The long week after!

Another week and another packed rugby itinerary.

From Leicester I made my way to Milton Keynes and experienced something new for this rugby World Cup… Rain. And plenty of it! All the matches so far had been in dry, fairly warm conditions but today, in Milton Keynes at least, it was wet. The wet conditions would really test Fiji and Uruguay.

I can’t remember having been to MK before and on arrival, I remembered why. It’s a large concrete grid, devoid of soul or being. It’s just a pile of buildings in perfect squares. The road “blocks” might resemble New York, but that’s where the similarity ends. I didn’t even feel like going out and exploring for a beer or two when I arrived, choosing a relax in my room instead.

My brother was joining me for the match and I met him at the station just after 6 and we headed on the shuttle bus to the stadium. The shuttles were well organised from the main station and the drive didn’t take long. The only downside was that it dropped you off nowhere near the stadium. A lovely damp walk!

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on MK, but the soulless city had a soulless stadium. The interior was concrete and steel, mostly bare, and was grey. Combined with black seats, this was hardly a winner! IMG_2620

Thankfully, the ground was soon full of fans and there was a great atmosphere building for a match between two Tier 2 sides, both looking for a spark. The stadium record was broken with the attendance and that’s a credit to the locals. IMG_2621

Everyone had picked a side and the crowd cheered as the teams took it in turns to attack. The Uruguayans were second best for long periods but they fought hard and fully deserved their tries, their first since 2003 against England. Whilst the final score ended a bit one-sided, the Uruguayans gave their all. IMG_2625

At the end, the Fijians did a lap of honour, their tournament over. The players shook hands with fans, took pictures, signed stuff and swigged beers. The tournament needs these moments and it’s clear the players enjoy the interaction, too.  IMG_2630

The rain had subsided a little so the shuttle bus wait wasn’t awful and we were soon back at the train station, where our hotel was.

My brother had to leave early to get to work and thankfully that worked well for me, too. I had to get to Exeter, via Birmingham, for my next game. I honestly was struggling to remember what day of the week it was, but I did know where I needed to be in the right order!

It was another dreary day and I was glad to get on a train to Milton Keynes, which wasn’t too busy despite the rush hour timing. Even better, the train was early into Birmingham which meant I made an earlier connection rather than the half hour wait I expected. When you’re on the road, this little joys make a difference!

The journey to Exeter was actually a pretty quick one and I was at St David’s station before I knew it. I’d Googled my B&B and it was within walking distance so I left the station with a purpose. Unfortunately I didn’t bother checking the gradient and it was a nice steep hill to my lodging. I was certainly getting some exercise while I’m away although not sure it counteracts all the beer and food I’ve had!

So on that note, I checked in and headed for a pub for a few local ciders. At the first I got chatting to a chap who worked at the local tourist information office and he was very friendly and gave me some good tips of places to go. More pubs, mostly…!

Eventually I made my way to the stadium, Sandy Park, which is a fair way outside the city. The transport didn’t seem as well organised here and I was firstly advised to get a train. I bought a ticket and was then told the next train was about 40 minutes time! So I headed back out and thought I’d get the shuttle bus, which turned out to just be a regular bus! Having paid for the train, I now paid for the bus!

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Today’s game was Namibia v Georgia and it was a tight affair from the beginning. Georgia did all the running but the Namibian defence was excellent and they forced Georgian mistakes and a couple of kickable penalties to lead at the break.

I was stood on the terrace and surrounded by some Aussies on an organised tour. They were a good laugh and I got chatting to a guy called Neil Tyler who said he’d played for Wasps in 1999 but I haven’t been able to find any record of it, yet!

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The second half continued in gritty fashion and a couple of yellow cards tipped the match in Georgia’s favour, but only just. They hung on for a 1 point victory which was just about deserved.

At the end the Namibians got together and did a lap of honour. They still have a game left but they still took the applause. Jacques Burger had gone off with a concussion after 10 minutes and not returned, but I took my chance to call him over and get his signature on my shirt. It’s weird – lots of people were waving stuff they wanted signed but nobody was saying anything. As soon as I shouted “Jacques, please sign my shirt?”, all the players came over and everyone started shouting similar! I’m not outgoing, or particularly bold with such things, but it’s amazing what you can get if you ask.

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The Georgians headed to their own fans on the far side at the end and didn’t do a lap of honour. I mentioned on Twitter that this was a shame and got a bit of backlash. What I meant, was it was a shame they they didn’t get the full applause of the crowd by walking around. I didn’t mean to say they’d been dismissive of the crowd, in fact I meant the opposite and should’ve taken the adulation!

I got back on the shuttle bus and headed back to the city, another couple of quid gone on that. I was really hungry when I finished but couldn’t find much around so headed back to my room for a hot cross bun I’d stashed there earlier and an early(!) night.

The next leg was a flight to Newcastle. This might sound extravagant but FlyBe flew from Exeter to Newcastle for just over £20, the flight just over an hour. The alternative was over £150 for the train and many more hours! The smart choice was to fly!

