Enisei make history with European debut
KRASNOYARSK: Rugby union will break new ground in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk this weekend when local team Enisei-STM become the first Russian club to play in the group stages of a European competition.
Enisei will host Irish side Connacht in the continent’s second-tier Challenge Cup on November 14, some 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) east of Ireland, after overcoming the odds to get among the big boys of Europe’s club game.
As the harsh Siberian winter sets in, Enisei will then switch their next two home group games against French club Brive and English side Newcastle Falcons to the considerably warmer climes of the resort city of Sochi, far to the west on Russia’s Black Sea coast.
“It’s the life-long dream of any rugby player to try his skills at the top level against the European elite,” club captain Yury Baranov told AFP.
“To win a place in the Challenge Cup is already a great achievement for our team but now we all want to be competitive and not just whipping boys.”
Banned under Stalin
Despite first coming to Russia in the 1880s with foreign workers building the trans-Siberian railway, rugby has struggled to take off in the vast country after a sometimes testy relationship with the authorities.
The sport was briefly banned under Communist dictator Joseph Stalin due to being “cosmopolitan” and despite the launch of a national championship in 1966, the game is still a rarity even after an uptick of interest in recent years. Even in Krasnoyarsk-considered the centre of rugby in Siberia-the club admits that it may struggle to fill its 25,000-seater stadium for its European debut.
“I don’t expect that the match will be sold out but people living in Krasnoyarsk are showing serious interest in the first ever European cup encounter in our city,” said stadium manager Sergei Venevtsev.
But while the away side may not have to contend with the fiercest of home support, the Irish outfit will have to face the notorious Siberian weather. “The weather forecasters have promised the temperature will be around minus two degree Celsius by mid-November,” Venevtsev said. “That’s mild for Siberia.”
Connacht team manager Tim Allnutt said the logistics of the trip were testing, not least two flights for a total 10 hours of airtime to play at a venue with a seven-hour time difference.
“It is a very severe trip and the time factor is going to be one of the issues,” said Allnutt, quoted by the Irish Times. “They’re definitely going to be different conditions than we are used to.
“We’ll have thermals under our shirts but not on the legs. Just normal shorts. The unknown elements are the mileage and the time difference. We really we don’t know what to expect.”
As for the club, present day Enisei started off life in the mid-1970s as the team of a hulking local factory churning out heavy machinery for the vast Soviet empire.
After years playing in the lower leagues of Soviet rugby, the team won promotion to the top division in 1989 just as the USSR was coming apart at the seams.
Since then the club, which was renamed as Enisei-STM in 2000, have won six Russian titles, four national cups and two Russian Super Cups.
Hopes for the future
But while they have racked up their fair share of domestic glory, the club is now facing a different proposition by taking on some of Europe’s finest-and they admit it will be tough.
“Enisei have proved that Russian rugby is able to compete on a European level but we do not set any grandiose goals for our first ever European Cup campaign,” manager Alexander Pervukhin said.
“In any case, the experience of playing against Europe’s top teams in official matches will be precious for Enisei players.”
While Enisei’s participation may be important for the club, Russian rugby chiefs are hoping the the club’s move up to the next level may help to spur interest in the game in the country, which is looking to bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
“It’s a great success for the all of rugby in the country,” Russia’s rugby federation boss Vyacheslav Kopiev said after Enisei-STM made it into the Challenge Cup group stages.
“We are set to join the race for the right to stage 2023 Rugby World Cup in Russia. Hopefully, the Challenge Cup matches in Russia will boost the interest for the game in our country.” —AFP
HONG KONG: Japan rugby team celebrates after Japan qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning the final match of Asia Rugby Sevens against Hong Kong in Hong Kong. —AP