'When I started going over first, I was the only non-Russian speaking person everywhere I went'

Irish coach Mark McDermott reflects on almost six years working with Russia Rugby.

Mark McDermott during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Mark McDermott during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

LIKE ALL OF us, Mark McDermott is watching the ongoing situation in Russia with interest, having recently closed the book on a fascinating, often challenging near-six-year relationship with the country’s rugby federation. 

“I remember when I started going to Russia first, I was the only non-Russian speaking person everywhere I went,” McDermott explains. 

“That has a novelty at the beginning, but it kind of wears off after a while. You have to become very comfortable with being with yourself the majority of the time.”

McDermott’s Russian odyssey began in 2016. The former Leinster and Munster hooker had stepped away from the sporting world, his days working with the Ireland U21s and IRFU Academy systems replaced by a life in telecommunications which found him based in Trinidad and Tobago. Out of the blue, the Rugby Union of Russia got in touch, searching for a forwards coach. McDermott declined, but followed up six months later when his contract in the Caribbean expired.

Between 2016 and 2021, McDermott held a number of roles with the union, including forwards coach and interim head coach, along with positions focusing more on the high performance and developmental side of the sport in Russia.

“I reflect on it with absolute positivity, because any of those sort of niggles in the back of your brain were always outweighed by the experiences, the people you met, their hospitality, seeing different parts of the world, going to participate in different tournaments which you wouldn’t necessarily do if you were working with a Tier 1 country.”

Looking back on those early experience in the county, McDermott admits it took him a while to win over his new audience.

When a foreigner goes to Russia first, it’s made very clear to you that they don’t really trust Westerners. Also, there is a perception that when a person from an established Tier 1 nation comes in they are going to wave this magic wand, so you have to do something to influence their state of mind.”

His first visit to Russia saw McDermott flown out to Siberia in July of 2016, where shortly after touching down, he held a scrum session with players varying in age from 16 up to around 35.

With the players speaking little English, and McDermott even less Russian, the back and forth was initially complicated, but both sides strived to make it work. Some of the more dedicated individuals, such as loosehead prop Andrey Polivalov – a member of the 2019 World Cup squad – would eventually end up knocking on McDermott’s door during national camps, in one hand a tablet loaded for video analysis, in the other a phone open on Google translate.

The language barrier was one of the more straightforward challenges. Russia is a complicated country which can place an intense pressure on its sportspeople, the sheen of sporting success an image the government desperately wants to portray to the outside world. They spend heavily on sport, and have become increasingly keen to grow the game of rugby.

The president of the Russia Rugby Union, Igor Artemyev, is a high-profile public figure, having served as head of the country’s Federal Antimonopoly Service between 2004 and 2020, during which time McDermott described him as Vladimir Putin’s ‘number four man’. Artemyev’s status helps the union attract sponsorship deals that would previously have been unimaginable for what is still a minority sport in a country with a population in excess of 140 million, ‘about 95% of which have probably never even heard of rugby’, reckons McDermott.

september-28-2020-russia-sochi-russian-president-vladimir-putin-left-and-igor-artemyev-head-of-the-russian-federal-antimonopoly-service-meet-at-bocharov-ruchei-residence Igor Artemyev, the President of Russia Rugby, pictured with Vladimir Putin in 2020. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

His various roles with the union brought him all around the country; never fully knowing what kind of facilities would be waiting for him.

“At grassroots, it can be a very mixed bag. When you go into some of the rural areas, you’re talking west of Ireland stuff in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It can be quite basic. You can go a pitch on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere where there is no changing rooms, no toilets, and people will just rock up and do a session on a pitch which the health inspectors in this part of the world would close down. 

“But then you can go to these places in the middle of nowhere with state-of-the art facilities.

Before the World Cup we went to this new facility in a place called Kislovodsk, down in the Krasnodar region in the south of the country. We arrived in the airport and were put onto our coach, then we got to a specific place on the journey where we had to get out and a series of five or six Hi-Ace type mini-vans came down, because a coach wouldn’t have been able to drive up the last four miles because of the condition of the road.

“So I’m thinking to myself – ‘My Jesus, where are we going to here?’ Then you come to a gate and see this spanking new facility which has everything in it, no matter what sport you’re doing. It’s not one weights room, it’s five weights rooms. All-weather pitches, athletics tracks, the lot, and all brand spanking new.

“Then I learned there was three of those facilities in Sochi, another one somewhere else and they were all privately/government owned. In comparison to Ireland for the number of high-performance centres, they are kind of a dime a dozen in Russia.”

Those high-performance centres cater for athletes across multiple sports, covering all ages. Yet much of the focus is geared towards short-term success rather than long-term planning, with the methods of achieving that success sometimes highly questionable, and often troubling.

“They embrace sport at a young age, and they do an excessive amount of training, and quite possibly if you look at the ice-skating (last week) and the 15-year-old (Kamila Valieva) who just capitulated with everything that was going on, a lot of that happens, which is kind of consistent with sport because a lot of people in Russia tend to become professional sportspeople. Some of them, like the ice-hockey or football players are being paid huge money, but some of them might be 18-year-old rugby players who are ‘professional’ because they’ve signed a contract and might be getting 10,000 ruble (approximately €110) a month, so there is a lot of discrepancies.

But Russia is a sports-mad country. Obviously people outside of Russia will have their perceptions as to how they go about doing it, but from the inside looking in, all I ever saw was no matter what sport it was, they started at an unbelievably young age. We would be going out to camps in different parts of the country and there’s weightlifters and wrestlers of 10 years of age in camp for two and a half to three weeks, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Do these kids go to school or what is happening here?”

