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Extracts from the seventh issue of RUGBY...
A Rugby journal special edition. We celebrate the rugby planet from India and Israel to Rwanda, China and Italy, via the Yorkshire Dales and North Wales
In 2047, Hong Kong’s existing agreement with China comes to an end, a deadline that decides the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. But the former British colony is already binding itself closer to the People’s Republic with bridges, high-speed train links and rugby.
It’ll have taken just five years shy of two centuries since the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the first Opium War for Hong Kong to become embraced by China again. Although as the recent protests have shown, it won’t be easy when the existing, ‘one country, two systems’ law comes to an end in 2047, the two will certainly become closer.
But Hong Kong is special. When Britain took control of Hong Kong Island, and later leased Kowloon, the New Territories and some 135 islands from the People’s Republic, it knew it had a gem.
Long before it was the modern, shiny metropolis it is today, Hong Kong was always a centre for international trade, with the Portuguese among the first to create a hub back in 1514, and others soon followed. Money has always been made here. It’s ranked sixth in cities with the most global billionaires; 1,530 global businesses have a Hong Kong home; 2,800 new companies started up here in 2018; its GDP is US$341 billion and Forbes list it as No.3 in the world for business [Sweden is No.2 and, remarkably, UK is No.1].
Today, 35 years after it was agreed that Hong Kong would be passed back to China and just over a decade since it officially became a special administrative region under the People’s Republic of China, the landscape has changed. Hong Kong is still a force, but other Chinese cities have emerged and modernised, including its nearest neighbours in the Pearl River Delta, the likes of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the latter of which is actually home to more Fortune 500 companies.
In Rwanda, the scars from a genocide that saw the massacre of close to one million people, are still visible in the most literal sense. Yet they continue to reconcile with each other, as a society, coming together to remember, to never forget. As they strive to remove all divisions, rugby has played a small part in helping people unite.
Twenty-five years ago one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen took place. One hundred days of brutal slaughter that ended the lives of 800,000 people, 300,000 of whom were children. Some figures suggest the death toll was closer to the one million mark, and few disagree.
Neighbour fought neighbour, friend killed friend, even vicars and nuns were involved, as nearly 10,000 deaths a day accounted for 10 per cent of the population. It had been an attempt to wipe out an entire people, the Tutsi, one of three tribes in the central African country of Rwanda, and it had almost succeeded, with more than 70 per cent of the country’s Tutsis perishing.
Ever since the Tutsi, who had been the ruling people, were overthrown in 1959 by the majority Hutus, there had been the risk of war, but few could have imagined this. The death of Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, when his plane was shot down on 6th April 1994, started the massacre. Hutu extremists, using a radio station and newspapers for propaganda, spreading fear and hate among the people, setting them against one another, began a genocide that attempted to bring an end not only to Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu.
A day after the genocide had begun, the Rwandan Patriotic Front [RPF], a Tutsi-led movement that started after the 1959 revolution, started their own offensive. Led by the now President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, they launched a military campaign to topple the Government forces. It succeeded on 4th July, 1994, when his forces arrived in Kigali, the city’s capital.
In 2007, DTH van der Merwe made his professional debut for Saracens; his international debut for Canada; and his Rugby World Cup debut. Then he quit rugby. An ankle injury didn’t heal, so he returned to studying and started building park benches.
The accent is the hardest thing to pin down, as it slips between any one of three dialects: Canadian; South African; and Glaswegian. Sat in his current home city of Glasgow, specifically in a craft beer and steak joint owned by former team-mate Stuart Hogg, as DTH van der Merwe talks, single words pop out of sentences with a Celtic twang. Others hit those Canadian highs of positivity that just make you want to be friends with the entire nation. “I’ve actually lived in Scotland for way longer than I lived in Canada,” he says. “I only lived in Canada for five years but it was there I picked up most of my English after moving from South Africa. I was just Afrikaans in South Africa, I could understand and get away with English but never tried to speak it. I guess now I’m a mixed bag of accents, I probably have to make up my own.