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In Newcastle I had a day off so I had a walk around the city, got some food and a few beers and just relaxed. I was really enjoying the rugby and traveling around but the non-stop drinking and eating fast food was taking the toll. I needed a quieter day and it came at the perfect time!

I did find out about some of the New Zealand players doing a signing in the Adidas store and I joined the queue outside the store. As it turned out, the signing was an absolute mess and was only “open” to ticket winners, being people who bought a shirt two weeks ago. In that particular store. Great. To appease the crowd they bought the players out and a scrum ensured as everyone pushed forward for an autograph, a photo or even just a glimpse. With my elbows at the ready I barged forward and got close enough for Brodie Retallick to sign my shirt. Carter, Cane and Retallick looked like they’d rather be anywhere else but at least Fekitoa was loving taking selfies and chatting. He almost looked disappointed when told they had to leave!

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Fair play to Adidas though: I complained about the situation and they sent me an apology and agreed to send me some goodies, too.

Match day was Friday and the city filled with Kiwis from early on. I decided to take the metro to the coast and get some exercise and fresh air… And fish and chips! It was a beautiful day for a stroll along Whitley Bay promenade but I was surprised to see so many people actually in the water! I felt much better for the walk although the large fish, chips and bread roll soon stuffed me up again!

Back in the city, a few more beers and to St James’ Park. I’ve been here a few times for football and there’s always a bit of an atmosphere here with the locals being a lot of fun. Here it was the Kiwis making the atmosphere and it was still pretty lively.

The game had one of the great scenes in rugby: a war dance head to head. I’ve seen this before between Fiji and Samoa where both teams stood off waiting for the other to start. Here though, the Tongans started and the Kiwis countered. It is such a great sight seeing them do it together.

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The game itself was not bad but NZ really haven’t hid their stride yet and don’t look as solid as some other contenders. They were still too strong for Tonga and even with some dodgy refereeing and Richie McCaw playing waterboy, the score was comfortable. NZ now head to Cardiff for a QF against Ireland or France. Every Kiwi around me was considering déjà vu!

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It was a lovely night in Newcastle with rugby fans, students and stag/hen parties and the best thing as a real beer lover is that the bars I want to visit aren’t the sort students go in. Not that I’m snobby…

Saturday morning was a fairly early start as I headed to the match really wasn’t looking forward to. It should be an honour to see your own country play and watch them won but I just wasn’t feeling it. This wasn’t after the Lord Mayor’s Show, this was the Lord Mayor having been put up against the wall, shot and you having to watch the remnants. I’m a proud Englishman and I “wore the rose” all across the country and will continue to do so but this seemed like a bit of a drag.

I’d switched my coach ticket (last two journeys made me sick) for a train ticket and was glad I did. I had a fun journey chatting to a couple from Cumbria and it’s what has made the rugby so enjoyable. Like me though, they weren’t really looking forward to the game.

In the city, my hotel was right by the station I was immediately surrounded by rugby league fans who were in the city the the Grand Final. It was a funny atmosphere with lots of anti-the-other-code comments which I just don’t get. If you don’t like Union, or League (whichever), then so what? Let others get on with it. Shouts of “you can stick your rugby union up your arse” and “rugby league is fucking shit”are pretty pathetic, even when in jest, and I lost count of people who told me I was following the wrong sport.

I watched all the other games and the Scotland v Samoa match was a classic, with great running rugby. From a neutral perspective I wanted Samoa to win to give Japan a chance to go through. Even a draw would’ve done, but Scotland sneaked over the line by 3 points and claimed the last quarter-final place.

Next up was Australia, who showed great resilience with just 13 men at one point and proved they are one of the top contenders, probably the one showing the best form (last week in attack, this week in defence) and have the big game temperament. Who will want to play them now? They’ll be tough to beat if they can keep the squad healthy and keep XV on the field. One journalist called this the best match you’ll ever see with no tries scored – that’s probably an accurate assessment.

I made my way to the Etihad (I’ve no problem with sponsorship) Stadium and it was a good 45 minute walk from where I was. The mood was quiet, almost sombre, and people where heading there almost more because they had a ticket than they wanted to go.

At the stadium, there was a massive screw up with getting into the ground so having walked for 45 minutes, I walked another 15 to the far side of the stadium to avoid the stupid queues. Thankfully, my gate was that side so it wasn’t wasted effort but it took a stupidly long time and the stadium almost seemed surprised that people had turned up. Inside was no better: beer queue were massive, beer ran out(?) and there was a wait for food as they couldn’t cook it fast enough. It was so unprepared. How do Man City fans deal with this? If they don’t have to, then why change the system/layout/security/catering for the same size crowd but a different sport? Madness!

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As expected, the game was easy enough for England but their was still no fluidity. Lots of forward power, lots of silly mistakes and lack of continuity: it was truly a tournament to forget for the staff and the players. It wasn’t helped by some of the crowd with the clear attitude to just moan. Haskell you idiot, Robshaw you idiot, Farrell you idiot… You get the idea. There were some good tries and the team got a good applause at the end.

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It’s a shame we’ll now be hosting our own party while hiding in the kitchen making more nibbles for the guests. Vol-au-vent, anyone?

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