Ciao Cardiff

The bond between Wales and Italy is a very close one, particularly in the Welsh capital,and when heading northwards up in to the valleys.

There was a time when every little town and community in Wales had an Italian cafe and ice cream parlour, many of them have now disappeared, superseded by multi-national chains, but the memories still remain, not just of the cafes,but also the people who ran them and how they and their establishments became a centre of those communities.

Yesterday the weather was more Milan than Naples, but that did not dampen the spirits of the considerable Azzuri tifosi on the streets of Cardiff.

As Wales and Italy opened the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, Cardiff’s wealth of Italian eateries filled up, Giovanni’s, Da Mara’s,Stefano’s, Antonio’s, to name but a few, provided a conveyor belt service of antipasto, meatballs al forno and pizza from lunchtime until the early hours of this morning.

Wales supplies of Chianti and Parmesan will be well and truly depleted when the doors open for lunch today. However on the field of play it was Wales who were the hungrier,and their appetite was well and truly sated with a ninth Six Nations victory in a row.


It has to be said Italy were hospitable to the extreme, offering Biggar 3 penalties as a starter, before a secondi of two Josh Adams tries gave Wales a 21-0 half time lead. 

Wales were a bit stodgy at the opening of the second half,before finding their try scoring appetite in the final quarter with a touchdown from the very impressive debutant Nick Tompkins.


Swiftly following a George North try ,Josh Adams provided the rugby equivalent of an after dinner mint on 82 minutes, crashing over the whitewash to complete his hat trick, to the delight of the 68,582 crowd. 

Wales last tasted six nations defeat in February 2018, next Saturday  they return to the scene of that defeat, Dublin, hopefully bread of heaven will be on the menu at the Aviva stadium.

Bon appetit.

Come Fly With Wales And France On The Wind Of Change 

Nothing changes that stays the same Wales start the 2020 Guinness Six Nations with a New Zealander at the helm, following Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland is an ex policeman from Takapuna.

I write this article 30,000 feet above the Pyrenees on a rickety Easyjet tray table, whilst being buffeted by what is officially termed as a moderate breeze, directly below me on terra ferma the wind of change is also sweeping through French international rugby, new coach Fabien Galthie has selected a youthful squad, that with a fair wind, could be ready to take the 2023 Rugby World Cup by storm on home soil.

My flight path today has taken in Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand and Paris ,where 18 out of the 42 man squad ply their trade, France opening game against England already has the pulses racing.

 As I descend into Gatwick the Wales six nations squad has been revealed at the Vale resort, near Cardiff, the abolition of the Seven bridge tolls has ignited an influx of players from the English Premiership, and I was not alone in having to “Google” one or two of the less familiar names.

Wales have an injury list longer than the speedy boarding queue at Barcelona airport, but there appears to be an impressive depth to the squad these days, and there is a genuine excitement at the thought of Wales expanding their game, and with all due respect theycouldn’t  wish for a better start to the tournament with Italy visiting the Principality stadium on February 1.

Will Wales and France be flying high come the middle of March ? like this flight there may be sime turbulence to contend with but whether you’re blue or red there are some exciting times ahead…. Fasten your seat belts !

Home Alone Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot

Winter, as nature rules, is a time for hibernation,a season of quiet calm, with the darkness gradually beginning to fade as New Year approaches.

This New Year’s Eve I am cast in the role of an aged Macaulay Culkin as I find myself home alone to face the barrage of Jools Holland unassisted, with the exception of my four legged friend.

An racous evening of Guinness and bonio’s lies ahead ,along with an Amazon prime Scandi crime box set, this home alone sequel may not be big box office if the truth be told.

A writer should enjoy this solace with time to think and crack on with a ton of articles, inspired by a lack of household duty lists, but with a Labrador thrusting an empty plastic water bottle into your crotch every time you reach for the keyboard, inspiration is replaced with a natural instinct for genital survival,and a desire to avoiding waking up on New Year’s Day sounding like the fourth Bee Gee.

So the safest option in the circumstances would be to look back at 2019, whilst also looking sideways for the canine crotch destroyer ,who shows no sign of ending his “blitzkrieg”.

Looking back I can still feel that sub zero February Parisian night in my bones when Wales launched a grand slam, but it’s the hot balmy night in June, at the same venue, when Toulouse beat Clermont to win the Top 14,that lingers more pleasantly, along with a gorgeous August Sunday morning, after Ireland defeated Wales, looking out over Dublin bay, a panorama that would make even the strongest atheist think twice about a heavenly presence.