“My daughter’s picking up a bit of a Scottish accent,” he continues, “but I think she can put on a bit of slang, every now and then she tries to act up, pretending to be Scottish. She’s lived in three different places in the UK, where they all speak different dialects which is quite funny. And she still sounds Canadian as well, because of me and my wife.”
Although he’s played for Saracens (one game), Newcastle (three games), and Scarlets (41 games, 20 tries), Glasgow has been DTH’s home from home ever since he left Canada. His first spell, in 2009, was his first proper contract (the briefest of stints at Saracens had preceded it but only on a temporary deal) and lasted six years. Three years at Scarlets and Newcastle followed, before his Glaswegian homecoming last season. “There’s still probably six or eight guys here from before and, the funny thing is, guys like Ruaridh Jackson left and came back as well, so there’s something about this squad that makes you want to come back. The grass isn’t always greener.”
South of Nazareth and north of the West Bank, with the Mediterranean and Jordan no more than 30 minutes to the west and east, lies a peaceful kibbutz that has made the most of the fertile valley it calls home. Everything seems to grow here, including rugby.
Milton Kaplan is tending to his cows, there’s 400 of them in total, all dairy. It’s what he does every day, and has done ever since he first came to Kibbutz Yizre’el some 40 or so years ago. Arriving in the early 70s from South Africa, he was following a path that had been trodden by many Jews from across the diaspora for decades previous.
The first kibbutzim had emerged in the early 1900s. They were created by people wanting to make Israel their home and finding that, by joining together, they could make lighter work of land that could be tough to farm. From the first one in 1909, around 270 emerged across Israel, with Kibbutz Yizre’el joining that number in the 1940s. In the 1960s, numbers were swollen significantly. “The history goes back to 1967 and the six-day war [fought between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Egypt],” explains Milton, taking a break from feeding his bovine stock. “Volunteers came from all over the world to help on the kibbutzim because the men had been called up to serve, so people were needed to work the farms. They came from England, America, South Africa and New Zealand, everywhere. There were a lot of students, and I would have come then, but I had to have an operation, so couldn’t, but a lot of my mates did.
“Anyway,” he continues, “during that time, a girl volunteer came from Australia and her brother [Rupert Rosenblum] had played for the Wallabies and he was one of the only Jewish guys to play for them [his father Myer was another – they were also only the second father and son to represent Australia].
The beauty of the Yorkshire Dales has a tendency to lull people into a false sense of security. ‘What are we doing here?’ the opposition are often heard asking. It’s then, they know they’ve got them, and the tweed-covered faithful of The Avenue start to roar.
As you drive down the lane to Wharfedale RUFC, the white tops of the rugby posts at either end of the second team pitch can just be seen peeking through the thick, green trees that surround it. Technically, that pitch is in the next village, the club’s original home in neighbouring Grassington, but it feels like it’s little more than a wind-assisted punt away. Backed by the Yorkshire Dales, a lush green rug of grass, criss-crossed with stone walls, Grassington is where you go for the original country pub lunch before (and after) a proper yomp across God’s own country, and where farmers’ markets are actually run by farmers. It was a doctor who’d started the rugby club having been itching to pull the boots on, and noticed a number of locals, heading down to Skipton to get their rugby fix each week. With a ball provided by the vicar, (who else?), the doctor managed to get fifteen names on a team sheet, with some surnames repeated due to it being a close, family-based club right from the start. That was 1923, and although playing catch-up to some of the bigger names of Yorkshire rugby that had already emerged, including arch-rivals and fellow River Wharfe dwellers, Otley, Wharfedale were up and running.
Since then, Wharfedale have certainly gone places. Geographically not so far: just a short hop across the river into Threshfield, a speck of a village with not even four-figures of residents; but in rugby terms, they’ve travelled and discovered whole new worlds.
Five world cups, four wins. A police detective. Honoured by Queen and country. But for Samoan-born Black Ferns legend Fiao’o Fa’amausili, it all started with a work ethic and her Sunday best blouse and skirt.
