Rugby's first quarterly journal.
The greatest stories, beautifully told.
Extracts from the sixth issue of RUGBY...
Henry Slade – New Orleans – Loughborough Lightning – Liverpool St Helens – John Dawes – Brad Barritt – Russell Earnshaw & John Fletcher – Heather Fisher – Ampthill – Welsh women’s rugby – Auld Enemy
The leg cracked three times as the weight of the opposing forward sent Henry Slade in the opposite direction to his limb. It wasn’t going to be good. It hurt like hell, but he wasn’t going to have gas and air, not after what happened to Ben White.
Starting from the Devon-Somerset border in the north before meandering its way down south through sixty or so miles of countryside, passing through towns, villages and even a city en route, the River Exe is the biggest of deals in the world of Devonshire waterways.
It’s been around a long time, far longer than the Jonny-come-latelys that live on its doorstep and stole its name too. Exmouth, Exminster, Exeter – all got their ‘Ex’ prefix from the river. So important was the river that the locals even deemed itself worthy of a protector, and built Exeter (meaning fortress of the Exe) to look over it.
It’s carried traders and warriors, pirates and pioneers, indulged swimmers and scuba divers, and is home to avocets, oystercatchers, redshanks and 20,000 or so other assorted migrating birds each year. In short, there isn’t much that hasn’t been on it, in it, under it or through it. Except for, until now, a fully suited England rugby international.
He’s about to enter the River Exe from Topsham, a town for which the word ‘quaint’ was probably first created. Even the fact it’s named after a former landlord called Toppa seems fitting – he sounds like the kind of jolly fella you’d want as a landlord, he probably wouldn’t mind if your rent was a day or two late.
Topsham is where antique hunters go for rare finds, birdwatchers go for rare sightings, and people go to stroll. Every house feels like it’s got a story tell.
Eyes streaming, face distorted, arms aching and head being forced downwards; the g-force pounds Heather Fisher as she hurtles at 80mph down the fastest and steepest bobsleigh track in the world. She’d learnt every turn, but her mind is blank. Like running through ‘windmills while in a tumble drier’, not even rugby is like this.
Days after getting dropped by the England academy, Heather Fisher went into a coffee shop in Cardiff. She’d gone from being on the brink of the senior squad to having to step down to the England Students, not doing the ‘small things’ was the reasoning. Aside from the fire service, being an athlete was the only thing she ever wanted to do, and now that prospect had taken a severe hit. Pondering her next steps over a caffeine fix, she was approached by a stranger who no doubt noted the body of an athlete when they saw one. “They asked if I wanted to try out for the 2010 Olympic Games – as part of the bobsleigh team,” explains Heather as we talk at the England women’s Teddington camp. “I didn’t even know we had a team or, for that matter, what bobsleigh was – I knew about Cool Runnings and the ‘lucky egg’ and that was it.”
Nonetheless, she went for a test run at Bath University where they have a bobsleigh run. “I did a few runs and thought it was easy, but the next day I couldn’t walk,” she says. The coach saw enough to know Heather had potential and, after doing as much training as she could before actually hitting the winter venues, eventually found herself at America’s Olympic Sports Complex, near the Canadian border. “It was before Whistler was built, so it was the fastest in the world and it’s the steepest off the top,” she says. “I was shit scared, there wasn’t one time when I ever got to the top and was excited to go down. I would just try to justify it all in my head – ‘look this is only 56 seconds of your life; in a day, there’s 1,440 minutes; and you’re worried about 56 seconds, so get a grip, you’ve got this’.”
At 5am, under the watchful eye of the duty master, a schoolboy Brad Barritt stood, statue-still, for a 40-minute uniform inspection. It was old school, in every sense. South African schools were tough, but his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Rhodesian internationals, so he was made of sterner stuff.
The faceless industrial estate that the sat nav steers us towards is one we’ve all seen a thousand times in any town anywhere. It’s almost definitely not what Sir Ebenezer Howard had in mind when he founded Welwyn Garden City back in 1920. Admittedly, anyone who has been to Welwyn Garden City knows that if you go there expecting an English equivalent to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, you’re going be disappointed.
