Tuesday 21 February 2017

From 'Rock with love

Published 21/01/2012 | 05:00

So, Vasily, how's training then? Anything strange or startling, as the fella says? "Yeah, it's been good really." As an exercise in cool detachment, Vasily Artemyev's demeanour is positively Zen-like in its serenity.

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Because, at the training session, which was held hours before we speak, Artemyev's coach and his most famous Northampton Saints clubmate duelled in a game of Russian roulette; when Jim Mallinder declared Chris Ashton would be omitted from today's clash with Munster, the player stormed out of training.

And on Thursday, one of rugby's worst kept secrets -- Ashton's move to Saracens -- was formally unveiled.

In a week where their focus should have been on avenging the Ronan O'Gara inspired last-minute defeat to Munster in Thomond Park, last year's Heineken Cup finalists have displayed all their dirty smalls in public.

Artemyev, however, is wonderfully detached from it all. On-message to the point of over-arching numbness, it is clear Ashton's slow divorce has already been virtually dealt with in-camp.

Mallinder's swift actions in committing his remaining internationals to long-term deals and volubly speaking up the likes of Artemyev as the future of the midlands outfit drew an ineradicable line in the sand.

"It is a great set-up here in Northampton," gushes the man now asked to step in to fill the breach in Ashton's absence. "We've a top-class coaching and management staff. The environment is perfect.

"I'm totally enjoying training because the environment is perfect for improving yourself. After travelling all over the world for about two or three years, it's great to have a base."

Ashton may have had itchy feet, but Artemyev is glad to finally have somewhere he can call home.

Whether that home could have been in Ireland is a moot point. A sparkling schools career, during which he scored twice for his adopted country against England, should have been the launching pad for glittering progress on this side of the Irish Sea.

However, he was rebuffed in his attempts to play at the World Cup Sevens thanks to the IRB, who ruled that although Artemyev lived in Dublin, his residence in their eyes remained Zelenograd in Russia, where his parents still lived while Artemyev boarded at Blackrock College.

Despite what seemed a strong case, the IRB held firm. Leinster could have offered a qualification route, but they didn't take the risk.

And so Artemyev became an itinerant rugby player, travelling the globe with Russia's Sevens team before aiding their remarkable journey to a World Cup debut. Jinking past Rob Kearney to score a consolation try in Rotorua last September made it feel as if his life had come full circle.

"It was such a long build-up," he says. "There were two years of qualifying games and then six months of build-ups and camps. I was barely home at all during that time, so it was a hugely significant part of my life.

"But while all that seemed like it lasted forever, the World Cup itself was over before you knew it, especially with the four-day turnaround between matches.

"I hadn't even thought about scoring against Ireland. Just playing against them, just seeing them at the World Cup with my own eyes was unbelievable. It was a special time, more special for me, obviously, than the rest of the guys. Just incredible."

the former UCD flyer has no real problem with Leinster's decision not to sign him up for their academy; the two-time Heineken Cup winners clearly have no regrets either.

"Everything happened for a reason," he says sanguinely. "When I left my university, I went to Russia and that gave me the direction which led to me eventually joining Northampton. It's not the way I would have planned things, but life is what happens."

Life is also about maximising opportunities and, since an opening hat-trick on his debut against Saracens in the LV Cup, the 24-year-old has profited from the faith put in him by Mallinder.

"Vas is already a good player," said Mallinder, before Ashton's departure was announced yesterday. "He is very quick and direct and has a good understanding of the game.

"He is a little bit rusty in a few little things, but those can be ironed out. He has got the potential to be a really good player in the Premiership.

"There are some people who are born with natural flat-out pace, some who are a little jinkier and use their feet and are a little bit more creative, but I think Vas can do both. He has got that real fast, long striding run, but he can also use his feet and beat people."

One of the flaws identified by Mallinder -- his ability in the air -- was ruthlessly exploited by Munster in round one; indeed, it was his knock-on that led to those fateful 41 phases, not to mention an earlier critical penalty.

And he won't need reminding by the healthy travelling Munster support of his late fumble that almost certainly thieved his side's chances of sealing a cherished win in Limerick.

"This is not about revenge," he says before almost correcting himself in the next breath. "We didn't think it was a just result in the first game. We played well and lost in injury-time.

"Playing at home against Munster is a good opportunity to put things right. We can use the momentum we've gained over the last few weeks. This is a new game. Of course, I'm going to be very cautious of O'Gara's kicking and what Munster are going to do."

And in an unwitting reference to how his team must adjust post-Ashton, his parting comment is pointed. "I don't want to put any of my personal goals ahead of the team," he says.

Irish Independent

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