The Endless Season And The Survival Of The Fittest

These days the rugby season never seems to end, clubs were already back in pre season training before our home nations touring teams touch down on native soil, after their Southern Hemisphere escapades.

If you thought this season, or should that be last season, was long then the next one is positively endless.

This time next year the focus will be on the Rugby World Cup warm up matches in preparation for Japan 2019 which commences in September.

France and Scotland have already arranged their fixtures,with Wales having agreed to play England twice, at Twickenham and Cardiff, and also Ireland.

Each home nation will play thirteen to fifteen internationals, give or take, before the first ball is kicked in Tokyo, add in domestic leagues and European tournaments and once again it looks like it will be the survival of the fittest.

Player welfare the subject that is always discussed and regarded as a priority by governing bodies, has become the king of the platitudes, there are plenty of words spoken, but very little ensuing action.

Ireland’s centrally contracted players will be in the best position come the Rugby World Cup, whilst Wales and Scotland also have more opportunity to manage their players workload, unlike England.

The competitiveness of the new Gallagher Premiership allows little opportunity for resting players, and when you have a Premiership Rugby Board that makes Shylock seems like a charity worker a charity worker, the pounds of flesh are the ones that will inevitably suffer.

Across the channel in France, its “plus ca change”, the Top 14 rules and will span its usual marathon season from August to June, but at least France will only play three November internationals, unlike the teams in these islands.

Rugby World Cup Warm Up Matches Confirmed 2019

August 17    France v Scotland

August 24    Scotland v France

August 30/31    France v Italy

August 31    Georgia v Scotland

Sep 6/7          Scotland v Georgia


Espresso Fuelled Rugby And A Lab Test

I knew that the Saturday rugby marathon was going be tough, an early morning start  heading for the Nespresso machine, side stepping the starving Labrador and looking more like George Formby than George Clooney (me not the dog).

First up were the All Blacks, the coffee and Labrador also both all black, as black as the eye of poor Remi Grosso the previous week, France looked as tired as I was, they sadly did not have instant access to another espresso, something “Les Bleus” strength and conditioning staff may seriously have to look in to.

Time for a bonio for my four-legged assistant, not something I would recommend for the French back line, although a supplement possibly the front row might benefit from, although with hooker called Chat maybe something more feline would be appropriate.

France forgot about breakfast and made a bit of a dog’s dinner of a challenge in the air, resulting in a red card, and for once pride came after a fall as a gutsy fourteen man effort made life difficult for the men in black.

Already  three coffees and two bonios down, we were in danger of peaking far too soon, there were still three internationals to navigate.

Argentina v Wales was at this point in time still ten hours away so pro rata we were looking at an intake of thirty coffees and twenty bonios, a serious over indulgence for both man and canine.

Fortunately there were a couple of three-hour windows following Australia v Ireland and South Africa v England, enough time for some serious hydration, stick throwing, and a dip in the local pond, if only the dog would join me.

As we headed down under for Australia v Ireland, mans best friend headed down under for a bit of a wash and clean, as only dogs can, Ireland’s ball skills were equally impressive.

As the Boks took the lead in match three, my four-legged friend was losing interest, a bit like the England defence his concentration had gone, and thoughts had turned to other matters as he attempted to jackel a tin of “Chappie” entering the cupboard from the side, like any self-respecting All Black Labrador.

By the time Argentina were lining up to face Wales, the boy was spent, he had nothing left to give, I was hanging on in there with my protein shake to hand, okay Peroni isn’t strictly a protein shake but what the heck.

Argentina v Wales was just one match too far for he furry one, but he missed a treat as a young Wales side bossed matters and beat the Pumas convincingly resulting in a test series win for the men in red.

I’m not sure either of us could cope with too many Saturdays like that, even George Clooney would struggle to keep up with the coffee intake involved, but we have to do it all again next Saturday, it’s a dog’s life.

