Abroad Thoughts From Home Lions And All Blacks

It has been a strange week, whilst Jonsey, Slotty, Barnesy, Moose and almost every other rugby writer was experiencing the Endless Winter in New Zealand, I found myself walking my lovely little boy around the lake, daily, at 6am, when the temperatures were already in the mid twenties, and yes I am in Britain, or at least my body is.

My mind and soul are 11,400 miles away in Auckland, by the way my lovely boy is a seven month old black Labrador, who is most perturbed that we couldnt play rugby in the garden this week due to temperatures reaching the mid thirties.

Social media brought everything instantly to my iPad, even whilst I was in a perspiring puddle at 2am and unable to sleep I was getting updates from the boys down under.

It is strange to think that forty-six years ago,in 1971, I was in a similarly sleepless, albeit cooler state, as my radio battled to bring me commentary on the first test between The All Blacks and the Lions.

Yesterday I didn’t have to conjure  up images from Wilson Whineray’s excited radio commentary, as I did all those years ago, these days it’s razor-sharp pictures preceded by hours of analysis and predictions, and that’s just me sorting out my breakfast.

When a man called Moses is chosen to sing the NZ national anthem before kick off you know the writing’s on the wall,  and the commandment thou shalt not lose at Eden park is unlikely to be broken.

As night fell in Auckland it was ironic that a man called Daly crossed the All Blacks line within two minutes of the start, had he managed to ground the ball who knows what might have been.

The All Blacks were leading 13-3 when the score, that from this day forward will be known as “That Try” , swept ninety metres in twenty one seconds.

Touched down by O’Brien it was started ten metres from his own line  by O’my  goodness (Liam Williams) and on reaching  half way his pass started the O’key cokey between Jon Davies and Eliot Daly who took the ball to the All Blacks five metre line with an in out in out exchange before Sean O’Brien,with Knees bent arms stretched,dived over for a try that sent almost every Lions fan airborne with 35:23 on the clock.

For a while I dared to dream, but the All Blacks  are pretty good at delivering reality checks and they didn’t need their sponsors DHL to get a signature for this one.

The weather has now cooled by the way as has my optimism, but the series is not over yet, and Wellington next Saturday could yet be the start of a glorious sunny spell for the Lions.

The Raining Champions New Zealand

Almost every photograph of the Lions management, on the current tour appears to include an erected hood or an umbrella and in some cases both.

So is it just a myth that it always rains in the land of the long white cloud ?

The locals in Queenstown whilst sipping a cold steinlager will tell you
“If  you can see mount cook its going to rain, and if you can’t see it, then it’s already raining “.

Whilst being interviewed during the 1977 Lions tour to New Zealand Peter Wheeler the English hooker commented “It only rained twice this week, once for four days and once for three days”.

A Welsh player on that very same tour when asked if his hamstring twinge was improving replied “The hamstring is fine but its been so wet I’m now struggling with trench foot“.

Milford Sound has the dubious honour of being wettest inhabitited place in New Zealand, and one the wettest in the world.

It has a mean annual rainfall of 6,412 mm (252 inches) each year, a high level even for the West Coast, and rainfall can reach 250 mm (10 inches) during a spell of 24 hours.

Kiwi Formal Wear Blazer & Umbrella

 All Blacks followers know that when the rain does eventually stop there will be a Sonny spell just around the corner as Mr Bill Williams lets his talents shine through, let’s just hope on the day of the first test  Auckland receives Milford Sound weather or at the very least a big dollop of cloud.

No Leigh Way for Halfpenny Says Toulon Owner

The irony that the young man nicknamed “Pence” by his team mates has been earning 55,000 euros a month whilst playing for Toulon is not lost on those back home in his native Gorseinon

His contract with the French club has come to an end, and the shaningans regarding an extension have reached soap opera proportions on both sides of the channel.

With Mourad Boujallel involved perhaps pantomime would be a more accurate description of events.

The president of the Rugby Club Toulon, confided in the columns of “Var Matin” that he has made an offer to Halfpenny and will not make a second one, and the ball is now firmly in the Lions full backs court

“Leigh Halfpenny had a proposal a dozen days ago”

“Either it accepts it, or he does not sign it”

“There will be no other, knowing that he will not be there for six months next year”

“For my part, I am convinced that we lost the Top 14 final because of his absence”. 

That last quote really hits the nail on the head, underlining Boujallels fury that his star full back missed the Top 14 final due to a clause in his contract that allowed him full release for British and Irish Lions duty in New Zealand.

Days before the crucial semi final against La Rochelle in Marseille Boujallel was rattling his gums on television radio and written media announcing that he was going to offer a vastly reduced contract to Halfpenny, not ideal preparation for big game you would think.

But Leigh, a shy modest character with a work ethic second to none, managed to keep his focus, and his immaculate goal kicking at the Orange Velodrome played a huge part in taking Toulon to the final in Paris. 