But, nonetheless, the identikit, industrial-unit uniform that is modern-day business, would have had Ebenezer – the man who pioneered the concept of having urban towns surrounded by greenbelts – reaching for his planting pots.
And yet, ironically, it’s here that Rugby is being given a lesson in the power of the green bean. Of the coffee kind, that is. “Most people think they’re brown,” explains Justin Stockwell, the co-founder of Tiki-Tonga Coffee. “But that’s only when they’re roasted, they’re green before that.”
In the few minutes we get to chat, while our interviewee has his picture taken, he imparts a wealth of coffee knowledge. “The idea that single origin coffee is the best is bollocks,” he says. “It just means they don’t have the expertise to blend it properly.”
To get the right blend that has enough kick, to go with the right flavour, you have to blend, he says. “Robusta has all the caffeine, but arabica has the flavour,” says Justin, who’s been in the coffee business – either importing machines or beans – for the best part of four decades.
“If nothing else,” probably thought Catherine of Aragon as she was handed her divorce papers in the castle, “at least I’ll put this lovely town of Ampthill on the map”. Sadly, she didn’t. That job has now been left, almost 500 years later, to four Tongans and a Welshman called Paul.
Ampthill in Bedfordshire is probably the prettiest town you’ve never visited. Or, perhaps, never even heard of. If you have, odds are, you couldn’t pin it on a map.
Surrounded, and indeed at times almost submerged, by England’s most green and pleasant lands, home to thatched cottages so pristine they look like newbuilds despite dating back 200 or so years and the meeting place of a weekly market that started in 1219 (happy 800th birthday folks). Even the houses in Ampthill that aren’t thatched, seem to require pruning as, wherever you look, ivy, trees and other assorted shrubbery gently drapes itself artfully around doorways and windows – like some kind of wistful, return-to-nature post-apocalyptic dream. This is where shops are in old forges and where Union Jacks mean post-war street parties rather than a show of support for Tommy Robinson.
Woburn Street, heading east out of the town, takes you past the thatched houses and to the entrance of the Great Park, some 245 acres of gardens and woodlands. It was also once home to the 15th-century Ampthill Castle, where Catherine of Aragon discovered that marrying your late husband’s brother was a bad idea. It was here – or at least in a castle that once stood here – that it is said she received notice of her divorce to Henry VIII, which then also had the awkward side effect of starting a small thing called the English Reformation.
At a university known for having world-class athletes walk its halls, swim its pools, ride its wattbikes and lift its weights, it’s a prop that has a truly profound impact. After the rugby match finishes, the loosehead walks over to a fan who, flush with the teen awkwardness of meeting a hero, bursts into tears. Women’s rugby has come a long way.
The gym is busy but not crowded. With twelve Olympic lifting platforms, row upon row of wattbikes, treadmills and rowers, and an adjoining 50m running track, the Powerbase is at the very heart of the Loughborough University elite sporting offering. World-record-holding swimmer Adam Peaty isn’t here today, but he often is, along with about 700 performance athletes across 16 or so different sports. Although with British Swimming, British Triathlon, England Netball and the ECB just some of the governing bodies who base themselves here in some form, bumping into an elite athlete is a pretty common occurrence.
It’s not a new thing either. Heroes of sport carrying books or boots down the halls has always been par for the course at the Leicestershire university. Its list of noted alumni is basically a British sporting who’s who, with Seb Coe, Paula Radcliffe, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Bob Wilson, Monty Panesar and Steve Backley among those who record Loughborough as their alma mater. It’s not by accident either. It was around a century ago that former principal, Herbert Schufield, decided that wellbeing and welfare should go beyond the classroom and purchased a huge estate on which many of its buildings and myriad sporting fields now reside. Since then, it’s been a production line of elite sportsmen and women. As if to prove the point, in the ten years of BUCS (British Universities and College Sports), Loughborough has finished top in the overall table, every single year.
Liverpool St Helens
As the German bombers flew overhead, the Moss Lane anti-aircraft guns burst into action, firing perhaps in hope rather than any certainty of hitting anything in the pitch-black night sky. Once the war was over, the station was dismantled but the weekly battles commenced, and, despite trials and tribulations, in the colours of St Helens RUFC and now Liverpool St Helens Football Club, they haven’t stopped since.
