There is a Peculiar feeling when World Cup tournaments come to an end, an emptiness, a void that is difficult to fill, weeks and months even years of hope and expectation suddenly evaporate, and we are left with the vagaries of so called normal life.
Ruby Tui’s feet had barely touched the ground before the rugby circus had packed up its tent, and the mass migration to Auckland airport commenced.
But as the sun sets in the land of the long white cloud, a new dawn has already risen in the northern hemisphere, as England take over the RWC torch for 2025.
The number of teams participating will be increased to 16 with England, New Zealand, France and Canada already awarded qualification as a result of reaching the semi-finals of RWC 2021.
The prospect of a sold-out Twickenham for the 2025 Final is now a very realistic one, the tournament down under has been another Neil Armstrong type giant leap for the women’s game.
For the Red Roses there is no doubt that the heart breaking pain of yesterday’s final will be the fuel to ignite their challenge for 2025 at the moment though there are wounds to heal and a long 24 hour flight to re-live events from a tournament that gave us all so much.
Nessun dorma’ (‘None Shall Sleep’) is an aria from the final act of my favourite composer, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, and is one of the best known tenor arias.
The aria is sung by Calaf, Il principe ignoto (The unknown prince). In the preceding act, Calaf had challenged Princess Turandot to guess his name by dawn. If she did, she could execute him, but if she did not she would have to marry him. The cruel and emotionally cold princess then decreed that none of her subjects was to sleep that night until his name was discovered. If they failed, all would be killed.
The Rugby World Cup in New Zealand has been a bit of a Nessun Dorma experience for those of us left stranded in the Northern Hemisphere.
The brief restless sleep we have experienced during the last three weekends has been fitful at best. Waking up with Nolli Waterman or Debs McCormack on ITV could never be described as an unpleasant experience, but it has still been tough going.
My coffee machine has been put under more pressure than the Japanese scrum, I bet George Clooney’s Nespresso machine has had nothing like the workload mine has had to endure since the start of the tournament.
So now that the Pool stages are coming to a close the big burning question is do I switch coffee pods for the knock out stages, or stay with the tried and trusted formula that has proved effective.
The Altissio blend has served me well, roasted and Smokey like Portia Woodman burning down the wing for the Black Ferns, it has perked me up at those flagging moments, but as the cumulative affects of sleep deprivation take hold it may be a wise decision to switch to the Double Espresso Chiaro described as dense and wild, which is also the perfect description of how I look after three weekends without sleep.
There are still another three weekends to go, and as Autumn turns to winter here in the North, the nights lengthen and the days shorten, plus when you add in the changing of the clocks next Sunday, we still have some tricky nocturnal battles to negotiate.
There are of course certain individuals who have benefited enormously from these early mornings, the canine community have never had it so good, half time tummy rubs and charcoal bones are being accepted with glee in our household as a certain black Labrador has managed to turn the tournament into an all you can eat buffet.
Back to Puccini and after that sleepless night had passed, Calàf, impetuously kisses Turnadot who experiences emotion for the first time, she weeps with joy and they all lived happily ever after, for the rest of us it’s Nessun Dorma for a little while longer I’m afraid, now where are those charcoal bones ?
Naples is no stranger to seismic activity, Mount Vesuvius is the only volcano to have erupted on mainland Europe in the last one hundred years.
Situated on the breath-taking gulf of Naples, it has a majesty, beauty and power that showcases nature in all its terror and wonderment.
The last eruption came in 1944, although in 1996, another force of nature was about to enter the local landscape, Giada Franco.
The family moved 54 kilometres south east, along the Amalfi coast, to settle in Salerno, a lively port with a relaxing Mediterranean ambiance, and an historic town full of tiny little passageways and hidden corners.
The bubbly Italian started playing rugby aged 13 at school, before starting senior rugby with Colerno, just north of Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Many have felt the aftershock of the dark haired flanker’s rib shattering tackles, and her eruptions, unlike Vesuvius, are now taking place weekly at training and on match days.
Away from rugby the young lady of Naples is a big fan of “Le vechia signora”(The old lady of Turin) which for the uninitiated, is the nickname of Juventus football club, one of the giants of the game.
