When four teams of British students set off earlier this month for a rugby league tournament in the unlikely setting of the Russian republic of Tartarstan, they expected to take part in an obscure, low-key event.
But, when they walked out into the stadium in the capital Kazan for the opening ceremony and the first game of the Europa Cup, they were greeted by a crowd of 16,500 – a figure beyond the scope of all but a handful of Super League games back home.
"We could not believe the reception when we walked out," said the Welsh player-coach, Stuart Singleton. "It was a bit of a shock to the system and we hardly saw any of that first game between Tartarstan and Ireland because of people wanting autographs and photos."
Better still, this was not just an a typical attack of national pride. "Nobody over there was surprised by that crowd," said the director of the Student Rugby League, Niel Wood. "The local club side, the Kazan Arrows, regularly get crowds of between 3,000 and 5,000."
When their players went out to local schools for coaching sessions, they also found that the roots of the the game go deeper on the banks of the Volga than anyone had imagined. "We started off just doing basic stuff with them," Singleton said. "But it soon became obvious that they were a lot more advanced than that."
The irony was obvious, too. At a time when the game in its birthplace was agonising over whether it could sustain a presence in London, it appeared to be thriving 500 miles east of Moscow.
"They must be playing to a decent standard," Wood said. "You don't get to the level they have reached without regular competition and there is what I would call a frail but sturdy infrastructure."
There is no rugby union in Tartarstan, the players and administrators having switched to league en-bloc in the 1990s, and that gives league a clear run at those who might be interested in giving rugby a try.
The result is a more than useful side, who beat both Ireland and Wales on their way to defeat by England in a final watched by a crowd estimated at 8,000.
"We were treated like celebrities wherever we went," Singleton said. "Although it is a very poor country, they looked after us really well. Some of the lads are talking about going back next year, to do some coaching and just try to repay the favour."
While that will be a worthwhile gesture, the broader question is what the game as a whole will do to encourage the Tartars.
Wood has made his suggestions to all the interested parties in this country and hopes that one initiative will be to invite sides from Russia and Tartarstan to play in the Challenge Cup – as part of short tours to this country – in 2003.
Between now and then, though, they will need practical help. "I don't believe a blank cheque is what these people need," Wood said. "But we need to send teams and coaches to teach their coaches. There is a lot that we can do that doesn't cost very much. For $60 [£40] a month you could finance a development officer and make him better paid than a teacher."
Most of all, the Tartars – and anyone else with an enthusiasm for the game – needs regular international competition of the sort they have tasted with such relish this month.
Wood hopes that the success of the competition will concentrate minds. "Unless we get some coherent international structure in place, we are wasting our time – and wasting theirs," he said.Reuse content