Carmarthenshire Birthplace Of Wizards

Carmarthenshire is a very magical place. Tucked away in West Wales the county’s mystical qualities are enhanced by the fact that it is reputed to be the birthplace of Merlin, the magician of Arthurian legend.

If you have any doubts about these matters then I refer you to Merlin’s oak which stood on the approach to Carmarthen’s town centre amid the legend that King Arthur’s famous wizard had placed a protective curse on it. In local tradition, the wizard said Carmarthen would “drown” if the oak was ever removed, and some even said a curious, pointed notch in the tree was the face of Merlin himself.

In fact, the tree was poisoned in the 1850s by a local who objected to people holding meetings beneath it, but its trunk was preserved within iron railings. It was then removed from the town when someone set it on fire at the end of the 1970s. Carmarthen then suffered its worst floods for many years.

The county of Carmarthenshire is also the birthplace of the subject of this article, and indeed its writer. The rolling green hills have produced more magicians than the magical circle, the towns and villages producing a conveyor belt of rugby wonderment.

 Cefneithen, Trimsaran, Bancyfelin, Kidwelly and Pontarddulais produced Barry John, Carwyn James, Jiffy, Delme Thomas, Mike Phillips, Jon Davies, Terry Price and Ieuan Evans, and that is just a  small proportion to illustrate that magic is indeed the byword in these parts.

 The tiny village of Mynddcerig had a recorded population of 303 in the 2011 census, this village has now been noted and mispronounced all over the world due to just one man, Nigel Owens.

Yesterday on a farm near Llanelli a herd of prize Hereford’s munched on their feed with a sense of bovine pride as their boss was creating history in Paris.

Nigel has never been one for taking any bull on the rugby field, but back home it’s a different story.

The first pedigree Hereford’s, the mairwen herd are named after Nigel’s Mam, Rhachel Mairwen Owens.

The lush green fields of Carmarthenshire are consistently visited by precipitation from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, one of the reasons why it is such a wonderful farming area.

Two weeks ago he had Georgia on his mind at a damp and gloomy Twickenham, but yesterday it was the city of lights that provided the setting for the Welshman’s 100th test match.

France faced Italy in a deserted Stade de France due to COVID-19, but it was another dreadful disease that occupied Nigel Owens sleepless nights in the lead up to this memorable occasion.

It was a case of TB or not TB as he and his herd awaited the results of statutory bovine TB tests. Thankfully the results all came back negative.

This could be the last international assignment for the much loved whistle blower but players and fans alike are hoping to see him in action during the 2021 Guinness Six Nations.

On a personal note I count myself privileged to call Nigel a friend. When he offered to write the foreward to my book on French Rugby, due for publication by St David’s Press in 2021, I was delighted beyond words.

Last night as a deserted post match Stade de France shimmered in the Parisian moonlight, a Carmarthenshire man’s thoughts turned to the rolling green hills of home, and Merlin doffs his cap to the wizard with the whistle, oh there is magic in these parts alright.

J.J. Initially One Of The Greats

Phil Steele summed it up perfectly

’”Im sure I speak for many of my age when I say that we have lost part of our rugby childhood, One of the all time greats of Welsh Rugby. #RIPJJ.

Those of us who grew up with the Wales team of the 1970’s have a spiritual bond with the players that we worshiped, and J.J. Williams’ death feels personal to us in a way we cannot begin to describe.

My first attendance at a Welsh international was against England at Twickenham in 1974, the day when Max Boyce’s blind Irish referee disallowed JJ’s try.

I can confirm here and now that it should have been awarded. John West was 25 metres behind play and couldn’t see the touchdown, but I could.

From that day onwards J.J. Williams was always somewhere in my excuse for a brain, but more importantly he was in my soul.

I am not ashamed to admit that I shed a few tears last Thursday, when the sad news broke, the problem when you get to my age is that this sort of news gets more and more frequent, but as Phil Steele touched upon those childhood memories are so magical and so untarnished that you feel you lose something of yourself when folks of this kind leave us behind, it was just the same with “Merv” and “Grav”

I count myself so fortunate to have been a teenager when the “Welsh Whippet” made that red number 11 jersey his own. In fact I was even more blessed that he also played for “my” club, Llanelli. 

His playing feats have been written about in obituaries over recent days, but this small heartfelt tribute hopefully goes deeper than records and achievements.

