In Wales we are famous for our lack of vowels, to the visitor or the untrained eye road, village, and town signs can have a strange and unfamiliar look.
Whilst vowels may be a rare commodity in the land of my fathers, and mothers, one thing we do love with a passion are initials.
There are a few chosen ones who through their greatness are permitted to dispense with their full monikers and be universally referred to by their initials.
Being a Williams can give you a huge advantage in this department, as JPR and the late great JJ would testify.
Now there is a new kid on the block his greatness has never been in doubt but the “Initial Identity” has gradually seeped into existence.
This time it’s not a Williams but a Jones. Now this inevitable event has also come about because there are many who tie themselves up in knots trying to work out where the fine line between his first and surname ends.
I am of course referring to Alun Wyn Jones. Some call him Alun, others call him Alun Wyn the very brave call him Al, but unlike Paul Simon it was more case of you can’t call me Al not unless you know me very well.
Then there was the dilemma for those on the other side of the border as to whether his surname Wyn Jones or Jones ? But all this is a mere sideshow, whatever you called him he is, was, and ever shall be one of the true Welsh greats, a greatness that extended globally.
He terrified me at pressers so what he did to opposition players I can only begin to imagine, he terrified you with the power of silence he was a man of action rather than words which ironically belied his eloquence and intelligence.
He was our lighthouse a shining beacon to cling to when the Welsh rugby seas were rough however bad things got on and off the field you felt AWJ had a metaphorical arm around your shoulder, you knew things would turn out okay.
Yesterday AWJ made his final appearance at Twickenham captaining the Barbarians against a World XV.
A match won by the Barbarians 48-42 which featured 14 tries
His stats and achievements have been listed elsewhere, but my words are from the heart as someone who was just a fan when he started his international career in 2006, and then a journalist sat in the press box at Stade de France when he made his final appearance against France in the 2016 Guinness Six Nations.
Welsh rugby goodbyes are never easy and my life has been full of them from Barry in 1972, Gareth and Gerald in 1978 to Ieuan, Shane and Sam in latter years, saying goodbye to AWJ in the Twickenham sunshine was equally emotional.
AWJ has appeared superhuman in his longevity and his rapid recovery from major injuries, two missed conversions in front of the posts at the end of the match showed us that maybe he is human after all, but I’m not convinced. Diolch Alun Wyn.
When you get an invite from Fabien Galthié that includes a buffet and a glass of wine with the local Mayor it is a wise move to accept.
The French coach’s appreciation of his nation’s rugby terroire has been instrumental in the current love affair between the national team and its people, it has not always been this way, but France will very definitely not be short of public love and support during their upcoming Rugby World Cup campaign.
The small village of Montgesty in the south of France is situated in the department of Lot in the Midi-Pyréneés with a population of under 300 people. It is also where Fabien Galthié grew up.
Last Tuesday the French management team welcomed us with open arms, even Shaun Edwards appeared hospitable although his smile is probably more scary than the familiar frown that inhabits his granite visage.
For the previous few days the management team had ensconced themselves in the peace and tranquility of Montgesty
The group consisted of:
Fabien Galthié, Coach
Raphaël Ibañez, Manager
Laurent Labit, Attack Coach
William Servat, Forwards Coach
Shaun Edwards, Defence Coach
Karim Ghezal, Assistant Forwards Coach
Thibault Giroud, Director of Performance
Nicolas Buffa, Head of Analysis
Bruno Boussagnol, Medical
On home soil Galthie was his usual cool charming self: “This is a time when we are preparing for our preparations. The programming of the preparation has now been done. The selection times, the work, the places, the friendly matches that will bring us slowly to September 8, everything is in place. We have the complete vision of the three months of preparation”
“With regard to squad selection we consider everyone, the injured, those returning from injury and there are still many matches to play, the European finals, the final phase of the Top 14. We will unveil our first list of 42 players on June 21. But, before that, on the Sunday following the play offs ( June 4), when ten Top 14 teams are eliminated, we will convene a first group of 23 players in Marcoussis for four days of preparation with the France under 20 team”.
“From Tuesday, we will restart our selection cycle with a ranking by position from one to six, or from one to seven. This will make a total of about one hundred players, all of whom will be informed that they are able to participate in the World Cup. There may be injuries, players called up at various stages so the windows are open which could be beneficial to long-term absentees such as Anthony Jelonch or Arthur Vincent and allow them to join the group when they are ready.
Given the long season that the players are in the process of completing, ending with the Top 14 final, full preparations will not begin until July 2 in Monaco to allow the players a two week break.
Galthie is very keen on creating a balance. Preparations and the World Cup tournament itself will extend to 17 weeks of living together, for the initial 42 man squad and the final 33 for the tournament itself.
During the three week training camp in Capbreton, they have chosen a site in a Seignosse holiday village where the party will stay in bungalows to break things up and avoid the drudgery of hotel life.
France have four warm up matches prior to their opening RWC match against New Zealand. They face Scotland twice, at Murrayfield on 5th August, and again in Saint-Etienne on 12 August. They then entertain Fiji in Nantes on 19 August.
The final 33 man Rugby World squad is announced on 21 August, before the final warm up game against Australia at Stade de France in Paris on Sunday August 27.
After that final warm up game France will take up residence at Rueil-Malmaison in the Hauts-de-Seine for the duration of RWC 2023.
