Last season Enisei played in under -20°. This time they hope things will hot up for them in the Challenge Cup. This feature first appeared in the November issue of Rugby World magazine.

WITH HISTORY made after the first-ever European tie in Siberia, everyone was pretty pleased with themselves. Connacht left it late to earn a bonus point in temperatures that reached below -20 degrees, with Rory Parata getting the fourth try in minute 76. It had not been easy – take the example of Niyi Adeolokun knocking on under the posts, only for Connacht to turn over the resulting scrum and the same player to go over in the corner – but it was job done. The Russian outfit had not frozen in their tracks either, scoring two tries at the end of the game to show they had the stamina and power to last at this level.

However, the aftermath of the tie would have lasting resonance. With this game played on a Friday morning, UK and Ireland time, leaving frigid Krasnoyarsk for home should have been a hassle as the squad swung from plane to plane, but not nightmarish. Everyone expected the cold – the opening European fixtures were shunted into Russia’s icy November because the Rugby World Cup delayed the start of the season. But Connacht should have got back to Galway by the Saturday. Instead, they did not all make it back until the Tuesday.

Connacht huddle for warmth in Siberia

Under a blanket: The Connacht bench during their game in Siberia (Inpho)

Talking at the time about the debacle, when technical issues with a chartered jet meant recalculating routes, lengthy delays and ultimately splitting the squad into three separate groups, Connacht head coach Pat Lam told the Irish Independent: “I haven’t ever really encountered anything like this. We have had flights delayed and things like that, but here we have had to deal with visas, delays, changing hotels, all in one go. Sometimes one or two of those things can happen but not all together, and not so far from home.

“It is just something that has happened. It was important that they staged a game in their home city, nobody planned for that plane to break down. But I definitely wouldn’t have the game there (Krasnoyarsk) again in November; we would need to do this in early September or October but that wasn’t possible with the World Cup. It’s tough to come in these conditions.”

By the Monday night one of Connacht’s three parties would stay in London, another in Amsterdam and a few more still in Moscow. As captain John Muldoon tweeted: “No sleep, card games and prudo keeping us sane…Energy levels at all time low… BO levels at an all time high… #StrandedInMoscow.” It was a tough gig for sure, but what would the legacy be?

FOR SEASON 2016-17, Enisei are back in the Challenge Cup. This time around they will play three ‘home’ games in a row, then three away fixtures, in order to avoid the very worst of the Russian weather over December and January. However, all three of their home fixtures are outside of Krasnoyarsk, with their opener against Worcester in Moscow, their tie with Dragons in Krasnodar and the third match, against Brive, in Sochi. (Since this article was published, Enisei have defeated Worcester and Dragons in the Challenge Cup).

A spokesperson from European Professional Club Rugby said of the decision: “Earlier in 2016, and after careful consideration, the Board of EPCR decided not to sanction European club rugby fixtures in Krasnoyarsk. The decision took into account the unpredictability of the weather in the region, the travel distances involved for Enisei-STM’s opponents, as well as the logistical difficulties experienced by Connacht Rugby in round one of last season’s Challenge Cup.

“The decision was accepted by Rugby Europe, the Rugby Union of Russia and Enisei, and was officially confirmed to all parties in August. EPCR has provided €100,000 (approximately £86,000) in funding to Enisei to assist with the costs of staging their Challenge Cup fixtures in Moscow, Krasnodar and Sochi, and will continue to monitor the situation with a view to reassessing the suitability of Krasnoyarsk for
European fixtures in future seasons. “Enisei’s Challenge Cup schedule of home matches in rounds one, two and three is mindful of weather conditions which may affect the staging of fixtures particularly in the month of January.”

Ramil Gaisin of Enisei rugby

Blowing hot and cold: Ramil Gaisin during a break in play

Although Enisei won two fixtures in Sochi last season – beating both Brive and Newcastle at the south-western tip of Russia – they have some daunting trips ahead themselves. Moscow is roughly 2,567 miles from their home. Krasnodar is 2,970 miles, Sochi is eight hours and 20 minutes via plane (with one connecting flight).

“It is not fair for sure,” Enisei full-back/fly-half Yury Kushnarev tells Rugby World. “If EPCR want to bring in Eastern European teams, we have to play at home no matter how far it is for other teams. In October it would be no problem to play in Siberia. The local government and sponsors give a lot of money to the team, too.

“Just imagine before every game, home or away, we have to travel to Moscow or Sochi, spend a week there for practice and then play. We will have at least a
four-and-a-half-hour flight to Moscow, then another two to Sochi! It is very hard mate, but it is better to play like this in a European competition than nothing. I hope that one day something will change.”

While doing a bit of research on rugby in Siberia, we spoke with Scotland Sevens player Nick McLennan, who played for local rivals Krasny Yar in 2010. He explained that while some aspects of the lifestyle were tough as he struggled with the language and the locals are naturally conservative, the rugby was physical and exciting – remember European rugby is played during the Russian off-season, for obvious, chilly reasons – if you are with one of the country’s top four or five sides.

Kushnarev agrees, saying that although “it is not the best situation in Russia, with some people living very hard lives, working a lot and not for big money,” there is a strong culture – a rugby culture – worth supporting. He also makes a point of promoting hunting, fishing and the beauty of the local wilds and women.

When pushed on whether the European competitions are a good avenue for talented young players to get out of Russia, he is contemplative. “It’s a good idea but it would be better to develop our domestic competition. We have really physically gifted young players in the region. Georgia are good example – that’s what we see with them at number 11 in the world rankings. I know it’s a long and hard process…”

LAST TIME he played a bit of footie in Russia, Tasi Luafutu was caught unawares.

“We were surprised by the intensity and physicality of Enisei’s first 20 minutes,”
the Brive back-row says, looking back on his side’s tight 10-7 loss to the Russian outfit last December. “They took us by surprise and we struggled to contain them.

“We were looking forward to playing in Sochi, then we saw what had happened to Connacht. It was definitely a rugby experience, a story to tell, it was different from being apprehensive – it was not so much thinking about having to travel as being curious. After last year we have them again and we have learnt from that game. It wasn’t so much their set-piece as their general play. They caught us in the rucks a lot. It will be interesting to see how important that was. They have earned their spot in the cup and will have also learnt from last year.

“One place I can say we could have an advantage over the other teams in the pool is that we’ve played Enisei before, we actually know what they are going to come with. We are targeting the quarter-finals and are looking forward to attacking this European competition, but we need to get out of the pool first.”

Jurijs Baranovs of Enisei

Chills and skills Enisei’s Jurijs Baranovs makes a clearing pass last season

When asked whether Brive should be scared again, Kushnarev mischievously jokes: “Everyone should be scared, we are Russian soldiers with big rockets!”

He continues in a more serious vein: “Winning last season was very special, historical, and we all understand that when we win it is against very big teams and we were really surprised. I remember everything about those games. I will remember that Connacht game for the rest of my life – the last time I played in winter I was 15 years old, it was a new competition for me and it was very funny to see Bundee Aki playing in a scarf and sleeves.

“Obviously before the Brive game not many players believed in success, but after ten minutes, when our boys made a few big tackles and breaks, everyone only thought of winning. And now this season we have a very special match against the Dragons because of their coach Kingsley Jones, the former Russia coach!”

The Russians have accepted their draw. There is little that can dampen their resolve and they are keen to test themselves against bigger clubs on the continent. No matter where Enisei play, they are motivated and eager to build on last season’s wins. What a frosty prospect they will be in the Challenge Cup pool stages.

This feature first appeared in the November issue of Rugby World magazine. For the latest subscription offers click here. Find your local stockist here and you can download the digital edition here.