A firm fixture in the national side, Giada made her international debut in the 2018 Six Nations in Dublin,
One of her most memorable moments came at the Principality Stadium in the Six Nations double header against Wales in 2018, when the “Azzura Assasin” played a blinder, it was the first time I had seen her play, she made a huge impression and has been a permanent fixture in the national team ever since.
Following her stint in England with Harlequins she joined the Colorno club back home.
Colorno is a comune 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.
She enjoyed her time in England with Harlequins but she did admit to missing the sunshine and the gastronomical delights of home, particularly “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” which is a thick cut of porterhouse steak from an ancient breed of Tuscan cattle, instead of inches, these steaks are measured in fingers, and a good one will be 3-4 fingers thick, and Giada insists they don’t forget the fries.
Giada says “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. ”
The “Leonessa di Colorno”, a nickname derived from her determination and those luscious locks, will be prominent on and off the field in New Zealand, and whatever happens that wonderful smile will never be too far away.
Sport at its simplest is an expression of joy and competition, an arena where players and fans can unite in a common cause, sharing hope despair joy and heart breaking sadness.
Sport mirrors society, and yet in many ways sport can be a catalyst for social change, to create equality in gender, sexuality and in the way we treat our fellow human beings.
Rachael Burford is a rugby player, she is a brilliant rugby player, and when you discover that she is a thoroughly lovely, friendly down to earth, and modest, individual to boot, you can see why she is hugely admired and respected by those in our game.
Women’s rugby is growing and growing, and it will be forever grateful to people like Burf for lighting the blue touch-paper, those that follow will find the path a lot smoother, thanks to Rachael and co having paved the way.
I’m not sure what magical properties lurk in depths of the River Medway in Kent, but the Garden of England has produced Red Roses by the bouquet load, along with the odd flower of Scotland.
Working tirelessly to promote foster and encourage the women’s game, the formation of the Burford Academy has given young girls a wonderful opportunity to learn and train with the greats of the game, including Danielle Waterman, Rocky Clarke and Katy Daly McClean.
But it’s not just about rugby, the attitudes and confidence gained at the academy translate into life skills, transferable into society at large, which is perhaps the greatest legacy of all.
Rachael is a Red Rose legend but at Harlequins she is just one the gang, taking and giving the banter in her own humble way
When her playing days are over, which is hopefully a long way off, I have no doubt she will become a brilliant coach, in fact she has already achieved her RFU level 2 coaching badge.
Her media skills are also superb, and she looks supremely assured in front of the camera, Revealed as one of the top 50 most influential rugby people In Rugby World magazine, Rachael continues to set the standards on and off the field
Her playing career has been nothing short of incredible, 81 England caps, four world cups, two World Cup finals, two World Cup Sevens, a six nations grand slam and the RPA merit award in 2017 together with some bloke called Richie McCaw.
Burf’s floating passes are a thing of beauty, coach Gary Street compares them to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but for me they have an operatic quality more akin to a Puccini aria you know exactly what’s coming but it is still always a joy to behold.
Burf has straddled the bridge between old world rugby and the new order, managing to retain the old values, whilst embracing the hard edged professionalism that is an essential requirement at the top end of the game.
Those so important roots were established at Medway RFC which was virtually a family concern, Dad did everything from the bar to the books and the boots, whilst Rachael spent her formative years in the scarlet and gold shirt, the highlight being a season playing alongside mum Renata and sister Louise.
Everything that can be written about Rachael Burford has already been done so, and in many forms and guises, but for me it is her actions that separate her from the rest.
She has been a pioneer and pathfinder for the women’s game, quite a weight to carry when you are trying to focus on your own game, but those strong shoulders, the ones that rotate to provide a pass worthy of Beethoven or Puccini, bear the load with grace, poise, and in a light humble manner that make it appear effortless.
Maybe the River Medway does have properties after all.
It is fourteen miles from Inverness to Loch Ness, a place known around the world for its mythical monster, but Nessie’s neighbour is a sporting monster, and a very real one, that is frightening the life out of everything that crosses its path.
There have been many reported sightings this season, both north and south of the border, and the conclusion is that Nessie is a lightweight compared to the Inverness version.
I am in my cryptic way referring to Scotland and Harlequins number eight Jade Konkel-Roberts who has been knocking the living daylights out of the opposition since her return from a long term shoulder injury in the latter stages of 2018.
