Adrenalin Tyumen v Moscow Dragons: Amateur Rugby in Siberia

There are few better ways to spend a summer afternoon than watching live sport outdoors, especially when for half the year the ground has been frozen in sub zero temperatures. Such was the snowfall this winter in Tyumen that the Tura river – which once formed part of the ancient Silk Road from Mongolia to Eastern Europe – has now flooded to almost twice its width, but on Sunday there was an occasion far removed from the ice and snow. On the other side of town Adrenalin Tyumen took on the Moscow Dragons in the first round of the Russian Cup in front of 400 eager spectators, many of whom had never seen a rugby ball in their life.

Way back in October 2014, Russia faced Uruguay in the repechage playoff for the final place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and despite Yuriy Kushnarev’s fine kicking, they lost out to the South Americans by eight points over the two legs in Krasnoyarsk and Montevideo. Had they won, they’d have faced the hosts England in Manchester, just a few miles from where Andrei Ostrikov plies his trade for Sale Sharks, and interest in the game could have spiked sharply.

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Stadion Lokomotiv in Tyumen – abandoned for decades, it is the only full size grass pitch in the city

At the very highest level Russian rugby is thriving. The men’s sevens side having earned a regular place on the World Series circuit while the women came runners up in Dubai last year, and the narrow miss against Uruguay preceded by a debut appearance in the previous World Cup in New Zealand. This season Enisey-STM made history as the first Russian club to enter European competition, beating Brive and Newcastle Falcons before falling one victory short of the knockout stages.

At the lower levels though, there are still plenty of obstacles faced by teams at Adrenalin’s level. The top tier is made up of 15 teams split into two divisions, below which there are a number of federal leagues which are regionalised. All clubs at this level are very much amateur, often made up of students and full time professionals who can only afford, in every sense, to train twice a week. Fixtures take place either side of the summer, as it is nigh on impossible for teams to keep their players together over July and August as they either go on holiday or return to their home towns.

At this stage of the year the focus is on the national cup competition. To mark the importance of the event, the Moscow Dragons were hosted at an incredible crumbling relic of a ground, Stadion Lokomotiv. As its name suggests, it is owned by the railway station, but it has been left to rot since the Soviet Union by its owners who are reluctant to sell such valuable property that lies a few hundred metres from the central square. It is the only venue in the city that boasts a full grass pitch though, so was called into service for the occasion.

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Anton Kuklin – manager, match announcer, and a very good man

To raise interest, members of the club put a huge amount of effort into promoting the match. Irina Kuklina, wife of manager Anton, engages on social media site VKontakte, while sponsorship for the game itself was found with six different companies, one of whom provided the beer and the half time entertainment. Tickets were available on the gate for 50 roubles, and the only stand was almost full of locals ready to cheer on their side. The overwhelming majority were unaware of the rules, but Anton Kuklin doubled up his role as manager with announcement duties, explaining the basics to the crowd as the game progressed.

The city’s football team FC Tyumen have a spectacular stadium with as capacity of 13,057 but often struggle to fill 5% of their ground, leaving an cavernous silence for long stretches of games. Stadion Lokomotiv, however, created a focused atmosphere with groups of all ages eager to discover more. Moscow Dragons began the match firmly on the front foot, spending almost the entire opening 15 minutes in Adrenalin’s half, but only came away with a penalty in front of the posts to show for their domination. Their backs spread possession wide at almost every opportunity with well-drilled routines keeping the hosts on the back foot.

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The crowd were eager to learn about this strange sport and created a noisy atmopshere, helped by the excellent efforts to promote and run the event

After weathering the storm, Adrenalin club president Nikita Sedikh bulldozed into Moscow’s defensive line from a tap-and-go penalty to rapturous applause – no explanation was needed for the fans to appreciate his physicality. A darting run forward from scrum half Anatoliy Evdokimenko took Tyumen to the 22 where they were awarded a penalty, but fly half Rustam Ashirbekov – who had only recovered from a virus the day before – slightly underhit his attempt to keep the advantage with the visitors.