Rugby balls and scrum caps are still alien pieces of equipment for most Russian children, and it can be difficult to see where rugby fits in alongside the more popular, more established sporting pursuits.

The challenges facing the domestic game also make it difficult for Russia to close the gap on the Tier 1 nations. Russian club teams are heavily reliant on the money on offer within the Russian Super League, which again can lead to a more short-term line of thinking.

“When I would have started with Russia there were no games on TV, and if one of the professional league clubs wanted to put a game on TV, it was at their own cost. A lot of that has changed.

mark-mcdermott McDermott worked with the Ireland U21s during the mid-2000s. Source: INPHO

“But you have a professional game over there where there are 10 teams. It beggars belief… There aren’t enough rugby players in Russia to have 10 professional teams. 

“In the first half of the competitive season for 2021/22, there were 78 South Africans playing in the Russian domestic league – 78! There are certain positions in their national team roster where they are struggling hugely for succession plans, and the only people who play these positions are non-indigenous players. 

“And something that is critical to their development pathway is playing matches outside of the professional league, and that’s a challenge for them. It’s a real challenge to consistently have games. With any sport, if you spend 85% of your time training and only 15% of your time participating in games, it’s kind of a hard sell. 

“Part of their plan for the national team is to try and enhance their U18s and U20s national programmes, but until they can get their house in order domestically in relation to the number of games these guys play, their national U18s and U20s… Every once in a blue moon they’ll perform exceptionally well in European competition, but it won’t be consistent.

“Their other philosophy in relation to enhancing their national teams is nationalising foreigners, but I’m not so sure how many of those 78 South Africans will last five years living in Russia.” 

At the 2019 Rugby World Cup Russia lost all of their pool games having been grouped with Japan, Ireland, Scotland and Samoa, scoring just 19 points and conceding 160 across their four fixtures. They currently sit 25th in the World Rugby rankings, sandwiched between Namibia (24) and the Netherlands. 

McDermott believes there is a genuine appetite to grow the game in Russia – the women’s 15s game is a current point of interest for the union – but questions whether those within the men’s national team truly believe they can close the gap on the more established Tier 1 nations. The feeling on the ground reminded McDermott of the early days of professionalism in Ireland.

“They’re getting paid to play the game, but their everyday living as a professional sportsperson is very different to what players are doing in the Tier 1 countries, and would even be very different to when I was dealing with players in the national Academy in the early 2000s.

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“My honest answer would be that I don’t think they do (believe they can close the gap), but that’s not a reflection on them at all. 

I really would love to see them do it, because the guys I used to deal with over the first two and a half to three years, when I was the only foreigner in the Russian national set-up, the passion, the enthusiasm and their willingness to improve and make themselves better and try to achieve something, that’s all there, but you have to get an alignment between the governments of the game and in the feeding routes to professional aspects. 

“But Russians like to get places very quickly. They like to go from A to B very quickly, so they need to ask themselves if that is possible.” 

Putin’s desire to improve the various national teams across the board and bring major sporting events to the country could likely be impacted by the current escalating tensions with Ukraine. Uefa are reportedly considering moving this year’s Champions League final from St Petersburg, and the current political climate makes Putin’s ambitions of bringing the Rugby World Cup to Russia in the coming years seem fanciful.

luke-mcgrath-with-mark-mcdermott McDermott catches up with Luke McGrath after Ireland's 2019 World Cup meeting with Russia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

McDermott, whose time in Russia became increasingly limited during the pandemic, adds that he never felt unsafe during his time there.

“When we’re talking about certain things, like what is going on now, you have to be careful,” he continues.

It was something you were always conscious of, but in the five and a half to six years that I was working there, did it ever have an effect on my day to day and how I carried myself when I was in Russia? No.

“The only one (situation) that I would have experienced, there was one period where there was a little bit of friction, politically, between Georgia and Russia. There had been some conflict between the two governments at one stage so all direct flights from Russia to Georgia were ceased. This was coinciding with a time that we were due to play them in a World Cup warm-up game, and that game went by the wayside.”

McDermott had been working alongside former Russia head coach Lyn Jones, who was replaced by ex-Springbok Dick Muir last year. Last autumn, he agreed to move to a new role overseeing the development of the men’s U18s and U20s squads and the women’s 15s system, before mutually agreeing to end their relationship, with the union potentially heading into a difficult financial period.

“I can reflect and look back with a lot of happiness in what I endeavoured to do,” he adds.

“One of the rewarding things for me was I started a tight five project which was to enhance their ability to scrum because when they were playing the better Tier 2 countries and Tier 1 countries, they were only able to win about 30% of their own ball. You fast-forward and see the work that came out of that, we went to the World Cup and had an exceptionally competent scrum, and if you look at the trail of any players in the last five years who have transferred over to professional rugby in Europe, they’ve all only been front-row forwards.

“I loved it, I have to admit. Both from the rugby side and things, but also the holistic point of view. I really enjoyed it.”

His next job will likely see him return to the business world, and definitely be closer to home.

“The Irish market (for coaches) is a very small, tight market. Over the last number of years I’ve put my name forward for a number of positions and nothing has come to fruition, and I also think that when you put yourself within that sphere, there is a life cycle within it. Do I really want at the end of every 2-3 years to be wondering will I get another contract? Will I be kept on?

“It’s kind of hard to see where I fit in in Ireland, so do I want to embark on another Russia experience? Who knows… I’m not sure how my family would react to it, my wife and children have been remarkably supportive, so I think putting my feet firmly back in Ireland is the priority.”  

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Ciarán Kennedy

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