An Irishman in Siberia: Meet the Dublin rugby coach who is preparing Russia to take on Ireland at the World Cup
Before the cones are laid out, the hinges oiled on the scrummaging machine or the players take the field, the interpreter needs to translate what’s on Mark McDermott’s training agenda for the Russian rugby team.
When you don’t speak the same language as your players, there’s room for plenty to be lost in translation – but when their language doesn’t even cater to rugby’s unique vernacular in the first place, there’s a real possibility that with every training session you foraging a new path in Russia’s vocabulary like a linguistic Christopher Columbus as the nuances of the breakdown are introduced to the country’s lexicon.
For Irishman McDermott, stepping into the breach as the interim head coach of the Russian team back in February to kick-start preparations for the 2019 World Cup, where he will be up against Ireland in Pool A, has thrown up unique problems on a daily basis – and he is having great craic trying to solve them.
How do you best communicate with players who don’t speak the same tongue? Bring in ex-Russia captain Alexander Voytov, whose eagerness to progress on the coaching pathway dovetails perfectly with the need for a person who can speak rugby English.
It’s also a godsend that current skipper, Vasily Artemyev, was once a schoolboy prodigy at Blackrock College - so you can safely say he is the only Russian who speaks English in a south Dublin accent.
"You’ve no choice but to use an interpreter because 98% of them don’t speak English," McDermott explains.
"I have a few basic pleasantries but when it comes to the technical stuff, they don’t really have words in the Russian language. When you hear a Russian player talking about the 'corridor', that’s a lineout. They don’t have words in their vocabulary that translate directly.
"Prior to training you would have a meeting and outline exactly what is happening. Otherwise training sessions would go on for ages because you have to say your piece and then it is translated into Russian. It’s very clear and concise about what we are doing and how long each drill will take.
"There’s nothing easy about this but I’ve found that it has improved my communication skills. Rather than using five sentences to describe something, you might have to use five words to get your message across."
McDermott is a former Ireland U21 head coach, who after taking a few years out from the game was sounded out about coming to Russia as a forwards consultant over two years ago. Initially reluctant, he eventually relented and progressed to the role of national forwards coach.
Now as head coach, he spends between 26-30 weeks a year in Russia and since taking over the top job following the departure of his predecessor, his squad have become unwitting beneficiaries of one of rugby’s most ridiculous administrative cock-ups.
After initially missing out on World Cup qualification, Russia have now ascended all the way into Ireland’s pool after Spain and Romania were docked points for fielding ineligible players – a plot twist that McDermott had an inkling of while the script was still being written.
"The head coach got the bullet in February and in typical Russian style, I found out through a few Whatsapp messages from some of the players that I would be acting as interim head coach," McDermott laughs.
"You kind of knew when the speculation came out about the two countries fielding illegal players. I knew first-hand that the Romania player was ineligible. So that wasn’t a surprise. World Rugby didn’t have much of an option.
"It was like all our Christmases had come at once. I was sitting in my kitchen in Dublin and one of the players rang and told me that we were going to the World Cup. When we got 110% clarity, we were on tour in USA and Canada and we could celebrate together.
"Ironically Russia had qualified for a previous World Cup and had been ruled out for fielding an ineligible player!"
All of a sudden McDermott – who has been told he will remain part of the staff even if a new head coach is appointed – has to put plans in place for the showpiece tournament as well has cover his other duties. His position sees him coaching the national team mainly, but also assisting with the Russian professional sides on occasion as well as hosting coaching clinics for underage players with a view to putting a proper national pathway in place.
His all-encompassing role sees him routinely doing a whistle-stop tour of the country - which might be easily done in Ireland, but with clubs based in Moscow, Krasnodar in the south and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, it becomes an almost Shackletonian undertaking.
"It is kind of a geographical and logistical nightmare," he says.
"If you were to travel from Krasnodar to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, that’s seven hours flying time, not including transfers to the airport – and a five hour time difference.
"When you are going to Siberia or Krasnodar, it is a minimum of three flights from Dublin and if you are going to Krasnoyarsk, it’s a full day. You are leaving your house at 5am in Dublin on Thursday morning and getting to Krasnoyarsk at 6am Friday morning. And none of that is first class."
McDermott’s goal now is to make sure Russia has the best preparation possible for what will be their second World Cup appearance. In 2011, they were defeated by Ireland but Artemyev scored a scintillating try that summed up the attacking spirit with which the debutants attacked the mountainous task of being competitive against the big boys.
The main obstacle for the team now is that they follow a northern hemisphere international season and a southern hemisphere club season, so a degree of flogging is almost inevitable.
"The enormity of the task will come to the fore in the next few weeks," McDermott says.
"They are going to have to shit or get off the pot and say, if we are going to take this seriously for 2019 then we have to collaborate with the professional body and get access to players.
"The club owns them so they decide what they do and the international season falls when they should really be in their pre-season. If the union and the clubs don’t collaborate over the next year then they are going to compromise the team’s ability to compete at their optimum."
Still, McDermott describes these hurdles with a lightness that shows the enjoyment he is deriving from what he admits is an odd coaching situation in a country that doesn’t always warm to outsiders.
"There is loads of ability there and if some of these players were fortunate enough to be born in other countries, people would have heard of their names," he says.
"Russians can be very set in their ways of doing things so maybe certain things like this can help them along the way to change their outlook… that all foreigners are not w**kers!"