A peaceful glass of Cahors behind the village church was a rare moment of tranquility for a group that have only one aim, to lift the Rugby World Cup in Paris on Saturday 28 October. Should that happen I would imagine a few more quiet glasses of Cahors will be consumed followed by many more noisy ones.
“I’m going home to Swansea town, the day is nearly dawning, I’m going home to that seaport sound, one lovely seatown morning”. John Davies.
There have been many great nights in Welsh sporting history. Somehow dark nights, combined with floodlights, add an extra dimension to the drama played out on our fields of dreams.
Take Lille, for example, in 2016 when Chris Coleman’s team beat Belguim 3-1 to reach the semi finals, yes the semi finals of the Euros, that was a night we will never forget.
Newbridge boxer Joe Calzaghe at the MEN Arena in Manchester 2006, defeating Jeff Lacey to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, or Colin Jackson’s finest hour in Stuttgart, 1993, when he won World Championship gold, and set a world record time for the 110 metres hurdles of 12.91 seconds.
Sunday October 15 1995 was another one of those magical nights that has gone down in Welsh sporting folklore, and it all happened in Dylan Thomas’ Swansea “An “ugly lovely town, crawling, sprawling by the side of a long and splendid curving shore”, or as described by character Terry Walsh in the 1997 cult Welsh film Twin Town, directed by Kevin Allen,“A pretty shitty city”.
Wales is a pretty tribal environment, and those folk who hail from Swansea are often referred to as “Jacks”.
There are several theories as to how this nickname arose, but the most commonly agreed version is the connection with a certain black retriever born in 1930 called Swansea Jack.
He lived in the North Dock area of Swansea, and would always respond to cries for help from the water.
His first rescue came in June 1931, when he saved a 12 year old boy, and a few weeks later, in front of a crowd of people, Jack rescued a swimmer from the docks. His photograph appeared in the local paper and the local council awarded him a silver collar.
Numerous awards followed including ‘Bravest Dog of the Year’ and the canine Victoria Cross. Legend has it that Jack saved 27 people in his lifetime. Sadly, in 1937, he died after eating rat poison.
His statue stands on the Promenade near St.Helen’s Rugby Ground. In 2000, Swansea Jack was named ‘Dog of the Century’ by NewFound Friends of Bristol who train domestic dogs in aquatic rescue techniques.
Swansea was made a city fairly late in life on 3 July 1969.
Prince Charles during a tour of Wales to celebrate his investiture year, made the announcement that the Swansea was to become a city.
It was the second Welsh town to be granted city status although it had to wait until 15 December before it formally received its letters patent from the Queen. On that day the Prince of Wales made a return journey to the new city to grant the charter to the people and the civil dignitaries of Swansea at the Brangwyn Hall.
Between 19 February and 21 February 1941 Swansea was reduced to rubble during what became known as the “Swansea Blitz”.
About 35,000 incendiaries and 800 high explosive bombs were dropped by the German Lufftwaffe during the raids and the raging fires could be seen from the other side of the Bristol Channel in Devon.
A total of 230 people were killed and 397 were injured. Swansea was selected by the Germans as a legitimate strategic target due to its importance as a port and the destruction of the docks and the nearby oil refinery was key to Nazi German war efforts as part of their strategic bombing campaign aimed at crippling coal export and demoralising civilians and emergency services.
Amazing Swansea Town’s football ground, the Vetch Field was undamaged by the blitz, there were rumours long circulated that the Vetch was used as a central point to which the authorities carried the bodies of those killed in the bombing, although this has never officially been confirmed.
The Vetch Field smelt of Welsh sport, it had an aroma that reeked of sweat, deep heat and down to earth toil and guts, it was South Wales working class chic in every crash barrier and urinal.
On Sunday 15 October 1995 it had this stuff oozing out of its pores.
Wales v Western Samoa was one of the most gladiatorial, bone jarring rugby occasions I have ever witnessed.
For the uninitiated The Vetch was the home of Swansea Football Club.
Opened in 1912, it hosted the Wales Rugby League team for the first time in 1981, when Wales defeated Papua New Guinea 46-0 in front of 11,422 spectators.
Wales scored 13 tries that day through Phil Ford (3), Jonathan Davies (2), Anthony Sullivan (2), Rob Ackerman, David Bishop, Kevin Ellis, Jonathan Griffiths and Adrian Hadley.
The Vetch also had an artistic side, hosting a Stevie Wonder concert in 1984, and in 1985 Carl Douglas performed his one hit wonder “Kung Fu Fighting”, a very suitable theme tune for the match against Western Samoa.
On this particular Sunday afternoon the pubs in the Sandfield area around the Vetch Field were awash with excitement.
Western Street had three pubs in the opening 100 metres of its parish.
The Clarence and The Garibaldi the traditional pre match watering holes were jam packed ahead of the 6pm kick off.
The Sandfield residents were stood on chairs and ladders, their properties offered a good view of the ground for those with a head for heights and a good sense of balance.
The manner in which Western Samoa had destroyed France in the opening pool game, gave Wales much cause for concern, their sheer physicality looked ominous.
Many hundreds were locked out of the ground, and kick off had to be delayed to allow the capacity 15,385 crowd to enter.
This was a match everyone had been looking forward since the draw was made. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to exactly what time of game this was going to be, and it didn’t disappoint.
Welsh language television channel, S4C, showed the game live, and attracted the stations largest ever audience figure.