If you are a Labrador lover, you may wish to vist the website of for all the adventures of a secret service labrador, or even purchase his books available from Amazon. He’s also on twitter @DoggyBonar004  

Wails In Washington

Wales against South Africa has always been one of the great fixtures of international rugby, I was brought up on tales of the massive men from the veldt that Wales had never beaten, and indeed it stayed that way until Wales first victory against the Springboks in 1999.

A back catalogue of brutal encounters exist that took place in Johannesburg, Cardiff, Pretoria, Durban and even Wembley, but Washington DC ?

Ok let’s try and be positive about a match that created about as much interest locally as a party political broadcast.

Firstly Arriva trains the scourge of rugby fans attempting to get in and out of Cardiff, do not operate in Washington, secondly you didnt have to get up from you seat eighty times during the match to let fellow spectators carry out their beer transportation, although was largely due to a crowd figure of 21,357.

If the idea of the exercise was to spread the game stateside putting out two severely weakened teams seems a strange way to go about it.

Ex Wales captain Gwyn Jones gave his opinion last week

“Test rugby against the Springboks should not be a stepping stone or a preparation match, it’s a test match and that’s why I think it’s devalued the standard of international rugby.

The match was held at the Robert F Kennedy memorial stadium, The Beatles performed a concert there on the 15th August 1966,in front of 32,164, and a lot of people wished that theWelsh  Rugby Union had just “Let It Be”

Then came Warren Gatland perhaps “Speaking words of wisdom” ?

“Anyone who has come out and criticised this match, they’re completely ill-informed in terms of how important it is for the long term,” he said.

“I think you would have to be someone with a chip on your shoulder or be pretty bitter and twisted to criticise this match because I see it as absolutely vital in terms of our long-term planning for 2019”.

Which ever camp you’re in the match itself was one for the insomniacs, Channel 4 had to make do with Washington DC (DC meaning dodgy camerawork), which made a poor match match look worse, if that were at all possible.

Having watched the pulsating Top 14 final between Castres and Montpellier that immediately preceded the stateside snooze fest, it brought home to me the gulf in excitement that now appears to exist between club and international rugby.

But hey it was a win for Wales against the Boks, and having waited forty one years of my life for the first victory,  I will amidst my cynisism rejoice in that fact.

At least now we can move on to Argentina, and two blood and thunder tests against the Pumas.

It takes two to tango, and after a Hard Days Night last Saturday we look forward to the real thing.

Saracens Sizzle At Tropical Twickenham

A misty morning gave way to a warm muggy afternoon in south-west London, the sun shone and temperatures climbed to a sultry twenty-five degrees, there was thunder in the air above Twickenham, but it was nothing compared to the thunder that was taking place on the pitch below.

The two top teams of the Aviva premiership were battling it out in front of a crowd of 75,128 to earn the right to be declared the premiership champions of 2018.

This was Exeter Chiefs third consecutive final, and Saracens had won their last six encounters at Twickenham stretching back to 2014, so something had to give.

The first ten minutes belonged solely to the Chiefs, they put together seventeen phases in the opening few minutes before a penalty gave them a 3-0 lead, but from then on there only looked one likely winner.

Saracens scored two tries in four minutes, through Billy Vunipola (15mins) and Chris Wyles (19mins), and held a half time lead 12-3, which didn’t look big on the scoreboard, but the way Saracens were performing you felt the die had been cast.

The Vunipola brothers looked refreshed and exuberant, Billy showed just how much club and country have missed him this season, he really is some player.

Saracens had a bite and a fizz in their play that Chiefs couldn’t quite, or weren’t allowed, to produce, even when the moves broke down, you felt that Sarries just had to keep to their game plan and it would pay dividends.

Schalk Brits came on as a replacement in the 53rd minute, to the acclaim of the melting crowd, and as all retiring players do this season, he received a yellow card for collapsing a Chiefs maul, but he returned to play a part in the closing stages which was only fit and proper for such a wonderful player.

Wyles scored his second try on 47 minutes before Steenson pulled one back for the Chiefs. Earle’s try on 80 mins put the icing on the cake for Saracens.

