Thursday, December 08, 2005
Rugby in Russia Part II
by Michael Bolan (Loosehead prop for the Moscow Dragons)
Why do we say "the Rugby Season"? I mean, season is defined as a period characterized by a particular type of weather. And do we only play when it's sunny? In Russia, one 'season' captures extremes of weather never before seen in temperate zones.
Our 'season' starts at the end of the summer: clear bright days and long balmy evenings, the leaves still green on the trees, everyone relaxed after a summer's leisure.
Saturday afternoon resembles South African rugby heaven, the sun shining down on hard packed turf, a team resplendent in new strip, the thought of a few cold pints after the match proving often more attractive than the match itself ...
And of course, there is the rugby. The open passing play, the supporting and the straight running at speed. (Props are excused from this duty, due to the potential shock to supporters.)
There is a certain perverse joy at being alive, especially after a Moscow Friday night (our bars don't close).
If you are easily depressed, you'd maybe better give up now, and go home. It's all downhill from here ...
Because the rain sets in. Personally I'm no stranger to this, having grown up in Ireland, a country where there is more water in the air than the rivers. These are the perfect conditions for dramatic rugby, a thrill for all the spectators. This is the cause of the old European game of 8 or 9 man rugby, (depending on how much you trust the scrum half).
Short passes, (dropped), ruck, maul, scrum, slog up the pitch, to have it kicked into your own 22.
The confusion which arises when you try and work out whether you or the opposition is playing in brown. Wet weather rugby is a game where everybody runs at the same speed as the props - proving that props are the more consistent players.
And, of course, this leads to that particularly Russian phenomenon of snow rugby. (The bulk of our 'season' is played on snow.)
The Arctic conditions force the team to wear enough horse liniment for the Kentucky Derby, the Melbourne Cup and the Grand National put together, and the patented Moscow blend of socks, socks, plastic bags and then more socks! Do not mock! Apparel is a life-or-death decision in -24C (-12F)! We repeatedly lose wingers to frostnip, frostbite, snowsqualls, yetis, etc., but that's ok, because they never get the ball anyway.
The only benefit is the ready availability of ice-packs, and the ease of chilling the vodka.
There was a famous physio in Northern Ireland called Bobby MacGregor, who once remarked that the "Magic Sponge" was dipped in a 50-50 mixture of Holy Water and Poteen. Chilled vodka has pretty much the same effect! (and it's cheaper).
When the weather turns, however, and the sun shines down on 6" of hard-packed snow, that's when the child in us all comes out. Knowing that if a ball goes to ground 20 feet away, it's a couple of quick steps and then a long slide, (often accompanied by the famous Celtic war-cry "Wheeeeeee"), before gathering the ball lovingly into your arms to the adulation of an inspired crowd. (I have even been penalised for enjoying myself too much on the pitch under such circumstances!)
When the snow has gone, disappearing at an alarming rate, it's amazing what can be found underneath, a bit like when they dredge lakes or canals. There's always a shopping trolley! In our case, most noticeable was about 11,000 cigarette butts, but I'm sure that most rugby other players are healthier than us. A hellish time of track shoes and road-running, which is less than pleasant in Moscow.
It does signal the beginning of the end of the 'season', though. Warsaw Tour! The Annual Warsaw 10's competition started a few years ago, in the same way that the Hong Kong Sevens started. And the weather for the last two years has left us sunburnt and jealous.
So you see, 'season' doesn't really do justice to the diverse meteorological conditions in which we play, but then, what else can we say? Other than, playing on grass ... not really in the spirit of the game, we think.
Let's hear it for the snow!
Who is Michael Bolan? This little introduction should suffice.
I am Michael Bolan, Irish, 27, with about 24 years playing experience. My dad was playing when I was born. I’m the smallest in the clan – 6’1”, 260lbs. The runt of the litter...
We are the Moscow Dragons, one of a surprisingly large number of rugby clubs in Moscow. Yes Russia plays rugby too...! They even beat France in the 70’s! It was a game supported by the army – you’ve heard the stories: better food if you play, fewer drills if you play, less PT if you play, hard currency if you play, trips abroad if you play… Get the picture?
We are the only international club in a country where the game’s popularity is dramatically on the wane, and are doing our best to avoid that. We have about 150 members, of whom about 45 are playing members, of whom about 35 know anything about the game. But that’s not important – if you have arms and legs, you can play. (I actually used to play in Germany with a guy who only had one arm, but that’s a different story...)
One big difference here in Russia is that we play rugby in the snow with an average temperature of about -10 C, (-8 F), so it's not quite as fast as elsewhere. Touchlines are marked with green paint, so the pitch looks like a photo negative. Snow-blindness and frostbite are constant worries.
I sympathised with the story on your site regarding a lack of pitches. It’s a problem here with circa 10 million people who live in apartments, and all play soccer instead of rugby. Still we soldier on, and compete in the Moscow winter league (all on snow). This past season (there’s that word again..) we started very well, middled atrociously, and came back at the end of the season, with some new players.
The crisis in Russia has hit us really badly in terms of new players, but we all hope the worst is over. Saturday at training (complete with new improved hangover from hell) we has a new English centre, and a new South African second row. Excellent!
Summer means training, difficult at the moment for me due to my arm, but the cast is off, the bones are set, and I can pass again. I may be a loosehead, but I did play on the wing for a few years. You see what a combination of puberty and Guinness does to a person!
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