Archives for October 2015

10-31-15 The Greatest Team’s Final Haka

It was the day of the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final and rugby’s biggest rivalry would be played out on its biggest stage. The All Blacks seemed to have the early lead in crowd support and costuming effort. It was Halloween in London and some early Trick-or-Treaters could have been mistaken for All Blacks’ fans. I made that mistake early in the morning coming out of a Tube station. They were a group of Halloween ravers going home after a good night and looked perplexed when I tried to get a “Go All Blacks!” from their bleary faces.

Outside Twickenham two hours before kick-off touts cruised the edges of the crowd looking for spare tickets to buy while other touts slyly offered tickets for 500 pounds. Groups of World Cup volunteers got last minute instructions. A brass band launched into “We Are Champions” and volunteers shook pompoms almost in time to the music. Emotion seeped from the sidewalk and floated in on the sunshine.

In the Fanzone the big screen showed a countdown of the ten best tries of the tournament. Number one was the Japanese game winning try against South Africa. The crowd cheered once more for the Brave Blossoms. Andy Goode, ex-English player, welcomed Aussies and Kiwis to the home of English rugby. There was the slight insinuation that this was the greatest World Cup in history because the English played the greatest of hosts by bowing out so these great rivals could finally meet in a World Cup Final. Like an English person who nibbles away at a shared desert politely leaving the last bite for someone else, this Final was graciously left by the English for their colonial offspring.

An hour before the match, security scoured the seats. Fans lined the VIP entrance to try to glimpse royals and VIPs and to cheer on their team’s arrival. Beverages and good cheer were everywhere.

Minutes before kick-off fireworks announced the teams’ entrance. The national anthems rang out from every cranny of the stadium. The crowd’s enthusiasm surged through the eighty minutes as teams attacked or defended well. The retiring All Blacks (especially McCaw, Carter, and Nonu) brought a level of play equal to the occasion. Nonu’s try in the 2nd minute of the second half was a statement of the All Black’s desire which the Wallabies would not be able to surpass. After being down 16-3 at half the Aussies would pull back to within four with only ten minutes to play. A Dan Carter drop goal in the 70th minute sent Wallabies into desperation mode and two ensuing mistakes led to another three points from Carter and with only a minute to play a culminating try by reserve winger Beauden Barrett. The Wallabies were left hopelessly behind 34-17 with seconds remaining.  After 44 days and 48 matches the All Blacks were the only unbeaten team. For the first time in World Cup history a nation had retained the Webb Ellis Trophy.

After pitch side interviews, medal and trophy presentations, and more fireworks, the All Blacks circled the stands applauding their fans. When they came around to the tunnel to leave the pitch, they hesitated. Then slowly they formed their ranks. For the last time this All Black team which will be considered by many as the greatest team of all time performed a haka for a World Cup crowd.

By Tom Crosby

10-30-15 Springboks Get to 3rd Base with their Sister

The train ride through the daily dash of millions of London commuters to a drizzly Twickenham station was oddly calming. The silent swishing of newspapers was speckled with foreign chatter and strange accents that ebbed and flowed over the train’s clatter. I was on my way to Twickenham to pick up my ticket for 2015 Rugby World Cup Final. Tonight would be South Africa vs Argentina in the Bronze Final, but the only match that really mattered was the following day’s first ever meeting in a World Cup Final of New Zealand & Australia.

The free paper available at the rail station briefly touched on the Bronze Final, but even this passing brush in the 2 pages devoted to the World Cup was related to how Argentina and South Africa did in their losing semi-final efforts. The struggle for third place seemed an afterthought to the tournament. Journalists played with the notion that being third in the world ranking would be important for a team’s pride, but this was more about filling space than a deep conviction.

At the desk where they hand out tickets I had a brief fright. They had no ticket for me. I was on the print-out, but there was nothing in the box of tickets with my name. I worried that perhaps it was something I had written. I squealed that I would retract anything. After a few anxious moments involving calling over a supervisor, the ticket appeared hidden under the fold of another envelope.

