Back in 2011 I was recruited by the Russian Rugby Union to become the analyst for their Churchill Cup campaign and the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The coaching team was made up of Kingsley Jones (ex-Wales flanker and Sale head coach); Henry Paul (ex-England centre) and the Russian head coach, Nikolay Nerush.
I pitched up at the team hotel for the start of the campaign and, though I knew Kingsley, it was the first time I’d met Henry. He was a really great guy with absolutely no ego to him and we all gelled really quickly.
That was also the first time I met the players. Though I was determined not to have any preconceived ideas, pretty much my only exposure to Russian sportsmen was through seeing their Olympic athletes and ice hockey teams on TV.
The other figure that loomed large in my mind was the boxer Ivan Drago – as immortalised by Dolph Lundgren in the classic film, Rocky IV!
The language barrier proved a bit of an issue as there were only a few English speakers in the squad and my Russian was limited to ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’.
One of the star players – subsequently signed by Northampton – was Vasily Artemyev. Vasily was educated at Blackrock College, Dublin and would often switch between English and Russian during training and analysis sessions.
Interestingly, when he speaks English he does so with an Irish accent, which would always make me do a double take!
The first training session we had had a number of shortfalls as a combination of atrocious weather and some jet-lag meant there were consequently a lot of dropped balls and missed tackles. Also, unlike the England Saxons, we were training on Esher’s training pitch – no Pennyhill Park-type facilities for us!
I’d never seen Russia play before and, after that first training ,was a bit apprehensive as we had Canada first up. However, the team really fronted up – putting in some huge tackles, running some great lines and getting through a massive amount of work.
At one point, Artemyev ran three-quarters of the length of the pitch tracking back to put in a great cover tackle, got to his feet and won a crucial turnover.
Despite eventually losing the game, we were far from disgraced and emerged from the campaign really energised and positive for the RWC.
Despite the language barrier, the Russian guys were a pleasure to work with. Many of them had never had any analysis sessions before so I had to quickly get them up to speed as to what they were looking at: things that they needed to improve their technique on such as tackling or maybe their positioning on the field.
They were real sponges – soaking everything up and very keen to learn and improve as much as they could, not blasé at all about things. And all this work was setting us up nicely for our forthcoming World Cup campaign.
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