WHEN Russia's players met on the eve of the World Cup they set the target of earning respect. It was mission accomplished, with the help of coach Shaun Connor.

The 43-year-old from Abertillery was invited to join the Bears management team by former Dragons head coach Lyn Jones in the summer of 2018.

Ahead of them was a daunting task to get Russia up to speed for Japan – they had only qualified because Spain, Belgium and Romania had all been sanctioned for fielding ineligible players.

Pre-tournament losses to Italy, an 85-15 hammering, Connacht and Jersey had most fearing the worst yet the Bears left Japan with their heads held high.

Russia scored the first try of the tournament through wing Kirill Golosnitskiy – although it would prove to be their only five-pointer – and their tenacity meant that while they made the hosts, Samoa and Ireland battle hard for the spoils before tired legs led to a heavy loss to Scotland.

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"The experience was unbelievable. It was everything that I expected it to be," said backs coach Connor. "I never thought that I would be coaching on that stage and I never got close to it as a player.

"When the opportunity came up it was exciting but I was a little bit anxious, we were going into the unknown at the World Cup.

"Any coach will tell you that when you go into a game you become maybe a little bit delusional, you always think that you have a sporting chance.

"But we were competitive and the biggest thing to come out of this World Cup was that Tier Two nations didn't have 100 points put on them like in the past.

"There were no batterings and things didn't get to the point of being embarrassing – every Tier Two nation showed that they have made progress.

"Our players had a meeting before the tournament and we didn't know what came out of it regarding their goals. We found out afterwards that it was to gain respect. They did that."

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Boss Jones brought in Connor, analyst Will Precious and physio Chris Jenkins from his time at Rodney Parade.

There is an option for at least another two years in charge and the former fly-half is ready to stay on with the aim of helping earn qualification for France 2023.

"I liken this to coaching academy kids because there isn't the depth of knowledge that Tier One players have," said Connor.

"It's just about making players better and the Russian boys are like sponges – they listen to every word and hang on everything you say. They just want to get better.

"It's about not trying to have too many points and too many messages. The temptation as a coach, and we've all done it, is to come in and say too much.

"That just fries players' minds but with the language barrier in Russia we have to be clear and concise with two or a maximum of three messages.

"That has worked for us, the players always want more but it's about focusing on a couple of key things."

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The Russia job isn't just about the seniors, however, with Connor tasked with helping cubs to become Bears.

"The hardest part is being away from my family for long spells but it has been great to see the improvements that are being made," he said.

"It would be nice to see the end results of that in the next few years and if we stay on then a big part of our role will be with the under-18s and under-20s, helping what is underneath.

"It'd be quite position-specific and the half-backs in Russia need to understand how to run and control a game.

"A lot of the last year has been spent on helping the 9s and 10s to see different positions and make decisions, and we have seen them get better.

"It's about improving our performance in the Rugby Europe Championship and then putting things in place to qualify for France.

"We made it by default and want to make it to the next World Cup by merit, although if the other teams hadn't cheated then who is to say Russia wouldn't have got there anyway?"

Campaign Series: Shaun Connor in action for Blaina last weekend (Picture: Paul's Photography)Shaun Connor in action for Blaina last weekend (Picture: Paul's Photography)

Connor made headlines last weekend when he came off the bench for Blaina just hours after arriving home from Japan.

The former fly-half, who played for the Dragons, Ospreys, Abertillery, Newport, Ebbw Vale and Pontypool, is pencilled in to start against Deri in Division Three East A this afternoon.

He said: "I'm like Jan Molby – short and fat, standing in midfield pinging passes! When I finished (coaching) with the Dragons in 2018 I was at a loose end in the summer so started out with Blaina, just across the road from my house.

"I said that if they were ever short I'd play and I had about six games last season. I will keep playing when back and fore with Russia.

"And I'm not the oldest in the squad because there is a 44-year-old in the squad, Darren Miles is still playing and is still rapid!"

Connor is still donning the boots yet it's coaching that is his primary passion.

That's thanks to Russia after he left Rodney Parade at rock bottom following a 2017/18 season featuring a record low of just two PRO14 wins.

"I loved my time at the Dragons, I am from Gwent and want them to do well, but when I left I was ready to give up rugby," admitted Connor, who joined the region as skills coach in 2014.

"I'd had enough and that last year was horrendous, as a coach and a person it totally destroyed me.

"But this has reinvigorated me and I have no doubt that it has made me a better coach, and I am looking to keep improving by getting out to professional environments in my time off to see what is happening and to keep my finger on the pulse.

"I'd like to get back involved in academy coaching in the future, because I think I have a good empathy with players and that is probably more appreciated at a younger age than senior level.

"Maybe in the future that's a route I can go down, but you live for today."