The Australian captain’s run was scheduled to start soon. The press was ushered through the drizzle into the stadium with a ‘Hurry up! It won’t be long.’ The night before I had researched the pitch at Twickenham. It is grass with 20 million fibers injected into it. My friend, Gary, whom I’m staying with suggested that it is a bit like a comb-over. The Twickenham volunteer considered it more like getting 20 million artificial hair plugs. When we were led to the side of the pitch, the smell of freshly mowed wet grass embraced me. Water stood an inch deep on the cement walkways around the first row of seats, but the field was a foot higher and only slightly moistened by the mizzle.

After at least 20 minutes of standing around and eavesdropping on workers who were getting information on how many royals would be attending, a few Australian players wandered on the pitch. Then it was alive with Wallabies stretching, running passing drills, and moving through 15 unopposed scenarios. The Aussies brought a boom box and blasted some rock-n-roll for a few minutes. Cameras were clicking, sport video teams were doing their thing, and then it was time to go. As I left Twickenham at about noon, the sun was occasionally peeking out, but it preferred to snuggle deep behind a wall of clouds creating a gray glow over the city as I cruised from Twickenham in the west to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium in the east. The crowds of commuters had been absorbed into the places they worked.

I was going to try to run a theme of sex through the Bronze Final story. My two semi-final stories had something about kissing in the title. The South African coach, Meyer, spoke of the Bronze Final being like “kissing your sister” – nothing too exciting. For the Argentine loss to Australia there was a connection to “una besa de mala suerte” – a kiss of bad luck. The analogy I was thinking about was to compare a World Cup to courting the most beautiful of women. Twenty teams were invited to dance with her, but at the end of the 44 day dance only one team would take her home to hold her completely and forever. The Bronze Final was like getting to third base and knowing you would get no further. You get all dressed up and are expected to bring your best moves while all along knowing that she is already thinking about tomorrow when New Zealand or Australia will bring her to a glorious climax. My wife, and most outstanding proof reader, shook her head and suggested I find another analogy. I’ll try to keep it tasteful, the title excluded.

The Bronze Final turned out to almost live up to its reputation for being anti-climactic. The Argentines replaced ten players from the side that lost to Australia in the semi-final. Before the end of the night they would empty the bench giving every tour member a World Cup cap. They even called a prop in Buenos Aires the day before and flew him over for a brief twirl. The Pumas didn’t care about getting to third base. They had all they wanted from Rugby World Cup 2015. They were already planning how their tango with 2019 would end with them taking her back to Argentina.

The Springboks controlled the night. South African winger JP Pietersen scored a try in the 6th minute and 3rd place was never in doubt. The excitement of the evening circled around where players would end in the record books and when South African legends like Shalk Burger and Victor Matfield would leave the last test match of their lives. Bryan Habana came into the match tied with Jonah Lomu for most all time World Cup tries (15). South African fly-half Handre Pollard started the match trailing Agentine fly-half Nicolas Sanchez for most points scored in the 2015 World Cup. At the end of the first half the Springboks led 16-0, and Pollard had pulled one point ahead in most points scored. Sanchez would put through a drop goal within the first 2 minutes of the second half. Their see-saw battle over the evening would become a more thrilling spectacle than Argentina’s repeated failures to find a way through the Springbok defense. Argentina would pull a try out of a jumbled mass of bodies on the try line as time ran out. Sanchez would kick the conversion to end with 97 total points to Pollard’s 93, and Habana would go home still tied with Lomu. The Springboks got to third base with their sister (24-13) while the Argentines winked at the beauty that was waiting in Japan in 4 years.

10-29-15 Why the Rugby World Cup Ref System Has to Change

I’ve seen enough movies to know that rich and powerful people can have insidious ways to accomplish their wishes. Let’s take the hypothetical plot where a ref of a World Cup match receives a manila envelope filled with pictures of family members and a reasonable threat that one of them will die unless, let’s pick a hypothetical nation, Scotland loses the match.

Some kind of crime organization involved in gambling has had a load of money put on Scotland to win at long odds. The crime syndicate impresses on the ref that Scotland’s opposition on the day, let’s call them Australia, can win by a slight margin, but they can not lose or someone dies. They even throw in some bonus money if Australia wins by less than 5 points … but Australia can not lose, or someone dies.

