Back in 2007 a 23 year old Russian utility forward Roman Ovchinnikov from Moscow found himself in Sydney trialling with NRL club the Wests Tigers.
The unlikely event came about after Ovchinnikov was spotted by 2005 grand final winning coach Tim Sheens who at the time was involved with assisting the Russian team with their World Cup aspirations.
Sheens told a curious Australian media what it was he saw in the nuggety Russian hooker/forward to bring him to the strongest rugby league competition in the world.
“I saw some talent … he’s versatile, his attitude was great and I saw a great opportunity to take him and give him an opportunity out here in the big time just for that experience,” Sheens said.
For Ovchinnikov it was a rugby league dream come true to be training alongside genuine stars, some of whom had won an NRL premiership a couple of years earlier.
“It was the best experience in rugby league in my life,” Ovchinnikov told Everything Rugby League
“I learned so much being around the management and players. Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah – it was an amazing environment to be involved with. The NRL is the pinnacle in rugby league and to spend time at a club like West Tigers is an unforgettable experience.
“Being around this man, (Tim Sheens), he gives you confidence, he gives you the belief that you can achieve your maximum, not just that you can win a grand final but that you will.
“Rugby league in Australia and in Sydney is more than just a sport, it is philosophy, culture, lifestyle – a way of life.”
While the Russian forward had to return home after three months when his visa expired, he managed to play for both of the club’s two ‘Premier League’ outfits – Balmain Ryde Eastwood Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies – during his short stint with the club.
Balmain Ryde Eastwood Tigers Head Coach in 2007 Arthur Kitinas has good memories of the player from Russia.
“He was a bit of a novelty at first but as soon as we did some defensive work he raised some eyebrows. He hit like a sledgehammer. Very quiet, language was a bit of a barrier, but the boys really took to him,“ Kitinas told Everything Rugby League.
Ovchinnikov is now a veteran of the sport he took up as a six year old when his father created a team for the neighbourhood boys holding training in the backyard of the family home. At 38 he is still running around, recently picking up a hamstring injury while training for his Locomotive Moscow club.
For the first time since 2018, when they defeated Serbia in Moscow, the Russian side will return to the international stage when they take on Serbia and Ukraine for the European B Championships in Belgrade in early October.
As Russian National Coach Ovchinnikov would not be drawn into making any bold predictions about his team’s likely success given the stop/start history of rugby league in his country over the years.
“It’s a very good question. I will answer as soon as we play. Our national team hasn’t had any matches for quite a long time. Our comeback is already a victory considering the current conditions.”
Russian Rugby League Board Director Jon Christie who arrived in Russia from Bradford via Beijing and Myanmar in 2017, considers Ovchinnikov a good friend and said he is a pleasure to play with at the Locomotive Moscow club.
“He has a great football brain and players of all ages learn from him. He inspires those around him and leads by example. Roman is an extremely passionate man whose love for rugby league and knowledge of the game will be vital in how the game develops in Russia moving forward.
“As a player Roman is the best rugby league player I have played with and I have been lucky enough to play with some great players at Nottingham Outlaws and over in Hong Kong.
“Age is only a number for Roman and he continues to go from strength to strength, and I hope he makes it onto the field in Serbia…he’s our Cameron Smith! As a person, Roman has a big heart and always greets you with a huge smile. He is a great family man and a pleasure to be around.”
Christie concedes winning the upcoming international competition will be a tough ask for Russia who are regaining their feet again after the glory days which saw over 25,000 Russian fans watch the national team take on the USA in 2002, but is not discounting an upset.
“It will be tough, Serbia are such a success story in European rugby league and continue to grow and develop their game in the correct manner. I think they will be regular qualifiers for the World Cup over the next few decades. Ukraine has developed a domestic competition and are doing great things themselves.
“We are certainly behind both nations in development terms and start as heavy underdogs in both games but we have a good mix of experience and youth and pride the players will feel representing Russia will inspire them. We have two grand finals to play and we would love to upset the odds and gain promotion to Group A, we will certainly give it our all”
Despite his recent hamstring injury Ovchinnikov is still hopeful of taking the field for his beloved country in Serbia. Given his reaction to mention of the word retirement it is still a long way off for the veteran who once found himself training alongside a youthful Benji Marshall.
“I’m a very young guy and I’m ready…steady… go!,” he said as we concluded our chat.
EURO B SCHEDULE
Match 1 Sunday 3 October Serbia vs Russia
Match 2 Wednesday 6 October Russia vs Ukraine
Match 3 Saturday 9 October Ukraine vs Serbia
All matches to be played in Belgrade