Hung, Drawn and Quartered.

A thousand words...

A week later and I’m still angry.

Not so much angry that we got beaten, but the manner in which we were. The pitiful, embarrassing way in which we had an apocalyptically abysmal game when we could least afford to. The fact that France weren’t even very good, and we were very, very bad.

I know it’s sport, and these things happen. I know if it was predictable and contests always went by form and rank then there’d be little point watching it. If England had played well but France had pulled out the ‘big’ game that people were expecting and played out of their skins then that would’ve been an easier pill to swallow, but that wasn’t the case, and if we’d played half as well (which wasn’t very well) as we did against Argentina, we probably would’ve won.

Ugh, it makes my blood boil typing about it. It’s probably a good thing I’ve had a week to calm down, and didn’t post what I almost did: an extremely angry (and drunken) open letter to the RFU ranting about how disgusted I was that so-called professionals should perform so desperately badly at such a crucial event, and insisting that they refund the cost of my ticket.

Yeah, I sound like a bitter, sore loser. I’m really not, I’m just disgusted.

And I almost feel too weary to write about it, so much has it been raging through my mind the past few days. I’m rather drained. So I’m not going point fingers at those who might be to blame, or mention drinking or dwarves or any of that, I just want to look forward to attending the two semi-finals with the relief of not being too bothered about who wins.

Although, obviously, I don’t want the French or the Aussies to win. And my Dad informs me that I’m at least a 64th Welsh, thanks to a great, great, great, great grandfather by the name of Evans. Which makes me about 1.56% Welsh.

Round it up to 2%.

Let’s hope they aren’t as embarrassing as the English were.

Smiley happy French people

England 16 – Scotland 12

 

 

It’s curious, isn’t it, that whenever England come out to play, the locals seem to dig up tenuous genealogical links to ancestors from far-off parts of the globe (well, most places are far-off from New Zealand, but you know what I mean), but none of those seems to be England-born. And true to form there are a large number of Scottish supporters with antipodean accents (not just Kiwis) at and around Eden Park for the Group B clash against our skirt-wearing, deep-fried-everything-eating, mostly-incomprehensible Northern neighbours.

[By the way, I once watched Rab C. Nesbitt with subtitles and it’s actually quite funny…]

However, this time they do have a genuine case, since many of the relatives from back in the 1800s were Scottish, as noted in a previous post. That said, a great deal of them were English too… Anyway, having lost to the Argies, the Scots are going to need all the support they can get (especially considering that so far this seems to be a bad day for teams in blue *cough* France *cough*), so I suppose that levels the playing field somewhat.

Cookie Monster Love Rugby!

Speaking of the field, this is the biggest venue we’ve entered thus far. In fact it’s the biggest of the tournament, and the venue for two quarters, both semis and the final itself. Disappointingly, I find myself in the upper echelons of a temporary, open-air stand, upon which the Heavens have decided to deliver a round of suitably British weather. To add to my woes, I’m mostly surrounded by Scots (see photo), and since due to unfortunate ticketing I’m at the opposite end of the stadium to my sibling, I hunch under my hood and hope even more that England win.

The less said about the match itself, the better. “I enjoyed the last 3 minutes” would be a good summary, along with side-dish comments like “Why do we always have to win the hard way?” and “What the Hell is up with Jonny Wilkinson?!” (To see a video I made of how to successfully convert a rugby ball, admittedly not in front of a 65,000-strong crowd, click here.) I have to ask the English chaps behind me if there’s any way we can come 2nd in the group – thus setting up a quarters match against the hosts – but am assured it’s unlikely, which at least made the threat of loss less worrying.

A last-gasp try by Ashton seals the win, and an excellent kick from Flood makes everyone wonder why he wasn’t on about 60 minutes earlier. Either Jonny is supremely confident that he can kick them, or the voice in his head is saying “You always get these. You missed the last one, so you’ll surely get this one!”.

But hey, it’s a win, England top the group, and bring on France – preferably the same team that lost to Tonga.

Click to Enlarge (it looks much better, trust me)

Out into the street we all slowly file, and whilst waiting for my brother I try to console a depressed Scot, slumped on the step next to me, flag draped around him. It’s funny, you can never say “Unlucky” to a Scotsman after they’ve lost to the Auld Enemy. No matter how genuinely you say it, they always take it badly….

Ah well, time for more beers.

Winner

Coda:

The morning after the night before. My head hurts.

