The Six Nations A Winters Tale

The winters are dark and cold in this part of the world, the daylight is in short supply during the days following Christmas, it is a bleak time for everyone, everyone that is apart from rugby fans.

For us it is the rebirth of the sporting year, and the start of the weekly countdown to the first weekend in February when the 6 Nations tournament begins.

The tournament starts in the depths of winter, and takes us through to the weak sunshine and gentle warmth of early spring, when the tournament concludes in the middle of March.

February 14th, which is of course Valentines day, sits perfectly in the middle of the tournament, so for the romantically inclined what could be a better way to show your undying love for your partner than to take them away for a 6 nations weekend.

But I would offer a word of caution, I would suggest you inform “your other half” that rugby is involved before you travel, I have witnessed couples in Paris having a “domestic” as the non rugby partner is informed, over coffee and croissants on saturday morning, that a large part of the romantic weekend ahead in the city of light will taken up at Stade de France watching an international match.

But the 6 nations is about far more than just rugby, it’s about making and renewing friendships, it’s about the history, it’s about the fans, the wonderful memories of 6 nations weekends past, and those wonderful ones yet to come.

Memories of matches and weekends shared with family, loved ones, and friends, some of whom are sadly no longer with us, come flooding back, and their spirits are with us this at time of year, as we prepare to enjoy a winter sporting festival like no other.

The 6 nations weekend has a heartbeat, a soul, it is a living entity, that has been enjoyed and handed down from generation to generation.

Uncles, fathers, grandparents cousins, have all taken pride in guiding their offspring on their first 6 nations weekend, and those youngsters who have taken over the baton, keep the traditions alive, and when the time comes, they will take their young on a similar rite of passage, and that is why the 5 Nations, as it was, and the 6 nations as it is now, is so unique.

Only in this tournament would you find a middle-aged Englishman wearing a Roman centurion outfit sitting outside a cafe and calmly enjoying a beer in the Piazza Navona.

Each wonderful host city has its own unique atmosphere, sight, sounds and smells.

Whether it’s welsh fans dressed in dragons costumes under the Eiffel Tower, English fans masquerading as medieval knights handing out roses to the scary French riot police, or Italians meeting their ancestors at one of the plethora of Italian restaurants in Cardiff, the joy and friendliness of the tournament are plain to see ,which ever match you happen to attend.

Add to that the kilted Scots sitting around the fountains at Trafalgar Square, with their whisky filled hipflasks to keep out the cold, the Irish a sea of green in leprechaun hats clutching a pint of the black stuff, or the stylish French looking cool in their shades, whatever the weather, and whatever the venue, you begin to get a feel of what a thrill to the senses this tournament really is.

Cardiff is the only city where supporters can watch the game, celebrate, and collapse into bed all within the distance of a Leigh Halfpenny goal kick.

The Principality stadium is squeezed in between the flats, shops, houses and pubs right in the heart of the city centre, and more importantly in a country where rain is a frequent, if not permanent resident , it has a roof.

Cardiff is also the home of Brains Brewery, whose products are rather popular on rugby weekends, one their products is a beer called “Brains SA” the locals will tell you that  “SA” stands for skull attack, which informs you all of you need to know about the side effects of this particular beverage.

Talking of beer, Dublin is of course the home of the silky smooth black stuff, Guinness, and the most popular excursion for 6 Nations fans visiting the Irish capital, is a tour of the Guinness brewery where you actually get a free sample.

The French fans simply adore Dublin, they fly over in the thousands to watch Ireland face “Les Bleus” they used to bring live cockerels with them and release them on the field of play, obviously this is now outlawed, or it may just be that chickens find Air France air fares a bit too expensive these days.

The Irish will charm you, entertain you, smile and then kick the living day lights out of you on the rugby field, there aren’t many more hospitable capitals on this planet than Dublin, as any 6 nations fan who has been there will happily tell you, once they have recovered from their lack of sleep and mind numbing hangover.

Rome is the 6 Nations “new kid on the block” as Italy did not join the tournament until the year 2000 and the shock for fans here, especially those from Scotland, is that you are likely to experience sunshine, now a famous Scotland player once told me that Scots are born with blue skin, and it takes them three weeks in the sun to even turn white, so the Tartan Army are easily to spot, not only because they are wearing kilts, but due to the fact that they are all clutching bottles of factor 50 sun cream.

