Wales v England From The Thames To The Taff

The events of last Sunday afternoon, near the Thames, could have proved to be a watershed moment for Wales, come RWC 2019, but the tide turned yesterday when the contest between Wales and England moved 143 miles downstream to the banks of the Rive Taff.

Wales were left up the creek without a paddle at Twickenham last Sunday, and the misery didn’t end there as the Rugby World Cup waters got even choppier with the news that Gareth Anscome had been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.

On Saturday under the roof of a sold out Principality stadium, it was never going to be plain sailing, but Wales came out and played with pace and determination, they dominated possession and territory in the opening quarter, and were unrecognisable from the team that ran aground at Twickenham.

England were caught floundering, treading water against the red tide, and the perfect ten, man of the match Dan Biggar, dominated proceedings, which makes Gareth Anscombe’s loss just that little bit easier to bear.

This warm up game became overheated on several occasions with the usual suspects to the fore, it was tough hard fought match in front of a 73,931 spectators, but fortunately it appears both teams escaped without any significant injury worries.

The match remained scoreless until a Dan Biggar penalty in the 25th minute, George North’s try, seven minutes later, after some quick and inspired thinking from Biggar, following Anthony Watson’s yellow card,  helped give Wales a 10-0 lead at half time.

It took England fifty minutes to get on the scoreboard with a George Ford penalty, he repeated the feat in the 56th minute to make the score 10-6.

The men in white never looked like crossing the welsh try line, despite a second half resurgence, and a Leigh Halfpenny penalty on 76 minutes sealed the game for Wales.

Wales are now the number one side in the world according to the World Rugby rankings to be announced this morning, meaningless maybe but not to the wonderful Welsh fans who were around in the 80s and 90s, for them this will be a moment to savour.

The journey from the Thames to the Taff proved to be a good one for the men in red, they return here in two weeks time when they face Ireland, before another river comes into view, the Liffey in Dublin for a rematch the following week.

Rugby success, like the Thames, and the Taff, ebbs and flows, but Wales will enjoy a few tranquil nights sleep, with their dreams all the sweeter for seeing off the old enemy in their own backyard.

Twickers The Thames And The Boys Of Summer

It’s quite a shock to the system to find international rugby taking place on these shores less than a week after the first ashes test has been completed, but in Rugby World Cup year the already suffocating demands on the modern rugby player become positively breathless.

On a warm summer Sunday afternoon as the smoke from pub barbecues drifted almost seamlessly along the length of the Thames, England and Wales faced each other at Twickenham in the first of the many World Cup warm up matches that will fill the August weekends.
There have been two previous encounters between these two sides at HQ this time of year, and even just the thought of those matches sends a collective shiver down the national Welsh spine.

On August 4 2007, a crowd of 66,132 watched an experimental England side demolish Wales 62-5 an humiliation only surpassed some weeks later by a defeat to Fiji that knocked them out of the Rugby World Cup in France, a loss that ushered in the reign of current coach Warren Gatland

In 2011 Wales also lost albeit narrowly 23-19, but the match will be remembered for the horrific broken leg suffered by Morgan Stoddard, that to all intents and purposes ended his career.

So the men in red were hoping for something a little more uplifting yesterday, they started the day as the number one side in the world, following the All Blacks defeat to Australia, Alun Wyn Jones was celebrating his 126th cap, all appeared well in Wales world.

By 4pm with the barbeques still in full swing, Wales had dropped to second in the World rankings and suffered yet another Twickenham pre RWC defeat by 33 points to 19.

A crowd of 80,944 saw England get off to a flying start, whilst a lethargic tired looking Wales struggled to get into the game, the home side led 21-7 at the break, with Wales looking as rusty as a second hand Fiat.

An improved second half by Wales brought them within one score of England with the score at 24-19 after 51 minutes, before the home side pulled away during the final quarter.

The cliché that Wales are notorious slow starters is close to becoming a cold hard fact, and with a six day turnaround before the face England again, in Cardiff, there is not much time available, but they will surely perform better after this excursion.

As the setting sun shimmered on the Thames, Wales fans joined locals at the Dog and Duck, the final barbecued sausages were just about to be lifted off the grill, sadly there was no bread of heaven to wrap them in, and whilst their team took a bit of roasting, there is still hope that the fare on offer on the banks of the River Taff next Saturday will feed them till they want no more.




