Russia's preparations for the World Cup have been rocked by one of the worst sports aviation tragedies in history.
News that 43 people perished when a private jet carrying Russia's professional ice hockey team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, crashed shortly after take-off from its local airport, cast a sombre shadow over the rugby team's welcoming ceremony in Omaka, Marlborough, on Thursday.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl had left their local airport when they crashed shortly after takeoff on their way to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they were to play their opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. Of the 45 on board, 37 were players, coaches and team officials.
The Bears were in shock when they were given a traditional local greeting at Omaka Marae and – by symbolic coincidence – at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.
"Today, it is really difficult to think about anything else than that tragedy," admitted Howard Thomas, the vice-president of the Rugby Union of Russia. "But we are present here at the ceremony to show our respect for the local community."
Russia captain Vladislav Korshunov expressed his condolences.
"This terrible accident was the first thing we knew in the morning on the internet. I have no words to describe the grief that has happened.
"It is a tragedy for the whole nation. One of the country's best teams are gone forever, including a fair number of young players.
"All the guys were well-known names in Russian and European ice hockey. I did not know anyone of them personally, but I have been to a few Lokomotiv games when they came to play in the Moscow region where my rugby club is based."
Korshunov believes special bonds exist among the athletes from different sports.
"Our team's mind has changed since that tragedy. We all belong to the world of sports, so when something bad happens in some of its parts, we feel it morally sharp.
"In spite of that, we will do our best in the World Cup 2011. Now we know that we will also fight for those guys who we will never see again."
Russia play their opening Pool C game against USA at Stadium Taranaki in New Plymouth on September 15.
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