Byrnes Fits Bill as Russian Rebel


A year ago Adam Byrnes was just like any other professional rugby player in Australia enjoying the sunny lifestyle of his home country, training hard and looking forward to his first Super Rugby season with the newly-formed Melbourne Rebels.

Now, however, he finds himself as an integral part of the Russian national team and will line up against Australia when the two sides clash in the final group game of Pool C in a month's time.

To the outsider this may seem a confusing and complex scenario, but to Byrnes it is the source of great pride “ being able to represent much-loved relatives and ancestors as well as making the most of an opportunity to realise a life-long ambition of playing on rugby's grandest stage.

An abrasive, no-nonsense player, Byrnes' style and rugby philosophy will be one that will definitely suit his adopted countrymen, and with a head that might have been carved out of granite and some sensational facial hair that wouldn't look out of place on Leo Tolstoy, the Sydney-born lock should have no problem fitting in with his new team-mates.

Born and raised in New South Wales, Byrnes first came to prominence with a short stint in Europe for Leinster during the 2005/06 season. The 6ft 7 second row acquitted himself well during his sole term in the Northern Hemisphere, making 18 appearances and helping the Irish province reach the Heineken cup semi-final.

Upon his return Down Under the 30-year-old played for Sydney Fleet and Eastern Suburbs before joining the Waratahs Academy in 2008. He made the switch to arch-rivals the Reds a year later, making his debut against the Bulls in Pretoria and appearing a further 20 times before moving on again to the Rebels prior to the 2011 season.

He represented the new Melbourne franchise 9 times in their debut campaign in Super Rugby before being called in to Russia's preliminary World Cup squad of 50 in June.

Byrnes availability for Russia makes for an interesting story, and one that he may be regailing anyone who will listen with long after his playing rugby have been hung up.

The second row's maternal grandparents were both citizens of the Soviet Union who had survived the Second World War and subsequently fled to the other side of the world to escape the violence and atrocities that were continuing to beset their country. Settling down, they established a new life in Australia whilst maintaining the cultural links and traditions of Russia within their own family. As a result, Byrnes was christened Russian Orthodox and freely admits that he spoke Russian before English as a child. His mother and brother still uphold the language in the household and regularly converse with family back in Eurasia; so it will be an incredibly proud and memorable moment for many of Byrnes' family when he runs out for the Bears for the first time next week.

As you might imagine, getting to this stage has not been a walk in the park for Byrnes who explains how the whole process came about;

"I was reading a rugby magazine at the beginning of the year and it mentioned that Russia had made its first ever World Cup and that they were looking for players who had parents or grandparents that had left the Soviet Union “ which included me.

"I had to first make contact with the coaches and negotiate when I'd be available so as not to disrupt my contract with the Rebels. Then I had to be registered as an overseas player here and make sure I fit within the overseas player cap. I have to give great thanks to... the whole of the club for their help and enthusiasm in all of this for getting the relevant clearance to be able to play in the World Cup; they've made it very easy for me when they didn't have to.

"In terms of my Australian citizenship it makes no difference, but I am now a registered Russian international and technically a foreigner when it comes to Super Rugby. The first Russian to play Super Rugby! 

Being the only one of the squad with this level of experience brings greater expectations upon a player and Byrnes will be in the wholly new position of being the go-to man for a team currently placed 19th in the IRB world rankings. His knowledge of top level competition may prove invaluable to other members of the team who may never reach those heights within their own club careers; and so Byrnes has the responsibility of harnessing his time in Super Rugby and the Magners League to provide the inspiration needed for the Russian side who face four extremely tough group games in New Zealand.

He should have no problem in gearing his team-mates up for the opening encounter with the USA on September 15, considering the long and fraught sporting and political history between the two sides.

Matches against Ireland and Italy demonstrate major obstacles for the Bears to attempt to overcome, but it is the date with Australia on October 1 that Byrnes is understandably looking forward to most.

Despite representing Russia and being immensely proud to do so, to compete against your own countrymen, friends and “ in the case of Nick Phipps and Mark Gerrard “ club team-mates must be an exceptionally odd thing to comprehend and come to terms with. To be pitted against your home country on the rugby pitch is obviously a strange ordeal, but something that is happening with increasing frequency in modern International rugby, and Byrnes is relishing the prospect greatly - "if I could go out there to face them it would be fantastic... wouldn't that be good? 

The Rugby World Cup for Byrnes is the culmination of a lot of hard work put in for a lot of teams across the globe. It is also the realisation that he has made it to the premier competition in rugby, showcased to millions worldwide. This is a wonderful opportunity for Byrnes. To perform as best he can for his adopted nation and, who knows, maybe even pick up a group game victory for the imposing forward to take back with pride to Melbourne “ now wouldn't that be good?