewhere else as well.

“I’d like to go and play with big teams, with good players, and against good players.”

Tagir Gadzhiev with All Blacks Ofa Tu'ungafasia and Sonny Bill Williams. Source: Tagir Gadzhiev/Instagram

Gadzhiev, who now has over 30 caps for Russia, certainly has his best years in rugby ahead of him and he is hopeful that any further progress he makes is mirrored by the rise of rugby in his country, especially his region of Dagestan.

“There’s a lot of interest after the World Cup but the people who saw the national team playing for the first time, they didn’t understand the differences between, say, Irish rugby and Russian rugby.

“They saw that it was more than 30 points and they think it’s too much. For people who were watching for the first time, they probably have the opinion that Russian rugby is not good.

“But they’re starting to invite our players onto TV shows and things like that. It’s good for raising interest.

“For me, it’s so important that Dagestan rugby grows. In the rest of Russia, they have good coaches who played rugby but in Dagestan there aren’t coaches who played professional rugby. There are wrestling coaches who started to coach rugby, so hopefully Dagestan rugby will start to improve.”

- Thanks to James Campbell of J.B. Campbell Consultants for the help in organising this interview. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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