Scotland keeps the match close. With only minutes remaining Scotland is ahead by 2 points. The ref sees an opportunity to call a kickable penalty on Scotland. It is a potentially questionable call, but for the sake of his wife, mother, daughter, father, or son he blows his whistle. Australia kicks the penalty and wins by one. He runs from the pitch to call and make sure everyone is safe and to insist that he wants no “bonus money”. The dreams of a nation are unfairly shattered, but what is a dream when compared with a real life?

For the sake of the ref’s family the system of refereeing at a World Cup match must change.

Or maybe there’s a plot a little less sinister. The ref receives an envelope filled with pictures of him in a compromising situation. The crime syndicate applies the pressure. Scotland must lose or else the ref’s significant other will receive the pictures. The ref blows the whistle to insure Scotland loses. He rushes off the pitch to secure the promise that the pictures will be destroyed.

The henchman for the crime syndicate chuckles, “But we might need your help again.”

For the sake of the ref whose career and marriage might be ruined by one evening of indiscretion, the system must be changed.

Any Hollywood movie producer looking for rights to these plots, please contact me at deepsouthrugby@hotmail.com.

By Tom Crosby

Photo by Janet Young

Mike Tolkin: Mediocre Coach with Integrity or Spiteful Dolt

Mike Tolkin coached the USA side to its arguably worst World Cup performance ever. They went winless and had the largest losing point differential in the tournament. The team scored 5 tries total in their four matches.

That Tolkin is a mediocre coach in the world of international rugby is hard to dispute. With no experience beyond high school and USA club side coaching before a relatively brief stint as defensive coach for Eddie O’Sullivan and the USA 2011 World Cup side, he was always a risky choice to lead the national team. It was perhaps a worthwhile experiment to try a USA bred coach. The shifting focus in the USA to 7s also required some managing of assets. Looking for an experienced world class coach would cost money, money that would probably be much better used hiring somebody like Mike Friday for the 7s team. Would a European professional club or another international team hire Mike Tolkin? Would a Japanese corporate team hire him? I suspect not.

In July of 2015 Tolkin released long time stand-out USA player Todd Clever from the Pacific Nations Cup. Todd was never given an opportunity to reclaim a spot on the USA World Cup squad. Todd was dropped under questionable circumstances from the team on the eve of an international test match in his home town with hundreds of family and friends scheduled to attend. Tolkin has yet to address these circumstances.

His response given to “Rugby Today” (Oct. 22, 2015) about the story Todd gave to “DeepSouthRugby.net” after the USA’s exit from the World Cup was:
“There are several sides to each story, and Todd Clever has provided his version of events. The facts are at best distorted. When the indisputable facts are incorrect after months of devising them, such as whom our opponents were and where the team was playing on certain dates or ‘morning jog’ vs mandatory vigorous work-out, one must question the accuracy of the entire tale.”

The indisputable fact that Tolkin seems to be eluding to is that the USA played Romania in Bucharest in 2014 not Georgia in Tbilisi, who they played in 2013. Is Tolkin arguing the whole of Todd’s story should be questioned because after 63 test matches and a year since the Fall tour Todd had two matches in European countries a year apart confused? This is where one begins to think Tolkin might be a bit of a dolt.

The issue of if Todd missed a mandatory training session on the morning of the Samoa match is not disputed by Todd. Did Todd know this would terminate his participation on the team? Had Tolkin said this is a two strikes your out system? Had he at anytime showed the slightest empathy for a player who had given so much to USA Rugby and who he had cut from a squad in front of his hometown crowd just two days before the match? This is where you begin to suspect he might be vengeful.

When Todd told me the story of his release from the USA squad, he divulged the conflict that evolved over Tolkin’s requiring squad members to list tour players from best to worst before the Fiji match. After typing the story I went to USA Rugby website to get information about scores from the matches. At the time the national side test matches were not up to date.* I didn’t see the Fiji match listed. I thought maybe he was talking about the year before when the USA played Russia after Georgia. Todd confirmed that the player rating incident was before the Fiji match. For me the fact that he got Georgia wrong only supports that this was not a ‘devised’ story.

In Tolkin’s responses to “Rugby Today” article he said:

“In 30 years of coaching, I have always acted with integrity and without ego, and I have absolutely no problem putting my reputation in front of anyone. Naturally, along the way there may have been disagreements in policy or tactics, but not my integrity, which would be backed by many respected individuals. No selection process is ever perfect – period.”