Jade made her Scotland Women debut against England when she came on as a replacement in the opening round of 2013 Six Nations, 53 caps later she is primed and ready for her first Rugby World Cup.
She became Scotland’s first full-time female player in 2016, and joined top French club Lille Metropole Rugby Club Villeneuvois in 2017.
After joining Harlequins in 2018 following shoulder surgery, she returned to international duty with only a handful of club games under her belt, and hit Canada like a guided missile,
Scotland lost on that occasion but Jade had a storming game tacking, as the great Bill McClaren once said “Like the crack of doom” and launching those “Rhino” charges from the base of the scrum as if her life depended upon it.
Jade Konkel was born on December 9 1993 in Inverness, and lived on the Black Isle an appropriately named location for any respectable monster to reside. Inverness lies on the Great Glen Fault, where there are minor earthquakes, usually unnoticed by locals, about every 3 years, I have a theory they nearly always occur when Jade is home doing some tackling practice, but geological confirmation is difficult to come by.
Fortunately off the field Jade is one of the most modest and friendly individuals you could wish to meet, a smile is always close to hand, and her soft highland brogue could charm the birds from the trees.
The basketball skills honed at the top level following two seasons with the Highland Bears, are evident on the rugby field, I do not recall witnessing her drop a single ball during last season’s Allianz Premiership campaign, where she has wore the Harlequins shirt with such pride and passion.
The dictionary definition of Jade is ” A semi precious stone” maybe that should now be changed to “An extremely precious Scottish rugby player”, a monsterous Rugby World Cup awaits.
An established broadcaster, Nolli Waterman will be part of ITV’s 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup coverage as it offers UK-wide, free to air coverage of the tournament. For the very first time, a UK broadcaster will show all games live in a Women’s Rugby World Cup on free to air television, with matches shown across ITV and ITV4.
Some of you may not know just how good a rugby player Nolli actually was. On the the southern edges of the South-West coast her daring deeds are spoken of in reverential terms.
When the mist rolls in off the Bristol Channel on a cold winters night, the folks that inhabit The Old Ship Aground pub in Minehead tell tales that send shivers down your spine, tales of shipwrecks and smugglers, tales of peril and tragedy in the local waters that have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world.
Inevitably as the night gets darker, and the ale more plentiful, the tales get taller, as indeed do the stories of local heroes who have become legends, largely through many misty ale soaked nights where the thin line between fact and fiction is breached.
One local legend is immune from such treatment, a local Barbarian whose exploits are so incredible in their own right, there is no need for embellishment, even fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, also born in Minehead, would have difficulty making these tales taller, even ale assisted.
Rugby can be a brutal and unforgiving sport but every now and then a player arrives on the scene that can raise the game above the ordinary, a player who amid the bump and grind of top-level sport, manages to make the difficult look easy, a player whose skill and execution provided a sheer beauty, grace and elegance that warmed the soul, set our pulses racing, a player that appeared to have more time and space than those around them, Danielle Waterman was such a player.
A red rose that could always be guaranteed to bloom, whatever the weather, whatever the soil conditions, she graced the white shirt on eighty-two occasions.
It is impossible to calculate how many girls and women have been inspired to take up the game by watching her, but I have witnessed first hand the “Nolli Effect” around the playing fields of Europe.
She was renowned for her bravery on the field, but perhaps even more noteworthy is her bravery off it, for being part of the RPA “Lift The Weight” campaign and discussing her depression candidly, typically, not for her own benefit, but through a desire to help others who may or have suffered similarly.
Danielle Waterman’s list of achievements make impressive reading, a Rugby World Cup winner in 2014, nomination for World Player of the Year, a member of the first ever Team GB Rugby Sevens squad to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Nolli captained England A at the tender age of seventeen, and made her full England debut in 2003 whilst revising for her A levels, aged just eighteen.
But in the years to come we will not be discussing the cold statistics, it will be that sidestep, that tackle, or the unique running style, and that joyous smile after scoring a try or making a last ditch tackle.
So if you ever happen to visit “The Ship Aground” on a damp misty moonlit night and you notice the locals huddled together speaking in hushed tones, they may well be telling tales of horticulture, or to be specific their favourite local Red Rose.
