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'Heat blankets, survival kits, hot-water bottles and layers upon layers of clothes'

Take a trip back to Siberia with Connacht in this excerpt of John Fallon’s new book ‘Connacht – The Team That Refused To Die’.

This is an extract from John Fallon’s new book on Connacht, The Team That Refused to Die, which is available to buy here.

IN ANY OTHER campaign, a first win over Munster in the professional era at Thomond Park would rank as a seasonal highlight but, in a season packed with so many notable events, it wasn’t even the standout moment of the month in November 2015.

That belonged to the trip to Siberia, a first ever for a professional club side. The trip to Krasnoyarsk for an European Challenge Cup clash with Enisei-STM will never be forgotten by those who made the arduous journey through seven times zones and temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius.

The Connacht team photo at the final training session Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland travelled there for a World Cup qualifier in 2002 but that was played in September and the difference in temperature in the space of a few months is unreal.

The Russian rugby season is from April to September and they don’t play during the winter months because the weather is so inhospitable in Siberia, but they had to conform with the EPCR schedule.

It looked like Connacht drew the short straw when they were drawn into a pool featuring Newcastle Falcons and Brive, before any thought was given to the question of traveling to Krasnoyarsk, the homeland of Russian rugby. Yet the odyssey turned out to be a blessing in disguise and contributed hugely in developing the team spirit which served Connacht so well as the season progressed.

The Russian champions, featuring in European competition for the first time, wanted their three pool games in their home city Krasnoyarsk, which is five hours east of Moscow.

But the EPCR wanted them played at the more accessible Winter Olympic city Sochi, close to the Georgian border, and that’s where Newcastle and Brive played them. It was agreed that Enisei-STM would play one home match and Connacht were drawn to make that trip.

Enisei-STM may have been new to the tournament but they were familiar with Connacht as they had travelled to Galway several times to play the Connacht Eagles.

But nothing could have prepared the travelling party for the trip to Krasnoyarsk, a city of about one million people on the Yenisei River and just south of the Gulag Peninsula.

Snow is cleared form the pitch before the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A small group consisting of the squad, three members of the media — Linley MacKenzie from the Galway Advertiser and James Crombie from Inpho Photography were on board along with myself – and an EPCR representative, constituted the travelling party which left Shannon for Moscow on a charter flight on a wet Tuesday evening in November.

The match was on Saturday afternoon and, given the time zones, we were due back in Shannon on the charter flight on Saturday night. Instead, the last of us got home in dribs and drabs the following Tuesday night, having come via several cities after our aircraft broke down on the ground in the extreme temperatures.

A refueling stop in Moscow on the way out was followed by another five-hour flight over endless snow-covered mountains until we arrived in Krasnoyarsk some time on Wednesday.

It was sunny on arrival but the extreme weather became obvious soon after we boarded the team bus for the lengthy trip to the city. The bus was warm when we got on and we were all looking forward to seeing the sights on the way to the hotel.

But within minutes condensation hit the windows and froze solid; it was as if somebody had painted the windows white and completely blocked out the view. You needed a coin or something to scrape it away to get a view but within minutes it would again be frozen. And the heater was on in the bus!

We had all come prepared for the cold and, in fairness, daytime temperatures in the sun were akin to a skiing trip, but when you went in the shade or came out at night it was just astounding; each breath seemed to fill your lungs with icicles.

Finlay Bealham, Bundee Aki, Shane Delahunt, Ian Porter, John Muldoon, Denis Buckley and Aly Muldowney look on in the closing stages Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The five-star Hilton Garden Hotel where we stayed, costing only about €70 a night, could have been in New York or Paris. The shopping experience ranged from designer shop to market stall, though more of the latter, it must be said.

The Connacht president Gerry O’Donnell, a meat wholesaler from Ballina whose refrigeration bill costs a fair packet each year, noted how things were a bit simpler in this part of the world — you just left the meat outside the shop, frozen solid in cardboard boxes, and brought it inside to thaw for sale.

There were also extremes in the bars and restaurants. They were hard to find, didn’t look much from the outside, but the interior was like any bustling, modern city.

Down at the railway station which, in darker times, was the unloading point for millions of people headed for the forced labour camps of the gulags, you could get a train to Moscow. You stood on the other platform if you wanted to head to Beijing. You measure both journeys in terms of days rather than hours, about three to Moscow and six to China, give or take a day or so. We considered it briefly later in the week when our plane got stuck.

The players had to quickly adapt. The Connacht management had put a lot of effort into dealing with the extreme cold and they were well equipped for it. Well, as well equipped as you might be to run out and train in minus 20 or 25 degrees Celsius.

Heat blankets, survival kits, hot-water bottles and layers upon layers of clothes were used.

“Everyone just got on with it,” said team manager Tim Allnutt. “We all knew it was going to be tough so lads just dealt with whatever came their way.

