Saffa embraces Russian rugby experience

Enisei-STM flank CAREL DU PREEZ tells about playing and living in Siberia, his South African teammates and learning some Russian.

You played for the Pumas in last year’s Currie Cup? How did you end up signing for Enisei-STM?

I was planning on staying at the Pumas, and then Covid happened. We didn’t know if we were going to be offered contracts, so when my agent contacted me about an opportunity to play in Russia, I gave it a lot of thought. In the end, I decided to take it.

When did you leave for Russia and what was it like travelling overseas during a pandemic?

I left in August. The travelling, to be honest, was a mess! There were a lot of restrictions and paperwork. And when you arrive in Russia, you have the language barrier. So it was quite tough, especially as I travelled alone. Luckily, everything worked out and I got there in one piece!

What was it like living in Russia?

The city of Krasnoyarsk is in the middle of Russia, in the middle of Siberia. I checked the Weather Channel before I left South Africa and didn’t take too many warm clothes with me. But after three weeks there, the temperature just started dropping and one morning when I woke up it was snowing. Once when I was walking to training at 9:30 in the morning, it was minus two!

Where did you stay?

I lived in a very nice apartment, we were well looked after. They organised taxis to take us to and from training, as well as meals during the day.

What were your first impressions of the club?

They were very good. The club has very nice facilities, including a gym. When you meet the people, the language barrier is an issue, but you soon realise they are just as passionate about rugby as South Africans, even though the sport isn’t that big in Russia. We all speak the language of rugby.

What is rugby’s profile like in Russia?

I don’t follow Russian sport closely but they’re obviously great Olympians and they hosted the soccer World Cup recently. The older, more traditional sports are popular in Russia, but rugby is in a growing phase. They want to host the 2027 or 2031 World Cup, which shows they are investing in rugby. They’re also opening their doors to more foreigners, which I think is a great thing.

How many games did you play for the club?

I only played two matches in the Russia Cup, which we won for the first time in four or five years. The other tournament has been postponed to next year because of the virus. The winners of that tournament qualify for the European Challenge Cup.

Which other South Africans are at the club?

I played alongside Earl Douwrie, Nicholas Oosthuizen, Friedle Olivier and PJ Jacobs, and our backline coach is Rynhardt van As. When I first arrived at the club, only Rynhardt was there and he was with the backline. So when I went to train with the forwards, they did the lineouts in Russian, which was hectic!

Were you able to pick up any Russian?

[Laughs] I got reasonably far with numbers and basics like ’thank you’. But I’ve got a lot to learn – when they start talking quickly, it’s really hard to understand them. I’ll get there, though.

What did you do in your free time?

We didn’t have much in the beginning. But we did a bit of sight-seeing, like visiting the Paraskeva Pyatnitsa Chapel [below], which is situated on the top of Karaulnaya Mountain. Hopefully, when I return next year, we will have more time for that and travelling.

When exactly will you be going back?

At the end of January. We will go to Turkey for two or three weeks for pre-season and there’s a chance we will also spend a bit of pre-season in South Africa and play against a couple of the universities. That would be really good preparation for us and good publicity for Russian rugby.