Italy joining the 6 Nations created an added pressure for the regular 6 nations fans, and  there is a big downside the Azzuri’s inclusion.

Partners, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends who previously had no interest in rugby, and could be visibly seen yawning when you even mentioned the word , suddenly took a rather disturbing interest in the game, when they discovered that joining you on a potential weekend to the Eternal City was a distinct possibility.

Rome is a venue like no other, no tradition or historical rugby hang ups here, it is the brash teenager of 6 Nations rugby, and is determined to enjoy La Dolce Vita whatever the result.

A colleague, when in Rome for an Italy v England match, told me of a time he found himself standing at a set of traffic lights in Rome, when he suddenly became aware of a twelve-inch sword being waved in his face, wielded by a local man uttering threats in a deep loud Italian voice.

A few seconds later his “assailant” reassured my friend that the sword was made of plastic and gave him a “high-five” and a “Ciao baby” and went on his merry way.


If Rome is the brash teenager then Twickenham, the bastion of Englishness, is the grumpy old grandfather, but even so is a shrine for visiting fans, and a shrine that obviously makes visitors extremely thirsty.

At the England v Ireland match in 2014 160,000 pints of beer,were sold at the stadium, another victory over the Welsh who only managed a mere 77,184 pints in Cardiff at a match between Wales and France.

As you walk from Twickenham station to the ground, every inch of pavement is filled with providers of fast food frying their wares, as the aroma of burgers, sausages and onions fill the air with a smokey haze you can almost touch the cholesterol.

For Welsh fans the favourite trip is Edinburgh, this all started due the fact that until 1977, the matches at Murrayfield were not “All Ticket” so people paid at the gate, as a result the Welsh always travelled in heavy number.

It is a like a red tsunami flowing down Princess street as the Scarlet hordes make their way to Murrayfield framed by the beauty of the castle, and the Scott Monument.

Things went horribly wrong in 1977 when at least 110,000 were squeezed into Murrayfield for Scotland v Wales, and it was a miracle that no one was seriously injured, and since that day, Scotland matches became ticket only affairs.

That weekend trip to see Wales play Scotland in Edinburgh was perceived to be a test of manhood undertaken by many generations of Welsh fans.

The journey to this game was known as “The Killer”, leaving Cardiff at 2100 on Friday night, the train would arrive in Edinburgh at 0700 on Saturday morning, the return journey commenced immediately following the match, with the train leaving Edinburgh at 2100 on Saturday night, and arriving in Cardiff at 0500 on Sunday morning, it was not a journey for the faint hearted.

Mind you I know of people who have travelled on this weekend marathon and never even got to see the game, due to socialising a bit too fervently, they returned home with very little memory of the whole weekend, but the moment they got back they started saving, weekly, for the next trip in two years time.

But putting romanticism aside for one moment, the stark economic factors of the tournament are worth a mention.

Supporters spending makes the championship worth £375 million per year to the participating countries economies, whilst the cities that host the matches (London, Paris, Rome, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh) benefit by around £150 million.

The main sectors to benefit are food and drink and accommodation, in a study undertaken by previous tournament sponsors RBS, £59 million is spent in bars and restaurants, and £38 million on hotels and other accommodation, and £19 million spent in shops.

In addition the tournament creates around 3,100 jobs, and all this very real boost to economies occur during what is a quiet time of year for tourism.

In 2017 two matches in Cardiff, where Wales faced Ireland and England, resulted in £52 million coming into the Welsh economy, of which £30 million was enjoyed by the city of Cardiff itself, so it seems everyone is a winner in the 6 Nations, off the field at least.

As the 2019 tournament approaches, many of us, in the middle of a cold dark winters night will lie awake, and as the wind and rain beat against the window, we will feel a cosy warmth, as we remember with fondness, the matches, the weekends, the laughter, the tears, but most of all we will remember the people we have shared the matches with, and those friends we have met, because it is they that make the six nations tournament so very special.

Quins Win The Battle Of The A316

Quins and Richmond co-exist 3 miles apart, the A316 road being the artery that divides and unites them.

This afternoony at Twickenham Stoop, Harlequins Ladies won the bragging rights and more importantly five points in an exciting and colourful local derby in front of 1200 fans at the Stoop.

Rachael Burford may have been at sea in the Caribbean over the Christmas period, but there was no cruising from the Quins skipper on this occasion, as she marshalled the defence, stoked the attack and subtly guided the referee using all her skill and experience.