Thank you John James Williams for lighting up a young boy’s passion for this wonderful game, you will never be forgotten, sleep peacefully.


Italian Women’s Rugby has a new ambassador the Colorno flanker from Naples Giada Franco.

Colorno (Parmigiano: Colórni) is a comune (municipality) in the Province of Parma in the Italian region Emilia-Romagna, located about 90 kilometres (56 mi) northwest of Bologna and about 15 kilometres (9 mi) north of Parma.

One of the first names on the Italy team sheet, the former Harlequins Ladies star begins a technical journey in support of women’s rugby in the Emilia region. The “Leonessa di Colorno”, a nickname derived from her determination and those luscious locks , officially becomes part of the tutoring project that the Via Pertini club is undertaking with the small women’s teams in the area.

Giada now occupies a place amongst the best players in Europe, as demonstrated by the four Player of the Match awards with Italdonne. The 24-year-old with 15 caps in the women’s national team told the Rugby Colorno website us about her story so far, her love for rugby and her recent role as ambassador of the women’s rugby development project.

There are strong links with her club in the Midlands as Leicester Tigers partnered with the Italian outfit in December 2018.

Colorno’s Men’s first team currently play in the second tier of Italian rugby union, whilst the Women’s team are Italy’s current reigning champions of the sport.

Founded in 1975, the club has progressed year on year thanks to a strong community development programme and projects with local schools.

Eight members of the Rugby Colorno Women’s team were also involved in the Italian national squad who finished second to England in the 2019 Women’s Six Nations, and the club fields 10 teams from the under-6 age group up to senior Men’s and Women teams.

Giada made a lot of friends and captured a lot of hearts during her brief time in England, her smiling face is greatly missed.

Here is the interview translated from Italian

Giada, where did your love for rugby come from?

“It started with school through a project I participated in during high school. I have always practiced other sports but when I got to know rugby I got passionate and I never stopped ”.

Did you have had any problems during your rugby journey? What has always kept the passion burning in you?

“The problems were essentially logistical in nature, as I had to move immediately from Salerno to Benevento and then to Colorno. The love for sport has always accompanied me in my life and kept the passion alive. ”

You had your first experience away from home in Colorno, tell us how you lived it.

“I moved here to Colorno with Maria Grazia Cioffi, a teammate and friend I met in Benevento, with her by my side I faced everything in a calm and peaceful way. Today I consider Colorno a second home, a big family in which I was very well received. ”

In 2018 the first blue call arrives, what memories do you have of the first meeting?

“I remember the anxiety and the nervousness, I was quite worried but at the same time I wanted to win a cap. Fortunately, there is a fantastic group in the national team too so I had no problems integrating into the team. ”

And the first game? The sensations of the first time with Italdonne.

“Pure anxiety, an indescribable emotion. Since I started playing rugby my dream has always been to wear the national team jersey and be able to proudly represent our country ”.

2018 was a very important year for you, the one in which the first historic Scudetto with the Red Furies of Rugby Colorno arrives in May.

“We were playing the second consecutive final, the year before we had lost precisely to Valsugana and the victory of the Scudetto symbolized our revenge, a revenge that came after a great journey with Cristian Prestera. We had worked and worked hard, we were a great group and that championship was the crowning glory of a perfect season. ”

Last year the experience in England with Harlequins Ladies, tell us how things went.

“It was a fantastic experience, in England I experienced a totally different way of seeing rugby, especially women’s rugby. In addition to the very high level of play, there is a great organization behind the championship, structured to perfection and very competitive … Then the Harlequins are a fantastic club. I’m sorry that this experience ended prematurely because of the covid. ”

Are you happy to be back in Colorno? Tell us what ties you to the women’s rugby development project.

“I am very happy to be back in Colorno where I found a large part of the team. I have an excellent relationship with Pliny, Mariagrazia and Davide, they push us to always give the best. From this season with Plinio we will support the teams under the tutoring of Rugby Colorno, namely Amatori Parma, Formigine, Carpi and Piacenza, in the hope of helping them to grow. The goal would be to make these girls debut one day with the Red Furies shirt. ”

Do you want to say hello to all the young rugby players who follow you?

“Hello everyone, we hope to see you soon on the pitch”.

Small Steps And Giant Leaps

After six months of rugby darkness they emerged blinking in to the sunlight.