Wales coach, Clive Griffiths, brought in an Irish sports psychologist, during the lead up to the game to provide motivational talks for the players, whatever he told them seemed to do the trick.
Scott Gibbs, who had played in Wales rugby union defeat to Western Samoa in the 1991 Rugby World Cup, pulled out with a knee injury an hour before kick off.
As a result John Devereux switched to the centre, with Adrian Hadley coming in on the wing
Scott Quinnell was also called up to make his international debut.
For Wales captain Jonathan Davies, the occasion was made extra special as his young son Scott was the Welsh mascot.
Oh those two little words, Western Samoa, for Welsh rugby fans they are the stuff of nightmares. In the Rugby Union World Cup of 1991, they came to Cardiff Arms Park and produced one of the greatest shocks ever recorded in the history of the game, when they beat Wales.
This team hoped that lightning wasn’t about to strike twice, although on this occasion the South Sea Islanders were no minnows, they had already captured the imagination, and they had Schuster and Tuigamala in the side, they really fancied their chances against Wales .
In the lead up to the game, Wales prop Dai Young spoke to the press.
“There is no doubt Western Samoa have some great individual players, what nobody knows is how well they will perform as a team, but with the obvious talent they have, it is safe to assime they will provide very tough opposition”.
The Wales Team To Face Western Samoa
1 Iestyn Harris (Warrington)
2 Anthony Sullivan (St Helens)
3 Allan Bateman (Warrington)
4 John Devereux (Widnes)
5 Adrian Hadley (Widnes)
6 Jonathan Davies (Warrington) (Captain)
7 Kevin Ellis (Warrington)
8 Kelvin Skerrett (Wigan)
9 Martin Hall (Wigan)
10 Dai Young (Salford)
11 Paul Moriarty (Widnes)
12 Scott Quinnell (Wigan)
13 Richie Eyres (Warrington)
14 Neil Cowie (Wigan)
15 Kieron Cunningham (St Helens)
16 Rowland Phillips (Workington)
17 Paul Atcheson (Oldham)
Western Samoa’s team came with a government health warning, with ex union converts John Schuster and Va’aiga Tuigamala,, in the back line, they were a very serious threat. Coach Graham Lowe was a wily customer who possessed one of the shrewdest brains in Rugby League, he had been at the helm with Brisbane Norths, the New Zealand international side as well as Wigan and the Queensland state of origin team.
He picked his strongest side to face Wales, perhaps the one surprise was Apollo Perelini on the bench.
Nine of their World Cup squad were former international union players.
When Wigan’s Tuigamala announced his intention to play rugby league for Western Samoa along with Schuster, Esene Faimalo, Tea and Iva Ropati, Apollo Perelini , Tony Tuimavave and Sam Panapa it gave a clear indication that the South Sea Islanders were not over here just to make up the numbers.
1 Paddy Tuimavave (North Harbour)
2 John Schuster (Halifax) (Captain)
3 Tea Ropati Auckland Warriors)
4 Va’aiga Tuigamala (Wigan)
5 Brian Laumatia (Cronulla)
6 Sam Panapa (Salford)
7 Willie Swann (Auckland Warriors)
8 Se’e Solomona (Auckland Warriors)
9 Willie Poching (Auckland Warriors)
10 Fa’ausu Afoa (Penrith)
11 Tony Tatpu (Auckland Warriors)
12 Via Mata’utia (St Helens)
13 Tony Tuimavave (North Harbour)
14 Mark Ella (Albi)
15 Apollo Perelini (St Helens)
16 Joe Vagana (Auckland Warriors)
17 Des Maea (Auckland Warriors_
With the delayed kick off Wales’ Mark Jones was butting walls and doors in the changing room things were reaching fever pitch, and as dusk fell the twinkling lights of Port Talbot illuminated the skyline a tribute from one steel producer to 30 players whose steel production was about to reach record levels, as they came out of the tunnel to a deafening roar, you had a feeling something very special was about to happen.
A passionate rendering of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau gave way to the Samoan war dance, the Siva Tau.
The Siva Tau declares that Samoa are ready for the war and fight fiercely, not that we needed reminding
John Devereux takes up the story. “We said we would respect the Siva Tau, and face it standing on the half way line with our arms linked”.
“I was in the middle of the line with hooker Martin Hall and when Samoa come to the end of the war dance, they start to walk towards you”.
“As they started walking towards us Martin started walking towards them, dragging me with him, we became an arrowhead with us two at the tip I ended up face to face with Inga Tuigamala”
Straight from the kick off the hits came in. Kelvin Skerrett set down a message very early on, when he took exception to a Samoan pat on the head following his knock on. Wales were awarded a penalty and it set the tone that Wales were not going to take a backward step.
Scott Quinnell was tackled inches short of the Samoan try line, Tea Ropati prevented Quinnell getting to his feet for a quick play the ball and received a yellow card for his troubles. Jonathan Davies put the resulting penalty kick wide of the posts.
The choral Welsh legions did not have to wait long for a slice of bread of heaven. With 7 minutes played, Brian Laumatia was bundled into touch on Samoa’s first tackle.
From the Welsh scrum put in Kevin Ellis sent out a glorious pass to Iestyn Harris who sidestepped majestically past Tony Tuimavave, to touch down under the sticks. Jonathan Davies converted to give Wales a 6-0 lead.