Rugby World Cup And Welsh Wails

If only there had been a Rugby World Cup in the 1970’s there is surely no doubt that Wales would have won it at least once.

JPR, Gerald, Merv, Gareth, Syd, Ray, JJ, Benny, The King, how they would have loved the chance to play in such a tournament.

I view Wales and the Rugby World Cup as a four yearly emotional Everest, where sometimes we never get past base camp, and occasionally turn up in inappropriate footwear and a t-shirt.

I wont drag you through my personal turmoil since the first tournament in 1987, but actually the inaugural tournament went quite well for the men in red.

Apart from an absolute thrashing by the All Blacks in the semi final, we actually finished third, beating Ireland in the group stages, England in the Quarters, and Australia in the 3rd place play-off, but in true Welsh style it took a last-minute conversion from the touch-line to win the match, it wouldn’t do to win a match comfortably would it ?

Since then its been sadness in South Africa, Woe in Wales, Agony in Australia and Fiji in France. AND you only have to say Sam.. and you immediately think red card and Numbness in New Zealand.

I still relive that match in the sleepless dark hours of early morning thinking if Leigh Halfpenny had been our regular goal kicker at that time we would have surely got through to the final.

Four years ago, in 2015, it was tears at Twickenham, as an injury hit Wales side led South Africa 19-18 in the quarter finals with 74:05 on the clock, until a late try won it for the Boks.

A part of me is excited beyond belief about the tournament in Japan, but also I’m already looking ahead with panic at a potential situation where we have to beat Fiji  in the  penultimate group match to qualify for the knock out stages.

Maybe as part of our national psyche the sporting gods sprinkle on our sport all consuming emotions either good or bad, because that’s the way we really like it.

But just this once please can we do it, and can we do it without the gut wrenching agony that we have come to expect.

If there was Karma in sport, then after the semi final in 2011, it is assured that we will be playing in the final, at Yokohama against the All Blacks on November 2.

If it happens send me a text, I will probably be behind the sofa !

WARNING Watching A Rugby World Cup Can Damage Your Health

Is it really four years since the glorious RWC 2015 tournament when the sun shone and Engand became the only host country not to progress from the group stages, life was sweet.

So for those unable to travel to the land of the rising scrum to witness the 2019 Rugby World Cup first hand, the time has come to embark once again on the dreadful early morning pub experience that is part and parcel of a Rugby World Cup far away.

So my friends here we are in a different time zone following a tournament that will inevitably take a detrimental toll on our physical and mental health.

Apart from the almost out of body experience of crossing the threshold of your local Ember Inn at such an ungodly hour, there are serious health implications to consider.

Now when I was young there were no such dilemmas, it may seem hard to believe but in 1971 all international rugby  matches kicked off in the middle of the afternoon, also television coverage was not available, so it was under the bed covers with a transistor radio the size of a microwave at 4am trying to tune in to a commentary from down under via the short wave.

It was tough, but on the plus side we never had to endure three hours of Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell previewing each test match, whoever ITV select for their analyists remains to be seen.

The cummulative effect of more than three consecutive Saturday mornings will inevitably increase your exposure to these dangers, and of course the long term repercussions.

But back to the health implications I spoke about earlier,  I am of course referring to the dietary minefield that comes with watching early morning rugby in a pub, or wine bar ,if you happen to live in Richmond.

Do you start with a cappuccino or a Guinness ? and as the aroma of sausages cooking in the pub kitchen invades the lounge bar , can you be strong enough to stick to your original choice of wholemeal toast and flora ?

It takes nerves of steel to stick with the courage of your convictions, and a stomach of steel to survive the results of any lack of will power, so there are no real winners here.

Sufferers of high blood pressure, or hypertension as travel insurance providers prefer to call it, are particularly at risk due to several factors.

Firstly there is the almost cast iron certainty that the seat you have carefully selected and occupied since the pub opened, giving you optimum view of the big screen, will be totally eclipsed when the largest resident of the town that you happen to be in, drags his, or her, bar stool in front of your line of vision five minutes before kick off, just breathe deeply and count to ten.

