Behind The Mask The Return Of Rugby

I’m at that age where grumpy old man seems to be the best and most accurate way to describe me.

The world seems to have gone mad, it’s 35 degrees, and it’s too hot to even go outside. For a man born in West Wales this is unchartered territory.

Every shop I walk in to I look like I’m about to rob the place, when I order a coffee in Pret I have to bellow “Latte” like a town crier, so the barista can hear me through two layers of material on my face mask.

At the same time the elastic on the mask is pulling my ears forward like a catapult, making me look like Prince Charles, Gary Lineker hybrid.

I could cope with all this, and more, if I had my life long escape route available, but of course rugby is still standing in the wings like a nervous teenager, waiting to step forward at the prom and pluck up the courage to ask for a dance.

So where exactly are we ? Hope was last seen heading towards the horizon with its bottom on fire, but this week hope seems to have extinguished the flames, rubbed in a bit of germolene, and with a bit of luck we are close to a comeback.

The Premiership is due to return at the Stoop on Friday night when Harlequins face Sale Sharks.

This week also saw the scheduling of the outstanding Six Nations matches.

The Pro 14 is due back on August 22 and the Top 14 in France begins a bit later on September 5.

A word of caution though these schedules are all at the mercy of just one man, a bloke called Spike.

Well actually two blokes called Spike, and from what I can gather it’s the second one that calls all the shots.

If the second Spike stays away we will all be fine…. now where is that latte ?.

Ci Mancherai Giada

The new normal they call it, well the new normal seems to involve an awful lot of farewells, to things we enjoyed, to things that brightened up our days, and to things that brought a smile to our faces.

One of those farewells, and one of the very sad ones, is having to say goodbye to Giada Franco.

That smile as broad as Vesuvius, and as warm as a Napoli summer evening, will no longer brighten up the dark winter days at Surrey Sports Park and the Stoop.

The Italian flanker will not be running out with Harlequins Women for the 2020/21 season, at whenever that might start.

A force of nature on and off the field, she will be missed by team mates, fans and ageing journalists in equal measure, but Harlequins loss is very definitely Rugby Colorno’s gain.

In this strange and troubling pandemic, there isn’t a face mask big enough to cover that wonderful huge Mediterranean smile, and there isn’t one big enough to cover our sadness at her departure.

The number 7 is associated with good luck and magical properties, it is the basis for many myths and folklore.

Also the number 7 represents the jackpot on slot machines, and Quins certainly hit the jackpot last season, when Giada became a permanent fixture in the number 7 shirt.

As the new normal stretches into August, the future remains uncertain for the game of rugby, but one thing can be guaranteed, there will always be a welcome here for Giada Franco, she will forever be a part of this clubs rich history.

Take care Giada, Buona fortuna ea presto.

Books Balls And Black Labs

There will be some people who would be amazed to discover that I had actually read a book let alone written one, and yet last week the final words were penned on my book about the hard men of French rugby.

I’ve had no paid work since March, so the isolation and lockdown were the perfect environment for a writer, however having to share that environment with a 3 year old black Labrador added a more challenging aspect to the equation.

Once the laptop was opened the cabaret would begin. Tennis ball in mouth, (the dog not me) look sadly at writer with woeful eyes suggesting total neglect from the man behind the keyboard.

Trying to avoid eye contact I would carrying on writing whilst being aware that the next canine phase of attack was about to begin.

This consisted of thrusting an empty plastic water bottle into my crotch as the four legged attacker launched himself under the kitchen table to create speed for maximum impact.

I could almost hear Andrew Cotter’s commentary as my eyes watered.

The old rugby adage of don’t rub them count them rang in my ears as another chapter of the book descended into chaos.

A constant supply of coffee and croissants to get into a French mindset definitely worked ,and my Nespresso machine has been employed on more occasions than Yoann Huget’s disciplinary representatives.

Feeling rather proud of myself I submitted my final manuscript to the publishers at the weekend by e mail, by the time I had reached around to pat myself on the back it had come whizzing back with a request to correct the thousands of typo errors and missed or incorrect punctuation marks, glory does not last long in this writing game.

So here I am back at the keyboard with charcoal bones in hand, tennis ball at my feet, and out of the corner of my eye I can see an empty plastic water bottle with canine attachment heading towards my lower abdomen, I wonder if Hemingway had these problems.

Wish me luck !

The Hard Men of French Rugby will be published by St David’s Press

Rugby CRAP And The R Value

Do you find yourself digging out old rugby programmes, watching endless re runs on every media platform known to mankind, then checking your diary to see what match you were at this time last year ?, well my friends I don’t require a lab test or swab to inform you that you are suffering from RWS, otherwise known as rugby withdrawal symptoms.

Until we get the R value up and running then I’m afraid it’s just a case of  CRAP (Countless Re runs And Podcasts)

These are tough times, bombarded by static bike rides, Tik Tok, watching people’s book shelves on television and Instagram exercises in gardens as they commit to a million sit up’s before lunch, or ex international rugby players kicking balls into wheelie bins, it’s enough to get anyone down.

For me Zoom is, was and always shall be a ice lolly, a split screen of individuals with the technical knowledge of a gnat looking back at me like a poor man’s celebrity squares is doing nothing for my mental well being.

 On the positive side RWS has made me aware just how precious every match, every chat, every smile, every laugh and every person I met along the way should have been regarded.

Like many I took it for granted it was always there last week this week and available again the following week.

I miss the game of rugby, but much more importantly I miss the friends and colleagues that make it so special.