Wales were on fire, uncharacteristically, Davies missed a second penalty, and Quinnell was once again held up short of the try line.
On the 19 minute mark, and very much against the run of play, Sam Panapa gave a short pass to Bryan Laumatia who raced in for a Samoan try, Schuster’s conversion brought the scores level at 6-6.
Wales reaction was tremendous, three minutes later, following a Welsh scrum, Jiffy kicked down the right hand touchline for wing Anthony Sullivan to chase, “Sully” gathered outpaced Laumatia and raced over for a wonderful try, Jonathan Davies found his kicking boots to land the conversion and Wales in the blink of an eye were 12-6 ahead.
John Schuster clawed back two penalties for Western Samoa, and Davies added one for the home side to make the half time score Wales 14 Western Samoa 10.
Wales were even more magnificent in the second half, they took the constant cheap shots and kept their cool admirably in extenuating circumstances.
Western Samoa, on the other hand, became more and more undisciplined and the penalty count continued to rose.
Six minutes after the restart a superb Jonathan Davies drop goal extended Wales lead by a point.
The Welsh forwards were running themselves into the ground. Paul Moriarty who had been a constant target put in a huge shift and was replaced on 55 minutes by Rowland Phillips.
Kelvin Skerrett who was immense all game continued to inspire as he snarled in the faces of the opposition front row, and Scott Quinnell who hadn’t played for five weeks was a colossus, constantly driving forward, tiring out the South Sea Islanders defence.
Des Maea hit Allan Bateman with a high shot on 58 minutes, which earned him a yellow card from referee Russell Smith, it was Western Samoa’s second one of the night and proved costly as Jiffy landed the resulting penalty to extend Wales lead to 17-10.
Willie Poching had a try disallowed for Western Samoa after a blatent forward pass from Sam Panapa, before a Iestyn Harris drop goal in the 75th minute looked to have given Wales an unassailable 20-10 lead.
As the crowd sang Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, with the match in injury time, scrum half Kevin Ellis took a pass from Rowland Phillips, Ellis broke left to score in the corner. Davies conversion drifted wide as the hooter sounded, Wales were through to the Rugby League World Cup Semi Finals, they had beaten Western Samoa 22-10, and the Vetch Field went mental.
The Wales team were still on the pitch twenty minutes after the final whistle, such was the acclaim and clamour from the ecstatic crowd.
Red shirted heroes were on their knees, the battle had been brutal, a young fresh faced Iestyn Harris stared into the Swansea night looking almost mesmerised as he took in what had occurred.
” I have never experienced a more passionate occasion, the crowd must have been worth at least 10 points to us tonight. It’s going to take a remarkably good team to beat us in this World Cup”
Man of the match, Scott Quinnell had a grin as wide as the Severn, “It was one of those games where you just had to take the bull by the horns, it was one of the hardest games of rugby I’ve ever played in”.
Captain, Jonathan Davies told the assembled media, “There’s a word in Welsh called Hwyl, and it’s that spirit that keeps coming through with this squad”.
“Scott Quinnell had ice packs on almost every part of his body post match, the Swansea City apprentices who were looking after us coudn’t believe their eyes with all the blood and stiching going on”.
Adrian Hadley “It was great to back in Cardiff and all back together. The game against Western Samoa was probably the toughest game of rugby I’ve played in.
Clive Griffiths “They wanted to play a big power offloading game against us, but we met fire with fire”
The Final Group Three Table made very pleasurable reading for Wales and their ever growing legion of fans.
Even more exciting was the approaching semi final against the old enemy, England.
But perhaps the most amazing fact amidst all the celebration and anticipation was the realisation that everyone In Wales was talking Rugby League.
You could almost hear the wailing ghosts of past rugby union administrators turning in their graves.
An exclusive extract from my book The Bleus Brothers. Chapter 2 features Guilhem Guirado
It is midnight in Saint-Denis, and Guilhem Guirado the France captain is still doing the media rounds. He is muddied, bruised and exhausted after the opening game of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations Championship.
Nine o’clock kick-offs may be good news for the home supporters who can indulge in a leisurely dinner pre-match but for players it is the final knockings of a very long day.
As Friday night nudges into Saturday morning, Guilhem can finally grab a shower. After the endless rounds of media commitments, it is time to start the long process of unwinding. Many more hours will pass before he can finally get the kind of sleep a warrior deserves, although sleep may be in short supply after the extraordinary events that have unfolded on the field of play.
The dark streets of Saint-Denis are illuminated by neon hotel signs, and the dimly-lit bars are nearly empty as the last train takes supporters back to Gare du Nord and central Paris.
An uneasy quiet descends on the Stade de France, the moonlight reflecting in the icy puddles as the shutters on the food outlets come echoing to a close in the Parisian night with the final Espresso dispensed.
On a bitterly cold night, the warm red shirts of Wales created a comeback that would have defied Lazarus as they turned around a 0-16 deficit at half-time, to score three second-half tries and earn a 24-19 victory.
It was Wales’ biggest ever half-time turnaround in a Five or Six Nations match, and the haunted look and sheer desolation on the French faces at full time was painful to see.
Even with Jefferson Poirot in the front row it is difficult to fathom the mystery of how France let such a big lead slip. What might Poirot the detective have said? “There is nothing more amazing than the extraordinary sanity of the insane! Unless it is the extraordinary eccentricity of the sane!”
