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

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.