“Guys took it on board that this was just another challenge. They dealt with it and moved on.”

A view of a scrum Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht had a light workout in a downtown gym on the day they arrived — at the other end of the hall a group of young children were being put through their wrestling moves.

The welcome on the ground from the local rugby fraternity and, indeed, everyone else, could hardly have been much warmer. They did everything they could to make their visitors welcome and really made an effort when our aircraft broke down and we were stranded there for a few days.

They were genuinely appreciative that Connacht had made the effort to travel almost 6,000km to play them. They applauded Pat Lam at a press conference when he said it was only fair that Krasnoyarsk should host a game in their own city.

Rugby is recovering in Russia after a slump that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, after which playing numbers dropped from 35,000 to around 15,000.

Niyi Adeolokun and Mikhail Babaev Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was a pitch session on Thursday; the captain’s run at the match venue, the Central Stadium, a concrete edifice located on an island in the Yenisei River, on Friday and the players and management were into match mode.

An army of workers cleared snow from the pitch on match day, while some early arrivals ran on the concrete terraces to stay warm. Most supporters coming into the ground had a big, woolen blanket tucked under their arm.

My duties that day included working for the EPCR so I was granted access to the tiny little concrete hut in the middle of the stand, which was the only cover in the ground.

But when I sat at the edge of the front bench, close to one of two electricity points, I was threatened with arrest if I didn’t move back! An official, who looked genuinely scared, gesticulated in no uncertain terms that the front row was for the local sports minister. So, by the time the game started, around 15 of us were crowded into the back of the hut while the sports minister and Connacht president Gerry O’Donnell enjoyed an entire row to themselves at the front.

Enjoyed, though, might be stretching it a bit. It was still frightfully cold, the window kept free freezing over and so did our laptops and other equipment. And we were inside!

At half-time an array of food was presented in an adjacent room, beside each bottle of water was a half-litre of vodka. It was tempting, very tempting, to sample anything which might provide a diversion from the coldness.

Connacht had gone to Siberia as Pro12 leaders after a 33-19 home win over Treviso. Tries from Robbie Henshaw, Tom McCartney and Matt Healy did the business on that occasion, with Craig Ronaldson supplying the remainder with the boot.

Connacht dealt well with the conditions in the Central Stadium where, it was noted,the Enisei-STM players were struggling with the weather almost as much as the visitors.

AJ MacGinty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Two penalties from AJ MacGinty gave Connacht a 6-0 interval lead and they pushed on for a 31-14 win thanks to tries from Niyi Adeolokun, John Muldoon, Darragh Leader and Rory Parata, who was making his European debut.

“The lads have been performing really well. It’s that much easier to settle into a winning environment, everyone’s in better form of course. It’s exciting times for Connacht Rugby,” said MacGinty.

A meal, speeches, presentations and a sing-song with the Enisei-STM players and officials followed in a city restaurant and then on to the airport for the flight home.

Craig Ronaldson, AJ MacGinty, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien and Peter Robb Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was the weekend of the terrorist attacks in Paris and initially we presumed this was what was causing the delay to our flight, but then it emerged that neither our aircraft or us was going anywhere that night.

It was more than a touch ironic to note, as we headed back in search of a new hotel, that on a night when western Europe was in lockdown and fear abounded, this city in Siberia was full of life as revelers, most dressed in designer gear, filled the restaurants, bars and clubs. The world had changed. A place we always associated with cruelty and torture was full of joie de vivre, while people went about their business with fear in the cities of western Europe.

Connacht were scheduled to play Brive at the Sportsground the following Saturday and as Sunday dawned and it became apparent that our aircraft might not be fixed until the following Thursday, new plans had to be drawn up.

The key was to get to Moscow. The travelling party was split up and tentative plans were made for the various groups to go home via a variety of cities. Some made it home by Monday night, the last of us got there by Tuesday evening after a night in Moscow.

Conan OÕDonnell, AJ MacGinty, Craig Ronaldson, Danny Qualter, Darragh Leader and Dave Heffernan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The players dealt admirably with the saga, reviewing the Enisei-STM game and plotting for Brive, although John Muldoon did admit that the BO level had reached epic proportions as players ran out of clean clothes!

“It’s like a game at the moment, things change during the game, and you just have to adapt,” said Lam, while we hung around Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, trying to get a flight to some place closer to home.

“It’s just been a real challenge, I said it was going to be a mental test and it has been that.

“I am pretty proud of the management and players and everybody is just getting on with it. It’s been one challenge after another. We didn’t sleep for 30 hours. One day we will look back at it and say it made us tougher.”

It was a measure of just how far the trip to Siberia was that when Connacht finally got on their delayed flight to Moscow out of Krasnoyarsk on the Monday, the Enisei-STM team they had defeated were also on board, starting their journey to play Newcastle Falcons the following Sunday.

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About the author:

John Fallon

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