Selecting the hooker position for this French Hard Men XV was one of the decisions I struggled with the most.
Firstly, by definition, you don’t get a hooker who isn’t hard; when you are dangling in a scrum between two brutes with your arms trapped and head-to-head with the opposition, witty repartee is not going to help you very much.
Secondly, France has had such an embarras de richesses of ‘talloneurs’ – Paco, Dubroca, Szarzewski and Ibanez to name but a few.
I’m sure many will question my choice of Guilhem Guirado as hooker. The numéro deux shirt has been worn by so many wonderful hard men that I really was spoilt for choice. But hardness comes in many different forms and Guilhem Guirado had a mental and physical hardness that very few could match.
He virtually carried the national team at one of the most disappointing periods in its history, but as hooker and captain, Guilhem never let his personal standards or his level of performance drop for one second which is more than can be said for some of his colleagues in the blue jersey.
Guirado was like a one-man battering ram, running himself into the ground, not only doing all the donkey work expected of a hooker but also becoming a major try scorer.
In the 2018 autumn internationals, he scored in all three matches of the series against South Africa, Argentina and Fiji, and ended up as France’s top try scorer of the campaign with four.
In total he scored eight tries for his country, four of which came during the fourteen-day period of those 2018 autumn matches.
A Twitter debate perfectly summed up Guilhem’s situation. The question was asked: “Which player from another Six Nations team would you select for your own country?”
The overwhelming majority of people voted for Guirado. One user replied: “I would pick Guilhem Guirado just so that he doesn’t have to suffer through playing for France anymore!”
Guilhem was a warrior; he put his body on the line time and time again and he never flinched. At the end of every international, the television cameras would pan in on him in painful close-up as he stared wide eyed with despair. Sometimes you got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he was the only one that cared.
When France lost to Ireland 13-15 at Stade de France in February 2018, Guirado made 31 tackles, a Six Nations record that he jointly holds with Luke Charteris of Wales.
His durability was incredible. For someone who was always the first to put his body on the line, he had very few absences with injury. When Guilhem went down in a match he would invariably bounce back up and if he stayed down then you knew it was something serious.
Arles-sur-Tech is a tiny village, set in a scenic forested valley in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, a place where Catalan and French are spoken.
It is less than one hour’s drive from the Spanish border, a journey that has a major relevance to one of its inhabitants, Guilhem Guirado.
In stature and appearance, he is exactly how you would imagine a French hooker to look. At 5ft 11ins and 15 stone 8lbs, he is as tough and solid as the local Pyrenean boulders on the field but has the calm, whispering qualities of the meandering Tech river off it.
He is a private man who puts his love of his family above all else. His grandparents were among the half a million Spanish citizens who fled the violence of the Spanish Civil War and crossed the Pyrenees with the sole aim of finding safety and refuge in France. The exodus was the biggest single influx of refugees ever known in France and was named “La Retirada”, the Spanish for retreat.
Guilhem’s parents were born in Granada. They were both five-year-olds when they arrived in France following that arduous journey with almost nothing to their name.
He says: “Until I was 15 all I knew was this village where my grandparents had arrived, my favourite memories are from here. I loved being that age; it is here everything really started for me and I found a passion for rugby.”
Guilhem is a man who knows where he is and more importantly where he has come from.
I first met him at the RBS Six Nations launch in 2016 after he had just been announced as the new France captain. He stood out as a man at peace with himself, taking everything in his stride in a calm and measured manner.
The lovely thing about Guilhem is that the moment he sees you he immediately shows you the latest photos of his children on his mobile phone. We have been through quite a few Six Nations launches and mixed zones together and he is always the same, win or lose.
“To know where you want to go, you need to know about where you came from, and the determination that went before” he says philosophically. When you delve into his family history you get a sense of where that inner strength has come from.
“What I like about rugby is the direct confrontation with an opponent, a physical contest and collisions, tackles.”
But when he gets home, he puts his bag down and rugby is done and dusted.
“The most important thing for me is my family and the people who are around me, whether they be my parents, grandparents, wife son or daughter.”
“It’s my stability, it’s something that allows me to put things into perspective and to be able to relax and see life in a different way. I’m not only thinking about rugby and that allows me to perform well on the field.”
The French region of Pyréneés-Orientales was ceded to France by Spain in the seventeenth century.
This beautiful place, nestled between the Pyrenees mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, is part of Northern Catalonia, also known as French Catalonia.
Perpignan accounts for over a quarter of the population of Northern Catalonia and is the heartbeat of Catalan culture and gastronomy. You will certainly find more red and yellow horizontally striped flags here than Tricolores.
While Catalonia is the richest part of Spain, French Catalonia is one of the poorest regions of France.
Guirado is a proud Catalan and to play for USAP was his boyhood dream.
To play for Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais to give them their full title is a local aspiration akin to the boys on the Copacabana wanting to play for Brazil. For Guilhem it was no different.
“My first game for Perpignan was on 8th August 2006 in a local derby against Narbonne. I remember we played three matches in nine days. I arrived at the club aged 14. I never imagined playing for the first team. By just playing for the juniors, I felt I had reached my pinnacle.”
He broke his leg at the age of 15, an injury which should have been resolved in a few months but in this instance Guilhem was out of action for over a year.
