Friends United Harlequins Ladies

Imagine a mild damp Autumn evening in Guildford, the car headlights from the busy A3 dual carriageway, high above the floodlit pitches, reflect through the leafless trees, and shimmer off the illuminated bright green turf at a misty Surrey Sports Park.

Amidst the distant whining engine noise, cascading down from the vehicles of weary commuters heading home, Harlequins ladies start their Thursday night training session, warming up under the watchful eye of head coaches Gary Street and Karen Findlay.

The chemistry teacher, the office worker all arrive straight from their day jobs, something many of us forget when we watch their relatively pampered male counterparts go about their business.

It was here twelve months ago where a cynical old rugby hack discovered a rugby paradise.

I arrived to interview Quins and Scottish international lock Debs McCormack, after a wonderful hour with “The Flower of Scotland”  I stayed behind to watch training, and what hit me straight away about this group of players, and coaches, was their togetherness, their amazing friendliness and the total absence of any cliques in the squad.

I later found those humble and thoroughly decent qualities were matched by a steeliness and determination on and off the field by players, coaches, support staff and everyone involved with the team.

I only had one written assignment with Quins Ladies, but something kept calling me back, I found myself hooked, and before long I found myself at training sessions, the players and coaches who were once strangers, became friends, especially when I started bringing Welsh cakes for everyone.

The Welsh cakes have now become almost a weekly ritual, and in some cases an addiction especially for a red-headed winger and one particular strength and fitness coach, who shall rename nameless, for now.

The fact is, I found myself refreshed by the true rugby values that were on display from this incredible bunch, it gave me a journalistic lease of life, and wonderful contrast to the ever decreasing openness between press and players and coaches in the mens game,

When I lost both my parents, suddenly, this year, as you might expect they were there for me offering support, compassion and comfort in equal measure.

The women’s game has moved on in leaps and bounds since the Womens Rugby World Cup of 2017, Harlequins have been at the cutting edge of development and improvement, and indeed “professionalism” whilst maintaining the “old” values, which is not always an easy balance to strike.

So, as the Autumn light fades into winter darkness, there will be some huge battles ahead, times of joy and times of having to dig deep in an effort to ensure that when the days lengthen in early spring Quins are in a position to compete in the knock out stages of the Tyrells Premiership.

All that is a long way off, and the rugby road is a long one with many twists and turns, and I for one am delighted and privileged to join Quins on their journey.

Burf The Big Cheese Of Women’s Rugby 

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 set to explode, 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, 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.

The next time Rachael runs out wearing the Red Rose of England, it will be for her 80th cap, an incredible feat, she is undoubtedly a global star, 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,I am sure that plenty of television and radio work will come her way.
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, 79 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 has magical properties after all.

Last Tango In Lille

The similarities between Buenos Aires and Lille are few and far between, but a juicy steak and a glass of Malbec, pre match in Northern France, can fool the senses, and the emotions, prior to an exciting encounter at Stade Pierre Mauroy between Los Pumas and Les Blues.

A late Saturday night kick off, as they love to do in France, a time back home, in Argentina, more suited to dancing, and particularly the tango.

The tango developed in the working class neighbourhoods at the end of the 19th century, its lyrics speak of  nostalgia, sadness and a lament of lost love

The Pumas have been in a tango state of mind since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where they showed us their “moves”, but have been somewhat out of step since that wonderful tournament.

However just lately there are signs that they have re discovered their rhythm under their new conductor Mario Ledesma.

On a freezing cold night under the roof of  Stade Pierre Mauroy France ended their losing streak of five consecutive defeats and tamed the Pumas.

They say it takes two to tango, and the dazzling dancing feet of Teddy Thomas and Bautista Delguy bedazzled onlookers with moments of beauty amidst the brutality.

The physicality of two nations, for whom the scrum is a proud and noble art, and even in these enlightened times a personification of pride and manhood, provided an antidote to the beauty and elegance of the dancing “Ailiers”

The two hookers, and opposing captains Guilhem Guirado and Augustine Creevy may not look suited to the subtle and lithe moves of the tango, but as bouncers on the door of Bar Los Laureles i’m pretty sure you’d have no problem with gatecrashers.

The Opening two minutes saw Argentina score a try through Ramiro Moyana and lose full back Maxime Medard through injury.

Teddy Thomas scored a wonderful try for France on twenty five minutes who led narrowly at half time 11-10.

In the second half les Bleus found their dancing shoes Teddy Thomas, the Lord of the dance, made it a two-step with his second try after 48 minutes following a Fickou fandango, and the big man Guilhem Guirado glided over in the 70th minute.

Mathieu Bastareaud was a monster in midfield, no tango for him, more of a can-can with attitude but no less exhilarating to watch.