Locks can be bruising abrasive and sombre characters, it is a dark desolate unforgiving place in the second row, and the lack of daylight no doubt plays a huge part in their demeanour, but in this case Debs McCormack is a friendly modest and down to earth IT specialist, who plied her club trade with Harlequins, and of course internationally in the dark blue shirt of Scotland.
This particular flower of Scotland was a rare species, that bloomed in winter, for club and country, and sent many an opponent homeward to think again.
The deep roots of this bloom stretch a very long way, all the way from Scotland to the more temperate climate of Kent, a long way south of the border.
She qualified to play for Scotland through her gran, who left Motherwell during the Second World War and headed to London to bravely help the war effort, there could surely be no be no worthier qualification criteria than that.
Born in Gillingham, Debs started playing at the age of ten for Medway RFC, when her brother also began to turn out for the club.
She was encouraged by coach Karen Findlay, whilst at Richmond, to attend Scottish trials which with the extortionate travel costs for a starving student left her deeply out-of-pocket, but the rest as they say is history, and she made her Scotland debut against Ireland in the 2014 six nations.
A former Fort Pitt Grammer school pupil, Debs views Medway RFC as the greatest influence on her career.
She was a hugely popular figure at Harlequins, where her down to earth and friendly manner, as well as her playing ability, earned her huge respect and popularity.
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.
Debs McCormack did everything on her own terms during a long club and international career, so it came as no surprise that when it the agonising moment of dealing with sporting retirement arrived, in 2019, she had the strength of character, and the wisdom, to make that difficult decision.
I have been extremely fortunate to have met and watched some of the greats of the game, and with my hand on my heart I can honestly say I have never come across a greater team player than Debs.
Compliments and praise, even when they were justified and worthy, never sat easily on her modest and very sore 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 operated.
Rugby, and in particular the women’s game, has benefited from 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 75th minute, a moment I witnessed in a Parisian hotel on a dodgy French television set. I’m pretty it was sure it was my endless shouting at the screen that finally convinced 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 it was one of the factors in her decision to retire.
31 caps for Scotland and 23 competitive appearances for Harlequins, 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 indeed was her hat- trick of tries on the other side of the world in Australia for Sydney outfit Eastern Suburbs against Wollongong, a performance that earned her a place in the Shute Shield team of the week.
Debs last ever try was scored for Harlequins v Darlington Mowden Park Sharks at Surrey Sports Park on Saturday 18 January 30th 2020 at approximately 1.35pm, her 70th minute touchdown was greeted with much delight by the home crowd and indeed by the match announcer that day a certain Mike Pearce.
Jade Konkel currently in New Zealand preparing for Scotland’s opening Rugby World Cup match against Wales spent a large part of her career having her right ear eroded by Debs’ hip bone, as number 8 for Harlequins and Scotland and sums things up perfectly.
“Debs was one of a kind, a team mate who was always there for me no matter what. Even just for a cup of tea in the evenings. She was an incredible player, team mate and friend who I miss hugely on the field of play”.
Debs is part of ITV’s television coverage of the tournament, her warmth, knowledge and friendliness have transferred wonderfully to the small screen in an instant, and if you are looking for an Agent after the tournament Debs I’ll happily settle for 10%.
How do you attempt to match Stephen Jones and Rob Kitson’s wonderful written tributes to Eddie Butler ? Well the answer is you don’t. All I can do is speak from my Welsh heart, a heart that has taken a severe pounding over the last few days.
Eddie commanded the press rooms of international rugby stadiums, not in an assertive macho way, but in a wonderfully warm comforting manner, this big bear of a man seemed to fill the room as he entered it and in his wonderfully gentle manner he always shook everyone by the hand, it didn’t matter if you were an established hack or a new kid on the block you got the same warm greeting, and it made you feel all was well with the world.
Most of my work has been covering France home games, and Eddie nearly always got the commentary gig at the Stade de France in Paris, along with Jonathan Davies, the comforting presence of those two Welshman entering the salon de presse was always a moment I looked forward to.
It was my huge privilege to have met and known Eddie Butler, I feel a stomach churning loss so I can only imagine the pain those with a closer relationship to the big man must feel, I hope all the love and respect that has been shown in print and every other form of media will be of some comfort to them.
