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The greatest stories, beautifully told.
Extracts from the third issue of RUGBY...
Alun Wyn Jones
Last summer, Alun Wyn Jones took on and defeated his home nations rivals to earn the right to face the greatest rugby side on the planet, the All Blacks, in their own backyard. This year, it’s Play-Doh, colouring-in, and a quarter of a caravan in west Wales. Alun Wyn Jones: Lion, Osprey, Welsh hero, is on holiday.
Mumbles on the Gower Peninsula of South Wales is having a good day. The one-time fishing village in Swansea Bay is basking in some unexpected weekday sun. The ladies who lunch are out in force, dining al fresco, and there’s not even a hint of wind to ruffle so much as a single leaf on the promenade’s pristine greenery. In short, all is good in this picture-postcard nook of the South Wales coast. Mumbles’ carefree vibe is infectious. It’s being lapped up by the locals too, none more so than Alun Wyn Jones. As he stoops to fit through the doorway of our meeting place, Patricks – a local hotel set back from the seafront (where the older generation of ‘ladies who lunch’ have retreated for afternoon tea) – the 6ft 6in Wales lock removes his sunnies to say hello to a passing chef who’s either been plating up some seriously heavy vegetables or is a rugby player, too.
Beneath the gothic turrets of a glowering medieval castle, in an ancient cobbled town that’s inspired Twain, Turner and Nobel Prize winners, plays out a rugby tale with so many twists even brothers Grimm couldn’t make it up. Welcome to Heidelberg.
Heidelberg is a fairytale town in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region. Snuggled up in a river valley, with a protective ancient forest on all sides, overseen from a mountain perch by a once foreboding – now somewhat forlorn – 13th-century castle, Heidelberg has been a muse to painters, poets and storytellers for centuries. It’s inspired poet Goethe, author Mark Twain (who stayed for three months) and artist William Turner. And they’re far from alone in being drawn in to its medieval charm. Heidelberg brings in close to 12 million visitors every year who come to see the castle, the university, the dramatic 14th-century Heiliggeistkirche church and the intricate gothic detail of the Baroque architecture that decorates the town.
Tongan Bear was the ringleader – a ‘tough $£#&’ who devised the signals,
the special handshake, the celebration. There were drones, analysts, and a 92-year-old head honcho. They came from 12 countries and overcame a pin badge shortage to crush their opposition. This is how a man known as ‘Batman’, led the Barbarians to victory.
In a nondescript hotel function room in west London, head coach Pat Lam gathers an assortment of rugby players into a circle. It’s the Wednesday before the Barbarians face England and all morning the squad has been slowly drifting into the room to have their pictures taken, grab their stash from the makeshift physio area, and have a first meeting before facing the media. The quintet from Toulon – Chris Ashton, Argentinean Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Fijians Semi Radradra, Malakai Fekitoa and Josua Tuisova – drafted in after their shock Top14 quarter-final loss, are among the late comers, having taken a private jet from the south of France.
HM Prison Cookham Wood
James was singled out and bullied from the moment he arrived at Cookham Wood because of his size. He was put on constant watch as the officers feared that he was at risk of self-harm. But it also made him an ideal choice for the prison rugby team.
As we follow a group of teenage rugby players from their initial get-together through to the playing field there is a moment in time when everything seems strangely familiar. It could be the chairs in the meeting room or the notices on the walls instructing youths and adults to respect each other, or it could be the walk through the indoor sports hall. For an instant, it’s as if we’ve gone back to school.
But from the second we step outside onto the field, the illusion is immediately shattered. To our left is a three-floor building populated by inmates instead of classmates. Rolls of barbed wire wrap around the top of high-security fencing that surrounds three sides of the all-weather pitch and a small gathering of prison officers patrol the touchline.
In a Lancashire district famed for its ‘slipper mile’ and making clogs for the Britannia Coco-Nutters, we meet a musician that collaborates with a drummer from The Hollies; an artist that paints watercolours worth thousands; and a rugby coach who, if Fran Cotton had his way, would’ve been recognised as one of English rugby’s greatest. Instead, he has to make do with being one of the most successful. Discover the many sides of Mark ‘Nellie’ Nelson.
Rossendale is a Lancashire district made up of four small towns and assorted villages, an area that’s prospered or faltered with the ebbs and flows of industry. Made up of weathered, stone terraced cottages, nestled in the inter-linking valleys and divided by the hills – ‘or the tops’, as the locals refer to them – prevalent in this part of east Lancashire. Research this part of the world and your first discoveries could be slippers. So much so that one stretch of road became known as the ‘Slipper Mile’, a slightly less exotic, northern England variant, of the Silk Road.
Almost 25 years after Kerry Packer attempted to change the face of rugby with a global series, another Australian has gone one step further. In May this year, Perth’s mining billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, helped Western Force rise from the ashes with the launch of World Series Rugby.
In July 2017, Western Force played their last-ever game of Super Rugby. They didn’t know it at the time, but the 40-11 destruction of Australia’s most recent champions, the NSW Waratahs, was to be their parting shot. Their owner, Perth-born billionaire Andrew Forrest, sensed fans’ uncertainty, telling them, “Be assured that surviving is not an issue, you will survive, and you will win.”
Captain Matt Hodgson, playing what looked to be his final game before retirement, echoed the thought, “I guarantee you we’re still not finished,” he said, “we’re here for a few more years for sure.”
