Saturday 19 October 2019

From Russia with love – Meet the Irishman helping the Bears prepare for opening night

POOL A FOCUS: Russia

Russian assistant coach Mark McDermott
Russian assistant coach Mark McDermott

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Mark McDermott was living in the Caribbean and no longer in rugby when the call came from Russia. Four years on, he finds himself loving life in Japan as he prepares to play his part on the World Cup’s opening night.

The Dubliner, an uncle to Ireland's Andrew Conway who he hopes to face in round three for a nice family reunion, will be assistant to Russia's Welsh coach Lyn Jones as they look to spoil hosts Japan's party at the Tokyo Stadium this morning.

Initially hired to assist to Alexander Pervukhin, former Munster hooker McDermott stepped up to an interim coaching role and was in charge when the team qualified for Japan. When Jones got the job on a full-time basis, he returned to his previous role.

As the lowest ranked team at this year's World Cup who made it here when Romania and Spain were thrown out due to fielding ineligible players, the Bears face an uphill task in their second World Cup.

Their target is to win a first tournament game, but their pool is extremely tough with Ireland, Scotland, Japan and Samoa all looking at them as an opportunity to pick up bonus points and boost their points differential in case things get tight on the final roster.

With 29 of the 31 players based in the Russian league and no central contracting system at play, they draw players from disparate parts of an enormous country to fight for a common cause.

Although a growing force at Sevens, they've yet to harness the obvious potential at XVs level but they are currently in favour at government level and funding has increased.

McDermott, who played in the era when Ireland was moving slowly from amateur to professional, sees echoes of that time as he whizzes from Siberia to Sochi to work with players and prepare the team.

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He coaches in English, with former Blackrock College, UCD and Northampton winger and current captain acting as a translator. He reckons he couldn't do it without him.

The language barrier is one challenge, but there are plenty more.

The local rivalries are fierce and time together is limited. The best athletes in the local league are so-called 'legionnaires' who come from abroad and keep Russian players out of the side.

Unfortunately, the country simply doesn't produce the kind of second-rows for example to play international rugby.

Russia's assistant coach Alexander Voytov and other team members attend a news conference during their Captain's Run at Tokyo Stadium, Japan. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato
Russia's assistant coach Alexander Voytov and other team members attend a news conference during their Captain's Run at Tokyo Stadium, Japan. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato

Unlike other tier two nations, Russia hasn't gone down the naturalization route. All of their squad are Russian-born.

Part of the problem is the lack of exposure to elite level rugby and McDermott reckons it's "next near impossible" to compete at a World Cup without it.

"The Italy game (an 85-15 defeat in August), we were given a lesson that if you make a mistake you're going to be punished and they did that very well," he said.

"A lot of people would look at that score and say Russia are whatever, right? But that was the first time Russia ever played a friendly against a tier one nation in its history.

"So, yes, they played tier one sides in the 2011 World Cup but that was eight years ago.

"If you're trying to get an upwards curve but you're playing against the same the whole time.... You're not only saying the same players, you have the same referees and environments and it's probably no coincidence that Georgia is the pick of the pile in Europe.

"Now, what's aided their transition - and I don't think we'll see the fruits of the work being done there at this World Cup, it will be 2023… but they're no longer completely reliant on the French system, they have their own academies.

"It probably is a model to follow, it's a smaller country but they're similar in nature.

"Up until the fall of the USSR, Georgia would have played with the USSR team and it's kind of ironic that since the demise of the USSR Russia have never beaten Georgia."

This morning, they have the world's eyes watching and they're determined to perform. As McDermott sees it, all the pressure is on the hosts.

"It does put the spotlight on us, because how many people will be watching that game around the world?" he said.  "I think there is pressure on the players, but not as much as there is on Japan.

"They have been planning for this occasion for 12 years, their national team has been in camp since February and latest odds are that if we stay within 40 points.... I'd be reasonably optimistic that that's a little bit kind to Japan.

"We played them in November in Gloucester and it ended 32-27 in Japan's favour. I know Kingsholm in November is different to Tokyo in September is a different environment but it gave us a glimmer of hope that we may not have to keep turning up to be lambs to the slaughter.

"I think the players will take huge faith from that as well."

Ireland may be out of reach, but the former Irish U-21 coach – who worked with captain Rory Best among others who went on to feature at senior level – is excited for that round three game in Kobe.

"It is going to be special. I'm a professional coach and my allegiances will 100pc be to Russia, but if my nephew was playing for Ireland it would make it more interesting," he concluded. "I'm really looking forward to it, it should be a fantastic experience."

Russia scouting report

Star man

Captain Vasily Artemiev is a familiar face to some Irish fans having played for Blackrock College and UCD before moving to Northampton Saints. He scored a try against Ireland eight years ago. 

The coach

Former Wales flanker Lyn Jones is an experienced operator who has been in charge of Russia for a year, having previously coached Neath, the Dragons and London Welsh among others.

The style of play

They possess a physical backline, but give up height in their forward pack. How much they'll be able to impose on opponents remains to be seen, they may end up defending a lot.

Last five RWCs

2015 - DNQ, 2011 - Pool, 2007 - DNQ, 2003 - DNQ, 1999 - DNQ

Prospects

The lowest ranked team at the tournament, the Russians are looking for a first World Cup win but they'd probably take some respectable defeats.

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