Referee Wayne Barnes had a superb game, and there were plenty of landmarks in his direction. It was his 200th Premiership match and his eighth Premiership final.

As always Alex Goode, the Saracens full back, was the catalyst for Saracens more creative moments, a wonderfully gifted footballer, who appears to have more time on the ball than anyone else, some of his footwork on Saturday was sublime.

He was involved in every one of Saracens tries, how he is not involved in the  England set up amazes me, and many others.

It was real summer in the sun-kissed West stand, after the cold and rain and snow of earlier months, this felt like a proper end of season, except of course rugby seasons don’t really end these days.

Player welfare in England manifests itself in words and not sadly in deeds, and as the national team head to South  Africa in two weeks time  (if they haven’t all been injured in pre tour training), you do wonder how on earth they are going to survive next season, which includes RWC 2019, but that is a story for another day.

As the crowds grabbed a final cooling beer before heading home northwards and westwards, it was time to reflect on two great teams who played the match with a brutality, and at yet at the same time in a wonderful spirit, we could all do with a few more days like these.

A Crisp Finish For Quins And The Tyrrells Premiership

As I tuck into my final packet of British Beef and Suffolk ale crisps, courtesy of Tyrrells, it has brought home to me the stark realisation that the women’s premiership season is over, and that actually it has been for some weeks, I have been in denial.

This fact fills me with sadness on two counts, no more Saturday afternoons at Surrey Sports Park for nearly four months, and perhaps even more startling, the fact that I will now have to go out and buy my own snacks, such is my state of mind I have even considered switching to Hula Hoops.

The Tyrrells Premiership began for me on a sunny Saturday afternoon last September, when I arrived at Surrey Sports Park, in Guildford, to cover Harlequins Ladies v Firwood Waterloo.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but when I discovered there was a “Starbucks” less than one hundred yards from the pitch, I knew that destiny had brought me to this place.

What I underwent that afternoon was a conversion of a totally different kind, and I was hooked professionally and personally.

Standing on the touch-line with the match only five minutes old, there was a roar, follwed by a huge gust of wind, and I was covered in dust and grass, that’s what happens when you stand too close to Jess Breach, who by the time I had recovered my eyesight had raced fifty metres to score the first try of the game.

Those who have followed my “Monday Roars” throughout the season will have no doubts where my loyalties and indeed my heart lie, they are firmly embedded in the chocolate brown, French grey, magenta and light blue shirts, but taking a wider view they are also rooted in the women’s game overall.

Many players and coaches have become friends, and good friends at that, also Starbucks profits shot up dramatically in the trading period between September 2017 and April, 2018 so much so the company are even considering fulfilling their UK tax obligations.

There is still plenty of rugby left for me to do this season, the Aviva Premiership Final, the London and Paris Sevens and some Barbarians work, but a little piece of me is counting down the days until September, and a return to Surrey Sports Park where with a latte and a notebook, I can renew my acquaintance with the Tyrrells Premier 15s, and the wonderful people who make it what it is.

Cardiff Basques In Sunshine And Sporting Glory

Blue has been the colour this week, as Cardiff  basked in a week of glorious sunshine and unadulterated sporting glory.

It’s difficult to decide which is the more notable, as meteorological success in Wales is probably harder to come by than sporting triumph, but for the capital city to have both, and in the space of less than a week, may well make residents and supporters rush out en masse, to buy a lottery ticket, as unlike the weather, good fortune appears to raining down on the South Wales city at the moment.

On Friday night glorious success spanned the 1006 miles from Cardiff Bay to the Bay of Biscay, and from Barry to Bilbao, I would imagine there were even “Bluebirds” over the white cliffs of Dover.

The Welsh capital had only just recovered from its massive footballing hangover, following Cardiff City’s promotion to the premier league, when the “hair of the dog” came in the form of European Challenge cup success in the San Mames stadium over Gloucester.

The celebratory pintxos replaced Clarkie’s pies on this occasion, and chip alley was temporarily re located to Plaza Emilio Campuzano, a gastronomic upgrade of massive proportions.