The A580 was an unwitting ally to the German enemies during World War Two. When rain fell, a far from uncommon occurrence in these parts, the A580 – better known as the East Lancs Road – would glisten at night. This then provided the German bombers, the Dornier, Heinkel and Junker aircraft, with a literal road map taking them to one of Britain’s busiest ports, Liverpool Docks. Aware of the unfortunate assistance their treacherous tarmac was giving to the Nazis, an anti-aircraft station was placed on Moss Lane to fire deep into the night sky and repel the enemy.
Since then, defences at Moss Lane haven’t been quite as ferocious as a hail of bullets, but as home to Liverpool St Helens – having been helped by Colonel Pilkington, of glass-making fame, to acquire the land, in 1931 – it’s seen some pretty tough rearguard actions on the rugby field.
Today, they hope for more of the same for the final home game of the season. Presuming that is, the opposition find it to the ground. Getting there requires you to navigate a clutter of roadworks, a series of turns – left, right, U; the whole set – a trip through a small estate and then a short trip down a country lane, before the sight of goalposts signals that you’ve reached your destination. Which is handy as, by now, the sat nav has long since given up.
A week after Wales beat England, Leicester crushed Newcastle 83-10. In the changing room afterwards, a teenage Mat Tait sat in the changing room at Welford Road and broke down. It just wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Halfway through our interview, Mat Tait retires. A career spanning 15 professional years, 38 caps and three clubs, is over. He’s been to see a specialist that morning in Harley Street, but that’s more a case of safeguarding his life after rugby as opposed to having an impact on retirement, something he’s known has been coming for a while. His friends have known for a couple of months and the rest of us may well have guessed.
The pre-agreed statement is issued by Leicester Tigers, but his phone is switched off. “It’s a bit weird, the statement is going out now,” he says, as he sits down for the interview. Do you want to check your phone? “No, I’m fine.”
He’s 33, but having made his international and club rugby debuts aged just 18 he’s been around for longer than most, although injuries put paid to him breaking the 300 senior club appearance barrier – that stalled at 279. Although throw in titles on the sevens circuit, a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and an appearance in Rugby World Cup finals at both variants of the game, and it’s with good reason that, unbeknown to him, the plaudits are filling his timeline as we speak.
One was a stone mason and possibly the softest insurance salesman you’ll ever meet, the other could be ‘a bit of a dick’, refusing to be told what to do. When they turned to coaching though, in any sport, Rusty and Fletch found their calling.
If you’re in rugby, odds are you know Russell ‘Rusty’ Earnshaw. Rugby met him twice, once at Birmingham City FC where he was taking a training session, the second at Rosslyn Park Sevens, where there wasn’t a coach who didn’t stop for a chat.
Coaching was never his plan, but then that’s hardly surprising, given he’s rarely had one. “The one time I had a plan in my life was when I knew I wanted to go to Cambridge University,” explains Russell. “I worked really hard to get there and was quite academic, and when I got there it was also my best rugby ever.
“The captain runs the club, so it’s not really coached,” he says. “It meant we were playing in a way I felt the game should be played.”
While studying at Cambridge, he met Ben Ryan, and the pair of them would travel up to County Durham, where Russell was from, to play for West Hartlepool. “We used to drive in a Citroën AX up and down the A1 to play games for West Hartlepool,” explains Russell. “Mark Ring was up there, and he was always up for just trying stuff basically – he fuelled all of my vices. Off the pitch, loose. On the pitch, he would allow us to play.”
As 50 English and Scottish internationals gather at the same hotel in London on a Friday night, the only voice that can be heard is a bellowing English hooker – until Scott Hastings arrives.
Brandishing an over-sized bottle of Champagne, Steve Thompson’s laughter booms across the room, possibly across London too, as he jokes with Tom May about sidestepping fights with gnarly Scotland backrowers back in the day.