An offer from Cardiff Blues under a national dual contract with the Welsh Rugby Union was turned down by Halfpenny due to the length of contract offered rather than the drastically reduced monthly income it would produce.

His partner Jess is understandably keen to stay in this beautiful region of France where they have both settled and embraced the way of life.

Possible moves to Bath or another Top 14 club are on the cards should the Toulon deal not be agreed, one thing is for sure a decision will have to be reached very soon.

Warning ! Watching The Lions Can Seriously Damage Your Health

Is it really four years since the Lions left Australia with their tails held high ?

So for those unable to travel to the land of the long white cloud and who cannot afford, or are not allowed to own a Sky sports subscription, the time has come to embark once again on the dreadful early Saturday morning pub experience that is part and parcel of a Lions tour, for those of us less fortunates.

Apart from the almost out of body experience of crossing the threshold of your local Ember Inn at such an ungodly hour, there are serious health implications to consider.

Now when I was young there were no such dilemmas

It may seem hard to believe but in 1971 all international rugby  matches kicked off in the middle of the afternoon, also television coverage was not available, so it was under the bed covers with a transistor radio the size of a microwave at 4am trying to tune in to a commentary from down under via the short wave.

It was tough, but on the plus side we never had to endure three hours of Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell previewing each test match.

The cummulative effect of more than three consecutive Saturday mornings will inevitably increase your exposure to these dangers, and of course the long term repercussions.

But back to the health implications I spoke about earlier,  I am of course referring to the dietary minefield that comes with watching early morning rugby in a pub, or wine bar ,if you happen to live in Richmond.

Do you start with a cappuccino or a Guinness ? and as the aroma of sausages Cooking in the pub kitchen invades the lounge bar , can you be strong enough to stick to your original choice of wholemeal toast and flora ?

 It takes nerves of steel to stick with the courage of your convictions, and a stomach of steel to survive the results of any lack of will power, so there are no real winners here.

Sufferers of high blood pressure, or hypertension as travel insurance providers prefer to call it, are particularly at risk due to several factors.

Firstly there is the almost cast iron certainty that the seat you have have carefully selected and occupied since the pub opened,giving you optimum view of the screen, will be totally eclipsed when the largest resident of the town you happen to be in drags his, or her, bar stool in front of your line of vision five minutes before kick off, just breathe deeply and count to ten.

Secondly as the referee blows his whistle to start the game, the television will mysteriously switch channels and instead of watching George North steaming down the wing, you will be gazing at James Martin on Saturday morning kitchen, steaming his dumplings, I would suggest counting to twenty for this one.

Finally there is the 11am exit into bright daylight that has you blinking watery eyed like a pit pony with hay fever as your befuddled brain reminds you that there are still thirteen hours of the day remaining for you to somehow negotiate.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers, and more illustrious scribes that I have wrestled with this problem.

Unsympathetic partners may take advantage of your lethargic state and lure you to the supermarket with coffee and pastry enticements, but beware ,before you know it you will pushing a fully loaded trolley  between the dog food and homeware aisles, with your latte and pecan Danish a distant dream.

Good luck my friend,  if it’s any consolation you are not alone.

Referee By Royal Appointment

It has been a right Royal month for one of the world’s top referees Alhambra Nievas.

She refereed the Copa del Rey Final (The Kings Cup) in front of  a passionate 21,000 crowd in Vallodolid, where UE Santaboian beat Silver storm El Salavador 16-6 in a match where the rain in Spain fell not mainly on the plain, but mainly and by the bucket load on Estadio Jose Zorrilla.

There was virtually no mention of Alhambra’s refereeing performance in any of the newspaper reports of the match, which is just the way she likes it.

“No news good news” she often tells me, meaning if she does not get a mention in match reports, then done her job has gone well, and as an ex international player she knows  that the players are the main protagonists in our great game.

Media coverage inevitably focuses on the fact that she is a woman, and we both share a  common and fervent hope that the day will soon come day when referee announcements will no longer require a gender prefix.

After the kings cup, the only thing could top that experience was to have lunch with the King of Spain himself, which Alhambra duly did.

It seemed entirely appropriate that our own queen of hearts was invited to the royal palace, I just hope she didn’t shout out a crouch, bind, set instruction to His Majesty  when it was time to eat.

Alhambra’s schedule is non stop and with airports awaiting and rugby matters to attend to, after a brief period of family time, she will be off to Canada and France to referee in the final two legs of the womens world series sevens.

Then it’s back home prepare for this summers big event, the Womens rugby world cup taking place in Ireland throughout August.

There will be world cup warm up games to officiate, followed by a month in Ireland for the tournament itself, where she has promised to buy me a guinness somwhere along the way.

This humble friendly and personable young woman will go about her business in her usual modest and charming manner, leaving the limelight to others whilst spreading the gospel of our great game and its values.

No news good news” ?  When Alhambra is refereeing your match it is definately good news.

Now where’s that Guinness ?






