Monday 19 March 2018

From sub-zero to heroes - nightmare trip that forged a title-winning bond

Connacht’s Denis Buckley, left, and Aly Muldowney attempt to keep warm on the team bench during their trip to play Enisei-STM in Russia SPORTSFILE. Photo: Denis Prikhodko / Sportsfile
Connacht’s Denis Buckley, left, and Aly Muldowney attempt to keep warm on the team bench during their trip to play Enisei-STM in Russia SPORTSFILE. Photo: Denis Prikhodko / Sportsfile

John Fallon

It will never appear in a rugby manual as one of the things a team should do if they want to bond, but the role played by a nightmare trip to Siberia can't be under-estimated in gelling Connacht into a trophy-winning side.

The trip to Krasnoyarsk in November for an European Challenge Cup encounter was always going to be difficult. . . seven time zones, temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius and a frosty pitch which threatened to multiply their mounting casualty list.

Dealing with all that was arduous enough without being stranded there for days before the squad came home in dribs and drabs via various cities in Europe.

They won the match 31-14 against Enisei-STM but then had to face Brive the following Saturday at the Sportsground. And with their chartered plane stuck on the ground in Krasnoyarsk not far from the Gulag Peninsula, there was a danger they would not get back in time.

Pat Lam and team manager Tim Allnutt led the way in trying to get smaller groups back, initially via Moscow, which was six or seven hours away by air.

The match took place on Saturday afternoon and we were all due back in Shannon later that night, obviously availing of the time difference. The last of us got home on Tuesday night.

The trip could have been enough to derail Connacht's promising start to the season. It had the opposite effect.

Connacht defeated Brive 21-17 at the Sportsground while probably still suffering from jet lag.

Chatting in Moscow when none of us knew when we would get home, Lam's view of the trip was bang on the money.

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

"It's like a game at the moment, things change during the game, and you just have to adapt. I am pretty proud of the management and players and everybody is just getting on with it. It's been one challenge after another.

"One day we will look back at it and say it made us tougher," he said.

Connacht had to take extreme measures to deal with freezing temperatures. Heat blankets, survival kits and hot-water bottles were used. So too were massive big woollen blankets, heat packs and layers upon layers of clothes.

"Everyone just got on with it," said 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."

Endless hours spent hanging around airports did not become moan-fests. Players reviewed the Enisei-STM game and plotted for Brive.

Captain John Muldoon did admit that the BO level had reached epic proportions as players ran out of clean clothes - but they just got on with it and took it in their stride.

It's an attitude which has served them well and Lam has regularly referenced the impact that trip had on their season.

It could have been a massive negative, a nightmare trip endured by the poorest province and all that, but instead he turned into a massive bonding exercise.

Next season he will hope they get the squad to gel using more familiar methods, but isn't it ironic that the basis for Connacht's first major trophy in their 131-year history may have its origins in deepest Siberia?

It's just one of the many fascinating aspects to Connacht's breakthrough season and a trip which will never be forgotten by anyone who ended up spending a week behind what used to be the Iron Curtain.

Irish Independent

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