From Blackrock to Siberia: The Russian schools rugby star who scored a World Cup try against Ireland
If one of Blackrock College’s most decorated schools cup stars wished to drive down to Donnybrook Stadium this afternoon to take in his alma mater’s Leinster Senior Cup quarter-final, he would need to have pulled out of his driveway in Krasnoyarsk ten days ago.
It is unlikely that Vasily Artemyev would undertake a 92-hour, 7,627km car journey featuring numerous tolls and a ferry just to watch Blackrock play St Gerard’s – especially when there is a reasonably priced 23-hour three-flight trip that could take him from Siberia to Dublin – but the captain of the Russian rugby team still has a soft spot for his old school.
It’s coming up on 12 years since Artemyev graduated from Blackrock College after a four-year stint that saw him win 15 of 16 cup matches, play in four straight finals while winning one Junior Cup and two Senior Cups , also earning enough Leaving Cert points to study law in UCD.
Although, he certainly doesn’t fit the traditional schools rugby stereotype: being born in the Russian city of Zelenograd is about as far away from Ross O’Carroll Kelly as you can get.
But surprisingly, the city that was ‘closed’ during the Soviet era – it wasn’t listed on maps and foreigners were prohibited from entering due to the military technology being developed there – is actually a bit of an underage rugby stronghold.
By the time he had reached transition year at home, his parents wanted him to learn English abroad for a year. Artemyev had one requirement: find a school where he could keep playing rugby.
"My parents wanted me to go abroad and they picked Ireland for some reason – I think it was probably cheaper than England," he laughs.
"We went through one of those agencies and they gave us a few schools to choose from. The guy there said he had heard Blackrock played some rugby so I picked there.
"I didn’t know anything about the history until I went over, there wasn’t much known about Irish schools rugby in Russia!"
Artemyev found out soon enough when he attended a Junior Cup trial featuring more players than he had ever seen play the sport.
He is too modest to describe the impression he made on his team-mates at that first training session – but future Ireland star Luke Fitzgerald, who subsequently became great friends with Artemyev, is happy to paint a picture.
"We were astonished with how good he was," Fitzgerald remembers.
"He was just a different kind of athlete – he was a proper sprinter. I wasn’t in the trial and was telling the coach who I thought had stood out and he scored a rake-load of tries. He was so quick he was able to sprint around two people and score.
"We became the best of pals, he spent Christmas with my family and came on holiday with us.
"He was almost like another brother. My mum would buy him the same Christmas present as me!"
Dovetailing in the backline with Fitzgerald as well as future professionals Ian Madigan and Niall Morris, Artemyev played a huge role in one of schools rugby’s most successful sides. He scored a hat-trick in the 2003 Junior Cup final, a brilliant try in the 2006 Senior final and the only team he lost to was a talented Belvedere team in 2005 that included Cian Healy, Ian Keatley, and eventual mixed martial artist Cathal Pendred.
Artemyev’s presence as ‘The Russian’ in an outfit that is already traditionally formidable added substantially to Blackrock’s intimidating on-pitch aura – and led to some tall tales about how exactly he ended up in Dublin.
"The rumours started that Blackrock had gone over to Russia to scout me to come over to play for them," he remembers.
"I think it was a big surprise for my team-mates. It was a bit exotic for them to see a Russian guy play rugby.
"It was nothing that I had experienced before. Seeing full houses at our games and a ton of supporters was very unusual. Schools rugby in Ireland is some of the most competitive, challenging things that any rugby player in the world can experience at that age in terms of toughness, the game itself and the hype around the competition."
Artemyev’s schools cup exploits are just a footnote in what has been a diverse rugby career. After a spell in the Leinster academy, he returned to Russia to play for the Sevens team before eventually representing his country at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which was the first time Russia qualified.
Memorably, he played against Ireland in the pool stages and according to the New Zealand commentators, ‘made a mockery’ of Rob Kearney’s defence en route to the try-line.
"We were nowhere near some of the big teams we played but tried our best and actually scored some great tries in that tournament," he says.
"We scored nine tries, something that debutant teams don’t score. It was the pinnacle to get to the World Cup with Russia. It was huge for the sport in the country. The development of rugby in Russia is a dream of mine. I’ve tried to do all I can for that."
A two-year spell in the Premiership with Northampton followed, including being on the receiving end of Ronan O’Gara’s memorable Champions Cup drop goal after 41 phases – ‘one of those memories that will stay with you forever’ - before he joined Krasny Yar Krasnoyarsk, one of Russia’s top teams, where he plays today.
Artemyev is now the Russian team captain, and their record try-scorer, and one of his main goals is to get rugby to penetrate the mainstream sporting landscape in Russia, which is a fairly herculean task given its current place in the pecking order.
"Rugby is known regionally, Krasnoyarsk has two professional clubs and a lot of support behind it but there are still three or four sports teams that have as much or more support, like basketball, ice hockey, football… volleyball!," he says.
"We are somewhere behind those top clubs. Even for a reasonably small city there are still plenty of other teams that get coverage."
There have been major successes on the road to recognition though. Krasny Yar famously took down Stade Francais in this season’s European Challenge Cup in what was the biggest upset in northern hemisphere rugby this season.
Artemyev has come a long way, figuratively and geographically, from his days travelling to Donnybrook for big schools cup matches – the travel requirements in the Russia league are a good deal more arduous.
"Krasnoyarsk is only halfway to the eastern coast of Russia so you could drive another ninety hours to get there," he says.
"Most of the clubs are based in the Moscow region and the south of Russia and a couple of other cities within a ten hour drive of Moscow, which in Russian terms is quite close. If you fly to Moscow you might have a mini-camp for a week and play at least two games before you go home.”
Not quite getting the 46A from Blackrock down to Donnybrook.
"There’s a slight difference… just slightly."