from russia with gloves

TEAM BONDING IS A VITAL INGREDIENT IN THE SUCCESS OF ANY TEAM. IT’S JUST THAT – NORMALLY – YOU DON’T HAVE TO TRAVEL TO SIBERIA TO FIND A SENSE OF TOGETHERNESS.

Connacht hop over the garden fence this weekend to play next-door neighbours Munster. Obviously, I’m speaking figuratively here. Galway to Limerick is a 196km, three-hour round trip through the fabled Fields of Athenry but look on the bright side: that’s still roughly 11,084kms shorter than their last away jaunt into Siberia so the chances of making it back to Galway within three days – no matter how long they stop off in Ennis for fish and chips on the way home – are probably better than evens. Rarely has a night out at Thomond Park felt more enticing.

Krasnoyarsk? No, I’d never heard of it either but they say it makes Galway feel like Goa. Apparently, you fly to Moscow, you refuel, you fly a further four thousand kilometres due east into Siberia on a line somewhere between Mongolia and the Gulag Archipelago and that’s Krasnoyarsk. How on earth a team – ENISEI-STM – who live on the same longitude as Bangladesh qualify to play in the European Challenge Cup, I’m not too sure but – rather wonderfully – they do and they’re very happy about it, marking their auspicious debut last weekend with some pre-match Cossack dancing and a lusty ‘dobro pozhalovat’ for Connacht. The welcome was as warm as it got.

So here was the most westerly team in Europe taking on the most easterly, both of them in thermal scrum-caps and jockstraps lined with tin foil. ‘It was freakish,’ says Irish journalist, John Fallon, who was on the trip. ‘We’d been expecting temperatures of around minus four but when the game kicked off it was minus fourteen and when it finished it was minus twenty. Even the Russians were shivering. My tape recorder seized up; John Muldoon’s beard froze; AJ McGinty put some gel in his hair and it set like concrete. There’s a picture of the guys on the bench wrapped up in survival blankets. They look like a row of toddlers in pushchairs.’

Even so a bonus point 31-14 win, some lavish local hospitality and a bacchanalian post-match banquet revived spirits ahead of the flight home. Indeed, with the time difference, they should have been back in Shannon that very night. They finally rolled in sixty-six hours later. To summarise, the charter plane home developed a ‘technical fault’ which stranded them in Krasnoyarsk. On Sunday it became apparent that it wouldn’t be fixed until Wednesday so – after another night in another hotel in Siberia – the squad jumped on three separate flights to Moscow only to find their visas had expired and they couldn’t leave the country.

Fortunately the Irish Embassy pitched in to try to unravel several miles of the reddest of red tape while the boys settled down to another eight hours of cribbage in the Departures Hall. As John Muldoon tweeted from Sheremetyevo Airport; ‘Energy levels at an all-time low; BO levels at an all-time high’. Disloyally, Ally Muldowney added; ‘Still a happy camp but Kain Gleb is starting to lose his marbles ‪#bewareofthegleb.’ Frankly if that was all he was losing, he was doing well. Even Napoleon made it back from Russia quicker than this.

They finally staggered home via Amsterdam and London, the last flight into Shannon arriving in a storm that came within a whisker of diverting them to Liverpool by which time they’d have probably been biting the headrests clean off the seats. At one point the group had gone thirty hours with no sleep as they tried to adjust their body clocks to Irish time which meant the review of the Enisei-STM game was carried out at one in the morning on the floor of a Siberian hotel. ‘Pat Lam was brilliant,’ says John Fallon. ‘Had his head gone down then the whole thing could’ve become a demoralizing, three-day whinge but he treated it like an adventure and was buzzing. He set the tone.’

Indeed to turn up last Saturday and beat Brive 21-17 on the back of a three-day crawl across the Steppes through seven time zones and with only one hit out to shake the sloth from the system was arguably – apologies to Wasps and Saracens – one of the stand-out performances of Europe Round Two. ‘It’s a reflection of where this team is at,’ says Pat Lam. ‘We’re in the habit of winning by working hard.’

Indeed now he’s thawed out, caught up on his sleep and taken a shower, Lam can look back on the trip to Siberia with rather more than a wry smile. You can fork out thousands for these team-building weekends in mock Georgian hotels where you’re invited to imagine a river full of alligators and then fashion a bridge across it using nothing more than three beer crates and a packet of paper clips, or you can play Enisei-STM away in the Challenge Cup in mid-November.

‘D’you know what, I couldn’t have planned it any better,’ he says. ‘We spoke before we went about what a chance this was to build some mental toughness but watching how the boys reacted to everything was really pleasing; pushing themselves, boosting other guys, just unbelievable.’

All of which now leaves Connacht top of not one but two logs, Pool One in the Challenge Cup and, of course, the Guinness Pro12; jet lag one week, nose bleeds the next. In fact they’ve now won a magnificent seven on the reel – eight from nine on the season – and despite a sudden rash of nasty injuries, they’re bouncing.

Mind you they’ll need to be looking jaunty heading into Limerick this weekend where they’ve not won in nigh on thirty years – 43 games and counting – and where top of the table plays second. But what price an away win, not just in the context of this season but in the context of a few more to come? Could the IRFU continue to treat Connacht as a feeder club for the big two if they’re top of the Pro12 and beating the big two regularly, something which, in itself, would speak volumes about how far they’ve come and how much further they can still go? Mind you, there are a few in Connacht who’d probably feel that in the past fortnight, they’ve gone quite far enough already.

24 NOVEMBER 2015

PS Connacht did indeed beat Munster and, as every schoolboy now knows, went on to claim a momentous Pro12 title.

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