Connacht all buttoned up for icy trip into the unknown
Pat Lam’s men face test of adaptability and tenacity as they jump on Siberian express
The Central Stadium in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where Connacht will take on Yenisey-STM in the Challenge Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Sending Connacht to Siberia this week has become less a gift trip than an onerous expedition. Next week the province face into one of the harshest journeys they have ever undertaken when the squad travel into the vastness of the Russian Tundra for the first match of their European Challenge Cup.
It’s a 3,625 mile (5,834 km) trip to Krasnoyarsk, a remote region where the daily mean temperature at this time of the year is -7.2 degrees, the average low is -10.6 degrees and the record low -42.3 degrees. Limerick it is not.
Pat Lam and his squad have never faced anything like it, although when French side Brive travel there in December, they may have more chilling tales to tell about Yenisey-STM, who, along with Krasy Yar, are one of two professional rugby clubs in that region of Siberia.
Rugby first started in Russia in 1969 and because of the extreme temperatures they regularly play matches with snow on the ground. In November it is expected that snow will fall in 20 of the 30 days.
Although Krasnoyarsk played host to the Ireland rugby team in 2002 as part of the qualification process for the World Cup in 2003, none of the Connacht players have been in Siberia before.
“As soon as we found out that we were travelling to that part of the world, the first thing we said was ‘oh my gosh’,” says Connacht team manager and former player Tim Allnutt.
“Straightaway we knew this wasn’t like going over to play someone like the Ospreys in the UK and then straight back. It is a very severe trip and the time factor is going to be one of the issues. But we have already had our strength and conditioning coaches doing work on jet lag and how to deal with the long journey.”
Connacht will leave Ireland from Shannon on Tuesday on a charter. They have a four-and-a-half hour flight that will take them to Moscow, where the plane will take an hour to refuel before heading deeper into north east Asia towards Krasnoyarsk for a further five-and-a-half hours.
Yenisey-STM booked their place in the European Challenge Cup after winning a two-legged play-off against Romania’s Baia Mare. But they are a familiar team in Galway and have come over at least three times in recent years to play against the Connacht Eagles.
“The cold at this time of the year could be the biggest factor,” says Allnutt, who doesn’t appear in the least fazed. “The temperature there at this time of the year can be anything from -7 to -20 degrees. But the stadium we are playing in has underground heating so the risk element of it being called off is reduced
“We are flying there on Tuesday to get out early so the bodies can get used to the time difference of seven hours ahead. It’s our first time out there but we are familiar with the team.
“The first time they came over [to Galway] they did have some massive men. But they have improved, and the fact that they have gained qualification for this competition shows that. I’ve watched them a few times and they are big.”
The game was originally played by students in Krasnoyarsk and, according to World Rugby website, around 50 per cent of the current Russian national side are from Siberia. About 140 schools in the region have rugby as part of their school programme.
“They’re definitely going to be different conditions than we are used to,” says Allnutt.
“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.”
The players are not permitted to wear warm leggings if it is sub zero as it is against competition regulations.
“We’ve spoken to the hotels there, given them our menus and hope they can provide the food,” says Allnutt. “My experience of travelling with teams is if the hotel is okay and the players are eating good food, then they are happy.
“This is a challenge and we are embracing it as that. It is what European rugby is about and we’ll go out there and get on with it and face what’s in front of us.
“We are hearing that there could be 26,000 people in their stadium and that this will be one of the biggest games in their history, so we are expecting a hostile environment, which is another thing we are prepared to deal with.”
One of the biggest issues was getting visas for the travelling party as Russian regulations state each individual must receive a letter of invitation. Knowing how to deal with the embassy and organising bus companies in Siberia have also made it a predictably tangled process.
The team will fly out of Krasnoyarsk on the night of the game and arrive back in Shannon at midnight on Saturday with a round trip of 7,250 miles (11,668 km) in their legs.