From Russia to Hull... via Dubai

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The Independent Online

The Russians are coming – not so much with snow on their boots as with sand between their toes. It is just one surprising aspect of Strella Kazan's entry into the Challenge Cup in Hull this weekend that they are preparing for it in the sunny climes of Dubai.

"They must have heard about the warm breeze that swirls up the Humber this time of year," says Steve Wilson, the secretary of Embassy, their opponents in Sunday's second-round tie.

The explanation is simpler. "It is very cold in Russia now. Too cold to train," said the Strella full-back, Oleg Sokolov. "So the Ministry of Sport has paid for us to come to Dubai."

That is a sign of how seriously the venture is being taken in the Republic of Tatarstan. "Every day, rugby is becoming more important," says Sokolov – and in Kazan, and whole swathes of Russia, rugby means rugby league.

Niel Wood, the Rugby League's national development manager, saw for himself the firm, if unlikely, foothold the code has gained in Tatarstan. Last year's Student Europa Cup in Kazan attracted crowds of 20,000. "The people in the crowd were knowledgeable. They were getting excited in the right places," said Wood.

"It wasn't just the level of support. It was when I saw the amount of junior development that was going on that I knew something was really happening there. It wasn't money they needed – it was to be involved in things."

Hence the short tour to England that Strella and Lokomotiv Moscow – who enter the Cup in the next round – undertook in April, playing four Northern Ford Premiership clubs. "It was to gauge their level and assess the logistics. They are equivalent to teams at the bottom end of last season's NFP or the top of the National Conference," says Wood.

"The danger now is that they could win and have to come back in January."

Sokolov says he and his team-mates are confident of doing just that. They are no novices; he is fairly typical in playing league for the last eight years and being on his fourth trip to Britain – all on rugby league business.

Strella have even played at Craven Park, the ground to which Embassy have switched the game, when they met Hull KR on their last trip. It is not quite the journey into the unknown that it might appear.

"We've even managed to get hold of videos of their two games over here last time," says Taylor. "We're expecting a very physical game. They're a big set of lads, but they've got the skills as well."

Embassy – named after the pub that was once their base – are expecting 3,000 for the visit of their exotic opponents, as opposed to the couple of hundred who normally cluster around their park pitch.

That crowd could well be bolstered by some away support, because two Russian ships docking in Hull this weekend are to be met with the improbable news that their fellow-countrymen are playing rugby league down the road.

Taylor says it is a huge game for the locals as well as for the visitors. "For a team from the Hull and District League, this is our final as well. This game has raised the club's profile."

The club has a bit of Cup history itself. As Beecroft and Wightman, they met professional opposition in Swinton in the 1981 competition and their recent history, at a less elevated level, is also impressive. As local Cup-holders and unbeaten league-leaders, it is May since they lost a match.

That is unlikely to mean much to the globetrotting players of Kazan, as they escape Russian temperatures of minus 25 in the Persian Gulf. "We will try to play well," said Sokolov, the best English-speaker among them, and Wood believes the reaction to a win back home would take the game to a new level there.

"If Kazan was in Britain, it would be our second biggest city, but no one knows where it is," he said. "So anything that puts them in the international spotlight is great for them."