From Russia to Hull... via Dubai

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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?