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.

Marchon Marchon

Spring is beginning to show its colours in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the beautiful mountain flowers are beginning to bloom in the sunshine.

Things are quieter this spring in those famous rugby towns. France have returned Lazarus style to rugby’s top table, and their infectious style is an antidote to the other infectious troubled times we are all now facing.

Just as we were being warmed by the gorgeous back play that has been missing for so long, a chilling sinister presence came in from the East to put a hold on the joyous return of Les Bleus.

Despite defeat by Scotland in the corona virus truncated Guinness Six Nations, the baby Bleus have captured the hearts of the French public, and the love affair with the national team is back on.

It was beginning to feel just like the old days, a French prop was even sent off for punching, just to underline that this was no false dawn.

For now we have to make do with replays and reflections, where rugby goes from here we have no idea, but it is almost certain that sport and life will never be the quite the same again.

France host the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and what a wonderful joyous virus free return and celebration that could turn out to be, a time of joy, to appreciate life to the full, and also to remember those we have lost.

The RWC 2023 draw is set to take place on schedule this autumn despite widespread disruption to the 2020 calendar caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Reports in France suggest the draw will not be postponed from the planned date November 30.

Claude Atcher, the head of RWC 2023 told L’Equipe, there will only be one stipulation made.

The World Rugby rankings due to the already played Six Nations matches won’t be taken into consideration unless the remaining matches from the competition are played.

That would mean the draw would be based on the rankings upon the conclusion of last year’s World Cup in Japan, bad news for Scotland and Argentina, who were ranked 9th and 10th at the end of RWC 2019.

Wales will be among the beneficiaries having seen their ranking dip due to disappointing Six Nations defeats to England, France and Ireland.

Wayne Pivac’s side are currently sixth in the world, meaning they are currently second seeds for the 2023 World Cup draw.

However, if the Six Nations is not completed later this year, Wales would jump back up to top seeds, giving them the best chance of a favourable draw. Should the remaining Six Nations matches be played out in a few months time, it would put added pressure on the Wales-Scotland clash in Cardiff.

It may be a meaningless match in Six Nations terms, but it could well have huge implications for the next World Cup. A win for Wales would see them overtake France into fifth place in the world rankings, if Scotland win, they would leapfrog Wales and Australia into sixth spot with Wayne Pivac’s side slipping down to eighth.

If Wales lost by 15 points or more it would have major consequences should they go on and play their held-over matches against Japan and New Zealand in the autumn, if the summer tour is cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis.

It would mean a Japan victory over Wales would relegate Pivac’s side down to ninth spot in the rankings table, with Argentina (10th) also looking to overhaul them.

The Seedings if the postponed Six Nations matches are not played.

• Band 1 teams: South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales

• Band 2 teams: Ireland, Australia, France, Japan

• Band 3 teams: Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, Italy

• Band 4 teams: Africa 1, Europe 1, Oceania 1, Americas 1

• Band 5 teams: Oceania 2, Americas 2, Repechage 1, R

A lot to think of ,but for now it all seems light years away. Corona virus has no shame and no fear, it even hit Sébastien Chabal for goodness sake.

Stay safe everyone. 

The Isolation Game

Nice to see you to see you nice ! Life is the name of the game and I want to play the game with you.

The words of the intro music to The Generation Game an old Saturday tea time BBC show that families gathered around the TV to watch with the national treasure Bruce Forsyth presenting.

These last few weeks life really has been the name of the game and the prize for carrying out the simple act of staying at home, yet even with these massive stakes some folks still don’t get it.

My black lab is delighted with the lockdown, having sat through rugby re-runs from dawn to dusk he is in constant contact with the RSPCA.

It’s difficult to think of rugby at this time when you are getting daily death figures that seem staggering, frightening and unbelievable.

Writing has become a chore when all I really can think about is the safety of my family and friends.

To all of you I say, somewhere at the end of all this there will be rugby but I would rather you were all around and in good health when that day comes.

So please stay safe there are awful lot of hugs that are on hold for when all this over.

Harlequins Women Shut Up Shop As Sport Goes Viral

Sport the glorious irrelevance that it is, has never been more irrelevant than in the current climate, where life and death are on the line, and yet it is at times like these we need that glorious irrelevance the most.

During difficult times sport is the one constant, whatever else is going on in life, sport, and in our case rugby, is always there for us through thick and thin. It takes us out of ourselves and whether playing or watching it is a glorious escape.

This time though that particular escape route has been closed off, and we are going to have get through things unaided, at least in the sporting sense.

At Surrey Sports Park in Guildford last week, the shutters were down. The vibrant area known as “The Cube” , the training headquarters of Harlequins Women, was closed for business.

The usual hubbub, banter, smiles handshakes and warm hugs were conspicuous by their absence, with just a passing number 1 bus filled with masked passengers to break the silence.

On the pitches overlooked by a deserted Starbucks, the warm hazy sunshine gave the feeling of Spring, the air felt fresh, the aroma of cut green grass filled the nostrils, and for once you could hear the birdsong.

The traffic on the A3, a lively artery from the south coast to the capital, was reduced to a gentle hum, the absence of air traffic made for an eerie silence, everything felt right with the world to the naked eye, the mind was tricked into the same conclusion, before being startled back into the reality of what we are all facing.

Fortunately Quins are a family, and not just in the lip service cliched use of the term, they will be looking after each other via whats app, text, tweet and Instagram and every form of social communication known to mankind.

All the squad are keeping in shape with work from home exercise programmes designed by Charlotte Benson, welshcake super user Merrick Steward, and all the team’s strength and conditioning staff.

Several players and coaches, including co-head coach Karen Findlay, as Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, are working within the emergency services keeping the nation safe in these difficult times.

The squad has a number of key workers involved in social care and teaching, including Scotland legend Deborah McCormack, these extremely hard working and conscientious souls are in the front line helping to support those currently involved in keeping the country running safely.

Full back Chloe Rollie is back in the Scottish Borders eating porridge and tossing cabers, with the theme from Braveheart on her iphone as she keeps fit, no one in Premiership can catch her so I doubt coronavirus stands a chance.

Dr Zoe Saynor continues to lecture remotely in her role at the University of Portsmouth , whilst providing what physical activity, health and rehabilitation thematic group research she can from her office at home.

Victoria Petersson, fly half and Swedish international, is making a brilliant recovery from hamstring surgery, she was last seen hanging off a roof in Guildford, apparently all part of the rehab. I know Vic was distraught, when she received the injury, at how many matches she would miss, incredibly with a February full of storms, and now the corona virus, it is likely she will not miss a single match.

For Harlequins Ladies the season is now over. It seems trite in the circumstances to rue the loss of the glorious upcoming “Game Changer” and the pursuit of another Tyrrells Premiership Final, with the chance to right the wrongs of the last two finals, where Saracens have emerged victorious.

But all that will have to wait, and to be honest we will happily swallow our disappointment in exchange for the safety of every player, fan and member of staff, and also for the joyous reunion we will all have when this is over, there are an awful lot of overdue hugs to be given and received.

 Stay safe everyone, and whoever you are here is some great advice from Gilly Thomas, the performance psychologist at Quins, one of the unseen heroes of the club, she could be busier than usual in the days ahead.