Does the statement about “putting my reputation in front of anyone” wreak of ego to anyone else?

The twice repeated reference to his integrity reminds me of when I worked in Africa. The more a Ghanaian cab driver insisted he was honest the more certain I became he was going to cheat me. If Tolkin has integrity, he will answer the following questions for a start:

1.Did Todd ask you about going to the ESPY’s?

2.When did you set the early Thursday morning training session that led to Todd being cut from the Samoa match squad?

3.Did you give Todd any information about how he should handle media after he was cut from Samoa match?

4.Was Todd informed that if he missed the “mandatory vigorous training session” (a.k.a.  morning jog) he would be cut from the squad?

5. Did you ever discuss with Todd after being cut from PNC squad what he could do to get back on World Cup squad?

Who and what is Mike Tolkin? Time for him to answer not with ambiguities and innuendos, but with honesty about events and his hand in them if he wants to be believed to be a man of integrity.

* I received an email from Chad Wise with USA Rugby advising me that the website is kept  up to date, and I have no reason to not believe him. When I looked after my conversation with Todd, the first page was either not loading, or I was not accessing the right page of information. Whichever was the case, the point is Todd was not devising a story but telling me what he remembered.

By Tom Crosby

Higgins Ashes to be Spread on Favorite Pitches

Expanded Old Boy Division Expected at Nov. 7-8 Battleship Tourney

Organizers are expecting a larger contingent of Old Boy teams at the Nov. 7-8 Battleship Invitational Tourney at Battleship Park in Mobile. Many are attending as a final farewell to Montgomery, ORB and Gypsy rugby player Gene Higgins. Gene died earlier this year and requested that his ashes be spread across many of the rugby pitches that he played upon. Many Old Boys who played with and against Gene will be in Mobile for the tourney.
Paul Ivey has posted on Facebook details surrounding “Gene’s Machine” at the tournament. The goal is to make this a memorial and worthwhile event “which includes benefits to Jennifer as well as memories for ourselves.” Ivey is producing jerseys for the tourney (cost is $45 per shirt). Paul is also producing t-shirts and hats to help Jennifer with her expenses. Contact Paul at 334-799-1061 for more info.

10-25-15 A Kiss of Bad Luck, Australia vs Argentina

A bright blue sky gave way to a few high hazy clouds, planes cruised into Heathrow, and nearby forty-six rugby players woke up and went to breakfast on a day they would remember for the rest of their lives. It would be a day that would decide if they would play in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final or the seldom remembered Bronze Final battle for 3rd place. Winning would pit them against the current world champions, the New Zealand All Blacks, who were chasing the never before achieved feat of winning two consecutive world cups.

After my breakfast I strolled to the “Asda 24”. Asda is a subsidiary of Walmart. As the 2007 World Cup wound down, I found good deals ($8 for an official 2007 World Cup polo) at Asda. You would think an Asda 24 would be open 24 hours. This was not the case. A crowd of people were gathered at the door waiting for a 10 am opening. There was nothing to indicate when this huge Super-Walmart-type building would open. At 10:15 somebody checked something on her smart phone and said, “It opens at 11.” I didn’t really need any more world cup gear.

The bus at the Asda took me to Richmond rail station. I caught the train to Twickenham where I emerged to find a blue and yellow cosmos of scarf sellers and ticket touts. While strolling to the stadium I fell in with a group of young Argentines with flags and blue ponchos and mucho enthusiasm. An Argentine film crew latched on to them, also. I eavesdropped on the interview. The group of five lads had left Buenos Aires after Argentina beat Ireland last Sunday in a Quarterfinal. They traveled to Sao Paulo and then to Paris. Some interesting stuff happened in Paris, but my Spanish was not good enough to follow the joking and laughing about that night. From Paris it was an easy trip to London where it was no problem to find tickets. When the interviewer asked, “When are you going home?”, the fellow doing most of the talking proudly announced, “I don’t know. Sometime next week. Probably Friday.”

His mates screamed in despair, “Sunday”.
One pal shook his head, “La besa de mala suerte.” (The kiss of bad luck.)

The Bronze Final is on Friday. The Final is on Saturday.

