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Aussie-Russian to make 1st start for Bears at RWC

Updated: September 19, 2011, 03:08

NELSON, New Zealand(AP) As a kid growing up in Sydney, Adam Byrnes admits now he was somewhat "naive'' to let his Russian language slip as he became immersed in the Australian way of life.

Soon, he had the same Aussie twang as his mates in the schoolyard, and slowly the Russian he had learned as a toddler from his Soviet-born mother, Olga, eroded so much that he lost complete touch with the language.

Byrnes wishes he retained more of his mother's native tongue. It would help him communicate easier with his Russia teammates when he starts at lock on Tuesday in their Rugby World Cup match against Italy.

Nine months ago, Byrnes, who plays for the Super 15's Melbourne Rebels, said he didn't even know Russia had a rugby team.

"I read an article in January or February of this year, that Russia had qualified for their first World Cup,'' the Sydney-born Byrnes told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. "I didn't know anyone in Russia played rugby.

"It said that any player who is playing professionally and who has a parent or grandparent born in Russia, please come forward. So I definitely jumped at that prospect.''

Byrnes, who was named in the reserves for Russia's opening loss to the United States in New Zealand, emailed Russia's forwards coach, former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones, and told him he'd "be pleased to play for the Bears.''

A few weeks later, Jones and Russia indicated they were interested, and the rest is, well, a lesson into why kids shouldn't lose any language skills they develop as a child.

"Before I went to school, my mother spoke to me in Russian, so I knew the basics,'' Byrnes said. "But being a naive child, I went to school and started speaking English. I thought, 'why am I going to learn Russian in a country where everyone speaks English?'''

He rues that decision now.

"I lost a lot of that, yes, the basics, in terms of taking part in a conversation, or to fully understand what's going on,'' Byrnes said. "It's improving, but it's definitely something I need to work on.''

Byrnes was quoted by the Rugby World Cup website earlier in the tournament as saying he didn't lose his Russian heritage totally.

"There is a strong Russian community in Australia,'' Byrnes said. "The nation, which is made of immigrants, embraces various cultures. So I can't say I don't feel Russian because I was born in Australia.

"I still hear much of it when we celebrate Russian Christmas and Easter. These holidays are big events that bring all our family together twice a year.''

At 30, Byrnes thought it was beyond him to represent any country at rugby's showpiece event. He dreamed it might be the country of his birth.

"It has always been my goal to be a Wallaby, but getting a chance to represent Russia at the Rugby World Cup is a pleasant surprise I really appreciate,'' Byrnes said.

"I feel proud and I wish to help Russian rugby to become a professional organization capable of competing with international rugby giants in the future.''

But first up will be his starting appearance with 14 of his new Russian mates at Trafalgar Park on Tuesday night.

"It's something I never thought possible a few months ago,'' Byrnes said. "It will definitely be a special moment.''

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