Secondly as the referee blows his whistle to start the game, the television will mysteriously switch channels and instead of watching George North steaming down the wing, you will be gazing at James Martin on Saturday morning kitchen, steaming his dumplings, I would suggest counting to twenty for this one.

Finally there is the 11am exit into bright daylight that has you blinking watery eyed like a pit pony with hay fever as your befuddled brain reminds you that there are still thirteen hours of the day remaining for you to somehow negotiate.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers, and more illustrious scribes that I have wrestled with this problem.

Unsympathetic partners may take advantage of your lethargic state and lure you to the supermarket with coffee and pastry enticements, but beware,before you know it you will pushing a fully loaded trolley between the dog food and homeware aisles, with your latte and pecan Danish a distant dream.

Good luck my friends,  if it’s any consolation you are not alone.


The Failed Kamikaze Pilot Who Made Japanese Rugby Take Off

Shiggy Konno fought in World War II as a bomber pilot at the age of twenty one, by the the time he reached the ripe old age of twenty two, he volunteered to join a kamikaze squadron.

On his twenty third birthday he was told that his one and only mission would take place in a matter of weeks, he wrote a will and sent a letter to his parents saying goodbye, he  received his ceremonial Hachimaki (Helmet and scarf) and a bottle of Saki which he was due to drink on the morning of his mission.

Shiggy drank the whole bottle with his mate much sooner that he was supposed to, and was pretty hacked off that he couldn’t get a replacement bottle.

His squadron were due to fly in August 1945. but for some reason the mission was put back to the first week of September, Japan surrendered on August 14, so Shiggy lived.,

Shiggy Konno lived off this story, to say he dined out on it would be a vast understatement, this wonderfully engaging man would open up with this tale at every event with a cheeky smile and a glint in his eye, announcing himself as one of a very rare breed, a failed Kamikaze pilot.

He spoke perfect English, learned at a primary school in London when his father was manager of the Mitsubishi Bank.

When he was asked why he had to wait so long for a kamikaze mission he was told that only the best pilots would be used.

Interviewed In 1991 he said “I thought I was a good pilot, but I was told by my superiors that they didn’t think that I could hit Europe, never mind an American battleship.,

Konno played Prop for Doshiba University and was deprived of an international career due to the second world war.

His English was so good he became an ideal choice as a liaison officer which led to a brilliant career in rugby administration.

He was an executive member of the International Rugby Board from 1991 to 2000, manager of Japan on pretty much every overseas tour from 1963 to 1990 including three to the UK, and also at the 1987 and 1991 Rugby World Cup.

His impressive CV also shows him holding the roles at various times of Hon Secretary, Chairman and President of the Japan RFU.

Her Majesty the Queen awarded him the OBE in 1985 for his services to rugby and for helping to improve Anglo-Japanese relations.

Shiggy died on 1 April 2007, and his funeral was held in Zojoji temple in Tokyo the head temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism in the Kanto region.



When Seasons Collide

In the old days my summer sport consisted of afternoons that lengthened with the Sun’s shadows, sat in a deck chair listening to the sound of seagulls and willow on leather on the south coast.

I’ve never bought the definition that cricket is just baseball on Valium, and as for watching it, well laziness is not just a physical phenomenon there is a huge mental side to it.

Many youthful summer afternoons were spent at Dean Park, Bournemouth, watching Hampshire play whilst drifting in and out of a relaxing snooze before a Gordon Greenidge Six would land in the tea tent, shattering the cups and saucers, and turning a county championship match in to the soundtrack of a Greek wedding.

You didn’t snooze for long with that Hampshire team, the West Indies star and South African genius Barry Richards opened the batting and there were no safe zones beyond the boundary.

Snoozes were equally limited when Hants were fielding, with the great Malcolm Marshall reigning down, his run up seemed to start somewhere near the pier and any wides or bouncers were likely to do more damage than anything Barnes-Wallace could have invented, they were a heck of a team.

These days the rugby and cricket seasons merge, there was a time when sportsman could play both games and at the top level.

The rugby season ended on May 1 and a new one started on September, and that was the natural order of things.

Keith Jarrett The Welsh wonder kid who beat England single handedly in 1967 as a teenager, also played cricket for Glamorgan.

Wilf Wooler, Vivian Jenkins and Jack and Billy Bancroft all played rugby for Wales and cricket for Glamorgan.