Amid 147 acres of ancient woodland, spliced with lakes and rivers, rises the 18th-century, Gothic Revival Farleigh House, resplendent in sandy-coloured Bath stone. A ‘folly’, it was built to look overtly pretty without serving any real purpose. Today, this ‘castle’ serves to train Bath Rugby’s troops and, perhaps more importantly, rehabilitate the injured.
When the Houlton family built Farleigh House back in the mists of time, it was to show off the considerable wealth they had earned through the cloth trade. As if to ensure its solid foundations and give it added stature, the original house even used stone taken from the medieval ruins of the actual Farleigh Castle, just down the road.
The estate had been in the family since 1702, each generation making its mark; gradually rebuilding, refining, regenerating. That was until Colonel John Houlton took control in the 1800s and splashed out, spending what would be millions today, as he ostentatiously crafted it into the Gothic Revival splendour it still revels in.
Since the final heirless Houlton passed away in the late 1800s, Farleigh House has led numerous lives: a home to lords, earls and assorted aristocrats; a school for children with autism; a country HQ for an eyewear firm – and, from 2010, the home of a professional rugby side
Frontrower Vez has been targeted, victimised and bullied. He’s had blood spat in his mouth after a tackle; and had rugby ‘fans’ shout everything from, ‘get the fat bastard man off the pitch’ to ‘put her face in mud, let her drown’. And that’s before the endless stream of social media abuse. Vez has considered, ‘not being here’ many times. This is what can happen when you’re a transgender rugby player. And, he says, it needs to change.
Everything came to a head in one game. Verity ‘Vez’ Smith had played rugby his whole life, both league and union, for club, county, regional and even a dalliance with international representation with trials for England Students. Yet, when Vez decided to begin the transition to become a man 18 months ago, his life took a nasty turn, with the ugly side of sport rearing its head. “I played a game of league and I was pinned down and was spat in the mouth,” explains Vez, as we sit in the function room of his current union club, Rotherham Phoenix, together with his captain and close friend Jo Clark. “I was heckled and one shouted, ‘get the fat bastard man off the pitch, what idiot lets a man play against girls?’
One-by-one, the councillors stood up to say their piece. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty of them. Some were for, some against. Some eloquent, some, less so. Then, the vote. All 123 councillors, a single vote apiece, to decide the future of Cornish rugby. It started with a single ‘For’, but then, one after the other, the ‘Againsts’ rolled in.
In a clubhouse showing every sign of a rugby life well-lived, four Cornishmen (two born and bred, two adopted) discuss the day professional sport was given a future in the Duchy. Not just rugby either, football too; and not just sport, but individuals, specifically the next generation.
The vote wasn’t the result of months of lobbying, it was years, decades even. If the ‘Fors’ win out, then Cornwall would be a giant step closer to having a stadium fit for Premiership rugby, professional football and a learning hub that could reach tens of thousands of students. If the ‘Fors’ have it, then Cornwall, a county whose economy is so often glossed over by postcard snapshots of its summer outfit – one of sea, sun and sandy beaches, backed onto a rural, rugged landscape, but always with lobster and luxury close at hand – will get a serious shot in the arm. And, it needs it. The view from the inside, is often not the one of the second holiday homers or London weekenders.
A Speedo Pizza in east London and a monthly income of £36 were the starting points for a £5.6bn FTSE 100 business, turning over £500m a year, employing 2,900 staff and serving millions of customers across the planet every year. If David Buttress can help make that happen, what can he do for the Dragons?
‘How fucking nuts is this,’ Jesper asks his friend David in a Hammersmith pub, circa 2005. ‘You go on Google and you can’t find food. Go to Google now and try to find food.’
David, who worked for Coca-Cola at the time, did as he was told and couldn’t find anything, despite being in west London. Not an Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or a solitary Kebab King – or any fast food royalty whatsoever for that matter. ‘There must be something?’ David responds to Jesper, a Danish entrepreneur, adding, ‘That’s the point of the internet, it’s literally the point of it, to find stuff you need.’
Recounting the story 13 years later, while overlooking the Rodney Parade pitch in Newport from a conference room, David, now chair of the Dragons, takes up the story. “I just went home thinking, ‘that is fucking brilliant’, it was his idea and I was just thinking, ‘that is brilliant, that is fucking brilliant’, but there must be someone who’s done it, this is too simple, it’s too obvious an idea. Why hasn’t anyone else done this?”
Around the corner from Jeff Stelling’s house, in a town famed for hanging a monkey dressed as a French sailor – a town that, ironically, 200 years later voted for a monkey as mayor – is a rugby side that’s lived quite the life. Almost a decade of being a Premiership yo-yo club, ended in four relegations. They lost their home, their coach, their players, their fans and came close to extinction. And yet, somehow, West Hartlepool are still with us.
It’s a rugby club that gets trotted out alongside the likes of Waterloo and Orrell in those lists of often forgotten clubs that were once quite big but have long since been cut adrift to float down to the nether regions of the rugby pyramid.
Except West Hartlepool were never ones to engage in such passive acts as floating. Forever at the sharpest of sharp ends, they were a ‘death or glory’ side all the way. If you’re going to go, go big. If you’re down to your final roll with your last few chips, throw them all down on black six – and borrow a shedload of chips from someone else and chuck them down too while you’re at it.
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