Oh Flower Of Scotland

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.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

It seems an age since the Lions played Japan at Murrayfield on that muggy June Saturday afternoon, and yet here we are six weeks later with the 2021 tour finally at an end.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle of international rugby,the lions were just a win away, rather than aweem away, from an historic series victory against the Springboks.

So much has happened during that time dislocated shoulders, the inevitable Covid issues, and of course Rassie Erasmus who has gone from watergate to a social media viewing audience only the bloke with a dog called “Fenton” could match.

On Saturday the third and deciding test was won by the Springboks by a three point margin in a match that the Lions could and should have won.

It has been a tough time for all those involved in ensuring this series went ahead, and whilst the quality of the rugby may not have been vintage, a lot of people have worked tirelessly, and made a lot of sacrifices to get the job done.

If nothing else happens as a result of this series, please can we start clearing the playing area of the hoardes of individuals cluttering it up. From squad members warming up and celebrating tries in the in-goal area, to water carriers and medics passing on coaching advice during every break in the game.

Speaking to fans a real bug bear is the fact that those folks who have bought expensive tickets at international matches and are situated behind the posts in the front rows, get eighty minutes plus viewing of players warming up, and in some cases discreetly urinating, in their eye line, of course if South Africa are involved this can extend for up to three hours.

The anticipated Lions tour to Australia in 2025 will surely be a much more joyous affair in so many ways, particularly with a decent rugby man, Dave Rennie in charge of the Wallabies.

My boyhood wonderment and admiration of the Boks has been soured during the test series, and not by the players, I’m angry and saddened that it has been taken from me those who have no right to do so.

But for now we can all take a deep breath and return to more worldly and pressing matters.

So as the exhausted touring party stretch out on the 11 hour 40 minute flight from Cape Town to Heathrow, we can safely say the Lion sleeps tonight.

Lions And The Cape Of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope, the most southerly point of the African continent is 70 kilometres miles from Cape Town, the point at which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, where the warm Arguilhas and the colder Benguela Currents merge.

This mixing of two currents, and sea temperatures, results in the aquatic turbulence that gave the point its original name, the Cape of Storms.

The name was changed by John II of Portugal to reflect the optimism of it becoming a shorter route from Europe to India by sea. “The Cape” has been and still is a global landmark for sailors rounding the African coast, as it marked a significant waypoint in the Cape Route and Clipper Route for ships operating between Europe, the Far East and Australia.

There has been a storm brewing all week in the area, and on Saturday it hit the Cape Town Stadium.

Lions fans had plenty of good hope of their own after a first test victory sevens days earlier, but with the Springboks fighting for their rugby lives, the visitors knew they had to batten down the hatches and weather an onslaught.

In a match that latest slightly longer than a Rassie Erasmus video, but was equally as unwholesome at times, the Lions after riding the waves in the first half were hit by a green tsunami in the second period.

The officials looked in need of a lifeguard in the early stages as their decisions were nervously and uncertainly delivered, maybe they could see the Boks water carrier was blocking their eye line.

So we head to a decider next Saturday, in Cape Town.

Once the citings and videos are done and dusted the focus will rightly turn to those that really matter the players and officials.

Around the Cape of good hope the deep depression that settled in late Saturday night is looking to give way to brighter skies for the Lions by next weekend, although Rassie’s meteorological midweek video may cloud the issue.

Robust Red Provides Wonderful Aftertaste In The Western Cape

The climate in the Western Cape is perfect for wine production, with the ideal combination of cool, wet winters and warm dry summers.

The breezes from the mountains, and the Atlantic and Indian oceans, help to cool the vineyards, and slow the ripening process to create intense fruit flavours.

There are many kinds of red grape grown in Cape Town, Pinotage though has a special place in local hearts because it is the only grape that is unique to South Africa. It was invented at Stellenbosch University in 1925. A hybrid of pinot noir and cinsault, Pinotage is a bold and complex wine with a deep red colour. Depending on the age of the wine, you may taste notes of red berries, spice, and chocolate or coffee.

