This is a guest article by Rob Cawdron. Rob is a Sabre coach based at Shakespeare’s Swords Fencing Club in the UK. You can reach him on Facebook.
France v Russia – Kazan 2014: Analysis and Commentary
France v Russia should always be fascinating match up, but recently these matches haven’t quite lived up to the billing. Russian sabre is in a really dominant position, and has been since the appointment of Christian Bauer. French sabre has been, by comparison, stuck out in the wilderness a bit: they had poor results at London 2012 and haven’t had any fencer ranked consistently in the world top 10. But when you’re talking about top performers on the big stage, the form book can go out the window, and this match had some really interesting twists.
Let’s look at the lineups.
Team France is made up of Bolade Apithy, Vincent Anstett and Nicolas Rousset as the finisher. There’s nothing too revolutionary here, the French have basically picked on form from individual results.
Rousset is enjoying the best results of his career to-date and, at 26, is the youngest member of this French team. His fencing exemplifies everything I love about French sabre: he’s really dynamic, his movements are powerful and he loves nothing more than sweeping down the piste with a big attack.
Next we have Anstett. He’s the oldest fencer on the team and has been around since 2002, but is currently enjoying a bit of a revival, with his best results since 2007. Probably the most consistent performer of this French team, he may not have the same penchant for outrageous flair that the other two do, but he’s a powerhouse and brings a great work-rate to the team.
Apithy is a name well known to a lot of people who follow the circuit, he’s exciting, he’s powerful, he’s fast and when he’s “on it” he can be utterly irresistible. He enjoyed a great period in the run up to London 2012, although he’s fallen away a bit recently. I’d love to see a return to peak form.
The Russian line-up makes for interesting reading. Alongside Italy and South Korea, the defending world champions make up the real “Galacticos” of modern Men’s Sabre. All four of these guys are ranked in the world top 15: Veniamin Reshetnikov, Nikolay Kovalev, Alexey Yakimenko and Kamil Ibragimov. Reshetnikov and Yakimenko are both ranked in the top 10, Kovalev has just won the Individual title in Kazan, and Yakimenko came third. Reshetnikov was Senior World Champion in 2013. Ibragimov was Junior World Champion. Need I go on?
The thing to notice about their selection though, is two big calls; 2013 World Champion Reshetnikov is on the bench and the new boy, Kamil Ibragimov, is finishing. Both of these will shape the match to come.
Now we know the teams, let’s look at what to expect. One of the things that makes this most interesting is that both Russia and France generally favour similar tactics, but get there in very different ways. Both nations favour a more defensive outlook in the 4m, looking to defeat their opponent’s initial action, then scoring themselves, but the way this is achieved by both nations is very different.
The French favour fencing at a wide distance, in the 4m and out, and this informs their decision making. They generally look to make their opponents miss before setting up long attacks where they sweep in with a step-lunge. The Russians by contrast fence much closer, looking to get to lunge distance and work there. This means they are able to immediately punish mistakes and consequently score a lot of parry ripostes and attacks on preparation. This very different but also strangely similar ideology is evident throughout the match. Let’s take a look.
The first match up is Rousset against Yakimenko and right away we can see the different distance games at work from the two fencers. Rousset has some early joy keeping the distance wide in the 4m enabling him to make Yakimenko miss and score with a long attack on the first point. Textbook French sabre.
He also uses this distance very effectively on defence, scoring three counter-attacks to Yakimenko’s wrist as Alexey rushes into a wider distance than he’s used to. Yakimenko recovers with a change in emphasis. Looking to attack aggressively in the 4m, he takes advantage of some less than fully committed attempts by Rousset to make him miss and helping him get to 4-4.
Rousset closes out with some more classic French style, making Yakimenko miss before sweeping him down again.
5-4 France. The line in the sand has been drawn early.
Next up is Apithy against Ibragimov and it doesn’t get much more dynamic than these two! Ibragimov is a superb 4m fencer, he’s brave, he starts slow and he gets close. He reaps the rewards early on here, scoring two very clean attacks on preparation, but Apithy is no mug and scores a parry riposte by drawing that same attack on preparation and dealing with it. Emphatically.
Like Yakimenko, Ibragimov struggles to deal with the French distance while he’s attacking and he too gets picked off with some counter-attacks on the wrist. He keeps in touch though, largely thanks to his superb 4m game, and takes the score to 9-9. The last point is a biggy: Ibragimov gets the attack, but makes a big change to his finish, instead of closing the distance and looking to score with a lunge as he’s tried, and failed, to do previously, he attacks from a much wider distance with an accelerating step-lunge, completely catching Apithy by surprise.
