Few heads turned when Tagir Gadzhiev walked into the mixed zone. Then he stopped, perched his distinctive ‘Papakha’ hat on his head, and suddenly a bevvy of Japanese journalists were swarming all over him.
Gadzhiev was only too happy to engage.
It was his countryman, the UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, who made the ‘Papakha’ familiar to sports fans across the world and Gadzhiev has utilised the same woolly headdress worn in their native Dagestan and through the Caucasus to stand out from the crowd.
“I only started to wear it when I came here,” he said through an enormous smile when he had exhausted all enquiries from the local media.
“Because this is top-level, the biggest competition in rugby, and that is why I want to show where I come from.”
Gadzhiev was 18 when he finally gave up on his dream to make it as a martial artist and turned to a sport of which he had never even heard. His progress was rapid. He was playing for Russia within two years. Now his sights are aimed even higher.
“I want to represent my republic because I want to make rugby in my republic famous. All kids want to play rugby: this is my dream,” explained Gadzhiev. “People are talking about rugby now. All Instagram groups and fighting groups, they are sending these pictures of rugby with me and with this hat. This is so good and not just because it is about me but because it is about rugby in Dagestan.”
The best way Gadzhiev can promote rugby in his own back yard is to continue what he is doing on the global stage and hope that some clubs in western Europe take enough of an interest to give him a shot at playing it professionally.
“He could excel in a professional environment,” said Russia coach Lyn Jones who has nicknamed him ‘Tagir the Tiger’.
“Because that’s what a professional environment brings: Better coaching, better players around you. And it’s the teaching.
“Give him a month and you’d see a different player. There is some question as to whether he’s a six or a seven. He’s a six at the moment because he doesn’t understand how to play seven. But we’re a different side without him. He knows the way forward.”
Gadzhiev has scored six tries for Russia in 28 appearances and has made an imprint on the defensive side at this tournament as well in being a nuisance at the breakdown. He topped Russia’s tackle count with 20 against Ireland.
“He’s one of the top players,” said his Russia captain Vasily Artemyev who once played schools rugby for Blackrock and AIL for UCD.
“He’s one of the reasons we’re improving so much. He can play really at any level, he has all the necessary skill.”
Gadzhiev knows people have taken notice, and he understands that there could be interest in him, and yet he had no interest in blowing his trumpet after his third World Cup game. He shrugged and insisted that he had done some good things but nothing fantastic against the Six Nations side.
He accepts he is still learning. At 25, he has some catching up to do, especially if he is to get to grips with the demands of openside flanker where Jones believes he could excel, though he has been wearing the No.7 jersey for his country in Japan.
He joked here about how he thought he had understood rugby to a certain extent only to have his eyes opened wide by the pace at this World Cup and he would jump at the chance to continue that education in a big league: “I have dream to play at the top level.”
It is a dream that may be coming one step closer to reality.