But ultimately, as in life,rugby is about the people in it, the friendships that grew even stronger with another year passing, and the new ones that so fortunately came my way, I treasure them all so dearly, these friends who hold the values of the sport and its spirit tightly in their grasp, I cannot than you enough.

To my beloved Harlequins Women I cannot even begin to thank you for allowing me to be part of your adventure for yet another year, and still no restraining order.

So as I get back to the keyboard the frantic excitement of an empty plastic water bottle has taken it toll, and an exhausted black Labrador is snoring at my feet, may 2020 bring you similar peace and tranquility, along with good health plus magical rugby shared with old friends,new friends, and those yet to come, and beware of Labradors brandishing plastic bottles.

Rivalry Revisited Harlequins Women And Saracens

Sport for all it’s hope, optimism, joy and sadness, is serviced emotionally and physically by rivalry.

The great matches, events and memorable series are enriched by rivalry, whether it be respectful or bitter.

Ali and Frasier, Nadal and Federer, Barcelona v Real Madrid, Coe and Ovett are etched in sporting history, the relatively new kids on the block, in terms of rivalry, are Harlequins Women and Saracens.

The teams, you could say, are from opposite sides of the tracks, Quins with their joie de Vivre, Saracens with their gritty down to earth attitude, where pushing the limits of legality has got them to where they are, that’s not to say that their rugby is unattractive, far from it, it’s just that I have seen first hand the difference in attitudes, on and off the field, between the two teams, and this is one of the factors that makes the rivalry so absorbing so gripping and makes victory for the winner all the sweeter.

On the Harlequins side it is also true to say that the beautiful game they all buy in to is underpinned by discipline, an incredible work ethic, and an armour plated inner steel.

Whether you like your shade of rugby dark or light there is no doubt Quins v Saracens is more Barca v Real than Nadal v Federer.

This Saturday the teams meet at the Stoop, their head to head record is almost made irrelevant by the fact that Saracens have beaten Harlequins in every Tyrrells Premiership Final that has been played, okay there have only been two, but for Quins and their followers, this is a lingering sore patch that they are desperate to heal.

There is so much I could tell you about the these two sides, but this writers self imposed hypocratic oath prevents me from doing so, readers have the option of plying me with Guinness and I will happily spill the beans.

For now the best thing I can suggest is that you come down to the stoop this Saturday and see the best of women’s rugby in all its glory, all its pain, and its fifty shades of rivalry.

 

Harlequins Women v Saracens Head To Head

Played 6

Saracens Won 5

Harlequins Won 1

 

3/12/17  Quins 19   Saracens 28

24/3/18   Saracens 32   Quins 29

29/4/18   Quins 20   Saracens 24     Tyrrells Premiership Final

20/10/18   Quins 20   Saracens 7

12/1/19    Saracens 31   Quins 28

27/4/18   Saracens 33   Quins 17      Tyrrells Premiership Final

 

 

The Napoli Forza Natura Giada Franco

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 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 twenty three year old 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 on a weekly basis in the Tyrrells Premiership.

Giada joined Harlequins Women at the start of the season and made her club debut in the opening match of the campaign, which saw Quins romp home to a 101-0 victory over near neighbours Richmond, an instant success, she scored her first try for her new club in the 77th minute against Worcester Warriors on match day two.

She played in all seven of the clubs Tyrrells Premiership games so far this season scoring tries against Worcester Warriors, Gloucester-Hartbury, Loughbourough Lightning and Firwood Waterloo.

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, a couple of weekends ago she gained her 13th cap against Japan, and has scored four tries in the process.

Giada is part of a truly international sisterhood at Harlequins, training playing and socialising with players who have donned the shirts of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Australia and Sweden, the cosmopolitan vibe at the club is a joy to behold.

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.

Settling into English life has been easy 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.

Of course she misses her Mum, back home in Salerno, and their unbreakable bond is very evident from the loving and protective way she talks about her, fortunately her sister is nearby in London so “la dolce vita” is never far away.

This planet is a small place where the past and present are indelibly linked, sitting in the warmth of Surrey Sports Park, discussing the joys of rugby, and life, over a coffee, we discover that both our grandfathers saw active service in Salerno during the Second World War, it is a small world indeed, but one in which Giada Franco is making a big impact.

 

Wayne’s World And Wales New Dawn

Takapuna is a coastal town on North Shore Auckland, with a population of 5,000, it doesn’t hit the headlines very often, the filming of a Shania Twain video in 2003 remains one of its major claims to fame, however an ex policeman stationed in that neck of the woods is about to change all that.