“I watched my first Perpignan match in May 1998 and my whole life has flowed from it. I always wanted to outdo myself for the club for which I had such a wonderful attachment” says Guirado.
His final match for USAP ended in a heartbreaking defeat to Clermont, a result that confirmed their relegation to the second division, the ProD2.
“I used that awful feeling to motivate me throughout my career” he says. But there were also some wonderful moments at a club where you sense Guilhem’s Catalan heart still beats strongly.
“Two of my greatest rugby moments were the 2019 Top 14 Final win with USAP and the European Cup quarter final against Toulon which was played at Montjuïc in Barcelona. It was a wonderful Catalan occasion played in front of a packed crowd in the Olympic Stadium and a win for us 29-26.”
After nine years, 202 matches and 20 tries at Perpignan, he moved 381 kilometers along the coast to Toulon and became part of the star-studded team that won the European Cup at Twickenham on 2nd May 2015 when they beat Clermont 24-18.
Leigh Halfpenny, Juan Martín Hernández, Drew Mitchell, Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha all played for Toulon that day.
Guirado’s playing career has included Perpignan, Toulon and Montpellier along with an international career that ended in the land of the rising scrum on 20th October 2019 when France were defeated in the Rugby World Cup quarter final by Wales.
“My first memory is the first time I played rugby; it was with all my friends in Arles-sur-Tech and the most beautiful thing is we all got to know each other on the rugby field and today we are still sharing our lives and great moments together.”
“I have been lucky to be able to play for my club that made me dream when I was a kid, the Perpignan team USAP, and finally to be able to play with France a few years later and then to play with Toulon and Montpellier with the best players in the oval world.”
He won his first international cap for France on 9th March 2008, replacing Dimitri Szarzewski and coming off the bench against Italy at the Stade de France in a 25-13 victory. “I remember my first cap, a special taste, I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“It was a great pride, a huge honour for all that it means for me and for France.”
Guilhem never took for granted the responsibility and honour of putting on the French jersey.
“I think it’s always an honour to play for and represent France, everything goes more quickly, and it is a bit stressful because of the fear of not being up to the mark. You want your family to be proud of you.”
“I like to know what has happened in the past and immerse myself in it because I also have to represent all the former players. There have been some huge players and great hookers who have gone before me.”
“For me this shirt really represents the welcome given to the Spanish exiles. I am French. I grew up in France; it is a country that was ready to give a welcome to my grandparents so of course I think of them.”
Guirado had to battle for a starting place in the French team with William Servat and Szarzewski, two very talented hookers. But he eventually got his first start in the 2010 November international against Fiji.
Jacques Brunel, who had worked with Guilhem at Perpignan, became French coach after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and he named Guirado as his captain for the 2016 Six Nations. His debut as skipper came against Italy at Stade de France, a match that took on an important significance after Paris had suffered several terrorist atrocities during the latter part of 2015.
There was a nervous eerie build-up to the game, and to see so many armed police and military personnel at a rugby match made for an unusual experience. But on a mild sunny day in the French capital, the national anthem was sung with even more emotion than usual and you could feel the crowd relax as the match progressed.
The whole occasion, and a win for Les Bleus, brought a much-needed smile to a city that had suffered so much.
France won 23-21 through tries by Vakatawa, Chouly and Bonneval although the joy was very nearly curtailed at the very end of the match when a Sergio Parisse drop goal attempt drifted wide.
“In my first match as captain everything went very fast” he says. “Meeting new staff and new players meant an awful lot of pressure.”
Guirado went on to captain France on 33 occasions, winning 12, losing 20 and drawing one.
On captaincy, he says: “I don’t have a specific style; it is mainly a feeling, a lot of conversations and a lot of questioning and the captain is nothing without the players around him.”
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Head coach Gregor Townsend has named an extended 41-player Scotland squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
The group will be led by captain Jamie Ritchie and will be trimmed to the requisite 33-player list ahead of the tournament itself, which gets underway in France in September.
Of the 23 forwards selected by Townsend, flanker Rory Darge returns to the international set-up having missed the Guinness Six Nations through injury, with winger Darcy Graham also returning as one of 18 backs named, again having been unavailable through injury since the turn of the year.
A consistency of selection means that there are only two uncapped players in the training squad: second row Cameron Henderson and centre Stafford McDowall.
There is plenty of experience with four players – WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Finn Russell and recent cap centurion Stuart Hogg – aiming to represent Scotland at a third Rugby World Cup (all featured in 2015 and 2019).
The 41-player group will gather for an initial training camp on 29 May to begin preparations for warm-up matches in the Famous Grouse Nations Series against France, Italy and Georgia at BT Murrayfield in July and August. Scotland also play France in an away warm-up in St. Etienne in August.
The Rugby World Cup itself will see Scotland compete in Pool B alongside South Africa, Ireland, Tonga and Romania, with a first fixture against the world champion Springboks on Sunday 10 September in Marseille.
There comes a time in every mans life, when he wakes up one morning, to discover that the passage of time has finally caught up with him.
I woke up to find my six-pack had turned into a bargain bucket, and my back had gone. (my front wasn’t too hot either !)
As the weeks went past, my gym and squash sessions were replaced with more and more outpatients appointments, and the calendar constantly filled up with dates to see yet another “ologist”
Protein shakes were replaced by blood pressure tablets, PPI inhbitors, and a ghastly fibre drink supplement, that tasted like a cross between toilet duck and polyfilla.