In the bar after the game, we get chatting to a few surprisingly-friendly ex-pat Scots. One wife gets a bit over-friendly, despite her hubbie being a yard away. I drink more in the hope she’ll leave me alone (she definitely won’t get more attractive). We go back to theirs, fortunately she passes out, and us three lads play pool in his impressive pad until 4am. I wake up with red and white warpaint still on my face (and the pillow), in a bed with a Twister duvet cover (I’m beginning to think they’re swingers…) Mark, meanwhile, spends the night in the pink-clad bed of a 9-year-old girl. We stagger back to the campsite just in time to be kicked out, and head South.

All is good.

The Inbetweeners

After the ‘Oh-my-god-don’t-do-this-to-me!’ tension of the Argentina game, come the relatively stress-free occasions of two games against Georgia and Romania, before the climax of the Scotland match on the 1st October. Without doubt they are the minnows of Group B, but as somebody will surely point out, there are no easy games nowadays!

According to late Mediaeval texts, the Georgians are labelled such because they especially revere St George. This would explain why their flag is very similar to ours, but the similarities pretty much end there. They aren’t great at rugby, and their names are like someone’s taken 12 letters out of the Scrabble bag, arranged them in any old order, then added -ze to the end. The poor old commentator has a more difficult time than Johnathon Ross reading the ‘R’ section of the phone book, but I’m sure the Georgians expect that.

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Collapse.

I’m sure they also expect to get beaten.

But they certainly don’t show it at first. As the Otago stadium ripples with red and white flags, the opposition make a good fight of it. In fact one might be mistaken for thinking they’d stumbled upon one of St George’s own crusades, with men regularly falling, battle-injured, medics running to their aid.

However the superior skill and firepower soon overcomes the opposition, and we return to the green and pleasant land of the Dunedin Holiday Park with the satisfaction of a 41-10 win, although not thoroughly convinced by it.

The scrum still looks dodgy, we conceded too many penalties (again), and the backs need to step it up a gear or three, but thankfully we have another ‘warm up’ game next weekend, so hopefully a marked improvement will be seen there….

Lovely English Weather!

And so, a week later, us English fans – and an equal number of Kiwis who seem to have discovered Romanian roots – file back into the same stadium for the third Group B match, and frankly I want and expect nothing more than a crushing win for England.

In fact, their highest ever win came over today’s opponents, a try-a-minute rout of 134-0, and while I’m sure that will not be re-enacted today, I would hope for about half that. However, the sad fact is that we could put 200 past the Romanians today and the headlines would still be focusing on Zara and Mike, about whom frankly I could not give a fuck of the flying variety.

From our seats behind the goalposts, my brother and I can see several photographers, their over-sized lenses aimed not at the large patch of grass in front of them, but about 45 degrees to the left, towards a certain royal grand-daughter. That doesn’t especially upset me, no. It’s the fashion in which the British media seem intent on destroying any hope we ever have of winning any major sporting event.

Romanians are Evil

A nothing story about the Captain messing around with a ‘mystery’ woman – who is in fact a good friend of both he and his missus – is blown out of all proportion, and one can’t help noticing similarities to a familiar story involving an England football captain and a minor fling. The press should be backing our boys, not trying to bring them down. But whereas sackings of skippers and all that may have had a detrimental affect on the minds and game of the football team, I can’t see the rugby squad being affected by it.

If anything, rumours of boozing and throwing of vertically-challenged people seems to fuel their fires, and they find a gear or two more, spinning the ball around with conviction and putting a satisfying score past the Romanians. But while it’s fun to watch, it doesn’t really give us any clues as to how we’ll fare against a recently-improved Scottish team, in what will be a must-win match for our auld chums from the North.

And North is where The Rambling Rose now heads, back past Christchurch to the Interisland ferry, up route 1 to Auckland, and Eden Park.

Phew!

 

(Click to Enlarge)

 

I remember a decade or two ago, back in the day when tries were worth four points and the Six Nations were only five, England played Argentina at Twickenham and trounced them about 80-odd to not-many. Sadly, those times are long gone now, the Argies finishing the last World Cup in third, one place behind us.

That’s higher than New Zealand and Australia.

Steve singing the anthem.

So this was never going to be a walkover, and after England’s shaky start last tournament, I’m a tad nervous about this match. Losing it and possibly coming second in the group would likely mean a Quarter Final against the hosts, or even a Kiwi-crushing French side. So I’d love a comfortable win (and at these prices I think 80-odd points would be a reasonable return) but frankly I’d settle for any sort of win, even if it’s entirely from Jonny’s boot.  

We approach the brand new Otago stadium with thousands of red and white supporters, and a surprisingly large number of opposition fans. Turns out that a considerable percentage of these are locals, presumably so inebriated that their colonial heritage has slipped from their shrivelled minds. However, I take this as a compliment of sorts, since they obviously feel insecure about a strong-looking England.