On Saturday there was a different red in town, a British and Irish blend, this one may not have been vintage, but boy did it have kick, and a delicious aftertaste.

The old cliché, a game of two halves, describes the first test between the British and Irish Lions and South Africa perfectly.

South Africa were 12-3 up at half-time thanks to four Handré Pollard penalties, with Dan Biggar kicking one of his own to make sure the Lions were on the board at the interval.

However, an immense second-half comeback saw the Lions overcome the nine-point deficit to win 22-17 and put Warren Gatland’s men one win away from claiming their first series win in South Africa for 24 years.

Having not played at their best in the opening 40 minutes, a change in tactics was the reason for the remarkable turnaround.

In the opening 40 minutes the Lions didn’t have control, looking unsure tactically, they started the second half with a kick and chase, and after being awarded a penalty, captain Alun Wyn Jones decision to go for a kick to touch, and a line out catch and drive resulting in a try for Cowan-Dickie set the tone for the rest of the game.

The Lions looked really comfortable and composed in their own half, and they played possession and territory well in the second half.

In a 10 minute period South Africa conceded five penalties, and then began to look fatigued, unable to find answers to the questions posed by the men in red, who grew in stature the longer the game went on.

Wales and Lions 2017 captain legend Sam Warburton was full of praise post match

“The belief has just shot through the roof,” he said.

“Ali Price continued to box kick well, Van de Merwe performed well. Conor Murray came on and Owen Farrell did well. The kicking game was so much better in the second half and that was the biggest difference”.

“I do think the one moment in the match which was pivotal was when Alun Wyn Jones chose to kick to the corner and not go for the three points. We look back at that now and that’s a massive call.”

One player who received particular praise for his performance was player of the match Maro Itoje, who was a permanent nuisance for the Springboks throughout, his timely turnovers, and his physicality around the pitch went a long way to earning him the man of the match award.

Photo Courtesy British & Irish Lions

“I think the Lions were smart and excellent for 40 minutes and that will give them huge confidence to go from 12-3 down and turn it around and win. I think they’re in the driving seat now.”

“He really showed what an incredible player he is, and he has the work rate of an engine. At the end of the game he was on his back. When you have a player like him in the side it’s not about what he says, you look over at the side and think if Maro’s still doing it, I better still be doing it.

“One key moment for me was when Maro Itoje ran into [Eben] Etzebeth and got absolutely battered. I thought that wasn’t a good sign, but that seemed to wake him. It was like he thought maybe this was going to be an easy game and just got kicked into gear. He was brilliant.”

So we look forward to the Second test on Saturday, a match where the Springboks will throw the kitchen sink, and the washing machine, at the Lions.

The Lions glass, with or without Pinotage, is half full, but they will have to show an awful lot of bottle next weekend in the face of a wounded Springbok. Another win and they will be surely be painting the town red.

Argentina v Wales It Takes Two To Tango

The similarities between Buenos Aires and Cardiff are few and far between, but a juicy steak and a glass of Malbec, pre match, can fool the senses, and the emotions, prior to an exciting encounter at the Principality Stadium between Los Pumas and Wales.

Temperatures in the Welsh capital were more Cordoba than Cardiff, as the thermometer hit 90 degrees, it was so sultry and steamy you could almost hear the Latin orchestra in the back streets.

In Argentina 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.

But Cardiff is not exactly Buenos Aires, in fact the only tango you’re likely to find here will be in the fizzy drinks section of Tesco Express.

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, they rediscovered their rhythm wonderfully in November 2020 when they beat the All Blacks 25-15 in Sydney.

Wales were supposed to playing Los Pumas in Argentina this summer , but coronavirus ensured the two test series was switched to the Welsh capital.

Wales were slightly flat footed when the teams drew 20-20 last Saturday and were looking for a more polished performance in this series decider.