My sporting life had come to an end, my knees were shot to pieces, playing rugby and football were now consigned to happy memories of the past.
One of the “ologists” suggested I go to Pilates classes, to help the ever-increasing list of ailments I was collecting.
So, I booked a Pilates class !
Now when you have spent your sporting life getting the living daylights kicked out of you, to turn up at a church with my towel (purloined from a well-known hotel chain in Northern France) felt like a piece of cake.
Little did I know of the ignominy that was about to follow.
Whilst I was sweating, gasping and trembling, with the grace of a sumo wrestler, and collapsing face down into my stolen towel, two old arthritic pensioners were holding the plank position for what seemed like an eternity, and looking at me with the sort of glance you’d expect from Brian Moore at a scrum against the French.
I left my first class with my dragon’s tail tucked well and truly between my legs.
I sat at home that afternoon and googled “Pilates” I discovered that the New Zealand All Blacks did Pilates as part of their weekly training regime.
Suddenly the haunting image of being out muscled by two septuagenarian women was replaced with the image of Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read, with their mats and towels (not purloined) powering their way through “lazy angels” and the cat stretch.
All of a sudden I felt there was hope.
When the day arrived for my second class I strutted in, resisting the temptation to perform a mini Haka (the pensioners might not have appreciated the throat slitting finale) and juggling the red ball in one hand, with an insouciance that Cheslin Kolbe would have been proud of.
I “out planked” the pensioners that day, my bright red face staring them out, with grinding teeth and eyes bulging, before falling to the floor with a feeling of satisfaction, it felt like scoring the winning try against England.
I still go to Pilates classes, weekly, and although I may not have a six-pack, I do have a pelvic floor to die for.
Wales senior men’s head coach Waren Gatland has named a 54-player preliminary training squad for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Players will start to come in for training sessions with Wales on a rolling basis from 25 May, with entry into camp depending on when an individual’s club season has ended.
In addition to sessions at the National Centre of Excellence in Hensol, Wales will travel to Switzerland and Turkey in July for specialist training camps. The squad size will be reduced ahead of each trip.
Wales then have three Summer Series Test matches against England (home and away on 5 and 12 August) and South Africa (19 August at Principality Stadium) before the official 33-player squad to head to Rugby World Cup 2023 in France is named.
“It’s a great opportunity for some players that were involved in the Six Nations and some youngsters for the future to show us what they are capable of doing in the first part of the preparation.
“In the past we’ve prided ourselves on how hard we’ve worked and how fit the squad has been. So that’s the message to the players to come in and make a statement, work really hard, make the coaches sit up and take notice and get yourself in great shape physically.
“A lot of skill work needs to be done and there’s an opportunity to work on the detail you often don’t get when you go into Six Nations or Autumn campaigns when you have limited preparation time.”
Wales preliminary training squad for Rugby World Cup 2023
Rhys Carre (Cardiff Rugby – 20 caps) Corey Domachowski (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped) Kemsley Mathias (Scarlets – uncapped) Nicky Smith (Ospreys – 42 caps) Gareth Thomas (Ospreys – 21 caps) Eliott Dee (Dragons – 41 caps) Ryan Elias (Scarlets – 33 caps) Dewi Lake (Ospreys – 8 caps) Ken Owens (Scarlets – 91 caps) Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped) Will Davies-King (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped) Tomas Francis (Ospreys – 71 caps) Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby – 50 caps) Henry Thomas (Montpellier – uncapped) Adam Beard (Ospreys – 46 caps) Ben Carter (Dragons – 9 caps) Rhys Davies (Ospreys – 2 caps) Cory Hill (Yokohama Canon Eagles – 32 caps) Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs – 6 cap) Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys – 157 caps) Will Rowlands (Dragons – 23 caps) Christ Tshiunza (Exeter Chiefs – 5 caps) Teddy Williams (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped) Taine Basham (Dragons – 11 caps) Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff Rugby – 100 caps) Dan Lydiate (Ospreys – 68 caps) Josh Macleod (Scarlets – 2 caps) Jac Morgan (Ospreys – 9 caps) Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers – 9 caps) Justin Tipuric (Ospreys – 93 caps) Aaron Wainwright (Dragons – 37 caps)
Gareth Davies (Scarlets – 67 caps) Kieran Hardy (Scarlets – 17 caps) Rhys Webb (Ospreys – 40 caps) Tomos Williams (Cardiff Rugby – 45 caps) Gareth Anscombe (Ospreys – 35 caps) Dan Biggar (Toulon – 107 caps) Sam Costelow (Scarlets – 2 caps) Owen Williams (Ospreys – 7 caps) Mason Grady (Cardiff Rugby – 2 caps) Max Llewellyn (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped) George North (Ospreys – 113 caps) Joe Roberts (Scarlets – uncapped) Nick Tompkins (Saracens – 27 caps) Johnny Williams (Scarlets – 5 caps) Keiran Williams (Ospreys – uncapped) Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby – 49 caps) Alex Cuthbert (Ospreys – 57 caps) Rio Dyer (Dragons – 7 caps) Cai Evans (Ospreys – uncapped) Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets – 99 caps) Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester Rugby – 25 caps) Tom Rogers (Scarlets – 2 caps) Liam Williams (Cardiff Rugby – 84 caps)
The varying interpretations of Brunch are almost as controversial as rugby’s breakdown area. Some say it is not a Monday to Friday event.