Like pit ponies arriving above ground, the fans, around 2800 of them, looked slightly dazed and bewildered as they queued for hand sanitiser and to have their temperature assessed at the gates.

We all wondered when this day would come, at times we wondered if it would even come at all.

The classic saying that even the longest journey starts with a single step fitted yesterday’s occasion at the stoop perfectly.

Six months ago we would never have imagined a rugby crowd all wearing face masks, these were the things we saw far Eastern travellers wearing at Heathrow and Gatwick, much to our amusement.

Soberingly we no longer laugh, the masks have become as much of a must have attachment as our mobile phones.

There was an atmosphere of mixed emotions yesterday, as Bath faced Harlequins in a match that was used as a government trial in crowd reintroduction.

At last this felt like a proper rugby occasion, and as everyone gradually relaxed it felt like we had never been away.

What a joy and a relief to be able to smell that freshly cut grass, the sound of boot on ball, but you also detected a slight hint of nervousness in the attending legions, and understandably so.

Even the weather put on its Saturday best with warm patchy sunshine, it was late summer at its finest.

After Quins bright start Bath gradually gained control, and long before the second half the West Country side were well in control, and never looked like losing.

Blondes have more fun, and a paroxide endowed Rhys Priestland stood out for Bath. His 21 points from the boot, and his orchestration of the backline, reminded us just how good the former Wales fly half can be.

But ultimately yesterday was about something much bigger.

After all that has happened over the last six months, to walk away from the Stoop in the warm sunshine with like minded folk, felt very special.

With a big apology to Neil Armstrong this was one small rugby step, but for many of us it was a giant leap.

Mullets And Moos Rugby Returns In Wales

Yesterday Nigel Owens travelled the twelve miles from Mynddcerrig to Parc y Scarlets to be part of rugby’s re-birth in Wales. 

The short journey down the A476 was one he had travelled many many times before, but this one was particularly notable, as it heralded the return of competetive rugby to Wales.

Coronavirus for once met its match, and Scarlet Fever was the order of the day.

Scarlets emerged from the dark troubling days of recent months with a joy and a verve, as they celebrated their freedom with breathtaking running rugby that is engrained in the DNA of this rugby mad region.

Scarlets scored five tries with the “Five Roads Express” scoring a brace, and providing a constant attacking threat, whilst supporting a fetching mullet which we haven’t seen in these parts since the days of Jiffy and Ieuan.

The home team led 15-7 at the interval and never looked in danger of losing to a Cardiff Blues team that were off the pace, and never achieved a foothold in the game.

Ed Kennedy and Sam Lousi scored Scarlets other tries, along with the pick of the bunch a length of the field effort finished off by Johnny McNicholl.
Josh Adams and Matthew Morgan scored tries for the Blues, but Scarlets 32-13 bonus point victory was convincing.

The rugby re-birth was complete, but back down the A476 in Mynddcerrig Nigel Owens returned to the real thing, and the arrival of a new suckling bull calf, a welcome addition to his pedigree Hereford herd. Mairwen Storm might just have outshone Steff Evans this weekend.

Mullets and moos, what more could we ask of a weekend that gives us hope for the future.

Behind The Mask The Return Of Rugby

I’m at that age where grumpy old man seems to be the best and most accurate way to describe me.

The world seems to have gone mad, it’s 35 degrees, and it’s too hot to even go outside. For a man born in West Wales this is unchartered territory.

Every shop I walk in to I look like I’m about to rob the place, when I order a coffee in Pret I have to bellow “Latte” like a town crier, so the barista can hear me through two layers of material on my face mask.

At the same time the elastic on the mask is pulling my ears forward like a catapult, making me look like Prince Charles, Gary Lineker hybrid.

I could cope with all this, and more, if I had my life long escape route available, but of course rugby is still standing in the wings like a nervous teenager, waiting to step forward at the prom and pluck up the courage to ask for a dance.

So where exactly are we ? Hope was last seen heading towards the horizon with its bottom on fire, but this week hope seems to have extinguished the flames, rubbed in a bit of germolene, and with a bit of luck we are close to a comeback.

The Premiership is due to return at the Stoop on Friday night when Harlequins face Sale Sharks.

This week also saw the scheduling of the outstanding Six Nations matches.

