At the age of 29 Nick McLennan is a valued member of the Scotland sevens team thanks to Scottish grandparents who qualify the Kiwi for his adopted country. But back in 2010 he was a 22-year-old on the edge of the Canterbury squad who didn’t so much need an excuse to accept a challenge, he needed an excuse not to.
McLennan was sent to Siberia, he actually put his hand up, where he played a season with Krasny Yar, the Siberian side that Edinburgh face next weekend in Moscow rather than in their home city of Krasnoyarsk, to everyone’s relief.
“I was in the fringes of playing for Canterbury and they had an agreement with this Russian team,” explains McLennan. “It was to facilitate training, advise on what makes Canterbury so good, what makes them tick, and the agreement included the transfer of several players. I just happened to be there at the time. The opportunity came up and I was like ‘yeah, why not?’
“It was…interesting,” he says of the city itself. “I spent a little time in Moscow and it was quite Westernised. Where we were in Siberia was very, very Russian…if you know what I mean? No one spoke any English. We had to use the translator the whole time. It was cold to begin with and then it became roasting hot.
“It was cold, really cold. Into the minuses,” McLennan says when he arrived in April. “It was all frozen and barren and grey and gloomy. It came right though. The town sits on the Enisei River, one side is Krasny and the other side lies Enisei. There were pop-up restaurants and bars by the river. It was light (in the summer months) for pretty much 22 hours of the day.”
McLennan spent seven months playing for the Russian club along with three Kiwi mates, flying to Moscow every other weekend, and offering advice even if it occasionally fell on deaf ears. The Kiwis were accompanied by a coach but he was largely ignored because, the midfielder reports, Russian rugby is stuck fast in an earlier era although that may not entirely be a bad thing.
“Trying to play like the Crusaders when you don’t have Crusader players is not a recipe for success,” McLennan sagely suggests.
“They are big physical guys but not as skilled (as New Zealanders). They were taught the game rather than growing up with it like you do in New Zealand but definitely physical, physical specimens and they loved contact.”
So far no one at Edinburgh rugby has picked his brains and it may be that Richard Cockerill isn’t even aware of the link… why should he be? McLennan says he has little to do with the capital club he initially signed for back in 2014 and he missed the majority of the last sevens’ season with an injured shin, which required five operations after it became infected.
He should be back in time for the first of the IRB series that takes place in Dubai come the beginning of December; Scotland pooled with England, Spain and France who are now coached by Englishman Ben Ryan.
Despite the seven-year gap there are still a couple of familiar faces in the Krasny Yar line-up including one Russian sevens star, Igor Golosnitsky who McLennan bumped into on the circuit a couple of years back.
Like McLennan himself, the Russian is a decent midfielder with good feet, while another pal is the Krazny nine Rushan Yagudin, whose smattering of English set him apart from the vast majority of Siberians.
You may already have guessed as much but Russians play summer rugby and their domestic season ended a month or so back.
They will be no pushover. Their 34-29 home win over Stade Francais in the Pool 4 opener yesterday proved that. Their local rivals Enisey STM beat Worcester Warriors 19-12 one year ago and the players at both clubs are full time professionals earning, as McLennan recalls, a decent salary in Russian, if not in Top 14 terms.
So just how odd is Russian rugby…vodka at half time instead of Gatoraid?
“They don’t drink vodka at half time,” McLennan corrects me, “but just the amount of it they drank! If you go for a meal and you want to do a ‘cheers’ you have to drink a shot. Sometimes you’d have five or six shots of vodka before dinner and you could hardly see the plate.”
Perhaps Edinburgh will forego the traditional post-match dinner and settle for a sandwich at the airport.