Wayne Jeffrey Pivac was born in Takapuna in September 1962, from birth he had international options with Mum Joan coming from Scotland and Dad George a Croatian from Split.

Wayne’s rugby career ended abruptly at the age of 27 when he suffered a knee ligament injury playing soccer.

A coaching career that includes three years with the Fiji national team has given the former police constable an arresting CV.

So here we are three weeks after the Rugby global showpiece in the land of the rising sun, and a new dawn has arrived in Wales.

Wayne Pivac has taken over as Welsh coach from his fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland, to say he has a tough act to follow is an understatement of the highest order, but the man who made the Scarlets sparkle is intent on doing exactly the same job on his current red shirted squad.

“I will be doing my best to protect the legacy which Warren Gatland, with the help of the players, has left behind. It will be an almighty challenge, but one that I’m more than ready for”.

“Having lived in the country for four years, I don’t see myself as an outsider, but as a Welsh coach, I would not have put myself through the process if I did not feel it was something I could do, and be passionate about”.

A four year contract that officially began in July 2019 makes Pivac the fourth New Zealand born coach to take charge of Wales  and he is not fazed with the prospect of following Gats. 

“I grew up in a pretty hostile environment where winning was everything”

“We will be doing everything we can to emulate what Warren has done in terms of results and evolve our game at the same time”

“It’s a process that works towards the Rugby World Cup in 2023 bearing in mind we have to be as successful was we can along the way”

It’s been a pretty momentous year for Wayne Pivac, as Wales clinched a Grand Slam in the pouring rain in Cardiff last March, he was marrying Mikaela back home on Takapuna beach.

Eight months on Wales men face the Baa-Baas as part of a double header with Wales women and Pivac has selected a squad that includes 22 players who featured for Wales in the 2019 RWC and five uncapped players.

Just to make things a little tastier Warren Gatland will coach the Barbarians squad for this match.

On announcing his first Wales squad, Pivac said:

“It is great to get the squad announced and get the ball rolling on our first meet-up and first fixture next week”.

“This Barbarians game is a great chance for us as a new squad and management to get together and to set the scene for what we are looking to do. Having this opportunity ahead of tournament rugby in the Six Nations is ideal for us”.

“It is also a great chance for some players to really put their hand up and show what they are about and take to the field in front of a big crowd at home”.

“We will be bringing a few additional players in to train with the squad during the week, just to see them in the environment and will also be bringing some of the injured players in for some of the scene setting style sessions.”

 

Following Warren Gatland is a tall order but all of us with red blood in our veins hope that this particular policeman’s lot will be a happy one.

 

 

 

Tragedy And Triumph Makazole The Barbarian

It is the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, 65:43 on the clock and South Africa lead England 18-12, from a South African scrum near half way, Faff Du Klerk feeds Lukhanyo Am, who passes left to Malcolm Marx……… Makazole Mapimpi takes up the story from here.

“I got the ball from Malcolm Marx 50 meters out near the left touchline, I saw that Lukhanyo Am was on my inside, I chipped the ball ahead, he gathered it, I chased up and he gave me the ball to score”. 

The understatement does not do justice to a wonderful try, South Africa’s first in a Rugby World Cup final, and bearing in mind they won the damn thing in 1995 and 2007 that’s quite a statistic.

The try scorer Makazole Mapimpi is a person more familiar with tragedy than success, his life story is filled with heart breaking sadness, yet the softly spoken wing from Tsholomnqa, in the Eastern Cape, inspired and comforted by his faith, has nothing but gratitude for how things are.

As a back story to the glory and triumph of the Springboks cup final win, there could not be a more earth shattering contrast.

His mother Eunice who ran a sewing machine business was killed in a car accident, his brother Zolani lost a leg after being electrocuted whilst stealing cables, he then died from his injuries, and his sister Zukiswa died from a illness affecting the brain.

On Saturday Makazole swapped Johannesburg for Twickenham and a temperature drop of eighteen degrees, he is part of the Springbok contingent in the Barbarians squad that faced Fiji on Saturday, and will face Brazil and Wales in the coming weeks.

Celebrations back home in South Africa will be going on for quite some time yet, but the official trophy tour ended last Monday.

 Makazole walks in looking relaxed with a warm sunny smile that takes the edge off a chilly Twickenham day, his rugby rise has been dramatic, three years ago he was playing first division rugby for Border Bulldogs, he joined Southern Kings before working his way through the animal kingdom with the Sharks and the cheetahs, where he has torn opposition defences to shreds.