England’s Rugby World Cup-winning hooker is revelling in tonight’s rare opportunity to swap stories with friends and former foes alike. At the opposing end of the room, Lewis Moody is attempting to wend his way through a forest of 1,000 or so caps towards his former team-mate.
Tonight’s guest list is a mixed bag of young(ish), old, and really old former professionals, there’s big [and less big] names from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, stretching back through decades of Scottish and English rugby rivalry.
All seems thoroughly well-mannered as pleasantries are exchanged. There’s always one though, that tends to ignite the powder keg of untapped rowdiness.
Enter Scott Hastings. While Kelly Brown is politely fielding praise for his traditional Highland dress with a smile and a sip of his Champagne, and Ryan Grant and Jim Hamilton exchange jokes with David Flatman amid myriad of sporting stars – it’s the arrival of the 54-year-old former Scottish centre that kicks the night into gear. Hastings, brother of fellow Scottish legend Gavin and uncle of current fly-half Adam, may have lost the sleight of hand and fleet of foot over of his playing days, but his silver tongue is still sharp enough to shave with. Scottish and English, old and young, Hastings’ wit takes no prisoners.
When people talk of the ‘Welsh way’ of playing rugby, a key architect of it, a science teacher from the valleys, rarely gets mentioned. But when John Dawes received a letter from the Welsh Rugby Union saying his London-based team needed to appoint a coach, he stepped up, changing the face of a club and country forever.
The two meetings with John Dawes and Geoff Evans couldn’t be more different. The first, at London Welsh, is with a room full of several hundred supporters that know exactly who they are. Whether they were alive at the time of their rugby exploits or not, they’ve seen them in countless reruns or heard their stories being played out in a thousand animated clubhouse tales.
Geoff Evans, a lock with seven Wales caps to his name, is one of the club’s seven players that were part of the famous 1971 British & Irish Lions victory in New Zealand. The man sat next to him, John Dawes, also one of the seven, is their greatest-ever clubman [John Taylor, Gerald Davies, Mervyn Davies, JPR Williams and Mike Roberts make up the pride].
As captain and coach, Dawes developed a style of rugby that took London Welsh to the top of European club rugby and then shared it with his nation, coaching Wales through the most golden of eras, four Five Nations Championships in five years, including two Grand Slams and a Triple Crown.
His name fills honours boards throughout London Welsh, there are rooms named after him, probably trophies too, and cabinets are filled with artefacts that fuel hundreds of anecdotes from a life well played and very well coached.
Situated along the east bank of the Mississippi River in south eastern Louisiana and nestled between the lowlands of the swamps, marshes and Lake Ponchatrain, lies the city known for bringing the wild and mystery of the night to life. New Orleans is many things to many people, but now it’s got something new to be proud of: a professional rugby team.
New Orleans finds a reason to throw a party for just about anything. Celebrating food, music, people, the place itself, or just because it’s a certain day of the week. Mardi Gras is the biggest party of them all, and when we visit, it’s already got two weeks of partying under its belt.
Walking down the narrow, uneven streets of the Vieux Carre (Old Square), blaring saxophones and trumpets share the airwaves with strumming guitars, as assorted musicians play for tips to make ends meet. The fragrance of sweet beignets, savoury gumbos, and fresh Gulf-caught seafood pours out of restaurant windows.
Hundreds of painters, craftspeople, merchants and vendors pack Jackson Square outside the 225 year-old St Louis Cathedral at the heart of the French Quarter. Art markets, garages and galleries, antique stores, herb and spice shops, voodoo stores, cafés, novelty shops and bars of all varieties, line the rues.
The French founded this town in the 1700s and, in some ways, never left as its colonial past is still reflected in the 18th-century homes whose balconies overlook cobbled corridors.
The Journal Store
A few of our favourite things…
adidas New Zealand All Blacks 2019/20 Parley Rugby Training Shirt
Reflecting the team’s pioneering outlook, adidas joined forces with Parley for the Oceans to construct a t-shirt that turns threat into thread. This training tee has been created using yarn spun from plastic that has been reclaimed before it reaches the ocean. The Climacool technology keeps you, the wearer, cool and dry when worn during warm weather. lovell-rugby.co.uk