Dusty Hare the England full back played first class cricket for Notts, whilst another England full back, Alistair Hignell was an accomplished cricketer with Gloucestershire.

In the Southern Hempishere the legendary All Black Don Clarke turned out for Auckland, and Sir Graham Henry, yes that one, played cricket for Canterbury.

Brian McKechnie the full back who kicked Andy Haden’s line out dive penalty to beat Wales in 1978, played international cricket for New Zealand,

Heading to the land of Springbok, former captain Morne du Plessis wore the whites of Western Province with distinction.

Other notable names who have excelled at rugby and Cricket are Rob Andrew and Simon Halliday, who played rugby for England and first class cricket for Cambridge and Oxford university respectively.

The names of those that played top class rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer, are too numerous to mention, but sadly there will be no new ones to add to the list, I’m afraid that is the price of professionalism when seasons collide.

The real tragedy is that Malcolm Marshall was taken from us at such a ridiculously young age, those of us who had the privilege to see him play will never forget him.

Cheslin Kolbe A Boks Of Tricks

Every now and then a player comes along that transcends the ordinary, a player who when he gets ball makes you shuffle towards the edge of the seat, makes you draw breath sharply for that split second, and even before they have done anything your pulse begins to quicken.

Interestingly these players tend to be small of stature, which in the modern game where size is everything, makes the wonder of this rare species even more exhilarating.

Gerald Davies, Shane Williams, Jason Robinson all had these qualities and an ability to excite, they even made the hagggered hacks in the press box feel a tingle down the spine, something that years of written deadlines had all but extinguished.

These players are now all retired but their legacy lives on in the the shape, flair and raw speed of Cheslin Kolbe, all 5ft 7 and 11st 9lbs of him.

A few eyebrows were raised when Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus, called up Cheslin Kolbe for last year’s Rugby Championship.

Regarded by many rugby pundits as “too small” for test rugby, it had been a case of “out of mind, out of sight” for the former Western Province and Stormers flyer after he had joined French club Toulouse in 2017.

like so many occasions previously, Kolbe proved people wrong, he took to Test rugby like a Bok to water. He made his debut in Brisbane against Australia, replacing Makazole Mapimpi in the 33rd minute, and scored his first test try a week later against the All Blacks, after intercepting an Anton Lienert-Brown pass in the Boks’ famous 36-34 win in Wellington.

 “I have been facing critics about my size since I started my senior career,  I don’t believe in size and weight but rather in a positive mind-set towards the game,” .

Twitter and Instagram have been awash with videos of the former Blitzbok ripping defences apart in the Top 14 for Toulouse, where he has become a cult-hero, the fans love him and Kolbe and his young family have settled down well in the south of France.

“My wife Layla and 2-year-old daughter Kylah are well settled in and loving life in Toulouse. I always say to people that to me Toulouse is similar to Cape Town, the only difference is that you don’t have all your family around, but the lifestyle and people are fantastic.

The 2019 European Player of the Year nominee says he loved his introduction to test rugby in 2018.

“Last year was a dream come true for me. Being called up to the Springboks and making my test debut is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. I’ve learned so much as a player in the time I’ve been a part of the Boks, and I’ll keep on learning. I had the best time with the brothers, it’s really a good team culture and atmosphere. No egos.” 

Born in Kraaifontein, a suburb of Cape Town, he is the cousin of South African  athletics star Wayde Van Niekerk, who won gold at the 2016 Olympics, so there is some gas in those genes.

He now has his sights set on the Rugby World Cup. “We are blessed with lots of quality outside backs in South Africa, and I see that as a positive for all of us, because that keeps us all on our toes and can just improve each and everyone’s game. Definitely giving everything I have to be part of the 2019 RWC in Japan and will just play the best rugby I can.”

Kolbe’s versatility, he is happy to play at fullback wing, can count in his favour come RWC selection time. “I’m comfortable and having fun at both wing and fullback. To me it’s a similar job. At fullback you have more time on the ball and have to make clever decisions from the back. So I’m happy to play either of the two as long as I can add great value to the team and that my performance will be to a great benefit for the team,” he concluded.

Nine days ago he won the Top 14 title in Paris with Toulouse, the “Lightning Bug” as he is nicknamed, may be small but I predict he will be big in Japan come the Rugby World Cup.