Monthly Archives: June 2014
I’m not sure I can take any more of these “honourable defeats”. As Max Boyce (and the rest of the Welsh population like to exclaim) “I was there” when we lost to France at Cardiff 1987 (10-9), Australia in Sydney 2007 (29-23; Australia scored a try after the siren), Australia (again) in Melbourne 2012 (25-23; Australia kicked a penalty after the siren) and now South Africa in Nelspruit 2014 (31-30; South Africa awarded a penalty try with 2 minutes to go). I’m sure there are a couple more, but these are the ones that are forever etched in my brain and deeper still, tattooed with a knife through my heart.
Rugby Union, especially where it concerns the Welsh team, has a habit of breaking your heart – well really it’s more like ripping it out. All of those games I mentioned are the ones where I’ve left as a broken man. I’ve had the sweats; I’ve had the palpitations; I’ve shed the tears! The truth is that, because no one gave Wales a chance (see the video!!!!) it goes some way to describing just how close Wales were to creating history in Nelspruit. Myself, I saw some hope in the last 20 minutes in Durban and the fact that the management only made 2 changes to that side suggests they did too.
I’m not sure how to put the game into words. Wales lead for all but 2 minutes – they started impressively and were in total control of the game, going 17-0 up after half an hour. The Boks were not playing anywhere near as good as they did in Durban, but that was a sign of the pressure they were under from the Welsh onslaught. It was a totally different mindset/gameplan from Wales. I’m still not sure now whether they just froze in Durban and didn’t follow orders or simply just got it wrong (or executed inadequately).
Anyway, enter the world’s favourite referee to ruin a perfectly good game; Steve Walsh decided to get in on the act. After an attacking driving maul, Walsh sinbinned Luke Charteris for bringing it down; and from the resulting penalty awarded a penalty try AND THEN somehow inexplicably decided to bin Dan Biggar as well. This was AFTER awarding the penalty try (double jeopardy??) leaving Wales with 13 men. From the kickoff, the Saffas ran the ball from deep and went the length of the field. With a 2 man overlap and pace to burn it wasn’t surprising they had men over!
But still, like our predecessors at Rorke’s Drift we kept coming and with 14 minutes to play we were still 13 points up! I’ve seen enough of Wales by now to know that if it is possible to stuff up a winning position, we’ll most likely give it a good go, especially against Southern Hemisphere heavyweights.
The difference between winning and losing turned out to be a token outstretched arm – or lack of it. Rod Hull, for those that remember of Emu fame, would have been perfect with his “extension” to just be stuck out there in the stratosphere. The split second decision that Liam Williams made to shoulder charge instead of tackle will probably haunt him for a long long time. Saying that, even after the gift of the game by Walsh and the TMO, Wales still had a couple of chances to win. Biggar snatched at 2 drop goal attempts and there was a deliberate knock on by Steenkamp that was unfortunately missed by Walsh (surprise?) that should have resulted in a kickable penalty.
The Bokke fans knew they got out jail. In test match rugby, there’s no such thing as deserving to win. There is a quantitative aspect to sports and generally whoever scores the most points wins. Yes, there can be honour in defeat but you don’t put honour in record books. However, experience is something that can’t be bought. If there is anything positive to come from this game is the hope that the Welsh team can learn how to close out games they are in control of. A hope that we can compete with the Southern Hemisphere big boys; a hope that games aren’t lost before a ball has been kicked; hope that over 80 minutes games aren’t decided by mistakes; and hope that running rugby, inner belief and hwyl are second nature and not last resort. This performance has me believing in what we can achieve, no doubt it has in the other 3 million of us on the planet!
I don’t usually name names here, but I must point out that Gethin Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones, Toby (sorry Taulupe) Falatau and Dan Lydiate were simply outstanding. Falatau’s turnaround from last week was nothing sort of miraculous. Wales missed the hardness of Richard Hibbard as well as Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton immensely, but any team would as those two are truly world class players. The Boks are old up front, but in Willie Le Roux, Bryan Habana and Cornall Hendricks they have the paciest and incisive back three in world rugby.
I managed to talk to Warren Gatland and Rob Howley on Sunday morning and they were still reeling from the events of the game.
When you’re 17-0 up, you shouldn’t lose test matches, no matter what goes on from there – Warren Gatland
I asked Howley whether this one felt worse than Melbourne in 2012 when we lost to penalty after the final hooter (Howley was the stand in coach for that tour) and straight out said this was much worse. Gatland chipped in with “10 times worse”. I caught with Alun Wyn Jones too and to be fair he didn’t want to talk about the game. Safe to say that he said it was one of the hardest, most physical and mentally taxing games he had played in.
It was an absolute pleasure to tour South Africa. We were made very welcome by the dignitaries of Castle Lager, as well as near enough everyone else we met throughout the trip. The host’s hospitality was second to none and even in defeat the Welsh contingent held our heads up high; despite everyone knowing that unfortunately the better team didn’t come out on top on the day. I cannot recommend a rugby tour to South Africa enough. The Saffas are a true rugby (and drinking) loving nation – much like the Welsh! I can’t wait to do it again…….