They dispensed with the tango and went for a “Fox” trot as Jon Davies made a break straight from the Argentinian kick off, sadly for Wales it proved to be a long hard afternoon where they were outmuscled, and failed to gain any momentum as error after error strangled their efforts.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Wales were missing 27 players through British and Irish Lions duty and injury, whilst this was a full strength Argentinian outfit.

Wales took the lead after a wonderful move finished by an Owen Lane touchdown, however two first half tries for Moroni and Cubelli along with Nico Sanchez boot gave the Pumas a 17-8 half time lead.

Wales scored the opening points of the second half with a Jarrod Evans penalty narrowing Argentina’s lead to 17-11, but the home side barely fired a shot after that, and 3 penalties from Sanchez plus his conversion of Pablo Matera’s try gave the Pumas a convincing 33-11 victory.

So after 14 internationals it was Wales last dance of a long season whilst Argentina look forward to tripping the light fantastic in the Rugby Championship, they certainly didn’t put a foot wrong in Cardiff.

The Lions Roar And It’s The Sharks Again

The Lions tour to to South Africa is hanging on by its fingernails, or should that be claws ?. Having beaten the Cell C Sharks 54-7 the previous Wednesday, the British & Irish Lions faced the same opposition on Saturday.

The Lions were due to play the Vodacom Bulls, but due to a Covid outbreak in the home squad, the match had to be cancelled.

Jamie George (Saracens, England) was named captain of a starting XV which had 13 changes to the team that played the same opposition a few days earlier, with only Elliot Daly (Saracens, England) and Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland) retained.

“It’s obviously been a slightly turbulent week, but we remain determined to keep rolling with the punches,” said Gatland.

“In many ways, the challenges we’ve faced this week have strengthened our resolve to do everything we can to overcome the challenges created by covid.

“The feeling in the camp on Wednesday night was just to give it a crack – I was really proud by how everyone reacted, particularly the match day squad who would have never prepared for a game like that before.

“Saturday was another opportunity to see how the boys go and for us as coaches to try out a few more combinations ahead of the Test series.

The Lions and the Springboks have also been affected by Covid infections. South Africa had to cancel their international against Georgia, last Friday, and the Lions themselves have had a pretty testing week, mostly of the PCR variety.

An unnamed Lion tested positive last Wednesday the player has now subsequently produced negative results and there are no other cases in camp.

It has also emerged that not every member of the touring party has been vaccinated, it was left up to each individual to decide whether they wanted the jab or not, and whilst the majority took up the offer there are some who declined.

Saturday was at least a great work out for the Lions, who ran in 11 tries to beat the Sharks 71-31.

The Sharks were extremely competitive in the first half, and to go into the break level 26-26 was a great credit to them. But scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse’s 46th-minute red card for a cheap-shot elbow to Liam Williams’ head swung the game.

Sadly for the South African outfit, Stephen Spielberg didn’t write the ending for this Jaws sequel, and it was the Lions that came out on top in the battle of Surf v Turf.

So the 2021 tour rumbles on as the Lions head to Cape Town to face South Africa A on Wednesday. In the meantime Harlequins fly half, Marcus Smith, has flown out as injury cover for Finn Russell who may not play again during this tour.

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi has tested positive for Covid-19, two weeks before the first Test against the British and Irish Lions.

Dan du Preez, Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni and Makazole Mapimpi, plus three of the management team, have also tested positive for coronavirus.

It takes the total number of cases to more than 20 in the Springbok camp. However, a “large group” of South Africa players returned to training on Sunday after six days of isolation.

We are living in a very strict bio-secure environment where we are governed by strict protocols, we have a medical advisory group in place that has independent virologists and infectious disease specialists and advisors on what we can and can’t do.

The British & Irish Lions Managing Director Ben Calveley reiterated that the team are doing everything in their power to make this tour work. “It’s the same for the Lions and Springbok camp, we’re tested frequently, a minimum three times a week. We have no interaction with the general public, we’re playing in far fewer venues than would have been the case, and of course we don’t have fans in the grounds. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure this Tour will go ahead and we are determined to make sure it goes ahead.”

