Vasily Artemyev interview: Everyone used to talk about Sexton. He has hardly changed

Russian captain could so easily have lined out in a green jersey after his time in Ireland

Blackrock College 14 St Michael's College 12
'Lansdowne Road is an exposed old ground so when the gales come calling, the rugby tends to suffer. Though that didn't stop Blackrock and St Michael's serving up one the most exciting schools finals in recent memory . . . St Michael's defensive linchpin Conor Cleary attempted to smash the big Russian but his body position on impact allowed him slip the tackle and race to the line.'

'Vasya Artemiev [sic] will play no part in next month's under-19 world championships in Dubai after being declared ineligible to represent Ireland by the International Rugby Board (IRB). Although a Russian citizen, the winger has lined out for Blackrock in the Leinster Schools Cup since 2003 – when he first came to prominence with a hat-trick of tries in the Junior Cup final victory over Gonzaga. Artemiev won a second Senior Cup medal on St Patrick's Day. He is also a gifted student and intends to continue his third-level education in UCD.'

September 30th, 2019

Vasily Artemyev is a folk hero in two separate parishes. The Russian teenager was on course to play international rugby for Ireland until rules and regulations over residency were enforced.

The 2011 World Cup, when he evaded Jamie Heaslip and stepped Rob Kearney to score a spectacular try, was supposed to be the high water mark in a respectable career.

Truly, that moment is now. The 32-year-old leads his country into an enormous Test match at his second World Cup with Irish rugby providing the opposition once again.

On Monday morning Artemyev sat down with The Irish Times in the Prince Hotel outside the isolated beach town of Oiso. Cabin fever has been avoided by the promise of relocation to Kobe and a return to centre stage at a sports festival Russia have already wooed with an electric opening night set against hosts Japan.

Gavin Cummiskey: You played with and against my cousin?

Vasily Artemyev: Andy Cummiskey, I know yeah. We roomed together on a Leinster schools tour and we played together for UCD. You look like him.

GC: An older version. He told me a rumour about when you first arrived on the scene, your childhood as a ballerina in Russia was why you were such an athletic and balanced runner?

VA: I did a couple of months of ballet. My granddad's younger sister was a renowned ballerina, Mária Bylova. She was a star in the Bolshoi Theatre. Herself and her husband are ballet directors now. I tried it at six-years-old.

GC: Did you see Japan's victory over Ireland coming?

VA: It was unexpected. They weren't too good against us. They were nervous. Then again, if you play Japan in the right areas, you can't overplay against them because they have a very good defensive structure. But if you make it hard for them with the high ball – which we did at the first chance we got – then wait for them to make a mistake . . . I don't think Ireland changed their game plan during the game. They didn't adapt when things weren't going well.

GC: Ireland looked drained of energy in the last quarter. Have Russian players been sucking air, especially with the three-day turnaround?

VA: Some teams are more adaptable to the conditions. I can't say it is a key factor, the humidity. Like I said [laughing], you can save energy by playing in the right areas.

GC: Johnny Sexton puts his team in the right area?

VA: Perhaps he would have done something different. The game plan comes from coaches first. I don't know. I have read a few interviews. The Japanese coach was saying Ireland played the way they expected them to.

GC: Where did you go after leaving UCD in 2009?

VA: I joined up with the VVA outside Moscow. They were professional by Russian standards. My friends were already in the national squad. I liked the idea of playing at the 2011 World Cup.

GC: What are your memories of the try against Ireland?

VA: It was so fast. I nearly lost my footing when I skipped past Rob, but I wasn't going to pass.

GC: Rob Kearney was this huge figure in your teenage life?

VA: Everyone talked about him. Myself and Luke [Fitzgerald] were just out of the junior cup year when we played against him in a final. In the quarter-finals we beat Johnny Sexton's St Mary's.

GC: How good was Sexton back then?

VA: Everyone used to talk about him too. He has hardly changed. I remember St Mary's that year had a frontrow pack that was heavier than the Ireland frontrow. Luke came off the bench and worked his magic.

GC: After the 2011 World Cup you were signed by the Northampton Saints?

VA: I decided to go back to Russia halfway through my third season.

GC: Why?

VA: In the November Test window I went to play for Russia. To be honest when I came back the guys who came in did so well that I was on standby until the end of the season.

GC: That happens to a lot of 'Tier 2' players?

VA: I can see why players – more so from the Pacific Islands – choose not to play for their country at World Cups.

GC: Because they have to look after their families.

VA: True, true.

GC: What about the schedule at this World Cup, your squad had a three-day turnaround between Japan and Samoa, how can a team like Russia progress in such circumstances?

VA: It's a difficult topic . . . I think it's about increasing the player representation on World Rugby committees.

