Proud Aussies on the Russian front

Fledgling band of ex-pats and rookies are swept along on a crest of patriotic feeling
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Rob Campbell only discovered the truth about his ancestry six months ago. He always thought his grandparents were Polish. His grandmother's maiden name, after all, was Kaminsky and he had seen the grainy photos of her life before the war, the war she never talked about.

Rob Campbell only discovered the truth about his ancestry six months ago. He always thought his grandparents were Polish. His grandmother's maiden name, after all, was Kaminsky and he had seen the grainy photos of her life before the war, the war she never talked about.

But he was curious enough to persuade his mother to consult her birth certificate and then an uncle, who worked at the university, confirmed from the maps of the time that the little border village of Brest had belonged to Byelorussia not Poland before the Second World War, a happy accident of conquest which, 60 years on, has allowed Mrs Campbell's Australian-born son to make his debut for Russia today in the rugby league World Cup.

Sitting in an undersized chair in the annexe of Morecambe and Lancaster College last week, his right calf resting on a bag of ice, Campbell still seemed mildly bemused by the prospect of representing the land of his grandparents. He was quietly hoping that when Russia played Australia, he did not inadvertently sing "Advance Australia Fair" instead of his own anthem. The music in the coach on the way from the airport, Russia's answer to Julio Iglesias, had been a suitable reminder that the only language he had to aid his entry into a new and perplexing culture was the language of rugby league.

"It didn't hit me that I was going to play for Russia until I met the guys when they came over for a training camp in Sydney," Campbell says. "I began to get into it and to start feeling really patriotic. This experience will stay with me for life, so I had no hesitation in playing for Russia. It's a fantastic opportunity for me to play in a World Cup."

Drawn in a group with Australia, England and Fiji, Russia's fledgling band of expat Australians, French-based Moldovans, Muscovites and Kazannites will need to find some common ground before they face Fiji in Barrow this afternoon in the one group game they can realistically win. "Our Waterloo," Campbell terms it.

The other two games promise to make David's tilt at Goliath an even-money bet. Australia are, by repute, the strongest side ever to visit these shores; Russia have just half a dozen clubs, mostly based in Moscow, but one, the Kazann Arrows, is a 15-hour train ride to the south, and the country has a patchy history of rugby league dating back a mere decade.

"You know," says Peter Sokolow, once Moscow's Under-10 judo champion and one of the stalwarts of league in Russia, "when Stalin was in power and prisoners were in jail, they didn't dream of freedom, they dreamt of dying gallantly. Against Australia and England, we dream the same." And he thrusts forward his chest and juts out his chin in a pose of mock gallantry.

Like most of the original founders of the game, Sokolow began his rugby playing union before converting to league. He is a second-hand car salesman in Moscow, but as soon as the chance of playing in a World Cup came along he dropped his work and concentrated on gaining selection for the Russian team.

"I never thought I could play in a World Cup," he says, shaking his head. "When we started playing back in 1990, the thought of playing against Australia and England, it's impossible. We're just amateurs and 10 years ago we only had one team in the whole of the country."

As he jogged through a gentle work-out last Thursday afternoon on the fields of the community college, Ian Rubin must have contemplated the wonder of his journey to the head of this disparate squad. Had Australia not been so strong, Rubin, who was born in Odessa on the Black Sea 27 years ago, would have been donning the green and gold jersey of his adopted home, not the red shirt of the land of his birth.

His parents emigrated when he was four, first to Italy, then to Australia, and somewhere along the line his real first name, Igor, was translated into Ian and tennis, his initial sporting passion, was replaced by rugby league.

Rubin speaks fluent Russian, and when Australia decided they did not require his considerable services he was the obvious choice to captain Russia. "I've been brought up in Australia and most of my family are living in Sydney now, but on Sunday I'm Russian," he says.

That Russia - and the other lesser teams in the Lincoln Rugby League World Cup - perform above themselves, learn and absorb the lessons they will undoubtedly be taught, is as significant to the success of the tournament and to the future development of the game worldwide as the competitiveness of the more established nations.

"Kick it downfield and tackle," will be the gist of Rubin's tactical team talk before the matches against England and Australia. "If you give them the ball, they'll score six points every time."

The learning curve for the Russians will be so steep they will need crampons. The danger for the credibility of the tournament is that too many of the matches will be one-sided. "That's what the World Cup is all about," Rubin says. "It's about developing the game in countries like Russia. Four years ago Russia were an emerging nation; now they're here. It'll be hard for them, but they're getting better and adapting and the more Australians come over to show off their training methods, the quicker they'll progress."

At a touching little cere-mony in front of the roaring open fire at the Kirkby Lonsdale Rugby Union Club last Thursday night, the Russian squad were formally welcomed into the heart of British rugby with a presentation, a shake of the hands and a nourishing bowl of Lancashire hotpot. Outside the first XV trained for their weekend fixture in the North Lancs and Cumbrian League, while the visitors stared at the proud history of the club chronicled on the walls. The team could not have wished for a cosier base for their adventure.

"This will be an experience which will stay with me for the rest of my life," says Campbell. "I never met my grandfather, but I've heard about him and my middle name is Josef, which was his name. The more it's sunk in what I'm doing the more of an honour it is to represent his country. They're a proud nation, Russia."

Rubin too has personal reasons to wear the Russian colours. His parents, as ever, will be there to watch him play. "They came over to Australia without a dollar in their pocket, neither spoke any English and it must have been very hard for them. They wanted the best for their kids and I want to thank them for their sacrifice." Victory over Fiji this afternoon at Barrow would be ample reward.