The Pro 14 is due back on August 22 and the Top 14 in France begins a bit later on September 5.

A word of caution though these schedules are all at the mercy of just one man, a bloke called Spike.

Well actually two blokes called Spike, and from what I can gather it’s the second one that calls all the shots.

If the second Spike stays away we will all be fine…. now where is that latte ?.

Oh Flower Of Scotland When Will We See Your Like Again

In France they call it “Le petite morte,” the moment when that unwanted visitor, sporting retirement, arrives at your doorstep. The English translation, “The little death”, may sound like a gross exaggeration, but to all those who have experienced it, a little death it most definitely what it feels like.

Retirement, and knowing when the time is right to retire, is undoubtedly one the hardest moments of anyone’s sporting career, even when it is decided on one’s own terms.

Harlequins and Scotland lock Debs McCormack did everything on her own terms during a long club and international career, so it comes as no surprise that when it came to the agonising moment of dealing with sporting retirement, she had the strength of character, and the wisdom, to make that difficult decision.

I have been extremely fortunate to have seen and meet some of the greats of the game from Gareth Edwards to Dan Carter, and with my hand on my heart I can honestly say I have never come across a greater team player than Debs. 

As I write this piece I can almost see Debs squirm, compliments and praise, even when they are justified and worthy, do not sit easily on her sore and modest shoulders.

I don’t think Debs will ever realise just how good a player she was, or indeed how popular she was with team mates, fans, and journalists alike, only because that does not fit in with the humble way in which she operates.

I could list so many examples that I have witnessed first hand of her modesty and selflessness, but I’m afraid it would necessitate me writing another book just to get close to listing them all.

Once “Le petite morte” has had a decent mourning period,  I really hope that Debs will allow herself the time to look back with pride, and a great deal of pleasure, at what she has achieved in the game.

Rugby, and in particular the women’s game, will be all the better for her legacy, those following in her wake will find the path that little bit smoother, thanks to her and others.

Debs epitomised and displayed everything that is good about our wonderful game, she respected and demonstrated its values with honour, and there is no greater compliment I can pay her than that.

I count myself fortunate that I was able to witness at close hand the latter part of her rugby playing journey, including her 30th Scottish cap, which at one stage we both believed was cursed. But come it did, eventually, against France in Lille, in the 80th minute, a moment I witnessed in a Parisian hotel on French television. I’m pretty sure my shouting at the TV was the catalyst for Scotland coach, Shade Munro, to bring Debs off the bench.

How she balanced university, a job and elite rugby I have absolutely no idea, but she did so with apolomb, and despite the huge demands on her, Debs always still found time for everyone who needed a chat, an encouraging word, or just a smile.

Rugby gave her a lot, but in return she also gave rugby everything she had, Harlequins and Scotland were the lucky recipients of her unconditional loyalty. Debs was never one to make a fuss, even during a long injury spell, when diagnosis of the problem proved elusive, in fact her shoulder still isn’t right, and was one of the factors in her announcing her retirement. She sometimes felt a fraud, even though she was in constant pain, questioning inwardly whether people believed her, imagining she was letting folks down, and whether or not the whole thing was in her head, but of course we all knew nothing could be further from the truth, it always took something major to keep Debs off the field of play.

Her career and statistics have been written about by those more eloquent than myself, following news of her retirement, released by Harlequins Women on Saturday 8 August.

 31 caps for Scotland, 23 competitive appearances for Harlequins Women, including two Tyrrells Premiership finals, reveal the impressive bare facts but her rugby career was about far more than that.

A try for Scotland against Spain in a World Cup qualifier, and tries in the semi final and final of the 2017 Tyrrells Premiership for Harlequins are wonderful memorable moments, as was her hat trick of tries down under for Sydney outfit Eastern Suburbs against Wollongong, a performance that earned her a place in the Shute Shield team of the week.

Jade Konkel has been behind Debs, quite literally, as number 8 for Harlequins and Scotland, and she summed things up perfectly.

Debs’ Motherwell Gran made it possible for this flower of Scotland to bloom in the thistled shirt, and I feel certain she will be looking down with pride at what her girl has achieved, and in the impressive and dignified manner with which she has achieved it.

Debs we salute you and thank you, for enriching our lives on and off the field. Those playing days are passed now,  I’m not sure we will we ever see your like again, but as flowers of Scotland go, you were without doubt the pick of the bunch.