The intent was clear from Tyumen; twice they opted to tap and go instead of kicking for goal – possibly affected by the extremely uneven surface – using their superior strength and rucking ability to good effect. Moscow’s organisation with the ball in hand was telling though, as they created an overlap to touch down in the corner just before the half hour work to take an eight-point lead.

Big hits were popular with the crowd, and shortly before the break they were nearly rewarded by a combination of brute strength and powerful running from former rugby league player Sedikh. Breaking three tackles, he arrowed towards the far corner but was tackled meres short of the line. His teammates were in support and combined to cross the whitewash to claw back to within a point after a success conversion.

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You’ve probably never seen a medieval bagpipe quartet at half time of an amateur Siberian rugby match…

There was still time for a wonderful opportunity to take the lead into half time as winger Alexander Matveev sidestepped his marker and was brought down 5 metres short, and in the next phase a four on one overlap emerged. Poor decision making allowed Moscow’s defence to scramble into place and save their narrow lead.

At the break, a medieval bagpipe quartet played on the pitch with cheerleaders performing a routine to keep the crowd entertained, with both teams gathering on the field to take on fluids and receive instructions. Kuklin has been with the side since its inception a few years ago, and his understanding of the game is matched by the commitment of the club to develop; key to the sustainability of the sport will be the continued education of neutrals and promotion of the sport itself. Fliers were passed out advertising tryouts for the senior men’s side, as well as youth teams for both sides; some local women’s sevens players were even in attendance too.

When play resumed, Moscow adopted a clear strategy to use mauls to great effect, but the hosts continued to capitalise on their physicality by winning turnovers at the breakdown. Ten minutes into the second half, Moscow missed another penalty, perhaps slightly cheekily distracted by the crowd, and their profligacy was punished when Evdokimenko burst through the line with centre Kirill Kislyak on his shoulder. Instead of drawing the defender and offloading to his teammate, he decided to hack forward – fortunately the bounce allowed the grateful Kislyak to touch down in the corner.

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Not the most glamorous press box ever, but the media presence was encouraging

The delight at having taken the lead was capped by the successful conversion by Ashirbekov, which was kicked from hand in the absence of a readily available tee. A few moments later and an identical two on one arose from a line break from full back Evgeniy Gryaznov, but a similar decision to kick forward when the simpler option saw the golden opportunity lost. The ball went out of bounds, but the consolation was a penalty awarded for an earlier transgression from the visitors, which was slotted to push the advantage to more than advantage score at 17-8.

As the match entered the final quarter of advantage hour, the greater experience of Moscow’s backs told as they pressured a fumble from a high kick and engineered an overlap to touch down twice and edge in front, despite missing both conversions. The result was sealed three minutes from time with advantage well-judged drop goal that left the score at 17-22.

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The traditional mixed post-match group photo. One of rugby’s greatest traits is the natural bonhomie it inspires between opposing players and fans – in Russia this spirit is very much alive

Once the traditional post-match players’ tunnel had been done, the players joined each other to take group photos and mingle with the fans, with Kuklin sanguine about the result. “I’ve been here since the club began, and we have trouble keeping the team together through summer, but it was  good performance. Moscow are a very experienced side.” Local media had broadcast the match and interviewed members of both clubs while fans stayed behind to congratulate their team for their efforts.

The mood was not one of deflation, but there is a clear a distance to go to develop the game in a meaningful fashion below the highest level of Yenisey-STM and company. Egor Ilyuchik, an injured player, explained that the club were constantly on the look out for new players, but that there wasn’t the financial support to build on the game at this level. “Olympic disciplines are backed much more, so Sevens in particular will continue to grow, but techincally we’re not far off the Russian Championship level. Last year we finished fifth out of the Federal league teams.”

It was impossible to leave the crumbling old ground with shoddy turf and not feel the warm glow of potential from the game. Technical issues which could come with more professional training aside, the ability and hunger is clearly there, and on the back of an actively growing group surrounding the club with nearly 1,000 followers on social media, it would be a brave man to bet against Adrenalin Tyumen reaching greater heights in the future.

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