At the age of fourteen, Fiao’o Fa’amausili attempted to get her first real job. She’d already worked helping out her parents, but this one was a proper job, one with a weekly pay packet that she could take home to mum, dad and her seven siblings. It was at the local Pak’nSave, a New Zealand supermarket chain, and she put on her prettiest outfit, the one with flowers on, the one she saved for Sunday best and going to church. She’d seen the notice in the shop window, days before, and only now, all dressed up, she plucked up the courage to go inside, found the manager and pronounced, ‘I’m here to interview’. ‘How old are you?’ was the response. ‘Fourteen,’ she said. ‘Sorry, you have to be fifteen.’
Disappointed but undeterred, almost a year later she returned. “The very day I turned fifteen, it was a school day, but I’d packed that same skirt and blouse in my school bag,” recalls Fiao’o. “I told the nurse I was feeling sick, and my dad picked me up thinking he was taking me to the doctors, but instead I got him to take me to Pak’nSave. It was the same manager, and he gave me the job, I don’t know if it was because he liked me or just felt sorry for me because I was wearing the same clothes from the year before.”
Fiao’o’s story is one of hard work. Born in Samoa, the seventh of eight children, her family only stayed on islands until she was five, but she still remembers the work ethic. “We were on the markets a lot, my parents sold stuff on markets, my family are all hard workers,” she says. “My oldest brothers and sister were looking after us while my parents were working on the land and all that. I just remember being with my sisters and mum all the time, because dad was always working.”
In the Middle Ages, Siena was a city often at war, usually with Florence. It was divided into neighbourhoods based on military regiments and, today, twice every year they go to war again, Sienese v Sienese. But, for some things, they unite. And rugby is one of them.
Sixty thousand people hold their breath. After six trial races and almost a year of talking, thinking and dreaming about the race, they’re now seconds away from the beginning. Most are crowded within the centre of the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s shell-shaped medieval ‘square’, but others hang from heaving balconies or pack the benches around the edges. Four days of feasting, pageants, singing, processions, blessings (for both horse and jockey) and general medieval-style revelry and ritual have led to this moment. But from here on in, who wins is everything. Each of the ten runners represent one of the seventeen neighbourhoods [contrada] of Siena and the bragging rights for a race that’s been run since the 1600s are unlike anything in the world. To ensure parity, while a jockey can be coached and trained for months in advance by its contrada, the same can’t be said for the horse. Which horse races under which colours is decided only days before.
The rope drops on to the sand track, that was freshly laid on the cobblestones of the square during the build-up to the main event, and the jockeys push their bare-backed charges forward amid the cacophony of a fervent crowd that seems to shake the surrounding brickwork. Swinging wildly around the awkward corners of the Piazza del Campo, the riders jostle for position and elbow room, there are few rules once the rope drops.
Every day, five-year-old Sanjay could be found at Kolkata’s Howrah station, along with countless other street kids that called it home. There are 100,000 like him across India. But in Sanjay’s case, he got lucky, a charity found him, he learnt to play rugby, and now, years later, he not only has a family of his own, but he also coaches one of the best junior teams in the country.
Kolkata wakes up each day to the clanking and rattling of hand-pulled garbage carts scattering about their duties. The world is fast catching onto recycling and repurposing, but for Kolkata this is the second or third set of eyes going through the household waste. Kolkata’s mountains of garbage are as tough a problem as any city’s; 4,500 tonnes of solid waste generated each day. But compare that with London, which produces twice as much with just over half as many people, and you start to see the story. To get to its dumps, Kolkata’s rubbish really has to be of no use. Don’t tell this city about coloured bins, there is a whole life, with thousands of families, devoted to rubbish as their livelihood. This is a city with ‘jugaad’, a way of problem solving with next to no resources, just a keen mind. Everything finds a second or third use. “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”
The sprawl of Kolkata is home to more than 14 million souls who live every kind of life that can be imagined, and some that can’t. It was in 2001 that the long-standing communist government decided to rename Calcutta as Kolkata. Today, even in newspapers and posters it is spelled both ways. And such name changes are still common for streets around the city, perhaps none better than the switch of Harrington Street to Ho Chi Minh Sarani at the height of the Vietnam War, still home to the American Consulate today.