The young Argentine lad’s prediction of going home Friday turned out to be prescient.

At half Argentina trailed by ten points, 19-9. The Wallabies had 3 tries to the Pumas 3 penalty kicks. The Australian defense would again prove impenetrable. Australian winger Adam Ashley-Cooper would add another try, his third of the day, and Foley would convert and kick a penalty in the second half. The Pumas put through two more penalty kicks, but as an almost full moon rose over an increasingly chilly Twickenham, the kiss of bad luck played out. Argentina struggled to find the last pass to put a man free, often just not seeing an overload. As time ran out, they were again pressing to score a try, but it was not to be. The final score was 29-15.

Argentina has a spot in the Bronze Final against South Africa. Just a short time ago on August 9th, the two sides met in Durban, South Africa. Argentina was triumphant 37-25. In the 21 times they had met since their first match in 1993, this was the first Argentine victory.

On Halloween afternoon Australia will face New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup Final. The Tasmanian neighbors have met 154 times before, and this will be the third time they have played each other in the last 3 months. On August 8th, Australia defeated the All Blacks 27-19 in Sydney, only to lose 41-13 the following week in Auckland. The two sides have met twice before in World Cup Semi-Final matches. In 2003 at the World Cup hosted by Australia, the Wallabies won 22-10. In 2011 in New Zealand, the All Blacks won 20-6. In 2015 they meet for the first time in a World Cup Final and on the neutral home ground of their former colonial ruler England.

10-24-15 Springboks to Kiss Their Sisters

On a drizzly afternoon on the outskirts of London the All Blacks and Springboks brought their rivalry that stretches back to 1921 to Twickenham. In the first 2015 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final New Zealand came in the recognized favorite, but the question of who would go through to the Final was hanging in mist that glittered in the stadium’s lights until almost a minute past full time. Before the match the mind games were flying. The South African coach, Heineke Meyer, complemented the All Blacks on being a great team. The All Black coach, Steve Hansen, retorted that Heineke’s kind words did not deceive anyone about the Springboks’ intentions to rip their heads off.

Twickenham’s Fanzone was packed two hours before kick-off. Heineken flowed. Rhythm and blues boomed from the band on stage. The singer urged the crowd, which was content talking rugby and waiting for the arrival of the team buses, to twist as she launched into Chubby Checkers, “Let’s Twist Again.”

An hour before kick-off fans began entering the stadium. The pre-match announcer got a louder yell of support for the All Blacks. The media support guy brought me the team sheet, and we chatted about the Quarterfinals at Twickenham last week. He told me the media applauded Scotland when they came to the post match conference after their controversial one point loss to Australia. That never happens. At the first media conference I went to in Wellington four years ago I clapped when the Welsh coach, Warren Gatland, and the captain, Sam Warburton, finished their press conference after losing 17-16 to South Africa. The journalist next to me leaned over and said, “We don’t do that.”

When it was ten minutes to kick-off, the big screen displayed highlights from this, “The Best World Cup Ever!” A dance troupe with sparklers and flags from every participating country swayed in the try zones and fireworks exploded around the pitch as the teams jogged out the tunnel. The anthems stirred every heart in the stadium, and then the All Blacks started what seemed a slow motion haka. It was as dramatic as any I have ever seen. The South African fans sliced into the Maori battle challenge by singing, “Ole’, Ole’, Ole’, Ole” as the haka gathered momentum.

At half the Springboks seemed on their way to an upset. They led 12-7. The All Blacks were tossing away their claim to being the greatest team ever with repeated penalties for offside and loose play offenses as they sought every advantage. Six minutes into the second half Dan Carter narrowed the gap to two points with a drop goal. Five minutes later New Zealand legendary center Ma’a Nonu set up replacement winger Beauden Barrett for a try in the corner. The try floodgates did not open like they did the week before against France, but what they had was enough. The Springboks kicked 2 more penalties, and the All Blacks kicked one. With less than a minute to play the Springboks had a scrum 10 meters from their own goal line. As time ran out, they desperately tried to crack the Kiwi defense. There were 90 meters of firmly held All Black territory to cross, and the rain was coming down harder. A knock-on was inevitable. New Zealand won 20-18 and went through to play in the Final against the winner of the Australia/Argentina Semi-Final.