Is this our new scrum half?

After nothing less than daylight robbery in exchange for four cans of your finest Heineken, Sir, we huddle amongst the mixed crowd in our chilly-despite-the-roof seats. The teams troop out to approval-inducing music that is neither Karl Orff nor Song 2, and the anthems are sung. The English voices are reassuringly more vociferous than the non-English ones, but that turns out to be about the last we hear of them until Ben Youngs – who frankly should’ve been on from the start, although hindsight is a most useful capacity – scores the only try of the game, to massively relieved cheers. On the way to the ground I chatted to an ex-pat in a bowling-alley-cum-profiteering-ground, and joked that after all the exciting games of the last 24 hours, this one would no doubt end 9-6.

As Argentina lead 9-3 with 20 minutes to go, I wonder if I’m being disturbingly prescient.

However, we ultimately win 13-9, to an audible sigh from the Albion faithful. But it could’ve been so very different. Thankfully whichever curious virus that prevented good ol’ Jonny Wilkinson from converting most of his kicks – to increasing incredulity and calls for Toby Flood – also struck Contepomi. If the opposition kicker had been o’Gara or Carter, we’d be buried.

About to miss, again...

It’s funny that in 2003, all the other nations were saying that we only won the World Cup because of Jonny Wilkinson. After tonight’s woeful performance, I’m wondering whether this time we can win it in spite of him.

 

This guy was Definitely on drugs.

KICK OFF

Friday 9th September 2011. Days to go until the Rugby World Cup: 0.

At about 1600, The Rambling Rose and its pilots trundle into the South-Eastern city of Dunedin (the Celtic word for Edinburgh, which tells you something about the country’s heritage), and into the centre, where there’s an obvious carnival atmosphere, including a house-party roadside where 3 guys hold up cardboard signs saying ‘HONK FOR ANAL’.

So of course I honk. When in Rome…

Shortly we arrive at the Dunedin Holiday Park, near an area called Vauxhall (the part of London I left about a week ago), and are directed to bay #1 – ominous perhaps? – where for a couple of hours we sit, by the entrance, sipping tea (naturally) and watching the procession of cars and campervans slither in. The site is rammed, predominantly with English, but a few other nations including a noticeable appearance by Los Pumas – the Argentinians.

We head to the Dunedin Pirates rugby club round the corner from the site, where a few hundred locals and tourists are squeezed in to watch the opening ceremony on a big screen, and of course the first fixture: New Zealand vs Tonga. The latter are the underdogs, being the Kiwi equivalent of the Scilly Isles, but let’s not forget that they have some thoroughbred rugby pedigree – the legend that is Jonah Lomu is of Tongan origin (DEFECTOR!). However, this should be a comfortable warm-up for the hosts.

As the throng watch the introduction – over-long and over-choreographed as they all are these days – there’s a bristle of anticipation, not just from the NZ and Tongan fans but from everyone, from the kids seated at the front to the Argie wearing a Mascherano football top, to the friendly drunk next to us. Indeed there’s been a palpable sense of something special around the country all day, with central Auckland reportedly teeming, and a general sod-off-work-at-lunchtime Friday feeling. The fireworks die down, someone shouts ‘Play the bloody game!’, the teams come out to excited cheers, the anthems are sung, and the Tongans finally kick off the 7th Rugby World Cup… and then the sound cuts out.

Not that anybody notices for a while due to the roar that fills the room – well they’ve been waiting almost six years for this day – but fortunately it’s promptly rectified, and not a moment too soon, as the All Blacks are on the attack and soon enough open the scoring with a penalty, with a try soon after that. Followed by quite a few more tries, as they play rugby more akin to 7s than 15s.

With the break still some time away, I take a quick trip to the Gents, where I overhear the following father-and-son conversation from one of the cubicles:

“Hurry up”
“Why?”
“Cos we’re missing the rugby!”

And that’s how things are here. Watching the rugby always takes precedence over watching your son have an awkward shit.

Back to the game, and the islanders concede a couple more tries before scoring a penalty on the stroke of halftime. But the game’s already over, the Kiwis may as well play their Under 16s…

Who was it that said it’s a game of two halves? Not a rugby player, I know, but that old soccer adage most definitely applies here, as the All Blacks get complacent and fluff some decent opportunities, while the Tongans fight back and make a fair game of it in the second half, applying solid forward pressure and bullying their opponents into conceding, to much applause from the mixed crowd in the room. But the home nation score another fluid try and spoil the Reds’ party, finishing with a score of 41-10.

