Parisian Walkways And La Dolce Vita

In France and Italy Sunday is a family day, a day to catch up over a leisurely lunch with a few glasses of wine, a precious few hours away from the hurly burly of modern life, although yesterday was an exception, lunch became brunch, and a week after Le Crunch, le brunch had a much sweeter taste than usual for French rugby fans.

Last Saturday at Stade de France they devoured le rosbif, it has sustained them all week,so yesterday they had a taste for something a bit lighter.

After singing in the rain in their victory over England, they were dancing in the drizzle after this win.

Beware of the French in Paris with the sun on their backs was an adage passed onto me by a wiley old basque farmer at the Parc des Princes in the late 1980’s, he may have been brandishing a flaggon of home made brandy, but his advice was no less sanguine for his evident consumption of the product.

Yesterday the gusty winds and drizzle made Spring feel like a distant hope, there was even a Gael warning as monsieur Fickou was primed to do some storm damage in midfield.

But it was Ntmack and Serin that Provided the magic in the murk with two tries that set the pulses racing.

Fabien Galthie wants the French fans to fall in love with the national team once again, and its appears after the second date the affair is blossoming.

Italy played a full part in this contest scoring three tries of their own, through Minnozi, Zani and Bellini it has to be said there was a massive improvement from last weeks defeat in Wales.

France’s other three tries came from Teddy Thomas, captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt. 

The tournament in two weeks time features three matches with almost everything at stake, storm Ciara will have blown herself out by then, I wonder which teams will join her.

VIP Treatment (Very Important Petersson)

Injuries are the curse of the athlete, the cruelty administered by the sporting gods seem to strike more often than not, when the participant is playing at the top of their game.

This is certainly the case with Harlequins fly half Victoria Petersson , the Swedes are no strangers to the power and unpredictability of Norse gods, certainly the thunderbolt that hit the Quins number ten early in the second half of the match against Bristol Bears could have come from Thor himself.

Whilst attempting a “jackal” at a breakdown Vic suffered a hamstring injury that ripped two tendons off the bone, left one hanging off, and the remainder descending five centimetres.

I have seen players with a similar injury carried off the field being given oxygen, Vic stood up and was helped off, they breed them tough in Kalmar, the agony etched on her face was almost too painful to watch.


I spoke to Quins coach Gary Street before the game he and I talked about how superbly Miss Petersson was playing, in the form of her life, bossing the game, organising those around her, the silken running and perfect timing of the pass were getting better and better game by game, the perfect time for the sporting gods to strike.

I have watched some pretty special players over the last fifty years and all the very good ones appear to have more time on the ball than those around them, it is as if they operate in another dimension of time and space, Vic is a member of that exclusive club.

Surgery beckons and rehab, Vic, never one to feel sorry for herself, will pour her heart and soul into it, I have met few people better at turning a negative into a positive than the speedy Swede.

With age on her side this is just a stop at the motorway services on her rugby road, one which I feel sure will provide us all with plenty more glimpses of those silky skills.

“Av skadan blir man vis” is a Swedish saying the roughly translates to Adversity is the mother of wisdom, and hopefully “Eir” the Norse god of healing, and “Forseti the God of justice, will combine their powers to get this charming affable and popular Swede back on the field of play as soon as possible.

Vic leads Quins out last Saturday at Surrey Sports Park

The Monday Roar For You Dad

My Dad passed away two years ago tomorrow, words cannot begin to convey how much I miss him, and at this time of year the six nations was a joy we both shared for what seemed like forever, but I have to tell you that every tournament since his death comes with a little emptiness that is hard to define or indeed describe.

This year is no different, and whilst the day to day pain of loss gets less frequent, the emptiness that creeps up unexpectedly for no particular reason, when I realise he is no longer here, gets worse, that emptiness more often than not coincides with rugby moments, and usually Welsh ones.

How he would have loved last years Grand Slam, but he would equally have enjoyed the early morning kick offs of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, with a mug of coffee.

He first took me to Cardiff Arms Park in 1971 to watch Wales play Canada, it was the most amazing day of my life as a 12 year old.

There were no colour televisions in those days, so I had only ever seen Wales play in black and white, I can remember the blinding vividness of the green grass and the Scarlet shirts glinting in the October sunshine, it was a magical shock to the senses, and it started a love affair that exists to this very day.

So please do me a favour, if you are attending any of this years six nations matches with your Dad, give him an extra hug from me, tell him how much it means for you to share the joy of this wonderful game with him, (even though of course he already knows).

But most of all treasure every precious moment, those memories are priceless, and when Hen Wlad fy nhadau belts out next Saturday, in Cardiff, as Wales prepare to face Italy my dad and I will be together, briefly, once more.

It’s not called the land of my fathers for nothing.

Have a great six nations everyone.

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.