Anstett and Kovalev are up next and this one starts off a bit scrappy. Both of these guys like to prepare deep into the 4m and both are pretty offensive. They pick off each other’s mistakes in decision making and sharpness early on, but neither feels in control. We do however have a continuation of the sub-plot which has been developing of Russians struggling to find the distance to finish their attacks. Kovalev is the one who makes the change in the 4m and since he’s trailing, that’s understandable. He starts making a shorter preparation and the match cleans right up. He takes a really sharp parry riposte off an Anstett reprise, a proper Russian hallmark.
But in the end it’s Anstett who comes out on top. Kovalev widening the distance gives Anstett license to be really aggressive with his own preparation and he takes advantage with a big committed attack and a big parry riposte to close.
We’re now a third of the way through and there’s some themes evolving. The Russians are really struggling to deal with a wider French distance while attacking and it’s causing massive headaches, but the French aren’t able to capitalise in the 4m because of how strong the Russians are when it’s close. Pretty much stalemate, but momentum slightly with France for now.
Apithy and Yakimenko take us into the fourth and it’s the same story playing out. Yakimenko is preparing deep and making good decisions in the 4m, able to rattle off the points. However he’s still having an absolutely mare on his attack, Bolade seems to be aware of this because he attacks seemingly without fear of missing, backing himself on defence. The scores tick up, the highlight being a trademark Apithy attack (Allez Bolade!!!), full of dynamism and explosive speed.
In the end though, it’s French defence and Russian attacking woes which seals the fight. Apithy capitalises on Yakimenko’s struggles with an outrageous counter-attack after opening the distance massively.
20-17, advantage; France
The fifth match is Rousset-Kovalev, and right away Rousset gets himself into trouble like he did against Yakimenko with some non-committed attempts to make Kovalev miss. He’s punished and quick as a flash, scores are level. Rousset however, goes back to doing what Rousset does best. He gets the distance wide in the 4m and goes to work on Kovalev with the same counter-attacks to wrist we saw earlier and then injects some real French Va-Va-Voom on his attack.
Kovalev gets one back with a classic Russian parry-riposte, but in the end it’s Rousset who closes it out. That makes it 25-22, Russia still with it all to do.
Anstett and Ibragimov take up, what could prove a big leg. Both fencers continue with deep preparations, picking off points. Ibragimov scores in the 4m, Anstett when it goes long. Ibragimov then begins to change up his preparation, sometimes preparing short, sometimes deep. Anstett looks rattled and Ibragimov is able to take Russia into the lead, continuing with his change of attacking from wider distance that we saw against Apithy.
30-28, the lead changes hands thanks to some really intelligent fencing from the young Russian.
Russia make the big call for the seventh match against Apithy. Reshetnikov in for Kovalev, 2013 World Champion replacing 2014. Reshetnikov is one of the absolute best defensive 4m fencers out there and he sets about proving it here with a mix of counter-attacks, parries and attacks on preparation. He’s preparing deep and punishing the slightest mistake. Apithy scores with a trademark flamboyant sweep down the piste, but Reshetnikov answers with an equally emphatic little number of his own.
35-30 to Russia and Reshetnikov has given the Russians a real lift. It’s on Anstett now to try and kill this Russian momentum.
The tension is apparent in this crucial eighth leg. Lots of simultaneous actions, both fencers keen to avoid a mistake. Its Yakimenko though who’s the more creative with his preparation in the 4m and his bravery pays off, his attack finally clicks into gear at the right moment and he finishes Anstett off with some brilliantly varied actions in the 4m.
40-31 now, the lead is extended and it’s all on Rousset now to cause the upset against Ibragimov who’s been simply brilliant this match.
The young Russian does it in some style. His 4m game has been on all match, but he’s got the distance perfectly tuned on his attack now and it’s utterly unstoppable in this final leg.
He seals it with one of the cleanest Attacks on Preparation in the 4m you’re likely to see.
And there we have it. Russia advances to the semi-finals of the World Championships as 45-34 winners over France.
France started really well, and were pretty dominant out of the 4m. The Russians really struggled to adapt to the French distance, but the French were unable to really gain any control in the 4m, and that kept Russia in it. Kamil Ibragimov was superb, the star performer of the Russian team, he made the crucial adjustments to get his attack going and led the Russian fight back. Reshetnikov’s seventh leg really took it away from France, and they couldn’t recover at the end.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this commentary and found it entertaining and/or informative. Comments and discussion welcome!