CASTLE LAGER INTERNATIONAL SERIES SECOND TEST
SOUTH AFRICA 31 – 30 WALES
After the one way traffic of last week’s Australia v France game, I decided I needed some excitement in my life, so I trekked across to Durban via Singapore, Dubai and Cairo. But after nearly doubling the 6,100 miles to try and get to the Test match, I nearly didn’t make it at all. The short 45 minute cityhop from Johannesburg to Durban was cancelled literally 5 minutes from boarding time. The airport was full of Bokke fans going to the game and it sent the place into a frenzy. There were no other suitable flights in the end. So I pallied up with a few of them and 10 minutes later I found myself in their car racing down the freeway ready for a 6 hour drive with 3 Afrikaans who’s only common bond was our love of rugby. Luckily just a few miles down the road one of them had a call from his wife telling him the flight had now been rescheduled to 1250!!!! Perfect, crisis avoided…….
The other passion that the South African and Welsh male share is their love of drinking. So we cruised back to the airport and have a few local brews before our rescheduled flight. There were a lot of relieved faces in the departures lounge I can tell you. Even when the plane left 45 minutes after its rescheduled time it still didn’t matter as we were going to get to the game.
As I made my way to the my hotel, I had to drive past the stadium and even with a couple of hours to go before the game, it looked like it was going to be a decent crowd. I’ll be honest and up front and say that I genuinely thought Wales had a chance, and I was getting more excited by this prospect. South Africa had chosen an “old” team and if there ever a chance to build on that solitary win Wales have over the Saffas, it was today.
I got to the stadium about 20 minutes before kick-off and did my usual lap around the park to sample the atmosphere and see how many Taffs were going to cheer on the boyos. It felt remarkably like being dressed as a Frenchman in Stadium full of Aussies the previous Saturday; as there weren’t more than a hundred of us dotted around. The one group of Welsh fans that stole the show were these lads that constantly were on the big screen and as it turns out all over the internet too. In one report I read it also claimed they were at the World Cup in Brazil!!!!
So with very little fellow support to have a sneaky drink with, I decided to find my seat. Oh my word – I got a front row seat on the 10m line – all for the grand price of $AUS 15!!!
I’m still amazed at my good fortune with the seat and with the people around me, and what happened just 30 seconds in? A lineout right in front of me!
Very early on in the game, you could tell Wales weren’t quite at the races. Even when we took the lead with a Biggar drop goal, it wasn’t long before we were split open and conceding tries…. Before the 20 minute mark we were 21-3 down. We missed Leigh Halfpenny big time – like you miss any world class player, but more noticeably so at full back. 3 out of the 4 first half tries came from kicks. Mind you, two came when Wales were down to 14 men after the good doctor Jamie Roberts decided to tackle Willie Le Roux whilst he was in mid-air catching a kick.
The Springboks have pace throughout the backline whereas we only have it out wide. When you are down to 14 and the chips and kicks constantly turned the centre pairing of Roberts and Davies and put them on their heels. These two would stop a tank from breaking through the gain line, but if you can stop them rushing up to get in your face and hit you hard then its a problem. Le Roux was exceptional throughout. He created 3 of the 5 tries as well as scoring another one himself! That’s what a world class player can offer you!
The last 20 minutes showed great promise. Samson Lee came on and looked solid, as did Ian Evans and James Hook. Phillips was ponderous at best and his replacement, Gareth Davies, sparked Wales into life and at last they started to play rugby. Then this happened (scroll through to 3m20s – I will snip it later) ….
I met some great people in the ground. All too happy to show me a good time and enjoy a load of banter. My beer cup was never empty, unlike the Welsh promises of a contest! I think they were more than happy to accommodate a losing supporter too. I wonder what that would have been like if Wales had pulled off an upset? It always helps when you wear your heart on your sleeve and are out to enjoy yourself. The one great thing too was the amount of women there, and not just there for the day out. They are very knowledgeable and love their rugby.
Kings Park is a great ground – its quite steep sided and fantastic for rugby. They built a brand new ground next door for the Football World Cup which looks absolutely phenomenal – not entirely sure why as Durban isn’t exactly bursting at the seams. It was only 2/3rds full, but the locals tried hard to get some atmosphere going. Difficult when only one team was ready to play I suppose!
So, did the Springboks shut off after going 38-9 up? Did Wales just not turn up for the first 50 minutes? Did the raft of changes that were made during the game really reflect what Wales could do? Will there be a revamp to the starting line-up for the 2nd Test? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to Swaziland and onto Kruger National Park to have a look at some lions and stuff.
CASTLE LAGER INTERNATIONAL SERIES FIRST TEST
SOUTH AFRICA 38 – 16 WALES
I watched the highlights on one of the channels next day to find some of the most extraordinary commentary team of all time. One commentator spoke in English (who was a black South African); another spoke exclusively in Afrikaans (who I imagined was a big burly Boer type); and the third switched between Afrikaans and English at will, even in mid sentence!!! It was quite surreal. If I can find this content online, I will post it up here. It is amazing to behold.
