Before Marty Banks earned cult hero status in New Zealand for his exploits with Tasman and the Highlanders, the seasoned playmaker began his professional rugby career in the unlikeliest of destinations – Russia.
Much has been made of Banks and his colourful journeyman-like career that has seen him play across New Zealand, as well as in Italy and Japan, where he is currently based with the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Prior to all of that, though, the 31-year-old was forced to look abroad for playing opportunities with vacancies in New Zealand’s professional ranks far and few between.
That led to an opening in 2011 with Krasny Yar, one of Russia’s premier rugby clubs based out of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
Then aged 21, Banks received the opportunity through current All Blacks assistant coach Brad Mooar, who at the time was working for the Canterbury Rugby Union.
Banks had initially planned to move to Christchurch to join Canterbury’s academy system after an unsuccessful attempt to crack the North Harbour provincial side, but instead signed a short-term deal with Krasny Yar.
What transpired was a five-month experience that he described on the What a Lad podcast, hosted by former Hurricanes utility back James Marshall, as “crazy”, “ridiculous” and “eye-opening”.
“Russia was just a whole different ball game,” Banks said as he recalled a story of how he shot AK-47s around fields of cannabis.
“We went to this area, it was owned by the CEO or something like that, and it was sort of just like this big, open piece of land that had a few houses on it, and it turned out that it was just the bosses of the city, like the head of police and stuff like that.
“It was sort of like a holiday destination where they could go and just get locked into their own gates, so you and I can’t just walk on in there unless we’ve been invited.
“I remember going in there and there were just AK-47s that we could shoot into the water, marijuana growing like wildfire. It was ridiculous.
“There were literally no rules. I guess the only rule was don’t do anything stupid to harm anyone else. It was just eye-opening.
“There were people out shooting bears and bringing them back with their skins and stuff like this. It was just ridiculous.”
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The madness wasn’t limited to guns, weed and bears, as Banks discovered when he found out his club had ties to Russian organised crime.
“There were always links to the mafia, like we’d been told by other people outside of the club that the club had ties to the mafia and all this sort of stuff,” he said.
Banks’ suspicions about Krasny Yar’s links to the Russian mafia grew stronger when he was told some of their members watched the club’s matches from a room with tinted windows at the team’s home ground.
“We had a grandstand on the left-hand side of the field and on the right-hand side was the office block, but there was a blacked out, literally tinted out, room above the office block,” Banks told the What a Lad podcast.
“The only way you could get in there was, like there were no steps to it outside, it was just a tunnel, like you go in it via a tunnel.
“You could just see, obviously with tinted windows you can still see through them but you don’t know really what’s behind them, but you can see people in there, and we were told that this is where some of the mafia were sitting, and it was just like, ‘Holy hecker’.
“Whether they were there or not, I don’t know, this is just stuff that we got fed, but when you get handed a bag of cash at the end of your contract, you start to wonder.
“They told me it was because I didn’t have my bank account setup properly, but I know the team now, they’re in the second division European comp [European Challenge Cup] I think, so obviously a lot of that has to be ironed out, the money side of it.”
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Those links to the Russian underworld became a source of concern for Banks upon his return to New Zealand after he spoke of his time in Siberia during a television interview.
“The thing was, when I did the interview, it got posted in Russia, and I got a message from this rugby page in Russia saying, ‘We remember you Marty Banks’ with a wink, and then I woke up and clicked on the page, but the post had been removed,” he told Marshall.
“Obviously someone had told them to take it down, so I was getting a little bit sketchy about it.”
Nevertheless, Banks looked back on his Russian experience fondly, adding that while he ruled out going back to the country in a playing capacity, he would be eager to return for a holiday.
“It was a great place. You think about Russia and you’re like, ‘Why the hell would I go there’, but… if I was in a better position rugby-wise, I definitely wouldn’t have gone, but having the opportunity to go somewhere like that, it shaped you as a person.”
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