Ci Mancherai Giada

The new normal they call it, well the new normal seems to involve an awful lot of farewells, to things we enjoyed, to things that brightened up our days, and to things that brought a smile to our faces.

One of those farewells, and one of the very sad ones, is having to say goodbye to Giada Franco.

That smile as broad as Vesuvius, and as warm as a Napoli summer evening, will no longer brighten up the dark winter days at Surrey Sports Park and the Stoop.

The Italian flanker will not be running out with Harlequins Women for the 2020/21 season, at whenever that might start.

A force of nature on and off the field, she will be missed by team mates, fans and ageing journalists in equal measure, but Harlequins loss is very definitely Rugby Colorno’s gain.

In this strange and troubling pandemic, there isn’t a face mask big enough to cover that wonderful huge Mediterranean smile, and there isn’t one big enough to cover our sadness at her departure.

The number 7 is associated with good luck and magical properties, it is the basis for many myths and folklore.

Also the number 7 represents the jackpot on slot machines, and Quins certainly hit the jackpot last season, when Giada became a permanent fixture in the number 7 shirt.

As the new normal stretches into August, the future remains uncertain for the game of rugby, but one thing can be guaranteed, there will always be a welcome here for Giada Franco, she will forever be a part of this clubs rich history.

Take care Giada, Buona fortuna ea presto.

Books Balls And Black Labs

There will be some people who would be amazed to discover that I had actually read a book let alone written one, and yet last week the final words were penned on my book about the hard men of French rugby.

I’ve had no paid work since March, so the isolation and lockdown were the perfect environment for a writer, however having to share that environment with a 3 year old black Labrador added a more challenging aspect to the equation.

Once the laptop was opened the cabaret would begin. Tennis ball in mouth, (the dog not me) look sadly at writer with woeful eyes suggesting total neglect from the man behind the keyboard.

Trying to avoid eye contact I would carrying on writing whilst being aware that the next canine phase of attack was about to begin.

This consisted of thrusting an empty plastic water bottle into my crotch as the four legged attacker launched himself under the kitchen table to create speed for maximum impact.

I could almost hear Andrew Cotter’s commentary as my eyes watered.

The old rugby adage of don’t rub them count them rang in my ears as another chapter of the book descended into chaos.

A constant supply of coffee and croissants to get into a French mindset definitely worked ,and my Nespresso machine has been employed on more occasions than Yoann Huget’s disciplinary representatives.

Feeling rather proud of myself I submitted my final manuscript to the publishers at the weekend by e mail, by the time I had reached around to pat myself on the back it had come whizzing back with a request to correct the thousands of typo errors and missed or incorrect punctuation marks, glory does not last long in this writing game.

So here I am back at the keyboard with charcoal bones in hand, tennis ball at my feet, and out of the corner of my eye I can see an empty plastic water bottle with canine attachment heading towards my lower abdomen, I wonder if Hemingway had these problems.

Wish me luck !

The Hard Men of French Rugby will be published by St David’s Press

Rugby CRAP And The R Value

Do you find yourself digging out old rugby programmes, watching endless re runs on every media platform known to mankind, then checking your diary to see what match you were at this time last year ?, well my friends I don’t require a lab test or swab to inform you that you are suffering from RWS, otherwise known as rugby withdrawal symptoms.

Until we get the R value up and running then I’m afraid it’s just a case of  CRAP (Countless Re runs And Podcasts)

These are tough times, bombarded by static bike rides, Tik Tok, watching people’s book shelves on television and Instagram exercises in gardens as they commit to a million sit up’s before lunch, or ex international rugby players kicking balls into wheelie bins, it’s enough to get anyone down.

For me Zoom is, was and always shall be a ice lolly, a split screen of individuals with the technical knowledge of a gnat looking back at me like a poor man’s celebrity squares is doing nothing for my mental well being.

 On the positive side RWS has made me aware just how precious every match, every chat, every smile, every laugh and every person I met along the way should have been regarded.

Like many I took it for granted it was always there last week this week and available again the following week.

I miss the game of rugby, but much more importantly I miss the friends and colleagues that make it so special.

At the moment I’m not sure whether I should be wearing a face mask or a salary cap, but every day is a day nearer seeing you all again, so until then keep Zooming cycling and sitting up, whatever gets you through the day is fine by me.