Siberia's unlikely rugby heartland

Thibault MARCHAND
Russia's Yenisey-STM rugby team players take part in a training session at Moscow's Slava stadium on October 20, 2017 on the eve of their European Challenge Cup game against Dragons (Wales)

The city of Krasnoyarsk deep in Siberia has become an unlikely rugby powerhouse, sending two clubs to Europe's second-tier competition.

And Krasny Yar and Enisei-STM have already shocked some big names in the European Challenge Cup.

Since 2015 when a Russian club qualified for the European competition for the first time, British and French clubs have regularly headed for Challenge Cup fixtures in Russia expecting easy wins, only to return home defeated.

This season is no exception.

While Bordeaux-Begles crushed Enisei-STM a week ago 57-17, the reigning Challenge Cup champions Stade Francais lost 34-29 against Krasny Yar, playing in front of 3,600 supporters in a sold-out stadium.

On Saturday however, Krasny Yar showed that their form is inconsistent as they were hammered 73-14 by Edinburgh in a match played in Moscow.

Enisei-STM put up a better fight, losing 28-21 to Newport Gwent Dragons in the Russian capital.

The Russian clubs from remote Krasnoyarsk had their home matches moved to Moscow for the second day of the Challenge Cup.

- Heart of Russian rugby -

But despite the logistical challenges, the clubs are fiercely proud of their home region.

"The heart of Russian rugby is in Siberia," says Vasily Artemyev, the captain of both Krasny Yar and the Russian national team.

To be more precise, it is 3,300 kilometres (2,050 miles) east of Moscow in Krasnoyarsk, a city of a million residents beside the vast Yenisei River.

"There have always been two good teams in the city," says the 30-year-old fullback Artemyev.

Krasny Yar was the city's first team, founded in 1969 by students. On the other bank of the river, six years later, a giant metallurgical plant set up its own team and its initials are still found in the name Enisei-STM.

Since 2011, the two clubs have dominated the Russian championship.

"It's not unusual to see up to 4,000 people for a derby," says Artemyev.

When championship finals come up, often pitting the neighbouring teams against each other, the crowd "can reach 10,000," he adds.

"The people really love rugby. They enjoy coming, even though matches at the end of the season often happen in freezing temperatures," says Enisei-STM's 35-year-old scrum-half Jurijs Baranovs.

Today Krasnoyarsk is home to two of the six fully professional clubs in Russia and also houses the country's only stadium used exclusively for rugby.

Krasny Yar has a diverse lineup including two players from Tonga as well as a number of Georgian and Moldovan players.

Enisei-STM on the other hand has mainly Russian players.

Baranovs, who is Latvian, says: "We are trying to show our best but we still have a lot of work to do.... We need specialists in certain areas, for example in fullback."

In the season from 2015 to 2016, Enisei-STM became the first Russian club to win the right to participate in the Challenge Cup.

"In two years, we have progressed hugely. We are more relaxed now," says Enisei's 44-year-old coach Vakyl Valeev. He says he is glad to see that his club "has made itself respected" by their European adversaries.

"We've proven that rugby exists (in Russia). Now when people think of us, they know that it's not just bears here wandering through the streets, but also people who play rugby!"

- 'Play the best' -

For the two clubs, taking part in the European competition is a necessary step to progress.

The Russian championship has a top division made up of six professional clubs and two others grouping together amateur clubs, which then face off in play-offs. The season lasts from spring to autumn -- but it can get repetitive.

"Playing every year against the same teams, the same players -- it almost gets boring. You get to the point where you know your opponent so well that it's hard to make progress. You always want to play against the best, the toughest opponents," says Artemyev.

During the long winter break, some Russian and Georgian players join their national squads, while the other players continue to train in temperatures that plunge below minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit).

"Now we have a very large covered complex... A magnificent stadium with synthetic turf," boasts Krasny Yar's coach Igor Nikolaichuk.

"Yes, it's Siberia... It's far away and it's cold, but rugby has got acclimatised here."