In the end the warm passionate tango we anticipated was more of gentleman’s excuse me, there were brief bursts of back play from France that made your heart skip a beat, on their day come next years World Cup they will be a serious threat.

In the meantime on a cold winters night as midnight approached and the players completed their media duties,  thoughts turned fleetingly to 21 September 2019 when these two next face each other, at Tokyo Stadium in the Rugby World Cup.

“Es Hora de Tango”

Bears Clawed Back By Grizzly Quins

A nerve jangling, jaw dropping, pulsating final four minutes brought the home crowd to fever pitch, many checking the location of the nearest defibrillator, as Quins completed an escape act that Houdini would have struggled to match.

With the clock in the red those that had the courage to watch could only do so peering through their fingers, yet Ellie Green was as cool as the vegetable whose colour matched her surname, nailing a conversion to earn Quins what had looked twelve minutes earlier a highly improbable outcome.

Harlequins Ladies v Bristol Bears kicked off at 5.30pm at Twickenham Stoop, and as the low autumn sun began to set in West London, the dewy grass and cool air provided the perfect habitat for the Bears to come out to play

Not normally migratory creatures, the trip up the M4 may well have taken them out of their comfort zone, but a blistering start saw them rack up 26 points, including four tries, a glorious individual effort from Elinor Snowsill being the pick of the bunch, the holders of the Wales number 10 jersey have sorcery in their DNA thats for sure.

It was a first half during which Quins never really got going, they committed far too many errors, and when you add some inconsistent refereeing into the equation, the home side were left with a mountain to climb, as they went in to the half time break nineteen points in arrears.

The second half was a different story with Quins dominating territory and possession, the Bears hadn’t exactly gone into hibernation but they were certainly nursing sore heads as wave after wave of attacks reigned upon them.

Leah Lyons & Shaunagh Brown smashed around the breakdown like a pair of mad Bulls, and on the 46th minute Davina Catlin crashed over for a try to narrow the deficit to 12-26.

With 75 minutes on the clock a fourteen point gap looked unreachable, but not for this bunch, and the Ellie Green show was about to start.

She scored a wonderful try on 76 minutes which she duly converted to make the score 19-26.

Bristol restarted and time was up, but with the ball alive Quins had one more shot, after several phases Lucy Packer went over, and cucumber cool Ellie slotted the conversion to give Quins a share of the spoils, as the stoop crowd gave a collective roar, and checked their pulse rates.

The two points for the draw, plus a try scoring bonus point, could prove to be vital come the spring when qualification for the semi finals is at stake.

There were plenty of positives, the sign of a good side is one that grinds out a result when playing not particularly well, also the senior players were extremely vocal and held it all together as the new partnerships and combinations bed in, which enevitably takes time.

Also Quins did not concede a single point from the thirty eighth minute onwards.

This squad will never give up and never give in, and when everything clicks, then we will all be in for a real treat.

I’ve never had to queue to get out of a women’s rugby match before, Saturday at the Stoop may have ended in a draw, but there was one convincing winner, the women’s game itself.

Harlequins Ladies This Is Their Time

Rachel Burford has descended from the Cape Town mists engulfing table mountain, Deborah McCormack has packed away her surfboard at Bondi beach, and Leanne Riley has recovered from her lung busting Tour de France cycle stage.

As the scorching summer sun falls gently towards Autumn, the brown arid playing fields have turned back into the green green grass of home, and we find ourselves on the very cusp of another Tyrrells Premier 15s season.

The disappointment of an agonisingly narrow loss in last seasons final has been put to bed, gone but certainly not forgotten, and it will provide extra motivation, for players management and fans, if any were needed, for the new campaign.

Even in summer training you could sense and feel the determination to go one better this season, and as the sessions have increased in their intensity, the squad are looking fitter than ever, there is an eager freshness and anticipation, everyone can’t wait for the season to start.

Gary Street and Karen Findlay are shrewd cookies, never resting on their laurels, and constantly evolving training methods and routines, there is so much going on at their sessions it is difficult to keep up, but it is this attention to detail and the constant freshness they impart, that gives the playing group such great preparation.

Quins start their 2018/19 Tyrrells Premier 15s campaign away to Gloucester Hartbury on September 8, before they entertain Bristol Bears, at Twickenham Stoop, on Saturday 15 September, a 5.30pm kick off, following the mens premiership match against Bath.

Further matches at the Stoop will take place against Saracens, Wasps, and Richmond, with the remaining home league fixtures taking place at Surrey Sports Park, in Guildford.

Fresh faces of real quality have been brought in during the off-season including Scottish international Jade Konkel and Irish prop sensation Leah Lyons.

Harlequins will inevitably be one of the “big scalps” that always make opponent raise their own game, and there is no doubt there will be a huge improvement from many of the sides that did not challenge for honours last season.

