During the two days which I spent with the Rugby Union of Russia, I was impressed by the enthusiasm, commitment and ambition to develop the game in Russia. Though rugby has been played in Russia since the early 1900's, the game was not encouraged or promoted until relatively recent times since the establishment of the fledgling Rugby Union of Russia in 1990. The Union face enormous challenges. The vast size of Russia with centres of rugby widely dispersed in Moscow and a number of other locations entails long, tiring and expensive journeys for internal club fixtures and even greater travel to international fixtures. The climate also presents difficulties because of extreme temperatures and snow in winter making outdoor training impossible. The Russian squad train at an indoor horse-riding arena and at training camps in warmer areas and have also travelled to South Africa for training. Even during the summer months there are challenges. The pitches which I visited which will be used for training and the Test match do not have a grass covering as we know it. They are covered by a patchy growth because grass cannot survive the severe winters.
Ireland will receive a warm welcome in September. The President of the Rugby Union of Russia, Yuri Nicholoev, a former Soviet Union and Russian outhalf, said that he welcomed the opportunity to play against a major rugby nation such as Ireland. He said that the standard of play has been improving in Russia and the match will afford an opportunity to compare standards. Russia's performance in international matches and in Sevens tournaments has been encouraging. The Rugby World Cup Qualifying Tournament is seen as very important to the development of the game in Russia and the Union hopes that Russia's performance will raise the profile of the game and result in much needed government support. In addition to Yuri, I was hosted by the very Irish looking Alexandre Morozov who is the Finance Officer and a great fan of Keith Wood and Maria Dil, the Office Manager, a fluent English speaker who arranged the itinerary. They were most hospitable and helpful hosts.
I attended the club championship final between the Krasnoyarsk club and close neighbours the Yenisey club. They are generally regarded as the strongest club sides in Russia with 13 of the national side between both. The match was keenly contested in front of an enthusiastic attendance of 4,000. It was a close contest between two well-drilled sides with some good positional and place kicking. Many of the players were powerfully built and athletic though some individual skills were not always of the highest calibre. Krasnoyarsk emerged narrow winners in a thoroughly entertaining contest.
Ireland's preparation for Rugby World Cup 2003 commenced on Sunday 21st July when the squad flew out to Spala in Poland for an intense training camp. The team will have a warm-up international against Romania on 7th September at Thomond Park, Limerick ahead of Russia v. Ireland on 21st September and Ireland v. Georgia on 28th September. Preparation for these matches will be thorough with the strongest sides available.
The journey to Krasnoyarsk will be an endurance test for the team. The I.R.F.U. initially sought a more convenient location such as Moscow but it is now appreciated that Krasnoyarsk is the headquarters and homeland of Russian rugby. Our journey is no different to all of the journeys undertaken by the Russian team when they play fixtures. The logistics involved will be complex and difficult with detailed arrangements likely to be finalised by the I.R.F.U. in early August.
My visit and return entailed 6 flights with complex transit arrangements. I flew from Dublin to Shannon where I joined the new service from Shannon to Moscow with the Irish company, Skynet, departing at 0855 GMT and arriving at 1845 LT Moscow after a journey of over 5 hours. I transferred to Domodedovo Airport the next day for a Krasair flight to Krasnoyarsk leaving on Tuesday at 15.25 LT and arriving at 23.55 LT a flight of over 4 hours 30 minutes. My return entailed a total travelling time of over 19 hours from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow to Shannon.
Travelling to Krasnoyarsk will be a difficult test for even the most committed supporter. Those travelling will find a warm welcome from a city where rugby is passionately supported and a pleasant climate in the region of 250 in September. This will be a truly different rugby experience.