It couldn’t have started much worse for Welsh side, losing star man Josh Navidi after 6 minutes with what looked like a dislocated shoulder, from then on Gloucester bossed the first half and went in at half time with a 20-6 lead.

I had already prepared my headline “Cardiff sunk in the Bay of Biscay”, but not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time. I was proved totally wrong.

Barely having time to finish my Cortado, a minute into the restart Blues scrum half Tomos Williams went over for a brilliant try, that set the tone for a thrilling and nerve jangling second half.

The tide was turning in the Bay of Biscay, and the water was starting to look a bit choppy for Gloucester.

The Blues scored seventeen unanswered points in fourteen second half minutes, to give them a 23-20 lead, but the cherry and whites were not finished, and proceeded to score ten unanswered points of their own to take a 30-23 lead.

The score remained that way until the clock hit 76 minutes, when Blane Scully went over in the corner, Anscombe missed a difficult conversion, as finger nails slowly disappeared with Gloucester clinging on to a 30-28 lead.

The Arms Park boys gave it one last thrash, which resulted in a Cardiff penalty in the 79th minute, Anscombe slotted the pressure kick as Cool as the cucumber in my vegetable bocadillo, they collected the restart, wound down the last few seconds, and booted the ball into touch to gain a memorable win by 31 points to 30.

Open top buses are going to be in short supply next week in Cardiff, as the city’s sporting heroes display their wares, if there’s another week of sunshine to go with it we may just have to pinch ourselves.

The Red Rose That Always Bloomed

When the mist rolls in off the Bristol Channel on a cold winters night, the folks that inhabit “The Old Ship Aground” pub in Minehead tell tales that send chills down your spine, tales of shipwrecks and smugglers, tales of peril and tragedy in the local waters that have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world.

Inevitably as the night gets darker, and the ale gets more plentiful, the tales get taller, as indeed do the stories of local heroes who have become legends, largely through many misty ale soaked nights where the thin line between fact and fiction is breached.

One local legend is immune from such treatment, a local Barbarian whose exploits are so incredible in their own right, there is no need for embellishment, even fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, also born in Minehead, would have difficulty making these tales taller, even ale assisted.

Rugby can be a brutal and unforgiving sport but every now and then a player arrives on the scene that can raise the game above the ordinary, a player who amid the bump and grind of top-level sport, manages to make the difficult look easy, a player whose skill and execution provide a sheer beauty, grace and elegance that warms the soul, sets our pulses racing,  a player that appears to have more time and space than those around them, Danielle Waterman is such a player.

This week “Nolli ” as she is affectionately known announced her retirement from international rugby.

A red rose that could always be guaranteed to bloom, whatever the weather, whatever the soil conditions, she has graced the white shirt on eighty-two occasions.

It is impossible to calculate how many girls and women have been inspired to take up the game by watching her, but I have witnessed first hand the  “Nolli Effect” around the playing fields of Europe.

She is renowned for her bravery on the field, but perhaps even more noteworthy is her bravery off it, for being part of the RPA “Lift The Weight” campaign and discussing her depression candidly, typically, not for her own benefit, but through a desire to help others who may or have suffered similarly.

The international stage will be a lesser place as a result of her absence but like all good Wasps she will be making a nuisance of herself on the open fields of Tyrrells Premiership grounds all next season.

Danielle Waterman’s list of achievements is endless, a Rugby World Cup winner in 2014, nomination for World Player of the Year, a member of the first ever Team GB Rugby Sevens squad to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Nolli captained England A at the tender age of seventeen, and made her full England debut in 2003 whilst revising for her A levels, aged just eighteen.

But in the years to come we will not be discussing the cold statistics, it will be that sidestep, that tackle, or the unique running style, and that joyous smile after scoring a try or making a last ditch tackle.

So if you ever happen to visit “The Ship Aground” on a damp misty moonlit night and you notice the locals huddled together speaking in hushed tones, they may well be telling tales of horticulture, or to be specific their favourite local Red Rose.