Sevens Heaven The Party In Paris

As the rugby world focused on Edinburgh this weekend, the 16th arondissment that leafy Parisian suburb around Porte de Saint Cloud, played host to the penultimate leg of the HSBC World Sevens Series.

Paris needs no excuse to party, and at the home of European challenge cup winners Stade Francais, Stade Jean Bouin witnessed two days of music, food,drink and top class rugby that ticked all the boxes of a great sporting and social weekend.

The thumping kenyan drum band just came out on top against my rather feeble paracetamol intake, but the headaches were worthwhile.

What the opposing French band lacked in volume they more than made up for in tempo their dubious choice of music underlined as a Gary Glitter hit rocked the stadium at various intervals.

Of course sevens is about more than rugby, and in the capital of fashion the fancy dress, that is now part and parcel of the sevens circuit,  if not exactly Christian Dior was certainly worthy of Christian Califano.

When told that my 70s costume was brilliant it was somewhat embarrassing to state that I hadn’t in fact come in fancy dress, and that I worked for the media Zut Alors !

A largely partisan French crowd came to life when les Bleus took the field, and if their team did not really gel at the weekend one sumptuous offload from Vakatawa was worth the admission fee alone.

The photo in Sunday’s L’equipe does not do justice to the beauty of that one act, it would need a painting by one of the French impressionists to truly convey the sheer uplifting joy of the pass, which Vakatawa followed up himself to score a try that created such a roar causing  the coffee cups to rattle as far away as the Gare du Nord.

My Monday roar was almost hijacked by a lovely bottle of Merlot last night but ever the proffesional I managed to assume some self control  just in the nick of time.

The nuts and bolts of this tournament are that South Africa won it and won the trophy, but the cold statistics are somewhat secondary.

Having  been a bit sniffy about sevens, I will never forget the sheer joy  and comraderery of the fans ,the smiles On the children’s faces as they clutched their freebies from the sponsors,  the rugby themed games in the tournament village and the  local coaches playing with the kids, and showing how much fun can be had in this great game.

It was more like a recruitment and open day for the sport of rugby, and I promise I will sniff no more, because the joy on show was genuine and overwhelming and I left that leafy Parisian suburb uplifted and desperately wanting to go for a kick about in the parc.

I was in sevens heaven

Paris 7s Winners South Africa

A Fistful Of (NZ) Dollars 

New Zealand sports minister Jonathan Coleman, and other government ministers, were rubbing their hands with glee recently, when they announced that they are expecting significant economic gains from the visit of the 2017 Lions.

One NZ journalist told me “The Lions just defecate cash, it’s like Santa arriving with a bag of money which virtually trebles the income of the governing body overnight

20,000 Lions supporters travelled to the land of the long white cloud in 2005, which resulted in 431,000 international visitor bed nights, of the 360,000 match tickets available on tour, 355,000 were sold.

35,000 lions supporters are expected to arrive in 2017, and everyone is attempting to cash in.

Virtually all accommodation at every venue is sold out, although some basic accommodation is available for £670 a night, in Wellington, on the night of the second test, and they have even thrown Lenny Henry out of the Premier Inn to make a few more dollars more.

in 2005 the NZ national economy benefited by 115 million dollars in foreign exchange gains, and 250 million dollars in tourism receipts.

Whilst some these figures are open to interpretation, what cannot be argued is the fact that New Zealand rugby banked 20.4 million dollars from the 2005 Lions tour.

Last week New Zealand rugby published its annual report for 2016, which showed a loss of six million dollars.

It seems that a visiting Lions tour is the only way to ensure that NZ rugby achieves a  profit.

New Zealand is not the only country to benefit, after the last Lions tour in 2013, the Australian rugby Union made £40m enabling them to wipe out their £12.2m debt.

So it makes it even more galling when the Lions are handicapped by a ridiculous schedule and a total lack of preparation time.

In a five-week period the tour includes matches against all five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises, as well as the New Zealand Maori, and a three Test series against the All Blacks.

The Home Unions committee agreement, drawn up to cover Lions tours from 2001 to 2017, was detrimental to the touring side from the outset, and subsequent coaches have advocated strongly that no tour should depart after 2017 without all the players having at least two weeks preparation time together.

The leverage the Lions financial clout gives them should also have been a major factor in negotiations with New Zealand Rugby this time around.

Many players will leave for New Zealand only 48-hours after playing in the Premiership and Pro12 finals, to face the most brutal schedule the host nation has been able to put together, this should never have been agreed

But it is not just New Zealand that are responsible, lack of cooperation closer to home, in fact at home, has added insult to injury.

A Lions request that the tour should start a week later, to enable the squad to have seven days of preparation before the opening match against a Provincial Union XV, and so that the final test could be played on July 15 rather than July 8, was refused by Premiership Rugby.

Premier rugby said that the decision to oppose any changes to the tour dates was taken in the interests of player welfare, and that the end of the tour would be too close to the start of the new season.

The same body that now propose an eleven month domestic season in England, and support a condensed six nations tournament.

Strange days indeed.