Russian heritage draws Aussie lock
Australian Adam Byrnes has pulled on a few different rugby jerseys over the years, but a red Russian one has the most significance.
The 30-year-old lock made his Russian debut in their final Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Gloucester two weeks ago.
Byrnes qualifies for Russia on his mother's side, with his grandparents moving from the Soviet Union to Australia soon after World War II.
Byrnes arrives in New Plymouth today with the Russian team ahead of their first game in the tournament – against the United States at Stadium Taranaki on Thursday night.
"I'm very proud to represent Russia in the Rugby World Cup," he said.
"My passion has been rugby since I was a young boy ... I was never small. I played high school basketball and represented my state, but turned down a basketball scholarship to college in the States to concentrate on rugby."
Byrnes was captain of both the senior basketball and rugby teams at his high school – Newington College – in Sydney.
Former Wallabies captains Nick Farr-Jones and Phil Kearns attended Newington College.
On leaving school, Byrnes enrolled to study law.
"In my first year with the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Union Club, I won the best colt player award. I then went straight into first grade and we won the Sydney Premiership that year."
What followed was an offer to play for Narbonne in France.
"I was about to sign that contract when I received the offer from Leinster in Ireland. I ended up signing with them and had two wonderful years in Ireland playing in both the Magners League and Heineken Cup competitions."
Byrnes said he completed one further law exam in Dublin, but then decided law was not his future – unlike his father and brother – finishing his studies with a business management diploma and a mastery of business.
Turning down a contract with English club Bath, Byrnes returned to Australia to link up with the Reds. He had two years with Queensland and played for the Melbourne Rebels this year.
Byrnes said his mother came to Australia in 1949 with her parents, grandmother and two sisters.
"They are all Russian Orthodox and their first language was Russian. Her grandmother only spoke Russian and no other language," he said. "My father is a sixth generation Australian, with most of his family having come from Ireland."
Byrnes said his mother and her sister only spoke Russian to him and his brother Matthew.
So how's his Russian now?
"Up until I started school, I spoke only Russian but I have lost most of it in the last 25 years. My brother has retained more of it than me, in fact he enrolled in a university course last year to study Russian," he said.
"Our father encouraged us to speak Russian and he also learned Russian and participated as best he could but he never really mastered it."
Byrnes said he regretted dropping the language.
"I intend to learn it again. I'm proud of my Russian heritage and I never dreamed an opportunity like this would arise. My family will attend every game... it's a fairytale come true."
Playing for: Russia
Super Rugby career: Two years with Queensland Reds (2009, 2010), one year with Melbourne Rebels (2011).
Taranaki Daily News