Running is the name of the game, he says when he first started playing the coaches in rural areas would remove you from the field if you kicked the ball, there are a few opposition defences that have suffered as a result of that strategy.

His Springbok debut came against Wales last year in Washington, a home game that Wales decided to shift to the USA.

Since then he has scored ten tries for South Africa including six at the recent World Cup.

On Saturday he scored two tries for the Barbarians who narrowly lost to a youthful Fiji side in front of a crowd of just over 51,000, both of them were walk ins from five metres out, but that will not bother Makazole, as he rightly says, every one counts.

The 6ft 1inch wing gives the impression of a man at peace with himself, and not much can phase him, after all the he has gone through that is quite some achievement.

Hamlet And Harlequins Tartan Trio


The last three Scottish ladies I saw performing together on the same stage were appearing courtesy of the wit and wisdom of the great William Shakespeare.

Yes the great bard knew a thing or two about Tartan trios, and whilst this writer cannot claim to be in his league, I reckon I know a little bit more about rugby than the bearded wonder.

One of  Shakespeare’s greatest works, Macbeth, could perhaps also be considered relevant to three more benevolent Scots, Debs McCormack, Jade Konkel and Chloe Rollie of Harlequins Women.

ACT 1 Scene 1:  “Where shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?  when the hurlyburly ‘s done, when the battle ‘s lost and won”

Well these three have been through quite a few battles together, in the thistled jersey of Scotland as well as the Jestered apparel of Harlequins, I don’t think the great writer was referring to Loughborough Lightning , in act one, scene one, but you never know.

The three ladies have much in common, all three are affable modest and self effacing individuals, Chloe Rollie could side step you in a phone box, whilst Jade Konkel, who to use a quote of the late great Bill McLaren, “tackles like the crack of doom”, would just smash the phone box into tiny pieces, Debs McCormack would probably do both disciplines and with a smile on her face.

All three hail from entirely different backgrounds Edinburgh, Inverness and Gillingham, but apart from the geographical variations there are many rugby similarities, Debs has 31 caps, Jade 36 and Chloe 30.

During their rugby journey all three have also plied their trade overseas, Jade and Chloe having played for Lille Metropole in France, whilst Debs played in Australia for the Sydney outfit Eastern Suburbs, where in one match she had the Temerity to score a hat trick of tries, a feat that nearly got her drummed out of the second row union for showing far too much pace and flair.

ACT 5 Scene 3:  The mind I sway by and the heart I bear shall never sag with doubt   nor shake with fear”

On the injury front the two forwards have suffered the mental and physical effects of lengthy lay offs and gruelling rehab, indeed Debs is still dealing with the legacy of a neck/shoulder injury sustained 14 months ago, her stoicism and patience, without a hint of self pity, have been amazing to witness, a comeback is hopefully due very soon, Jade missed a huge chunk of last season after shoulder surgery, I don’t know what they put in during that operation but it appears to have made those famous “Rhino” charges even more destructive.

Chloe joined Quins this season and has lit up the Premiership with her silken running, the intrusions into the line have been surgically precise scoring and setting up tries in equal measure, her blistering speed is breathtaking and there are rumours that when she plays at the Stoop she sets off all the speed cameras on the A316.

ACT 4 Scene 1:   “Be bloody bold and resolute laugh to scorn”

Whilst Jade and Chloe are both professionals, Debs has to balance university and a job along with all the demands of top class rugby, needless to say she does not enjoy an awful lot of downtime, her dedication is mind boggling.

Scotland will be gearing up for Women’s Rugby World Cup qualification matches next autumn and this tartan trio will surely play a big part in that challenge, Debs is out of the international equation at the moment due to her injury battle but I feel sure if she can get just get a decent run of games for Quins that outlook will change, class is permanent as the saying goes.

As the Tyrrells Premiership takes an international break, this triumvirate  will be giving it their all on the field of play, in the gym, on the training ground, and in gruelling rehab. Their names are already justifiably immortalised in Harlequins and Scottish rugby history, a feat achieved whilst maintaining the values of our great game, and I cannot pay them a greater tribute than that, on a personal note to count them as my friends is an even greater privilege.

I leave the final word to the great bard himself.

