To fully appreciate why Kirill Gotovtsev is becoming a cult hero in Gloucester, you have to go back to his rural beginnings in the Russian village of Boguchany.
Life was tough. There was no running water, alcoholism was rife and jobs were scarce after the fall of the Soviet Union.
‘I lived in a village in the north, 600km [373 miles] from Krasnoyarsk,’ says the prop, occasionally checking the translation app on his phone to help find his words.
Kirill Gotovtsev has had a wild journey from his Siberian upbringing to the Gloucester team
‘It was a really wild village. Sometimes people go into the forest to collect nuts and berries and don’t come back! “Hello! Hello! I am lost!” It is a big forest. Bears, wolves, dangerous animals. The lucky ones find their way back to the village after a few days!
‘Once, when I was young, I saw a small bear while I was collecting berries with my family. A baby bear. It was maybe 100 metres away in the trees. I said, “Oh Mummy, look at this, wow, it’s a small bear!” A big bear is dangerous, but I did not know that a small bear is even more dangerous.
‘The wind was blowing towards us at the time. If the wind was blowing away from us they would smell us and its mother will kill you! 100 per cent. My mother said, “Run! Out of the forest!”
‘Collecting berries was the culture. It was our life. You grow vegetables, potatoes. If you have a car, you can go further and collect some nuts. We didn’t have a car. It was a basic life but it was not easy. Physical work every day. We had to go to collect water every day from a big tank because we didn’t have water at home. Only buckets. From 11 years old, I started to live with my father.
‘We could not transport the water up the street in the winter because the road was steep and icy. Instead, my father warmed snow to melt it for water. Have you ever drank water from snow? Absolutely disgusting! You must never taste it! Bitter. I can still taste it. You could put jam in your tea and you could still taste the bitterness.
‘There was no water but we had electricity and we had a wood stove. Every winter me, my grandma and my mother would cut wood with an axe. We used that to keep the house warm. All villages were the same. It was normal.
‘When I was young, the country was broken. Some of my friends’ fathers would drink vodka like an animal. My father was an example for everybody. An incredible father. All economic systems were broken.
Gotovtsev is becoming a cult hero at the Kingsholm Stadium and has featured for Russia
‘My mother got her salary two times a year. Six months without salary and the salary was small… just enough to survive. As children, you just want to joke and play, but we had to work.’
Brought up the hard way, Gotovtsev does not shy away from a battle. Until now, he has avoided interviews because he has not been confident in his English. Yet here is a raconteur with a wicked sense of humour, worthy of a place in the quirky front-row union.
He is, however, a latecomer to the club. Growing up in Siberia, his dream was to become a professional wrestler. He loved it so much that, as a child, he walked to training in life-threateningly cold temperatures.
‘I love wrestling,’ he says. ‘I loved wrestling. It was my life from the age of 10. I did not want to do volleyball or theatre like my school mates… standing on the stage pretending to be different animals, speaking like a bear! I wanted to wrestle. I lost to my school mate in my first session and from then I just wanted to win, win, win.
‘My gym was 3km from my house. One winter we had a temperature of -58. I saw it through my eyes on the thermometer! I walked to training wearing three trousers, three jackets and a hat. I got there and my coach was there alone. Nobody else had gone to training.
Gotovtsev is passionate about wrestling and was Russian No 3 but never made the Olympics
‘My coach said, “What the hell are you doing! Go home!” We could only go to training if it was -40! Wrestling is a tough sport. When I was 15 years old, we had a regional championship in Krasnoyarsk. Boys from the village normally lose to boys from the big cities, but I won.
‘A coach from the city invited me to live with him so I finished school and moved down. I grew up fast. Just me and my opponent. Wrestling is like a small war. Only you and your opponent in a small circle. Who wants to win? You can have a big, strong, beautiful technique but if you don’t want to win then you won’t win. I always wanted to win.’
So why stop? ‘Difficult question. I had good results but not the highest for Russia. You needed to be first in Russia to go to the Olympic Games and I was No 3. My team-mates were Olympic champions. I was 25 and I felt powerful, but I wanted to be a big sportsman and I knew I wouldn’t be in wrestling.
‘So I thought, “What next?” I was living in a community house for students and I knew somebody in bobsleigh. Some of the guys said, “Kirill, come try it, maybe you can do it”. I thought maybe I can be a big sportsman in bobsleigh, so I did one last wrestling tournament and finished.