So a comfortable win in the end, but not as crushing as was hoped, and from an England point of view there are some positives to take from this:

The Kiwis lacked a killer instinct for parts. Ok, they thought they’d pretty much won and weren’t focusing as they might do for bigger games, but they should’ve sealed this match much sooner.
Secondly, judging by what Tonga did in the run up to their try, England would ruin their scrum.
And thirdly… Never thought I’d say it, but if I had a choice between France and New Zealand in the Quarter Finals, on this performance… I might just choose the All Blacks.

And so to bed. FOUR matches tomorrow, three of them of little consequence, one of them huge.

BRING ON THE ARGIES!

20110909-113446.jpg

Falling Down and Building Up

So, after 26 hours of plane-and-train-based travelling, mostly spent failing to sleep and wondering if it’s possible to make seats any less comfortable, I finally find myself in Christchurch, New Zealand. Capital city, if you like, of the South island, and focal point of the recent earthquakes. I share a shuttle from the airport with a civil engineer who’s also here to investigate, albeit in a more professional manner than mine. The suburbs look like any other grid-based suburb you’d find worldwide, with no real hint of damage; it’s not until the very centre, a couple of hundred square metres, that the devastation is plain to see. Picture an urban-based zombie holocaust shoot-em-up, with crumbled buildings, potholed roads, traffic lights ominously blinking amber, and an unsettling sense of ‘Where the hell IS everyone?’ and you’re probably close to how central Christchurch looks. What’s curious is that the majority of the destruction is confined to a very small area, bang in the city centre, with cracks and undulating streets rippling outwards.

As we tour the roads bordering the steel-fenced perimeter (wondering where on earth so much metal trellis came from) the driver tells me that he was in the middle of the earthquake when it struck, ferrying passengers. As buildings either side shook and started to fall, he swerved to the centre of the road, avoiding cascading bricks and narrowly eluding possible death when a tumbling lamppost brushed the bonnet merely inches from his head. He considers it a rather miraculous escape.

Speaking of miracles and matters devine, I spotted several churches which had steeples, roofs and windows missing, ecclesiastical skeletons which make me wonder how you could class such an event as an ‘Act of God’ – surely that’s some kind of self-blasphemy?

'NO GO'

And on the subject of things that move in mysterious ways, 20ft campervans are rather cumbersome beasts aren’t they? In case you’re thinking ‘I wouldn’t know’, the answer is ‘Yes’. After an early-morning coach with the ‘Nakedbus’ company (not as exciting as it sounds), I hooked up with my younger sibling in the town of Oamaru, about halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin. When your recent driving experience has been based around a small hatchback, converting to a 6.6 metre behemoth with the handling capabilities of Mr Creosote is like playing tennis left-handed. Blasting out my ‘Rawwwwk’ CD doesn’t exactly help the boy-racer mindset, so I shove in some Doors and discover that the resulting ‘Hey man it’s the 70s, why the need to drive so fast?’ way of thinking is the perfect state in which to helm The Rambling Rose.

For that is its name.

The public voted! Well, about 14 of them. And I went against the flow and decided that the name only one person chose – myself – was the one the van should be christened. And so it came to pass, and there was much rejoicing. Ok, the bloke on the next campsite thought it was a good name (‘Nice, sounds like a pub’), and so it stuck.

Oamaru

After a night’s stop in Oamaru, a town which is so colonial Victorian I kept thinking it was a film set, Mark and I head inland a tad – via a quick wine-tasting – to the town of Kurow, which, we are informed every 5 metres, is the birth place of the Kiwi captain, Richie McCaw. Every other shop is adorned with a poster bearing his teenage face, not quite the hard-bastard face we are familiar with, but an imposing kid nonetheless. We stop over by a placid turquoise river that wouldn’t look out of place at the Augusta Masters, and, after a spot of laidback post-breakfast canoeing, hit the road – hit’s probably the wrong word… Caress? Embrace? – and cruise down Route 1 on the road South.

Nice place for a canoe...

We go via the Moeraki Boulders – large near-spherical balls of rock on the beach that I’m convinced are Alien eggs, awaiting an awakening a la War of the Worlds – and the Totara estate, which was the first place to ship frozen meat to the UK back in the 1880s, shaping the entire future of New Zealand’s meat exporting business. From there it’s a few miles to our next stopover, our base – as well as the England team’s – for the next few days, the East coast city of Dunedin….

Alien Eggs at Moeraki

Name Our Van!

Mark and the Van

IN ABOUT A WEEK, I will be joining my brother in lovely New Zealand. Completing The Almighty Trinity will be our trusty (hopefully!) campervan, who will be escorting us all around the country as we follow the World Cup.

It needs a name. 

What shall we call it? Or what shall we call us?

Something very English, something classic, something proud. What do you think??