In freezing temperatures an excited passionate Stoop crowd roared Quins on to the pitch and they did not have to wait long for the home side to rattle the scoreboard.

After just 3 minutes Leanne Riley burst over for a try converted by Emily Scott, just nine minutes later Leanne got over for her second, I don’t know what she had for breakfast yesterday but she was on fire.

Richmond were under the cosh as Quins played with pace and accuracy behind a pack that looked like it had been fed raw meat and barbed wire all week.

Fiona Fletcher, Davinia Catlin, (after a sumptuous give and go), and Jess Breach went over for further first half tries and a penalty try right on half time gave the home side a 36-0 lead at the break.

In the second half, to Richmond’s credit, they kept Quins out until the 62nd minute when Jess Breach touched down, Emily Scott put on the after burners for a try before Jess Breach completed her hat trick, Quins 90th try of the season.

On 79 minutes Ellie Green slipped back into the pocket to slot over a sweet drop goal and on full time Emily Scott went over for her second of the match, giving Quins a 59-7 victory.

As hundreds of young girls flocked to meet the players after the final whistle the true winner here was women’s rugby, autographs were signed, selfies taken, and with matches and occasions like this, the womens game will continue to grow and encourage the next generation, the future of the womens game is looking brighter by the week.

 

 

The Highland Bear And The Monster From The Black Isle

It is fourteen miles from Inverness to Loch Ness, a place known around the world for its mythical monster, but Nessie’s neighbour is a sporting monster and a very real one that is frightening the life out of everything that crosses its path.

There have been many reported sightings this season, both north and south of the border, and the conclusion is that Nessie is a lightweight compared to the Inverness version.

I am in my cryptic way referring to Scotland and Harlequins number eight Jade Konkel who has been knocking the living daylights out of the opposition since her return from a long term shoulder injury in the latter stages of 2018.

She returned to international duty after only a handful of club games, and hit Canada like a guided missile, Scotland lost on that occasion but Jade had a storming game tacking, as the great Bill McClaren once said “Like the crack of doom” and launching those “Rhino” charges from the base of the scrum as if her life depended upon it.

Jade Konkel was born on December 9 1993 in Inverness, and lived on the Black Isle an appropriately named location for any respectable monster to reside.

Inverness lies on the Great Glen Fault, where there are minor earthquakes, usually unnoticed by locals, about every 3 years, I have a theory they nearly always occur when Jade is home doing some tackling practice, but geological confirmation is difficult to come by.

Fortunately off the field Jade is one of the most modest and friendly individuals you could wish to meet, a smile is always close to hand, and her soft highland brogue could charm the birds from the trees.

With the Six Nations approaching, whilst taking one game at a time, she is delighted that Scotland will be playing France in Lille, and at a ground that became her home whilst excelling in the colours of Lille Metropole Rugby Club Villeneuvois

Jade won her first cap against England in 2013 and thirty three caps later she is nailed on to start in Scotland’s opener against Italy in the 2019 Womens Six Nations.

The basketball skills honed at the top level following two seasons with the Highland Bears, are evident on the rugby field, I do not recall witnessing her dropping a single ball during the current Tyrrells Premiership campaign, where she has worn the Harlequins shirt with such pride and passion.

The dictionary definition of Jade is ” A semi precious stone” maybe that should now be changed to “An extremely precious Scottish rugby player”, a monsterous Six Nations awaits.

The Day The Pumas Terrified Wales Grand Slam Legends

The Wales Grand Slam winning side of 1976 was pretty special, it contained names that have gone down in rugby legend as some of the all time greats, they played with a verve and an insouciance the like of which we Welsh pine for in these modern professional times.

So when, on 16 October 1976, Argentina came to town to play a fully laden Wales team, the expectation was one of an inevitable comfortable victory for the star-studded men in red, how wrong could you be.

In the lead up to the international, Argentina had beaten an East Wales side 25-22 at Rodney Parade, and followed it up with a 29-26 win over Cardiff.

An 18-6 victory over Aberavon followed, but four days before the match against Wales, the Pumas were beaten 14-12, at Stradey Park, by a West Wales side that included, Elgan Rees, Clive Griffiths Andy Hill and Geoff Wheel.