During the week, you’re either eating breakfast (if it’s before noon) or lunch (if it’s noon or later). But there are no dissenting voices when it come to Saturday and Sunday.
Once the weekend arrives you can officially refer to your midday meal as brunch if you’re eating between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you’re eating before 11am it’s breakfast. So the 1.15pm kick off between England and France at Twickenham yesterday can legitimately be referred to as Le brunch.
On the menu at Twickenham was a tasty Grand Slam decider between the Red Roses and France
Under blue sun drenched skies with a world record 58,498 in attendance the brunch turned into a wonderful two course banquet.
The first 40 minute course was a traditional English dish as the home defence soaked up the opening 15 minutes before scoring five tries, giving themselves a 33-0 half time lead. France’ two yellow cards assisting their dominance.
It looked like it was game over for France but the second course turned out to be a mouth-watering Cordon bleu classic as they decided they were hungry after all.
Five sumptuous second half tries brought France to within one score of England as the clock hit eighty minutes, but they ran out of time and the Red Roses hung on to gain a Grand Slam and the 2023 Tik Tok Womens Six Nations title.
As rugby occasions go this was a very special one. A joyous ear splitting carnival from start to finish. An hour after the final whistle England captain Marlie Packer was still signing autographs pitch side surrounded by hundreds of thrilled sun burnt smiling faces, it was that sort of day.
Gaëlle Hermet was born in Clermont-Ferrand on 12 June 1996, then moved to Carmaux in the Tarn region when she was 6 years old.
Rugby in the garden with brothers Dorian, Jorys and Hugo, rugby on television, chatting rugby at the meal table like so many families in the rugby mad Tarn region, ignited her passion for the game.
“My rugby life began when I was eleven. I did it for a year before starting athletics. But I was addicted to rugby and I resumed at the age of thirteen at US Carmaux in the Tarn. It must be said that in my family, everyone played my father played it, my three brothers play it. Even if I am the eldest, I wanted to follow them. After Carmaux, I did a year younger in Albi because I had to go to a women’s team, then I left for two years in Saint Orens, and then to Stade Toulousain”.
“I joined the Pôle Espoir Jolimont in Toulouse and then I did internships in elite centres. At the time when I was 15 years old, I knew nothing about all this, the first time I was summoned to the French team, it was a big surprise and I enjoyed it. The selections for the Under 20s were a very beautiful human adventure and the first experience of what the high level can be“.
“From the under 20s to France Féminines, it is still a big step to take. I am very lucky to have had a fairly linear trajectory in Rugby term and hard work always ends up paying off if you are rigourous and applied. ”
She made her senior France debut on 1 July 2016 against the USA and a year later was made captain at the tender age of twenty-one.
“In 2014, watching the Women’s World Cup was a real turning point for me. Seeing what women’s rugby was for people, and the media recognition makes you want to be part of it. I was 17 years old, it made me dream. And I now understand what it feels like to players who are starting rugby. In the end, I never thought I would have reached this point, at least not to have the status I have today. It’s really pure happiness. I think it’s the grail in a career as a player but you shouldn’t get eaten by your emotions. You have to manage and as it remains rugby, you just have to have fun”
Bravery on the rugby field is a given for those at the elite level, but when bravery is required off the field during a deadly global pandemic, well that is a different matter, but one which the affable back row forward faced up to on a daily basis.
During the awful days of the Covid-19 pandemic Gaëlle spent her time fully focussed on her vocation as an occupational therapist at a care home in Cadours. She had studied psychology at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès before going on to study occupational health.
Captain of France at the delayed 2021 Rugby World 2021 in New Zealand, she won her 50th cap in the victory over Canada, and played a big part in that wonderful semi-final which France narrowly lost 25-24 to the Black Ferns the eventual winners.
Gaëlle has been used off the bench against both Italy and Ireland in this seasons tournament, but won her starting place back for the match against Scotland and scored a try, as was the case yesterday against Wales in Grenoble where she was named player of the match.
With 54 caps and 7 tries for her country she now has Twickenham on her radar and the hope of blowing away a few Red Roses on the way to a Grand Slam.
I take you back to Paris in 1911 when Scotland and France faced each other in the French capital.
The result gave France their first ever win in the Five Nations Championship.
The fact that France won 16-15 is overshadowed by the tragic tale of a young Frenchmen selected to play on the wing that day, no doubt overflowing with a mixture of nerves and excitement as he headed northwards, by train, through the beautiful French countryside, on a day he would never forget, for all the wrong reasons.
Gaston Vareilles was a wing at Stade Francais, and when the train stopped at Lyon station, Gaston popped off the train to visit the station buffet for a baguette, by the time he had been served, he returned to the platform to see his train heading off into the distance.
Back in Paris, one of the spectators, french sprinter Andre Franquelle voulnteered to make up the numbers, and he did rather well, in fact he went on to earn another two French caps.
Poor old Gaston did eventually make it to the stadium in time for the kick off, but was told in no uncertain terms where to go.
He never played for France again, and ended up working as a planter in French Indochina, before his death on 15 January 1929.
However Gaston also holds a more uplifting statistic to his name, he scored France’ first ever drop goal against Wales in Cardiff in 1908, a slice of good fortune as the home crowd sang bread of heaven, but sadly it is that station baguette that he will be always be remembered for.