Nick McLennan and his gallant companions were young Crusaders sent to evangelise on behalf of their country’s religion and help enlighten the citizens of one of the most notorious places on earth. They had, he admits, no real idea of what they were about to confront, but were of an age where the prospect generated excitement rather than trepidation.
This quartet of Kiwi rugby hopefuls arrived, then, to bitter conditions as a territory which hosted Stalin’s dreaded gulags was emerging from winter, albeit its worst was over and they avoided being subjected to temperatures that the 21-year-old was told could plummet to minus 20 degrees.
They had at least, over the previous month, had the chance to get to know some of their new sporting comrades in more familiar surroundings since a squad from the Krasny Yar Krasnoyask club had, as part of a trail-blazing arrangement, been training in Christchurch with the southern hemisphere’s leading provincial set-up. It was, though, still a journey into the unknown.
“I was part of the first group to go to Siberia from Canterbury,” said the Scotland sevens play-maker who was on the Canterbury books back in 2010.
“At the time the Canterbury Rugby Union had an agreement with them. I was just going to be playing for the Bs that season and wasn’t going to be in the top team, so it seemed an interesting opportunity.”
He admits they could probably have made more of it.
“It was a pretty good life experience, although I was there with three other Kiwi guys so it’s fair to say that we didn’t get too immersed in the culture. We were only in our early twenties so it was just something a bit different,” he said.
In some ways, though, a lack of curiosity might have been no bad thing, as McLennan pointed out, offering insight into what remains a very different environment to the western world.
“The traditional image of Siberia as a pretty bleak place isn’t too far wrong,” he said.
“Moscow was quite westernised in a lot of ways with big multi-national companies based there and quite a bit of English spoken. Siberia was more the real Russia. Very, very few spoke any English.
“We were quite naïve so I don’t think we fully took account of the dangers that were there. Some of our team-mates would be carrying hand guns when we went out. It just seemed normal for them.
“To be fair we got looked after pretty well so if we did get ourselves into any trouble we didn’t speak much Russian so we didn’t know.”
That group of young New Zealanders, as they all were then before McLennan took the opportunity his family background provided to embark on another overseas adventure when invited to join Edinburgh in 2014, were following in the grand traditions of countless compatriots who have taken the rugby message to some of the most far flung corners of the globe. In doing so they learned enough to generate a basic understanding of the extent of Siberian ambition to come in from the rugby cold.
McLennan felt the standard of play in Russia was generally moderate, but that there a few matches at a decent competitive standard and while there was a heavy reliance on old allies, he reckoned there was evidence that many of the locals had the potential to take to the sport that is such a fundamental part of Kiwi culture but has only properly reached out beyond its traditional territories in the past 30 years.
“Siberia is just above Mongolia and you could see that influence in the people. In terms of being suited to rugby there would definitely be hard men,” he observed.
“However at the time we were there a lot of the players came from the likes of Moldova, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan. I guess when the Soviet Union went up all those countries went their separate ways but the connections remained in place.
“I don’t know too much about the history, but I think Russian rugby had high hopes and it’s got a lot better which you can see in the way their sevens team is performing. They definitely seem to be going in the right direction. Some of the older guys were not so willing to change, but the younger ones were really keen to learn and they seem to be developing players.”
Setting aside a brief reunion in Hong Kong last year with a former team-mate, which provided the chance to dust off ‘my puppet Russian’, the quality of which ‘tended to depend on how many vodkas I’d had,’ he admits that his on-going interest in their progress has been restricted to the odd look at their website.
However having also spent a couple of seasons with Edinburgh before switching to sevens, which is once again satisfying his wanderlust as Scotland contest the World Series, he doubts that they can provide too much of a threat in next week’s European Challenge Cup tie.
“You’d like to think Edinburgh will win comfortably,” was McLennan’s assessment.
“I’d say they (Krasny Yar) will probably be a physical side but their skills shouldn’t be at the same level, so the only problem will be if they get into a shit fight.”
Avoiding that may prove easier said than done given his description of what awaits the visiting side, but like McLennan and his crusading chums, Edinburgh are engaged in important work on behalf of their sport next week.
Source : HeraldScotland