For me personally the press areas of the Stade de France and the Principality Stadium will have an empty corner that no one else can possibly fill, I will miss that big pre match outstretched paw so much.
Sleep peacefully Eddie anyone who has ever had the privilege to work alongside you will never forget you. I certainly won’t.
Scotland Women Head Coach Bryan Easson today named a 32-player squad for the upcoming Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.
The squad comprises of an equal split of 16 forwards and 16 backs, with the tournament marking the first ever Rugby World Cup experience for the entire squad, Scotland having made their last appearance at the showpiece event 12 years ago.
Rachel Malcolm will continue captaincy duties throughout the tournament – a role which the flanker has carried since 2018. Malcolm will be supported in her leadership role by vice-captain and Loughborough Lightning teammate, Helen Nelson.
Easson said: “Rachel and Helen are both very good leaders and very well respected by the group. They speak incredibly well on the field but also off the field.
“We’ve worked hard in trying to grow leaders throughout the whole squad, but to have Rachel and Helen leading the group is fantastic.”
Biggar’s Emma Orr is the youngest member of the squad, having turned 19 years old during this year’s Women’s Six Nations championship, while Emma Wassell is the most-capped member of the squad with 57 of the group’s combined total of 775.
A number of other experienced names are also selected, with the likes of Jade Konkel-Roberts, Lana Skeldon, Sarah Law and Chloe Rollie all boasting more than a half century of Scotland appearances, whilst Rhona Lloyd is a try short of notching 100 points for her country.
Easson continued: “We are all incredibly excited for the month ahead. I think it’s been a long time coming and it was exactly this time last year that we were in Italy trying to qualify for the Rugby World Cup so it’s been a year in the making.
“I’m hugely honoured to be naming our squad for the Rugby World Cup and I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone in the management team who has worked incredibly hard behind the scenes to get us to this point.
“A lot of discussions have been had, a lot of players have been played over the past year as well, so the process around that was to make sure we had the right players going.
“Selection has been tough as the players trained exceptionally hard over the summer, and then obviously getting the players back from the Commonwealth Games has been exciting for us as well.
“Everyone should feel incredibly proud of being selected for the tournament and I know the squad and management are ready for the challenge ahead.”
The squad will depart for New Zealand on 23 September, ahead of their first pool match against Wales on Sunday 9 October at Northland Event Centre, Whangarei (kick-off 5.45pmNZ time, 5.45am UK time).
The side will then go on to face fellow Pool A opponents Australia on Saturday 15 October (kick-off 3pm NZ time, 3amUK time) before taking on reigning champions and hosts, New Zealand, on Saturday 22 October (kick-off 4.45pm NZ time, 4.45am UK time).
Late night kick offs in Paris are “de rigueur”, providing fans with just enough time for a semi leisurely pre match dinner, or at the very least a croque monsieur and frites, accompanied by a smooth glass of red.
In Cardiff these nocturnal rugby soirées are an exception rather than the rule, a long day for the fans and players to get through before finally heading to the stadium.
On Friday night in Cardiff, as the skies darkened, the emerald green dewy grass glistened under the floodlights, even the starry sky peeped through the open roof at the Principality Stadium.
The heavenly stars were matched by those down below on lush green terra firma. Dupont, Ntamack, and Penaud just three of the blue constellation that have lit up French rugby in the last couple of years.
But it was the men in Red who almost caused a total eclipse of France Grand Slam hopes as they went tantalisingly close to causing a major upset.
Wales pressured France led superbly by Dan Biggar, they caused France to look nervous and fractious but ultimately their rock solid defence kept Wales from gaining that one crucial score that would have given them a memorable victory.
A French win in Cardiff in recent years has been seen as rarely as Halley’s Comet, but these Bleus Brothers play rugby on a different planet, and back to back wins in the Welsh capital have put them eighty minutes away from a Grand Slam.
The stars may not have sparkled as brightly as expected, but on a night when France took a step nearer a title and a Grand Slam, that has eluded them since 2010, the planets have aligned to create a mouth watering late night spectacle next Saturday in Paris against England. A victory for The Boys in blue could result in it being a very late night indeed.