By Gavin Melluish (Vice-President)
1997! Now that was a vintage year for rugby union. A thrilling Five Nations Championship saw France land their first Grand Slam in a decade, memorably overturning a 14 point deficit after an hour to win at Twickenham. The Lions beat South African 2-1 in a sometimes dour but always gripping Test series. Referees relished their first chance to banish offenders to the ‘sin bin’ – a just retribution for a ‘penalty+’ infringement, a fascinating tilter of the balance in a tight contest, or a haven of repose for a tiring front row forward, depending on your point of view.
Yet all of those unforgettable rugby milestones pale into insignificance next to this one: the foundation in 1997 of Moscow Dragons RFC! An intrepid bunch of expat rugby enthusiasts met in a bar (where else?) and announced the creation of an amateur club to play against local teams and go touring in Russia and beyond. It was made clear by our founders that the Dragons were to be, first and foremost, a social rugby club. We should train hard, we must play even harder, but winning was not to be the sole objective. More important was for players and social members to enjoy themselves on and off the pitch, to respect the three F’s of rugby – Fun, Friendship, Fraternity, and – as explicitly prescribed in the club’s Constitution – to promote the development of the ‘sport they play in Heaven’ in Russia. Given this, our forerunners would have been amazed if they could have gazed into a crystal ball and seen how successful, in terms of results, this band of men for whom results aren’t everything were to become.
In the early days there were few other amateur teams in Moscow for the Dragons to play against, but the zealous preaching of the rugby gospel in these parts soon led to the formation of a Moscow Championship, in which our club has competed since 2000 – in recent years, with increasing success. Third in 2013! Runners-up the year after! And finally, for the first time, Moscow Champions in 2015! To put the icing on our cake, Russo-Canadian centre and skipper Andrei Proshin was named Player of the Year by the Moscow Federation (though that wasn’t enough for him to be Dragon of the Year; that honour went to Cornish fullback Pete Carr). Last year we narrowly failed to repeat the feat, going down 15-19 in the final to an excellent Zelenograd side – though it could have gone either way in a scoreless and, for those of us in the stands, nail-biting last quarter. But that defeat has made us more determined than ever to be the best amateur team in Moscow, as proved by record attendances at winter training this close season – even when that means CrossFit sessions at 9am on a Saturday.
Close season? What am I talking about? There’s no close season for the Dragons. Apart from a rest period of maybe a month after the Championship ends in October we train and, weather permitting, play all year round. The Moscow Championship is played from May through to October, with a break in July and August. But there’s also the Moscow Cup, which is played on snow. At the time of writing the Dragons have played (and won) one Cup game and are looking forward to the next fixture. And we eagerly seize opportunities to play outside the two main competitions, be they the weekend-long ‘Federal League’ (best placing so far: 3rd in 2014), invitation events (in which we’ve often shone – winning, for instance, the ‘Forum Cup’ in 2008 and the Tver tournament in 2014), friendlies or, needless to say, tours.
Tours! Now thereby hangs a tale. Or should I say countless tales… All of which must remain untold here, for axiomatic reasons known to all rugby tourists. Let’s just say that those traditions of touring that have been cherished by generations of rugby men and women worldwide are faithfully kept alive by Moscow Dragons RFC. Certain cognoscenti have even been heard opining that rugby touring has reached its apotheosis at this club. The only way for the reader to form a judgment is to come touring with us!
Who are our players? Well, rugby has often been described as a game for all shapes and sizes. I could not possibly pass comment on this with regard to our thriving ladies’ section (from whom we expect great achievements this year following the influx of a keen and talented bunch of girls from the former Panthers club), but a quick glance around the men attending a typical Dragons training session would corroborate the theory. A striking range of ages and fitness levels is usually on display, too. As for nationalities, Russians are in the majority these days but the club’s expatriate origins are still reflected in the presence of players and social members from many other countries including not only those you would expect (the Six Nations, Georgia, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Argentina…) but also some that might surprise you more (Spain, Singapore, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Brazil…). Our Club is a great forum in which not only to meet other expatriates, but also to get to know more Russians, and more about Russian culture (especially the stuff you won’t learn from any textbook), than your average expat manages in his time here.
Our Committee? It’s multinational, just like the club. I don’t have space enough to mention every member, as I’d like, but let’s just say that the club simply could not survive without the tireless work of stalwarts like President Piotr Khutiev, Treasurer Mitsuo Maeda, Coach Denis Zhlutkov, Merchandise Manager Denis Moskalenko, Fixtures Secretary Kostya Nikiforov and Social Secretary Simon Cottrell.
The older players I’ve alluded to get our chance to shine at various veterans’ competitions (such as the wonderful Dubai 10’s that we returned to in December) – and this year, for the first time, we’ll be fielding a Second XV in the third division of the Championship. At all levels of amateur rugby in Russia, rolling substitutions are allowed. So there’s an opportunity for everyone to get some game time!
Whilst every match day is party time for the Dragons, there are two annual social events that have become synonymous with the club: the St. Valentine’s Day Charity Ball and the Reds v Blues fixture in late August. I’m not going to write about the 2017 Ball as John Harrison has penned a separate report on it for this edition; but I urge readers to attend the Reds-Blues (Captain’s XV v President’s XV) match, whether as players, officials, thirsty supporters or, better still, sponsors!
Looking forward to hearing from you!