Pumas See Red In Cardiff Draw

504 days ago I drove away from Cardiff, after France had beaten Wales in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, I assumed I would return a few weeks later to cover Wales v Scotland, but we all know what happened next.

17 months away from your homeland, and indeed The Principality Stadium, is far too long, but people have made far worse sacrifices during this horrific pandemic.

To see those glorious red shirts run out on to the green green grass of home once again was an emotional moment, and to hear the national anthem, even with a small chorus of 7,828 was truly heavenly.

Saturday was very definitely a big cat day with Wales facing the Pumas in the Welsh capital, and The Lions continuing their COVID ravaged tour in South Africa.

Wales started brightly, but against the run of play, Argentina got the first points of the game on the board thanks to the boot of Nicolas Sanchez who converted a penalty for a three-point lead.

Almost immediately Wales cancelled out Argentina’s advantage through the boot of Callum Sheedy.

Wales edged in front through another Sheedy penalty for a 6-3 lead.

In what what was a decisive moment in the game, Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia was shown a red card for making direct contact to the head of Wales scrum-half Kieran Hardy.

Four minutes from half time, Argentina levelled the scores as Sanchez struck over his second penalty of the match.

Then on the stroke of half time Argentina scored the first try of the game through Pablo Matera who went over from close range to give Argentina a 13-6 lead going into the break.

After the late first half blow, it was important for Wales to start the second half strongly but it was the Pumas who pounced first as they scored their second try of the match.

From a scrum in the Welsh 22, Jeronimo de la Fuente went over unopposed and Sanchez landed the conversion to give Argentina a 20-6 lead.

Wales reacted strongly and got back in the game through second row Will Rowlands who charged over from close range after taking a pass from replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans converted to put Wales within seven points.

Wales upped the tempo and after some sustained pressure deep inside the Argentina half, Tomos Williams broke from a scrum to to score, Evans conversion levelled the scores.

With eight minutes remaining Argentina missed their third penalty of the afternoon, and in the final seconds Evans missed a long kick at goal that would have sealed a victory for Wales, perhaps undeservedly.

Wales made far too many errors but will be all the better for the experience of facing a gnarly Pumas side twelve of whom ply their trade in France’s Top 14.

The two teams meet again next Saturday in a match that will decide the series.

Lions Safari Starts With A Big Game Win

As Lions tours go this one will be no doubt one of the most difficult in British & Irish Lions history.

Due to the frightening times we currently live in, events off the field have an impact that cannot be negated.

The South African province of Gauteng has been one of the hardest hit by the latest wave of the coronavirus, despite this the legendary Lions began their tour, which will take place to a eerie backdrop of empty stadiums.

Stewart Hogg captained the team from full back, with Owen Farrell’s selection at centre perhaps an early indication of Warren Gatland’s plans to play either Dan Biggar or Finn Russell at fly half, in the test series against the Springboks.

A team that has had more name changes than a witness protection candidate, were the opposition.

On Saturday they were called the Sigma Lions, only last week they were known as the Emirates Lions, they have also been previously named Golden Lions and perhaps more famously Transvaal.

The last time the Lions played these “other” Lions was on the 2009 tour, where the visitors romped home 74-10.

It took the class of 2021″ just 4 minutes to get on the scoreboard, with a try from the youngest player on tour, 21 year old Welsh wonder kid Louis Rees-Zammit.

Further first half tries from Scotsmen Hamish Watson and Ali Price gave the tourists a 21-7 half team lead.

4 second half tries for Cardiff Blues wing Josh Adams, plus one for replacement scrum half Gareth Davies, ensured a comfortable 56-14 win with Owen Farrell nailing all 8 conversions. It has to be said the local defence left more holes than a demented moth, but the men in red took their chances all the same.

The last Lion to score 4 tries in a match was Shane Williams against Manawatu in 2005, illustrious company indeed.

The touring party now have a short turnaround before facing yet another member of the animal kingdom, the Sharks, or the Cell C Sharks, to give them their full corporate title.