A large crowd gathered at the National Stadium for a three o’clock kick off, and to witness a contest within a contest as two of the greatest fly halves ever to grace the game faced each other, Phil Bennett the magical diminutive pale-faced Welshman, and Hugo Porta the Argentinian with the swarthy elegant film star looks, and it turned out to be quite some battle.

The scores were level at half time 6-6, two penalties apiece.

Wales scored two second half tries through Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies, but as the match progressed the home crowd were about to witness the unthinkable.

George Gauweloose side-stepped JPR Williams forty-five metres out and ran over for an Argentinian try started way back in their own twenty-two.

The sight of JPR being beaten once in a match was a rarity, so when Gonzalez Becca Varela also ran past the great man to score in the corner, after Roy Bergiers had lost the ball in the Pumas twenty-two, there was an air of disbelief in the Cardiff autumn air.

As the match entered injury time, Argentina were leading 19-17, with seconds left to play Wales were awarded a penalty, following a high tackle on JPR Williams, which Phil Bennett converted to give Wales a 20-19 win.

Gareth Edwards rates the Pumas fly half, Hugo Porta, as one of the true greats of the game.

“Hugo gave Terry Cobner, Trevor Evans and Mervyn Davies the runaround that afternoon, Merv named him as the best fly half he had ever played against.” 

The match is still hugely revered in Argentina, indeed in 2016 the governing body arranged a massive gala de rugby to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of this memorable game.

Harlequins Ladies 2018 What A Year

As the pigs in blankets made their way from freezer to oven, and you roasted your chestnuts on an open fire, there is little doubt that no one had earned the right to a few cosy fireside evenings with their feet up more than Harlequins Ladies.

As the final remnants of the turkey are gobbled up  we can reflect on the fact that Quins have delivered a few stuffings themselves, carving up defences and in the process scoring 77 tries in the opening thirteen rounds of the 2018/19 Tyrrells Premiership.

So as you tuck in to the Christmas chocolates you may discover a few soft centres, something you will never find at Quins, Jade Mullen, Rachael Burford and Emily Scott maybe silky smooth but they are tougher than the nut clusters and twice as effective.

Ellie Green has achieved more conversions than St Paul with 39 in a total points haul of 92, whilst Heather Cowell has touched down 15 times

The last match of 2018 at Surrey Sports Park saw Quins once again at their imperious best against bottom of the table Worcester Valkyries, and in the process they gained their tenth win in a row.

If the premiership title was awarded on attitude human decency and rugby values, Quins would hold the title already, the fact that they are a skilful intelligent entertaining team to watch makes them the complete package, it seems the only team that can beat Harlequins Ladies is Harlequins Ladies themselves.

As an old-timer what gives me most satisfaction is the fact that I have never seen, or heard, them resort to the sledging and underhanded tactics one or two of the top teams in the Tyrrells Premiership resort to, they would not stoop (if you’ll pardon the pun) so low.

Am I biased ? You bet I am, the dedication these young women have for the game is staggering, and the majority do not get a single penny for playing the game.

When your Saturday consists of a 5.30am start, five hours on a coach, a rugby match played in freezing rain and mud, followed by the news there is no hot water for a shower, a five hour coach journey home covered in mud feeling cold wet and shivering, you have a taste of how the elite women’s game can sometimes feel.

This was Quins experience a few weeks ago it was no surprise to turn up to training the following week to find the players scouring the anti doping website to find any remedies they are allowed to take.

Looking back on the whole of 2018 Quins Ladies played 22 Tyrrells Premiership matches between January 3rd and 22 December, winning 17, drawing 1 and losing 4, three of those defeats were by 4 points or less, a remarkable record.

2019 starts against old foes Saracens away on January 12 a team Quins faced three times in 2018 winning twice, but losing in the Premiership final 24-20.

The following week, on January 19th, Harlequins Ladies face neighbours Richmond in a rip-roaring derby at the magnificent Stoop, and players fans and everyone connected with the team cannot wait.

No one knows what 2019 has in store but whatever happens this group will give it everything, and when all is said and done trophies gather dust, but memories last forever.

Happy New Year everyone.

Christmas Howard Davies The Welsh Rugby Star 

Christmas Day 1916 was a fairly lively affair for a certain Mr and Mrs Davies from Llanelli.

Mrs Davies gave birth to a bouncing baby boy amidst all the tinsel and the stuffing.

In a moment of inspiration, or maybe sheer madness, they named their newborn Christmas Howard Davies, whether this was a blessing or a curse for the incumbent we will never know.