At the moment I’m not sure whether I should be wearing a face mask or a salary cap, but every day is a day nearer seeing you all again, so until then keep Zooming cycling and sitting up, whatever gets you through the day is fine by me.

Marchon Marchon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe everyone. 

The Isolation Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harlequins Women Shut Up Shop As Sport Goes Viral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What A Good Year For The Roses

This weeks Roar is dedicated to Benji.

I’m not sure if Elvis Costello is a rugby fan, and even if he is he may have been too busy “watching the detectives” to have found time to be at the Stoop Yesterday,

The bruised and battered Welsh women would have found the lyrics to his composition “What a good year for the Roses” very apt.

What a good year for the Roses

Many blooms still linger there

The lawn could stand another mowin

Funny I don’t even care

As you turn to walk away

As the door behind you closes

The only thing I have to say

It’s been a good year for the Roses” 

 

This bunch of Red Roses continue to bloom through the winter’s wind and rain, and all the storms beginning with the letters A to J that have so far battered and the 2020 Six Nations tournament.

Fortunately the alphabetical storm index was not required at the Stoop yesterday, as the sun broke through the clouds to enable a record crowd of 10.974 to use their antiseptic hand gel in meteorological comfort.

This ground is Leanne Riley territory, the effervescent scrum half, and the heartbeat of Harlequins and England has strutted her stuff here for what seems like an eternity, and yesterday her service was better that Rafa Nadal’s, she was instrumental in the Red Rose bouquet of ten tries

 

Ironically it was a Poppy that stole the headlines, Poppy Cleall scored a hat trick of tries, the 27 year old Saracens was in blistering form.

Wales to their credit never gave up, but they were constantly holding back a white tidal wave that eventually battered them against the rocks, even “Oliver’s Army” couldn’t have stemmed the English tide.

It seems that only the corona virus can prevent an England Grand Slam, one thing is for sure, the winning habit has become infectious for the Red Roses.

 

I would like to dedicate this article to Benji sleep peacefully gorgeous boy.

 

Antoine Dupont More Than A Neuf

At this hallowed ground we know a thing or two about scrum halves, after all it was here that the greatest of them all strutted his stuff, whether covered in the ochre mud from the old greyhound track, or diving like salmon in to the corner at the River Taff end, attired in black and white, rather than the glorious red of Wales, Gareth Owen Edwards was, still is and ever shall be peerless.

That’s not to say we haven’t seen other great but slightly lesser mortals display their bountiful skills here in Cardiff.

I am at an age where the memory is not quite what it was, and attempting to recall the fine nines I have seen play in Cardiff required concentration and no little caffeine.

The first in 1972 was the great man from Gwaen cae gurwen himself facing Sid Going, as Cardiff played the All blacks, the years passed and many contenders came and were seen off before Sir Gareth hung up his boots in 1978, John Hipwell, Jerome Gallion, Jacques Foroux, Dawie DeVilliers to name but a few.

But these are the reminisces of a sixty two year old, and one that is fortunate enough to witness the rise of the new Neuf on the block, a force of nature, a player that stirs the blood of the onlooker, that makes you shuffle to the front of your seat when he gets the ball, and at the Principality stadium last Saturday he came to show us his wares.

In case you haven’t worked it out I’m talking about a young man from Lannemezan, a town in Hautes-Pyrenees, just forty odd miles from the Spanish border, Antoine Dupont.

At the tender age of 23 he has grabbed the French number nine shirt and shows no sign of letting it go.

His angelic visage betrays a maturity and inner steel along with a blistering burst of speed and every scrum half attribute in the book.

On Saturday, along with his 20 year old fly half, he gave a nation hope, a hope that after years in the wilderness Les Bleus are back, and not just back, but back with speed a swagger and a sheer joy that we thought we might never see again.

The half back partnership may not be in the realms of Edwards and John just yet but the sky is the limit for this talented pair.

A grand slam is getting tantalisingly near and another late night in Paris could turn out to be a very long one on March 14th.

Shaun Le Chic

Is it my imagination or is Shaun Edwards smiling a lot more these days, the three feathers on his chest have been replaced by a cockerel and maybe the French joire de vivre has entered his soul.

Already a folk hero across la manche he is grasping the language quicker than any rush defence he has coached, his charges have already defeated “le rosbif” he coudnt have got off to a much better start.

On Saturday he comes home, well one of his homes, it’s Wales not Wigan, and the welcome as you can well imagine will be released from the hillsides like a tidal wave.

The roar he receives as France warm up will be a special one, the one Welsh fans don’t dish out lightly, the roar that is reserved for the very special ones and brand new water boys.

 

“I’ve always had the belief that 15 minutes of practice is worth an hour of talking and if I’m honest even when I coach in English I only use three or four words at a time.” The trick, he says, is “to say ’em loud”.

“The people there were so good to me and gave me so much support, which was something I’d never really had in my career before. The fans gave you nothing but encouragement and some of the relationships I made there go well beyond the game.”

His only regret is “we were never able to give them that ultimate game, the World Cup final.” They were so close, too, only one point away in 2011, three points away in Japan in 2019.

“Anyone who says they don’t get emotional for the Six Nations must have something wrong with them. It’s just an amazing competition and it’s one I love to be involved in. It’s my favourite by a distance, because I love that feeling of the whole country stopping to watch rugby”.

With so much at stake Wales v France on Saturday will bring large parts of both countries to a standstill, it promises to be a cracking game, and whatever storm is due next weekend, there will be perfect conditions under the roof in Cardiff.

A Bientot