Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Passion, Festivity and Farce at the RWC 2015

Ever since “winning” tickets to four matches in the draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, I had been counting the months until the tournament kicked off. Brushing aside my bitter disappointment at England’s early exit, what follows is a brief account of how thrilling it was to witness those matches first hand.

FRANCE v IRELAND, Twickenham

The excitement began before we had even arrived at Twickenham. On a packed train en route to the stadium, disbelieving noises emerged from many a fan with eyes fixed to their phone. Japan were pushing South Africa close. That was not in the script. Could Japan really pull off the biggest shock in rugby history? As rumour spread, spontaneous updates rang out. Someone found a video link and dozens of fans crowded around a tiny screen with fingers crossed. Japan shunned a kick for the draw, went for broke and perhaps the most famous victory in RWC history. They delivered, the train went mad. Fan hugged fan. We had not even arrived.

Leaving the train, the suburban streets of Twickenham were abuzz with flags, fans, sizzling food and excitement. Entering the stadium, a tingle went down my spine as I took in the scene of 80,000 focusing in on the battle to come. The players ran out to plumes of flame and a raucous reception. Then there was the Marseilles. It might as well have been a home game. The overwhelming majority of the crowd were of French persuasion and raised the roof with a passionate, pulsating rendition of that all too catchy, triumphant tune. The tingle became a shiver and, lost in the moment, I hummed along.

The rugby itself was not much to write home about and therefore I won’t linger. Some huge collisions, many an error and the odd glimpse of brilliance. Despite the fact that the French were wearing red, as the technical away team, wave after wave of “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” kept up the atmosphere, but the only thing that came close to beating the Marseilles were the French rooster hats. Fortunately, a kindly Frenchman let me borrow his.

Final score – France 32 Italy 10

NEW ZEALAND v NAMIBIA, Olympic stadium

A complete mismatch, but a festive occasion. There was only going to be one winner and this was reflected in the more laid back atmosphere of the crowd and occasion. It was a case of all smiles as the masses filed through the Olympic park beneath a quite spectacular sunset.

Though mostly amateurs, Namibia put up one hell of a brave fight and were rewarded with the biggest cheer of the night for their second-half try. We, though, along with 95% of the crowd, were there to see the mighty All Blacks. The Haka, the expansive game, the legendary black shirts. It was all there, but so was a definite lack of precision. Error after basic error, alongside all the tries.

Unbelievably, Namibia actually won the third quarter, but bloodied and bruised (Shalk Burger’s beaten, swollen features were a sight to behold), they fell by the New Zealand wayside. The crowd cheered themselves with many a Mexican wave and an entertaining if not intense night came to a close.

Final score – NZ 58 Namibia 14

IRELAND v ROMANIA, Wembley

I will never forget the astonished, overwhelmed look on my four year old son’s face as stared out over an 88,000 crowd belting out “IIIIIRRELAND IIIIIIIIRRRELAND, FOREVER STANDING TALL. SHOUUUUULDER, TO SHOUUUULDER, WE’LL ANNNSWER IREEELAND’S CALL”. There was a tear in his wide open eye.

The passion of the crowd was fantastic. The largest ever crowd at a RWC match and they were going to enjoy it. Beer flowed, the crowd sang, swayed and cheered and the players played. Ireland looked very impressive, tearing Romania apart with some expansive rugby and a touch of finesse.

In truth, only part of my focus was on the pitch. We had taken with us our 4, 3 and 1 year olds. In the main, they lapped it up, entertained by the jubilant crowd and severe oddity of the situation. Just when focus was waning, a series of Mexican waves rolled in to bring them back into the occasion. Then try after try raised the crowd to their feet and our small ones to incessant clapping.

It was simply awesome to share the occasion with them.  It was never really a contest, but it never had to be. Alongside the impact of the passionate anthem on my offspring, two moments stood out. Firstly, the look of horror on the man next door to me in the urinal as he took in the sight of a small grinning girl clinging to my back and a small boy dangling from my arms (I was doing my best to point his outgoings in the direction of the receptacle… the joys of parenthood!).

Secondly, and best of all, our farewell. On departing the ground a few minutes early, Chris and I were surprised by a large cheer. This was followed by another and then another. Looking back at the crowd, hundreds of fans were waving us off. It took a moment before we twigged that our little girl had been serially waving goodbye to all her new, half-pissed, green-clad friends, evoking a grande depart from the surrounding crowd. As I already said, awesome!

Final score – largely irrelevant - Ireland 44 Romania 10

SCOTLAND v AUSTRALIA, Quarter-final, Twickenham

For us, the big one. The home side quarter final was not to be, but we still had tickets to a major match at the home of rugby. The only pity was that it was such a mismatch. The form side of the tournament and two-time world champions vs the side who finished bottom in the six nations. On paper, a bit of a non-contest.

Of course, as history will record, it was one hell of a contest. From the go, the Scots played ambitious, brave, hard-hitting rugby. Never a back step, heads never down, always believing. The Aussies, for their part, played an open game, scoring a handful of tries with width, swift-hands and guile. But, every time the Wallabies went ahead and looked to open up breathing space, the Scots would find a way back in. Near perfect kicking, a poorly defended dash to the line from a ruck, charge down score and, at the climax, a breath-taking intercepted try.


Having a majority Scottish heritage (two grandfathers and a bit of a grandmother), I put my dislike of the SNP to one side and bought a ‘Scotland the Brave’ scarf. Nonetheless, given my other half has an Aussie passport and is passionate about such matters, my plan was a tactical low-level support for the Scots. In the end I shouted myself hoarse, caught up in the riveting game and vociferously intense atmosphere.

The Scots crowd were brilliant and bolstered by seemingly ever more “neutrals” transformed into Highlanders for the day (that most of these were Englishmen is something to remind the anti-'south of the border' brigade). As minutes ticked by and Scotland hung to Australia’s coattails, enjoyment at the game being closer than expected “while it lasts”, morphed into excitement at “they couldn’t, could they?”, to disbelief at “they just might you know!”.

Scotland 5 points adrift with 5 minutes to go. The skies opened up with a flash deluge of rain, sheeting down through the headlights and pummelling the pitch. This was greeted by a guttural roar from 80,000 hyped souls. A shared primeval understanding that God had come to play. Next, a slippery ball, misplaced pass, interception and race to the line. As Bennett dived over the line, the stadium erupted, exploded, burst its foundations. I have not experienced an atmosphere remotely close to it.

A conversion later and Scotland were 34-32 up with 3 minutes to go. This was not meant to happen!! Alas, it did not. A dodgy (no, wrong!) refereeing decision at the death gave a very kickable penalty to Australia. All credit to them, they kicked it. The sight of the ball sailing through the post and sealing Scotland’s doom was greeted by a mix of disbelieving groans and hearty boos. By the time the final whistle had blown, this had upped into open hostility at the perceived injustice, so intimidating that the ref plain legged it off the pitch without so much as a handshake.

So ended a remarkable, exhilarating game and our attendance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. It was brilliant. I just wish I had a ticket to Saturday’s final!

Final score – Scotland 34 Australia 35
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