Learning breakdown skills with Russian wrestlers

Seeing the 2013 RWC Sevens tournament being played over the last weekend in Russia brought the memories flooding back of the training camp the Russian team had prior to the 2011 RWC.

Following my first few weeks as the analyst for Russia at the 2011 Churchill Cup, we had a bit of a break and then the group decamped to Sochi for an intensive training camp in preparation for the 2011 RWC.

Sochi is a city on the Black Sea coast situated near the border between Russia and Georgia that will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

It’s got a great sports complex with a football/rugby stadium and this is where the Russian team play as it’s much further south than Moscow and far less likely to freeze in the winter months. Allegedly it’s known as the ‘Russian Riviera’, but its more Brighton beach than St Tropez!

The group of players that had contested the Churchill cup was augmented by a few more players that were coming back from injury or were on the fringes of the squad.

The idea was to lock ourselves away for three weeks and prepare for the tournament as any of the Tier 1 nations would. So, you’d have forwards doing weights sessions in the morning with the backs concentrating on skills then you’d switch in the afternoons.

Paul Pook, our fitness guy, had given all the players their own fitness programmes after the Churchill Cup and to be fair to them, every one of the players turned up to the camp in great shape having dropped body fat and increased their muscle mass.

It was a pretty intensive three weeks and I must admit that cabin fever was starting to set-in towards the end. The diet was also pretty unrelenting. Russian food is mostly carbohydrate-based – they love their spuds. I suppose the cold means they want to keep a good covering on!

So by the end of the camp, I think it’s fair to say I was craving a good old fashioned Sunday lunch.

We were sharing the facilities with the Russian women’s weightlifting team so I was wandering around feeling a little ‘undersized’. And in some of the weights sessions, they were really putting some of our boys to shame!

We also had a few sessions with the Russian wrestling team that were using the facilities. Some of their techniques can be adapted for use at the breakdown and there was one session where our backs coach Henry Paul took on the former Olympic wrestling champion.

Henry adopted a good, solid position that is often used at a ruck and is usually very tough to shift. The Russian guy came in and gave him a little nudge backwards and as Henry moved to re-set himself, he just pulled him over the top with what seemed like absolutely no effort at all.

Henry was lying on his back staring at the ceiling wondering what the hell had just happened whilst we were all falling around laughing!

A lot of our boys had done wrestling before – it’s taught in schools in Russia – and one of our forwards was particularly pleased as during one of the sessions he beat one of the Olympic squad 2-1.

The fact he was almost twice the wrestler’s size may have had something to do with it, but still…

We did manage to get the odd night off, one of which taught me the dangers of drinking Russian vodka. This isn’t the smooth stuff that’s imported to the UK but the local ‘hooch’. I don’t remember a whole lot about the evening other than being in a nightclub one minute and waking up at 7am on a park bench 3 miles from the hotel the next!

That was a fairly tortuous walk back, I can tell you.

Towards the end of the last week, we had what was effectively a trial match to help us finalise the squad. The guys had trained really well but had gone 3 weeks without a game, so it was great for them to get out there and put things into practice.

The coaching team then had the final squad selection meeting and I found it really useful and interesting to see how the coaches came to their final decisions and their views when justifying any tight selection calls.

As well as the hard work, we had a few team bonding sessions. Being in camp for three weeks meant the “Best beard” competition had some really strong entries and we also found time for a talent show. 

The ‘singalong at the back of the bus’ culture that we know and love in the UK isn’t really part of Russian rugby – their reputation for being a serious bunch is not undeserved. However, they definitely relaxed a bit and we managed to have a few laughs amongst all the serious work.

It was a vital part of getting players who might be sworn enemies at club level to bond into an effective squad. All of which put us in really good shape for our challenge at the World Cup.

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