Coach Warren Gatland stated before the tour began that every player would get game time in the opening 3 matches, so there will be wholesale changes made.

On Saturday’s win he said, “The boys were pretty good today. I was a bit unhappy with some of the turnovers when we tried to force things, I have been incredibly impressed with the players and their attitude. We are probably still going to be a bit rusty with making so many changes but we will we see how they go on Wednesday”.

Encouraging news is also emerging from Wales. Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones shoulder injury is not quite as bad as it could have been. The big lock is hopeful of making a recovery in time to rejoin the squad, the next few weeks will be crucial, but how wonderful it would be to see the 35 year old back in a Lions shirt before the tour ends.

Victory For Wounded Lions In Edinburgh

Lions traditionally symbolise power, strength, and protection. The Japanese symbol of a lion is often associated with places of worship, where you may find a pair of lion statues guarding the entrances to shrines or temples. These are often referred to as ‘lion dogs’, and are believed to ward off evil spirits.

On Saturday at Murrayfield East met West in Lion parlance, as Japan faced the British and Irish breed, it may not have been a roaring success, but the boys from the land of the rising scrum once again gladdened our hearts with their wonderful brand of rugby.

As the British and Irish variety head to South Africa the contrast in opposition they face in the Republic could not be more stark, but the sheer joy of the seeing the Blue Brave Blossoms and the Scarlet British & Irish Lions running out in the Edinburgh dreich was worth every lateral flow test I had to gag my way through last week.

The Lions fans created a sea of red, or at least a river, but sadly it was for the last time on this tour, what a loss they will be to the game, the team and the South African economy.

One of the biggest fears with warm up games of this nature is potential injury, and our fears were realised as soon as the 7th minute, when Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones left the field with his arm hanging loosely by his side , in our heart of hearts we knew this big game hunter’s tour was over, and so it proved to be.

Minutes later Justin Tipuric became another tour missing shoulder dislocating casualty, and as the Edinburgh skies brightened, the celebration mood in the stands dampened.

Josh Adams scored the Lions opening try after 11 minutes followed by Van Der Merwe on 20 minutes before Robbie Henshaw’s 24th minute try. Biggar converted all three to give the Lions a 21-0 lead at half time.

The Lions only try in second half came in the 49th minute when Tadgh Beirne touchdown, the faultless Biggar once again added the conversion.

With the Lions leading 28-0 a 61st minute try from Himeno, converted by Tamura, who also added a penalty seven minutes later, put Japan on the scoreboard, and proved to be the final score of the game.

A 28-10 victory witnessed by 16,500 fans after we have all gone through during the last 15 months is something we should treasure, it is such a shame that it was marred by the injuries to Jones and Tipuric.

In the wild a Lions roar can be heard from 5 miles away, the groans that emanated from Edinburgh last night when the leader of the pack went down extended much much further.

La Rochelle The Atlantic Wall

I’m beginning to discover that living by the sea gives you an outlooking attitude.

The rhythm of the waves and the ebb and flow of the tides have a marvellously calming affect.

Staring out to the horizon the mirage effect of the sea reaching the sky brings out the poet in me, and my mind conjours up pictures of the French rugby folk going about their daily business, just as we do, but maybe with a touch more style.

Having just moved to East Sussex I am now actually nearer to France than London.

As I look out to sea after my morning coffee, the next landfall is La Touquet, or there abouts, and my French rugby connections feels just that little bit stronger.

Just 147 miles away from my Sussex home, in Lille, the Top 14 semi finals took place last Friday and Saturday evening.

The victors La Rochelle and Toulouse meet in Paris on Friday in the Top 14 Final. For Toulouse it will be their 28th final having won it 20 times. In stark contrast this will be Stade Rochelais first appearance in the showpiece event.

The script would dictate that La Rochelle after the heartbreak of losing the Heineken Champions Cup at Twickenham, against Toulouse, will exact revenge and return home to celebrations that will probably last all summer.

But when has rugby ever stuck to the script ? 16,000 lucky fans will find out at Stade de France in a few days time.

à bientôt