Connacht met with warm hospitality ahead of cold war as west meets east

Challenge Cup - Historic match sees Europe’s most eastern and western sides collide

 

For a nation that loves talking about the weather, the Irish are having a field day in Krasnoyarsk.

Not a rain drop in sight, but here in Siberia, the information offered by the thermometer makes for one hell of a conversation.

The blanket of snow provided a picture postcard arrival for Connacht after a 16-hour journey from Galway via Moscow.

In Russia’s capital city the squad was quickly advised by the staff of its charter service, Europe Air Post, to “kindly keep mind to stay on board during the stop-over”. That wasn’t too difficult given the large fur-headed Russian customs man blocking the doorway.

From zero degrees in Moscow, the sun made an early afternoon appearance four hours later in Krasnoyarsk, a welcome sight that belied the biting -13 cold.

Snow-covered

From the seventh floor of Connacht’s base in the Hilton Hotel, the city’s normally grey apartment blocks are softened by the snow-covered ground and the cloud cover.

Clearly visible two days ago when the sky was at its most clear and coldest, the plume from the nearby electric power station has been concealed ever since.

At least Connacht squad members know where to go between training and meetings. The Russian 10-ruble note also acts as a mini tourist guide for visitors, featuring three notable landmarks in the city: the Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric Station, the Kommunalny Bridge and the Paraskeva Pyatnitsa Chapel.

Indeed, this is a city the great Russian writer Anton Chekov described as one of the most beautiful in Siberia, but that was well before it became a major centre for the Stalinist gulags, and then a location for the metal and aluminium trade after the second World War.

Changes have been made since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The old town remains, while the Hilton Hotel sits in a busy suburb that was once the old Krasnoyarsk airport – its six lane arterial route being the former runway.

Although passengers are now allowed to stop over on the famous Trans Siberian Railway, it remains a city few tourists are likely include in their tour of Russia, particularly in winter. Which means the Connacht players have not gone unnoticed .

Although Krasnoyarsk is the hotbed of Russian rugby, the game is never played here after the season’s end in September, and the European Challenge fixture is the first to be played at this time of year. It is easy to understand why.

This week’s first outdoor training session certainly opened the players’ eyes to the challenges of playing in -14 degrees – recorded yesterday at the game’s kick-off time.

The only occasion the temperature has risen above -6 since Connacht’s arrival was when nine players, including captain John Muldoon, Aly Muldowney, and Bundee Aki, were stuck in the hotel’s lift for 15 minutes on the eve of the historic fixture.

Endured Understandably the weather has received more attention that usual, and even Pat Lam,

who earlier had been applauded at the well-attended media conference for believing it “important for Enisei to play a game in their home town”, could not avoid mentioning the challenges of this fixture.

“I understand it is important these guys play a game in their home ground. It is historic to play a European game here, but it’s also historic to play a game at this time of year, and you can see why.

“I have been fortunate to play rugby in many places, but this is certainly the coldest.”

Luckily the Russian hospitality is considerably warmer, and when a team from the most westerly point in Europe in rugby terms meets its eastern counterpart, that hospitality comes into its own.

Lam, team manager Tim Allnutt, and Connacht branch president Gerry O’Donnell were invited to dinner by their hosts including Russian coach Alexander Pervukhin.

Naturally dinner included that traditional tipple of Russian vodka, but only one for the Connacht coach. “Because it was a toast, I agreed to drink one,” said Lam.

“This is what rugby is all about. While we had an interpreter, Alexander tried his best to speak English and I tried my best to speak Russian, but in the main we communicated with hand signals. We talked about family and about being here. It is what I like about rugby.”

Enisei-STM have visited Galway on five occasions, and this relationship between last year’s Russian champions, who lost the title this season to arch rivals Krasny Yar across the Yenisei river, has been cemented by this visit. Some 20 hardy Connacht supporters, who arrived via a host of different routes, have also joined up with their counterparts, presenting a piece of bog oak carved by player Ronan Loughney.

Similarity

Pervukhin believes there is great similarity between the two countries, including the weather systems.

“It’s not the quality of the weather outside,” he says, “but the quality of the field, and in Ireland you have nearly the same temperature and you are quite okay with that.”

Tell that to the Connacht squad members who arrived in shorts and quickly dug out their long johns. Even captain John Muldoon put his toe outside the door on the first day and retreated.

Head of fitness Paul Bunce, who designed a jet-lag programme that included adapting to the Krasnoyarsk time zone two days before travel, has players tucked up in everything to maintain body heat, including survival blankets, handwarmers, hot water bottles, and more frequent sideline warm-up sessions than normal.

The Galway Sportsground might have a reputation for its cold wind blowing from Bohermore, but after Connacht’s visit to Krasnoyarsk, at least the Connacht players’ partners will be a little warmer.

Russian fur hats have been the favourite purchase of the players this week.

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