WHILE the majority of Australians have been stuck at home due to COVID-19, NSW South Coaster Tom Connor has been testing himself in the Russian rugby sevens championships.
Playing for Zastava the past six months, Connor, from Berry, has been trying to help his side win their maiden Russian title - which was on track after the club was sitting on top of the 13-team leaderboard after four rounds, thanks to them defeating Locomotive Moscow 24-7 in the fourth round grand final.
"The highlight of the trip would have to be winning our first tournament and then backing it up with another," Connor said.
"Prior to this season, the team had never even made a final - so to be able to do that and win it on the first attempt, and to see how much it meant to the Russian boys, was just awesome."
Unfortunately, the former Australian sevens player's outfit faded in the final round, to finish the season in third overall.
After claiming two firsts and two thirds through the opening four tournaments, Zastava finished fourth during the final leg - after losing to eventual winners VVA Moscow 12-7 in the semi-final.
"The table was so tight at the end and we had an opportunity to take out the competition in the semi-final of the final tournament but unfortunately lost," the Shoalhaven Rugby Club product said.
"We were obviously disappointed to get so close and fall at the final hurdle.
"Ultimately a slow start to the competition cost us and we were chasing points at the back end of the tournament.
"To be able to win back-to-back tournaments in any sevens series is a huge achievement but and to see how the Russian boys had developed and grown was also very rewarding."
While the team took a lot away from the series, so did Connor.
"From a personal perspective, I felt my form was a bit patchy and overall inconsistent," he said.
"I was frustrated by niggling injuries that would always seem to come at the wrong time, and while they weren't major injuries that kept me out of playing, they were enough to hamper my performances.
"Having said that though there were periods where I was happy with my form and back to something close to my best."
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On top of juggling playing and leading from the front for his team, the former Warringah Rat had to adjust to deal with living in another country, where English wasn't the first language.
"Acclimatising to the Russian lifestyle was certainly a challenge," he said.
"I was lucky enough to have two Australian boys in the team (Sam Myers and Josh Walker) who had been living over there for six months already, so they helped me settle in and get adjusted to day to day life.
"The cultural shock was massive though.
"There were big things like the language barrier, where English was basically non-existent and we were constantly using our phones to write and translate what we were trying to say.
"And then there were small things, like grocery shopping trying to decipher whether you were buying milk or kefir (a traditional Russian drink which is basically fermented milk) - two products that looked almost identical, but were worlds apart in taste and texture.
"On top of that, the weather was a massive shock to the system for me, as, during the middle of winter, the temperature got down to minus 25 at times.
"Our training facilities were all indoors but being that cold it meant if we weren't training, then we would seldom leave our apartments.
"Add to this there was a total of 14 hours sunlight for the whole of December and it made for a pretty grim few months."
Surprisingly though, Connor and his team didn't have to deal with as many COVID-19 protocols as sports teams do in Australia.
"To be completely honest, there were little to no COVID-19 restrictions over there," he said.
"We were tested regularly for the disease and were required to wear masks while shopping in supermarkets, but outside of that, you wouldn't know there was a global pandemic going on.
"Unsurprisingly the whole team ended up getting COVID-19 back in October, which ended up being a blessing as it was in between competitions and meant we didn't have to worry contracting it again and potentially missing games later in the season.
"When I had the disease, I honestly felt fine but lost my sense of taste and smell, which eventually came back.
"That was the most challenging part mentally more than anything - I didn't realise how much enjoyment food gives you until you can't taste it, so we were just eating food for fuel really."
As well as playing rugby internationally, the once in a lifetime trip gave the former Nowra Anglican College student a chance to travel the Russian countryside.
"It was certainly a unique life experience and I'm very grateful for the opportunity," he said.
"To be able to do it with two of my close mates made it all the more memorable.
"I didn't really know what to expect coming into it, but my perception of Russia and its people has certainly changed having spent some time there.
"The Russian people are some of the most genuine and accommodating people I've met, going out of their way to ask questions about the western world and trying to communicate with us.
"During my time there, we were lucky enough to travel all over Russia playing tournaments.
"Yalta, in particular, was very picturesque, being based on the shores of the Black Sea.
"On the flip side, there were more traditional cities like Ufa and Krasnodar, which were littered with some of the most amazing churches I've ever seen, in a landscape that looked like something out of a WWII movie.
"We also travelled to Cape Town in South Africa for a month-long camp to play against their national squad, which was a real test for the team and a much-needed return to some hot weather and normality for the Aussie boys."
Upon reflecting on his time abroad, Connor has taken plenty of positives.
"In terms of my development as a rugby player, I think playing in a non-English speaking country has highlighted just how important communication is," he said.
"Being able to speak the same language as my teammates is something I certainly took for granted.
"The way I communicate and being able to simplify messages and strategies have significantly improved as a result.
"I knew if I didn't take the opportunity during my career to play overseas and experience a different culture, I would've regretted it later in life after I retired.
"It was a surreal experience and I'll be forever grateful for the memories and people I met over there.
"Ultimately though, there is no place like home, and it's not an overstatement to say that Russia is a different world completely, so following the end of the season I always had it in my mind that I would return back to Australia."
Connor, who touched down in Australia last week, is currently doing two weeks of hotel quarantine.
"Quarantine has consisted of a lot of Netflix and daily home workout thus far, using bands, a skipping rope and just about every bodyweight exercise you can think of," he said.
"We get three meals a day which is delivered to our door, and up to one care package a day which can be dropped off by family or friends.
"The greatest challenge is not having access to fresh air or a balcony, and the mental battle of knowing you're going to be stuck here for two weeks."
Following his exit next Wednesday, Connor has got a number of options for what lies next on the rugby union field.
"In terms of footy for this year, I'll take a few weeks off once I get out of quarantine and enjoy just being at home before I commit to anything," he said.
"I've got the opportunity to play in the Shute Shield again in Sydney, and then I've also got my old man [Paul Connor] in my ear, who coaches Shoalies, about returning home to Berry and playing for them in the Illawarra competition."