GC: We could have had the same conversation in 2011 that we are having now?

VA: Pretty much.

GC: The two high tackles you suffered against Samoa – that resulted in three-game suspensions for Motu Matu'u and Rey Lee-Lo – if you stayed down they probably would have been red not yellow cards?

VA: People said that to me afterwards but I knew I wasn't concussed. I was conscious that if I stayed down I could be brought out for the HIA. Secondly, my grandparents were at the game. They are old people so I don't want them to worry too much. They travelled all the way from Moscow.

GC: Russia, by denying Ireland a bonus point on Thursday, could knock them out of the World Cup. That would be monumental?.

VA: Russia has earned people's respect already. We are not looking to spoil it for Ireland. We won't be too tense either.

GC: What about the influence of Igor Artemyev (who according to Russia assistant coach Mark McDermott is regarded as Putin's number four man) since becoming president of Russian rugby last year?

VA: Because of his position, being head of the anti-monopoly federal agency that looks into commercial dealings within the country, rugby now has huge resources. The agency has representation in every city in Russia. So, if rugby wants to go into a region we can get access to the local mayor [motions picking up a phone].

GC: That's how Russia works?

VA: In a way.

GC: Artemyev [no relation] has a direct line to Putin?

VA: He does, obviously. He has been the head of the agency for over 15 years. He is very close to the political elite of Russia.

GC: Has Mr Putin reached out to the captain of the national rugby team?

VA: No, he has not. Rugby is not high on the priority list. He is a very busy man.

GC: People talk about untapped markets in Japan and the US, but Russia and rugby has equal potential?

VA: The seeds have been planted. Russian rugby union is moving in the right direction. I can see it is in good hands. I'd like to have an input.

GC: Can you see The Bears becoming a tier one nation in your lifetime.

VA: Hopefully. I'd like to live long enough to see that.

GC: We'll get back to the World Cup, but at 15-years-old you came to Blackrock. Was it tough leaving home? What was the reason?

VA: It was my parents' idea. Just to learn English. A chance to study abroad for a year, that turned into seven years! I had a few conditions. I wanted to continue playing rugby. My parents picked Ireland because it was a lot cheaper than England and a lot closer than New Zealand.

GC: How did a Moscow teenager settle into a private Dublin boarding school?

VA: My English was very poor. Once the rugby started I adapted. It was fascinating though that, of almost 200 guys in the year, over 100 played rugby.

GC: Luke Fitzgerald's class of 2006 was good even by Blackrock standards?

VA: Many of them went on to play professional rugby.

GC: Do you remember the last Leinster schools final at the old Lansdowne Road in 2006?

VA: I had to go off injured with about 20 to go. I remember how intense it was, the finish, that penalty.

GC: Noel Reid, now with Leicester, had a long range effort to win it for St Michael's.

VA: It is an amazing thing how schools rugby is positioned in Ireland. I learned all about the tradition and history behind it. Being part of it is something I will remember forever.

GC: Imagine Russia had something similar.

VA: Russia is different. Sport in schools is part of the Irish rugby culture, it has existed for decades and still drives Irish rugby forward.

GC: Do you remember Cian O'Sullivan?

VA: Of course. We were in the same year. Almost straight after school he was in the Dublin set-up, I think. Within a few years before I was watching him in All-Ireland finals.

GC: What about your career in Ireland, explain what happened with the under-19 world cup in Dubai; you were selected but unable to go because boarding school didn't count as residency?

VA: Yeah. You don't 'live' in Ireland so my residency only started when I went to UCD. It was a big disappointment at the time because I was in the training camp when I found out.

GC: You were on track – Leinster under-18s, Ireland schools, UCD rugby scholarship, Leinster Academy – to becoming an Irish international?

VA: But I was still a foreigner.

GC: Did that change your perspective about playing in Ireland?

VA: The reason I didn't give myself the best chance of making it at Leinster was I had to maintain my academics. I couldn't fully focus on rugby when studying law in UCD. But I have no regrets.

GC: Who were you up against?

VA: Leinster Academy went to play in the Bristols 10s and afterwards I got called up to train with the senior squad. So did Fergus McFadden.

GC: You always had the pace and developed the skills, so what happened?

VA: Maybe I lost some belief in myself about whether I could make it into the full Leinster team. Belief is huge. After two years in the Academy I was let go but I was still playing for UCD. I was relieved to be honest. I had my best season in my final year in UCD. Maybe because I was relieved of that pressure. I found a little more freedom, I enjoyed it more.

GC: Getting selected for Russia signalled the end of life in Dublin?

VA: Ireland is my second home. I lived there seven years. I miss so many parts of my life in there but I never had any family in Dublin. Many friends. But never family.