KOBE, Japan (Reuters) - When Russia take on Ireland in Kobe on Thursday, captain Vasily Artemyev and assistant coach Mark McDermott will bring a unique insight into the team ranked 16 places above them in the world.
Irishman McDermott, a former Leinster and Munster hooker who played alongside the likes of John Hayes, Anthony Foley and Mick Galwey in the 1990s, has spent the last three years commuting to and from Russia to train The Bears.
Artemyev went in the other direction, moving to Ireland aged 15 and spending the next seven years learning English, studying law and becoming one of the top junior players of his generation at Brian O’Driscoll’s alma matter, the storied Blackrock College.
“It was amazing. I could never have imagined a thing like that in Russia, playing at the age of 15 in front of a few thousand people in Donnybrook (Stadium) and getting my photo in the newspaper the next day,” Artemyev, now 32 and sporting a thick moustache, told Reuters sat amongst the empty seats at the Kobe Misaki Stadium.
“I blended in quite well because of rugby, as soon as I came out for the first few training sessions, it got easier. My English improved quite quickly and I was really trying to blend in, so I was trying to work on my accent as well,” he says in an tone that has an unmistakable Dublin lilt to it.
Playing against Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney in those “huge” school games, Artemyev made his name a few months after arriving, almost single-handedly winning the Leinster Junior Cup final with a hat-trick of scores which the Irish Times match report called “one of the great schoolboy individual performances”.
Two Senior Cup wins followed - one more than O’Driscoll - before Artemyev played with Ireland at underage level, finished his studies and joined Northampton en route back to Russia, whom he will represent for the 89th time in Kobe.
Describing the Irish set-up as “like out of a fairytale” where century-old team photos cover school corridors, Artemyev, who plays on the wing, hopes Russia can build similar fundamentals after a difficult 90-year history for a sport which this World Cup could help transform.
Artemyev’s time in Dublin comes in handy for McDermott when he needs to communicate with a Russian pack that have surprised many in competitive outings against Japan and Samoa.
McDermott, who coached at Irish underage level for a number of years and led his country to the 2004 Junior World Cup final, was well out of the professional game and working in telecoms in Trinidad and Tobago when, partly based on the recommendation of Italy coach Conor O’Shea, he got a call out of the blue.
“I commute over and back. When it started it was seen maybe as a 20-24 week of the year. I don’t think it’s ever been just that in three years and this calendar year has been particularly hectic,” he told Reuters.
“The nature of this situation is that there are periods of time when you’re gone for three, three-and-a-half weeks but then the flip side is you could be back for four weeks. It’s actually easier than Trinidad when I’d be gone for three to five months at a time. I’ve a huge admiration for my wife and children.”
Ireland beat Russia 62-12 in the last World Cup in which Artemyev left Kearney for dead to score a superb consolation try and the Russian captain is backing his improved side to be a far tougher opponent this time.
“It was an absolutely amazing feeling having played against them in Russia’s first ever World Cup,” he said, recalling when he first heard about the Pool A draw.
“We know Ireland have something to play for so it’s a huge honour for us to be playing against a powerful and motivated Ireland side so we’ll do our best to withhold their pressure and hopefully we can do some damage ourselves.”
Still stunned that Ireland lost to hosts Japan last week, McDermott is a little more circumspect, noting how this will only be Russia’s second test against tier-one opposition since the 2011 World Cup.
“I just couldn’t believe it and I’m still a bit shocked. It’s unfortunate that Russia play them next because the backlash is coming,” said McDermott who, in another link to home, will face his nephew, Ireland winger Andrew Conway, on Thursday.
“The way they have played in the first two games has raised eyebrows and profile in Russia and that’s really important for them. I want them to be competitive, go out and express what’s good about Russian rugby and do it for as long as they can.”
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by Christian Radnedge and Tony Lawrence