As Autumn light fades into winter darkness there will be some some huge battles ahead, times of joy, and times of having to dig deep, lie ahead in an effort to ensure that when the days lengthen in early spring, they are in the driving seat for a home semi final.

All that is long way off as the group head to Gloucester on Saturday, the road is long with many a winding turn and I for one will be delighted and privileged to join them on their journey maybe for Harlequins ladies, this is their time.

Alhambra The Final Whistle

There are some sporting lives that transcend the very game itself, individuals who find themselves, through no fault of their own, as pathfinders for their gender, their country and even their sport.

Responsibilities of this nature can weigh heavily on the broadest of shoulders, but some can carry the load with dignity, grace, poise eloquence and no little skill.

One such individual is Alhambra Nievas-Gonzalez.

Rugby is fortunate to have Ali in its ranks, the values, ethics and all that is good about the game, will continue to shine through in whatever role she turns her hand to, now that she has hung up her whistle.

She has broken down barriers, and prejudices, that have eased the way for those that follow her.

Those referees, of which there are many, have been inspired by her actions, deeds and her example, and as a result, they will not have to suffer such gender scrutiny and intense publicity thanks to her efforts.

We can be eternally grateful that Ali chose our sport in which to grace her presence, those of us who have met her, and watched her on the field of play, can count ourselves lucky, those of us who are privileged enough to call her our friend can feel truly blessed.

As humble and content driving the tractor during the family olive harvest in Granada, as she is performing at the biggest events in the greatest stadiums in the world, Alhambra has closed one chapter of her life, and what a brilliant read it has been.

Gracias amigo hasta pronto.

Leanne Riley Stand Out Scrum Half

Scrum halves are a very unique group of people, they have to develop the art of doing twice the work in half the time.

The number nine is usually a small person with a big voice, and some serious psychological  issues, a personality that allows them to bark like one of those small yappy dogs, whilst thinking they are an Alsatian.

It is also said that a scrum half doesn’t shy away from a scrap, and starts them more frequently than anyone else on the team.

I know these facts to be true, as you see I too was a scrum half back in the olden days, although I was not in the same league, or indeed even on the same planet, talent wise as Leanne Riley.

The Harlequins Ladies and England number nine, definitely has very slight elements of these traits, but they are overshadowed by a sharp rugby brain, a turn of pace and a sublime spin pass.

If we continue with the canine analogy, then I guess maybe a rottweiler and greyhound mix, with a touch of sleek labrador, would be more akin to Leanne’s make up.

Leanne is the heartbeat of Harlequins Ladies, always looking to raise the tempo she is the metronome on which the teams pace keeps its rhythm, using her immense fitness from first whistle to last.

After a long hard season nursing an ankle injury, and enduring a cough that an 80-year-old smoker would have been proud of, a long period of rest, recovery and pampering  were just what the doctor ordered, but Leanne decided to self medicate, and prescribed herself a lung busting, heat sapping, lactic acid extravaganza, and cycled a stage of the Tour de France, (I told you scrum halves have series physiological issues).

It gets worse, rather than complete a relatively easy stage, freewheeling through Paris, sipping champagne, she chose the mountains of the Pyrenees, tackling three peaks in one day.

This involved a 96 kilometer ride at a vertical height of 3200 metres, cycling constantly uphill for periods of around two hours in 30 degree heat, on one of the peaks there was no shade whatsoever, and they ran out of water.

One of my abiding memories of last season occurred after Harlequins narrow defeat to Saracens in the Tyrrells Premier Final.

Whilst everyone was visibly hurting, none more so than Leanne, it was the scrum half herself who was doing the rounds, consoling all her fellow players and fans alike, geeing everyone up, this spoke volumes about her not only as a team player, but perhaps more importantly as person.

She coralled her team mates in front of the posts for a team photo, and that one act changed the mood, all of a sudden the banter returned, and there was laughter amidst the sadness.

An act unseen by most and unnoticed by others, but these are the things that make the difference between a good and a great player.

She started her international rugby career playing sevens, as a member of the successful England team that lifted the Challenge Cup in Hong Kong in 2012, and her full debut for the Red Roses  came in 2013 against South Africa, but the Harlequins scrum-half  had to wait until this years Women’s Six Nations for her first try, It came during England Women’s 52-0 win over Wales, one of her four appearances in the 2018 championship.


First Try For England

The mountains of France have now been replaced by the sun parched Surrey hills, and cycling takes a back seat as the Quins scrum half gets back in saddle for another Tyrrells Premier 15s season, which incidentally has twenty one stages, exactly the same number as the Tour de France.

I have no doubts that this Red Rose will continue to bloom this season, her career is blossoming, and with her drive, determination and talent it is very likely that Harlequins Ladies will be the pick of the bunch when the Premiership reaches its conclusion next April.