“Come the three corners of the world in arms, and we shall shock them”

 

Previous articles and interviews with Debs and Jade are available on the website http://www.thesportsdragon.com

 

 

 

 

Lest We Forget

I hope this roll call will continue to keep the names of those heroes alive, and remind us  that when all is said and done, there are much more important things in life than rugby, and although at times this is something we all tend to forget, one thing is for certain, we should always remember those brave men listed below.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

THE 13 WELSH INTERNATIONALS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR

Richard Thomas

Born: Ferndale, 14 October 1883.

Killed in action : Mametz Wood 7 July 1916.
Wales: Four caps, 1906-1909.

John Lewis Williams
Born: Whitchurch, Cardiff, 3 January 1882.
Died of wounds: Corbie 12 July 1916.
Wales: 17 caps, 1906-1911.

David Westacott
Born: Cardiff, 10 October 1882.
Killed in action: Wieltje, 28 August 1917.
Wales: One cap, 1906.

Horace Wyndham Thomas
Born: Pentyrch, 28 July 1890.
Killed in action: Ancre, 3 September 1916.
Wales : Two caps, 1912-1913.

Richard Davies Garnons Williams
Born: Llowes, Radnorshire, 15 June, 1856.
Killed in Action: 25 September 1915 while leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos.
Wales: One cap, 1881.

Charles Gerald Taylor
Born: Ruabon, North Wales, 8 May 1863.
Killed in action: 24 January, 1915 at the Battle of Dogger Bank when his ship HMS Tiger was hit by fire from German cruiser SMS Blucher.
Wales: Nine caps, 1884-1887.

Louis “Lou” Augustus Phillips
Born: Newport, Monmouthsire, 24 February 1878.
Killed in action: Cambrai, on 14 March 1916.
Wales: Four caps, 1900-1901.

Charles Mayrick Pritchard
Born: Newport, Monmouthshire, 30 September 1882
Died of wounds: 14 August, casualty clearing station, Western Front.
Wales: 14 caps, 1904-1910.

Phillip Dudley Waller
Born: Bath, Somerset, 28 January 1889.
Killed in action: Hit by shellfire, 14 December 1917, Arras.
Wales: Six caps, 1908-1910.

Brinley Richard Lewis
Born: 4, January 1891, Pontardawe.
Killed in action: 2 April, 1917 Ypres, France, hit by shellfire.
Wales: Two caps, 1912-193.

William “Billy” Purdon Geen
Born: 14 March 1891, Newport, Monmouthshire.
Killed in action: Hooge, Flanders, 31 July, 1915.
Wales: Three caps, 1912-1913.

Fred Leonard Perrett
Born: Briton Ferry, 9 May 1891.
Died of wounds: 1 December 1918, in a clearing station weeks after the armistice.
Wales: Five caps, 1912-1913

David Watts
Born: Maesteg 14 March 1886.
Killed in action : 14 July 1916 at Bazentin Ridge, France.
Wales: Four caps, 1914.

THE THREE WELSH INTERNATIONALS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN WORLD WAR II

Cecil Rhys Davies  (1 Cap)

John R Evans   (1 Cap)

Maurice J.L. Turnbull   (2 Caps)

Sayonara Japan Bonjour France

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.

The land of the rising sun finally reached dusk last Saturday, as South Africa lifted the trophy in Yokohama.

Cheslin Kolbe’s feet had barely touched the ground before the rugby circus had packed up its tent, and the mass migration to Hanenda airport had commenced.

But as the sun sets in the east, a new dawn has already risen in the west, as France take over the RWC torch for 2023.

As Bak-San scrubs off the last vestiges of body paint, despite the sadness our lives all feel that little bit richer for our holiday romance with Japan.

Six weeks ago many of us knew very little about Vasily Artemyev, or Kotaro Matsushima, but they are now firmly etched into our rugby memory banks, along with the sights sounds and screams of flying Fijians, sinking Scots and wounded Welshmen.

A new rugby cycle is about to begin, after a whole host of international farewells including Warren Gatland, Steve Hansen, Guilhem Guirado, Louis Picamoles and Wayne Barnes and many more.

This time next year the draw for RWC 2023 takes place in Paris.

The 10th Rugby World Cup begins in the French capital on September 8 2023, and ends on October 21.

Forty five days of gum ulcerating baguettes, only soothed by a decent chateauneuf du Pape but boy the French do these tournaments so well, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean it will be a feast both on and off the field, the nine host stadiums span the length and breadth of country from the mountains to the seas.


So as the bullet train prepares to make way for the TGV, it’s time to take a deep breath, let us all hope we are spared to do it all again in four years time, and who knows maybe even Brexit will be sorted by then.