June is always a funny month for Rugby Internationals. It’s the tail end of an ever expanding, arduous European season and it’s a complete mid-season break for the Southerners. You sometimes have to feel sorry for those SANZAR players that don’t make it into International squads as they go from the super intense Super XVs into what are essentially, backyard club matches.
The Europeans start their fixturing in August. Their clubs continue through the November Internationals Series there, so their only time off for the elite players is between late June and the start of August! Rugby Union is one of the tougher sports to make a professional career out of and so going hammer and tongs for the best part of 10 months can be a tad exhausting and hard on the body! Thus, it is no wonder why players end up staying home for little niggles and knocks and why France were 4 or 5 players short to at least be competitive on Australian soil this time around.
Brisbane is one of the better venues for International rugby (sport in general for that matter) in Australia. The proximity to the “Caxton Street Entertainment Complex” – if that’s what they want to call 20 odd bars in the strip leading to Suncorp Stadium, then so be it! Come the end of the evening, I guess lots of pissed up rugby goers is entertainment in itself! This year was no different as there was a visiting horde of rugby enthusiasts up from Melbourne on their annual jaunt to the First Test.
The fact that a group of Welshmen, Englishmen, Irish and Kiwis would turn up in full French regalia – complete with baguettes – was somewhat lost on the locals.
Out of the alleged 33,000 at the game there would have been around 1% genuine French support, so they needed all the help we could give them. Unfortunately the atmosphere at the game was as flat as my breadstick after I had sat on it at one of the proceeding pubs. International Day is one of my favourite things in the world. I grew up on a diet of Cardiff Arms Park and Welsh sing-alongs and copious amounts of celebrations throughout the city pubs, no matter if Wales won or lost. During the majority of the time during the late 80s & early 90s it was the latter, which funnily enough made the victories even more of a special occasion. One of the best nights I ever had in Cardiff was when we got done over by Samoa in the 1999 World Cup.
None of us really expected the French to pull a rabbit out of hat here. When Freddie Michalek pulls on the Number 10 jersey for Les Blues, anything can happen. The one benefit of having Michalek in the side is at least they get to park really close to the stadium and the rest of the team have an ample supply of Werthers Originals on hand. Despite having the best “club” rugby competition around, the French still struggle with genuine depth hence why Michalek keeps getting wheeled out at any opportunity in the hope he may be able to find the form of 8-10 years ago.
The Wallabies had a few injuries and form issues of their own. Cooper and Genia were not selected based on their Queensland form, which allegedly upset the local supporters – the excuse trotted out in the press when only 20,000 tickets had be sold on the Thursday before the game. After the British Lions series dominated the Australian winter last year, a half strength French team wasn’t exactly going to inspire the masses – especially with ticket prices starting at $ 59 and a half decent seat setting you back $ 80!
“Offside/Lazy runner” Stephen Moore was appointed captain for this match and 45 seconds after kickoff his game was over, after injuring a knee which may have also ended his season! He wasn’t really missed as the Australian forwards were dominant and provided solid ball for the backs to press and press. They scored after 18 minutes and went in at half time 29-9 up. At this stage, they should have racked up 60 or 70 and they did add another 21 to go 50-9 up. Then either the Wallabies decided enough was enough or France finally woke up and they were rewarded with a couple of late tries to minimize the damage and give them something to build on for the rest of the 3 match series.
To be honest, the Wallabies coasted through and never looked in any danger of slipping up. The French didn’t really threaten until late on and spent much of the time in possession moving sideways instead of forwards. The victorious supporters leaving at the end passed on their commiserations to us battled hardened traveling supporters in their own inimitable way. When the response came back “We don’t really care about it” they skulked off minus the normal smugness reserved for wallopings against teams that don’t really want to be there.
This was my 70th International match. The majority of which have been watching Australia. I still don’t like them and probably never will – forget the probably. No doubt the major contributing factor is that whenever they play Wales, they always manage somehow to sneak a win. Next year sees Australia, Wales and England in the “group of death” at the World Cup. Only two will survive. As long as it’s us and the other two (or four for that matter) beat the living suitcase out of each other, I will be a very happy camper – along with the other 3 million of us on the planet. 2015 looms ever so close now – its going to be the longest 15 months of my life!
Vive Le France and all that sail in her. You have two more chances to inflict pain and terror into this Australian team. The All Blacks, Spingboks, English and Welsh teams will thank you for it in the long run.
The Honey Badger was in good form. He scored a couple of tries and then entertained in the post match in his own inimitable style:
The evening shenanigans were as entertaining as always. The 2012 tour star performer made a triumphant return to the stage before 1030.
Brains SA appeared as if by magic and the novelty of being an honourary Breton survived until the small hours.
I for one can’t wait for next year! Bring on the Irish/Scots/Pacific Islanders…. Fire up the karaoke
CASTROL EDGE INTERNATIONAL SERIES FIRST TEST
AUSTRALIA 50 – 23 FRANCE