At 15, after his latest suspension from school, George Smith’s parents decided there was only one place that could help him, just as it had his two older brothers, his mother’s homeland: Tonga. The experience changed him forever.
The news that George Smith is going to retire from rugby hasn’t yet broken. There’s still one game to go in the Bristol Bears’ first season back in the Premiership, against Newcastle, and George, who’s set to be on the bench, has been training as hard as ever, as if it’s pre-season not end of season, let alone end of career.
In the week leading up to the game, he’ll announce the news that at 38-years-old, after 111 caps, across nine clubs, four countries and three continents, that’s it. No more George Smith the player; the unshakeable, breakdown master whose ability to turnover the ball confounded opponents for almost two decades of professional rugby.
Not that anyone will bat an eyelid should we end up seeing him on the field again. This is, don’t forget, one of those rare players that has faced the British & Irish Lions twice, the second of which was all the more remarkable given he’d retired from international rugby three years previous. “I’ll definitely play again,” he tells us in the Clifton RFC clubhouse, Bristol Bears’ training home. “Probably not in an official sense though.
“It’s just I’ve just been playing so long that I’ve sort done everything I wanted to in the game. I’ve played in different countries, I’ve played different styles, and not one place I’ve been to has ever been the same. You go to Europe it’s totally different, you to go to Japan, it’s different again, and adapting to those different styles has been one of the challenges. I’ve always been happy exploring – exploring different styles and different cultures. Rugby has given me so much in that regard, I’ve been playing for twenty years now, professionally, and it’s been a real good journey.”
In the shadows of Snowdonia, a town that declared independence from one of history’s most feared kings more than 700 years ago, is now home to a rugby club that’s powered by farmers, inspired by an archdruid, and has a girls’ section that’s the envy of Wales.
It was Llywelyn ap Gruffud, or Llywelyn the Last, that started it all. The last sovereign prince of Wales – before Edward Longshanks’ conquest of the Principality in the late 13th-century – had retaken the town of Llanrwst and declared it independent. Running with the idea in every sense; a century later they had their own coat of arms, and a motto, ‘Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwast’, meaning ‘Wales, England and Llanrwst’.
Even within Wales, Llanrwst still stands out. In the heart of the Conwy valley, in the middle of North Wales, it first made its money through the wool trade, but, today, it’s helped along by tourism. They visit for the two 17th-century chapels, one of which holds the stone coffin of Llywelyn the Great (Llywelyn ap Gruffud’s grandfather); they visit to stroll past the almshouses; to take river walks down the Conwy; to explore the National Park of Snowdonia which towers overhead; or just to stop for tea in the converted 15th-century court house. Perched at the end of the town’s postcard-friendly three-arched bridge, the Welsh tearoom is coated from chimney stack to doormat in ivy, like a stocky green monster, hunkered down by the river, with windows for eyes.
Across the road, next to the bowling green, is another curiosity, at least to outsiders; the circle formed of a dozen giant stones. They’re weathered but not exactly in a Neolithic Stonehenge sort of way.
Follow the road away from the stones and the tea house and you find the rugby club, Clwb Rygbi Nant Conwy. It’s not only the club of the town, but the bulk of the Conwy valley, following the river thirteen miles upstream to Colwyn Bay one way, and a further ten miles inland, capturing assorted villages on both sides of the valley along the way.
Nant Conwy’s history isn’t a long one, it dates back just to the 80s, but it’s caught up quickly on lost time. The senior men’s side are permanent residents of the top three in League One North, the furthest an amateur club can go in Wales, and its mini section is strong too. But what makes it stand out, is the girls’ section; started just five years ago, it now has girls-only sides at six age groups.