‘After three months, I had just finished a regional competition in Sochi and the Russian coach liked me and said, “Wow, we are leaving for the European Cup NOW, come with us!” It was a funny story. I didn’t have any winter clothes and my car was left in the expensive airport car park. I bought some shoes and they gave me some team kit.
‘After a few months, I got back and my car was still in the airport car park. It cost a few thousand rubles. Extremely expensive for me! My car was buried in lots of big snow, alone in the car park like a wild dog! No battery, the engine was not starting and it was -42C!
Gotovtsev switched sports after realising he wouldn’t make it to the very top of wrestling
‘That was the start of bobsleigh for me. I worked like crazy for a year and a half. Training was tough and I learnt a lot, but then I wasn’t picked for the Olympics. It was disappointing and after that I thought, “What next?” Again!’
Aged 25, Gotovtsev found an unlikely passion in rugby. He was blessed with all the raw materials of a rugby player but there was one problem: he had never watched a game and had no idea of the rules.
‘What do you call a meeting with boys before they get married?’ he asks. ‘A stag do? OK. We had a stag do in a restaurant and the head coach of the rugby club said “Hello! Hello! How do you do? What do you do now?”
‘I told him I was thinking about finishing bobsleigh and he said come to rugby. He knew I was a wrestler and he said, “Come and try”. The next day I turned up at the rugby club. All I knew is the ball is like a melon and the pass can only go backwards.
‘For the first year, my head was close to exploding. So much to learn. It was like someone had taken my head, put it in the washing machine and pushed the button [motioning his head in a washing machine motion]! But I wanted to win.
‘In the first session, they put me in with all these fat guys and weak guys. I was thinking “What the hell am I doing! These guys don’t even want to be here!” The coach just wanted us to f*** off and get out the way!
‘When the coach gave me a chance, I killed anybody on the pitch. Sometimes it wasn’t legal. I used some wrestling techniques. I just thought “He has the ball, I need to stop him”. I did anything to stop them… to kill them!
Gotovtsev was invited to try bobsleigh by a housemate and naturally became obsessed
‘I would throw people, push people and the opposition would say, “What the f*** are you doing!” I would say, “What the f*** are YOU doing! I will punch your face now!” Some old leadership guys took me to the side and said, “Hey man, stop, you can’t do this”.
‘They said it’s not legal and I said “Oh, really, what can I do?” Only then they taught me the rules! I played in the second team and I scored three tries a game because I was fast and strong from bobsleigh.
‘All the other players were young boys. Boom! Boom! Pushing everybody out the way. Coach said, “OK, now you can train with the adult team”. I thought it would be easy but they killed me! Strong men. It wasn’t easy.
‘I didn’t have a position. I had never been in a scrum but they said, “You strong! You should be tighthead!” It was a nightmare. I was head down in the scrum getting pushed thinking, “What the hell is going on in here?” I had no technique.
‘Some props had beautiful technique but we did not have anybody to teach us. Sometimes I pushed them backwards. I learnt from scrum to scrum, trying to get a feel. What happens if I bind like this? What happens if I put my foot like this? I taught myself.
‘Wrestling helped because wrestling is a feeling. It is like water… flexible, fast. Scrums are about technique and control — and wrestling is the same principles. You need to understand the feeling, you need to understand the best angles. It’s not like the back row where you just run and tackle like a dog. Prop is different.’ Renowned for his mobility, physicality and set-piece work, he quickly moved up the ranks.
‘I came to Gloucester in 2015 for a pre-season camp with Krasnoyarsk. I played some pre-season games with the first team playing against the second team of Bristol, Gloucester, Harlequins, Sale Sharks. Wow.
‘I played in the back-row then. It was beautiful. In that moment I thought, “I want to play rugby in the UK”. After the 2019 World Cup, I had lots of invitations from European clubs. When Gloucester connected with me I thought, “Wow!”’
Gotovtsev eventually left behind everything he knew in Russia and moved his family to Gloucestershire. He has quickly written his way into Kingsholm folklore.
‘It is an absolutely different world here. Different food, different side to drive the car, different house, different internet providers. Do you like soup? You have never ate soup! UK soup is not soup! It’s just smashed vegetables! Our soup is meat, vegetables, two hours of cooking. Everything here is new.
‘Life changes. Three years ago, nobody thought we’d have Covid passes and QR codes. Sometimes the change is sh**, sometimes it’s nice. For me, sport is not just a job. It is half of my life. The other half is my family. Politics, economics, tax, reds, whites, it doesn’t matter.
‘I have my lovely job and my good family, I don’t need anything else.’