Had the baby been a girl, no doubt she would have been called Holly, Carol or even Ivy, much less traumatising one would imagine than being called Christmas.

In the record books Christmas Davies is forever refered to as Howard, and it is under the name of Howard that his distinguished rugby career is chronicled.

One of the few players to represent Wales either side of the Second World War, he began his rugby playing careers with Burry Port All Blacks, before crossing the Loughor bridge to play for Swansea, from where he won his first international cap against Scotland in 1939.

After a successful debut, Wales won 11-3, he was selected for the following match against Ireland in Belfast which proved to be Wales, and Ireland’s, final internationals before war broke out.

Wales first post war  championship international in the 1939 Five Nations tournament was against England in Cardiff in 1947, and Christmas Howard Morris, having moved west from Swansea to Llanelli, was at full back in a match which the home side fielded thirteen new caps, only Davies and Haydn Tanner had been capped previously.

Wales lost to England that day, 9-6, but they went on to defeat France, (3-0) Scotland (22-8) and Ireland (6-0) that season, with Christmas, or should I say Howard, featuring in every game, with Wales & England emerging as joint Five Nations champions,

Davies was a superb tackler and had a massive boot on him, his last ever game for Wales was in that 6-0 victory against Ireland in Swansea on 29 March 1947.

He continued his life in Burry Port, and earned his living as a steelworker.

Having been born on Christmas Day, it seems appropriate that Christmas Howard Davies left this world on another memorable date in the calendar, 5 November 1987.

 

 

Wales v England 1963 And The Big Freeze

The winter of 1963 will go down as one of the coldest and most disruptive, certainly in my lifetime.

In the final days of 1962 a blizzard swept across South Wales with snow drifting more than 20 feet, this was the start of one of the worst winters on record, and the fact that Wales  lost to England in Cardiff on January 19, just added to the misery already being endured meteorological.

Average maximum temperatures in January were 0 degrees and the snow and ice did not shift in many places until March.

Such was the severity of this dreadful winter, the sea actually froze in Whitstable, Kent.

Despite the weather the Five Nations tournament somehow struggled on in dreadful conditions

England had to train at Porthcawl beach as it was the only snow free area available

Fifteen tons of straw had been laid to protect the pitch for the showdown between Wales and England after Cardiff arms Park had been covered with nine inches of snow which had fallen in a single day.

Sport had been brought to a standstill all over the country but despite the bitter cold and risk of more snow, everyone involved was determined that the match should go ahead.

Tractor drivers, grounds staff and volunteers spent ten days, working from dawn until dusk, mostly shovelling snow and straw away by hand until the pitch was clear.

Work started and within a couple of days we knew how much snow we could clear. It turned out that the Wales v England game was the only sports event held in Britain that day. “The atmosphere among the clearers was fantastic. The president of the union would come down every day with bottles of whisky for the men because it was so cold, but everybody enjoyed themselves.”

After the big clear-up operation the pitch was covered with straw again to stop the grass freezing. groundstaff weren’t allowed back onto the pitch to clear the straw until two hours before the match.

Hundreds of volunteers covered the pitch with straw and braziers were lit

The Welsh captain that day was Clive Rowlands on his international debut, and he believes the match should never have been played

“It was awful underfoot, someone could have been seriously injured, it was so hard the players sounded like a herd  of cattle running at you”

“As it was my first cap I was, of course, happy to play”

The England wing Peter Jackson said ” A bright day was forecast and they assumed that a couple of hours sunshine would make all the difference”

“The biggest problem was the change in surface. One minute you would be running on a part of the pitch which had been under or near a brazier and the next you’d be in the rock hard stuff, players were slipping and sliding all over the place”.

Referee Kevin Kelleher wanted to call of the game just before kick off, but with 55,000 inside Cardiff Arms Park he was persuaded that it might be in his best interests to go ahead with the game.

The temperature at kick off time was -6 degrees, and both teams remained in the changing rooms during the playing of the anthems.

The game itself was won by England 13-6, Mike Phillips (no not that one !) and John Owen scored tries for England, whilst Richard Sharp kicked two conversions and a drop goal.

Wakes points came from a penalty by Graham Hodgson and a Dai Hayward try.

After the match the teams returned to the changing rooms to find the pipes had burst and they had to go to the local swimming pool to shower.

England would not beat Wales again in Cardiff until 1991.