South Africa would have one more match in this World Cup when they would face the loser of the Australia/Argentina match for 3rd place in the Bronze Final. The Springbok coach didn’t help sell any tickets to the Bronze Final when at the press conference he said 3rd place didn’t mean that much. He went on to add, “It is like kissing your sister.”

10-23-15 New Zealand vs Argentina Final – 3 in a Row

It’s Friday noon, and one day before the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa. I’m on the pitch in Twickenham waiting for Argentina to show-up for their captain’s run. Press tickets to both semi-finals are in my pocket. They are for level 6. As I look around the stadium, I only see three levels, so maybe somebody is putting me on.

A certain amount of magic has gone out of this World Cup with the exit of all northern hemisphere teams. The nations left play each other every year in the Rugby Championship. For the next four years I suppose that will be billed as the 2019 World Cup Warm-up.

For possibly the third consecutive World Cup, the Final could be two teams that were in the same pool. In 2007 South Africa destroyed England 36-0 in their pool stage clash. The English pulled their socks-up and came through Australia (12-10) and France (14-9) in the knock-out rounds to reach the Final and meet the Springboks again. South Africa found the rematch harder going but won 15-6.

In 2011 the extremely erratic French lost to the All Blacks 37-17 in their pool match. They, also, lost to Tonga 19-15, but qualified for the knock-out round through bonus points. They squeezed by England in the quarterfinal 19-12 and barely escaped being embarrassed by 14 inspired Welsh players. They kicked 3 penalties to win the semi-final 9-8. A much different French team showed up for the Final. They outplayed the Kiwis for large parts of the match, but ended up one point short (8-7) at the end of 80 minutes.

This year Argentina is poised to sprint back onto the pitch against the All Blacks in the Final. With only Australia in their way now Las Pumas are eager to make their first World Cup Final and get another crack at New Zealand who handed Argentina there only pool loss (26-16) a few weeks ago. Of course getting through Australia is a lot easier said than done as Argentina found in the Rugby Championship a couple of months ago when Australia spanked them 34-9.

The magic is coming back!!
And Bob Dylan’s at the Royal Albert Hall.

10-22-15 A Week to Wander & Wonder

I’ve sent in the request for semi-final press tickets and I have booked a room for Saturday night in Hounslow close to Twickenham. With fingers crossed I’m heading off for an English walkabout. There is a week to kill before South Africa either finds a new level or goes home after a Saturday afternoon with the All Blacks. On Sunday a fortunate Australian side, who struggled against Scotland, will play the tenacious and quick Argentines who were confident in their win over Ireland. The 2015 Rugby World Cup has become a replay of the annual southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.

I’m not going to spend the week rambling on about bad reffing, player selection, injuries, and should England get rid of their coach. I’m going to write about stuff that makes me wonder. Like most of the signs in Wales are in two languages, Welsh and English. Usually the words are very different. Occasionally there are words that are understandably the same, like technology and computer. The word “business” puzzles me. It is practically the same in both languages. The Welsh must have had the concept of business when their language began?

Another thing is that when the New York Jets came to London to play the Miami Dolphins they reportedly brought 350 rolls of toilet paper. How did someone in charge of packing for the team get the idea that good toilet paper might be needed?

Yesterday after the Ireland vs Argentina match a fairly intoxicated Irish lady came up to me in the press box and harangued me a bit because someone in the press had rated Irish player Devin Toner a 9 out of 10 for his performance in Ireland’s win over France. I suggested she write a letter to the paper where the journalist worked who made the assessment of Toner’s match. She harangued me again saying pretty much the same thing she had said before. She then smiled with her Irish eyes shining, and said, “I just wanted to vent.” She was gone leaving a vapor trail of Heineken fumes and the flutter of a bright green boa. I wonder if the boa made it home?

For half the match I thought all the cheers of Ole’, Ole’, Ole’ were coming from Argentine fans. Sometime in the second half I realized the cheer was pouring out of green shrouded mouths. I wonder if the Argentine players thought the cheers were for them?

I am now in York. I had a couple days in Newcastle hearing Todd Clever’s story about the incredibly callous way he was cut from the USA team. Loads to ponder in Todd’s story. http://www.deepsouthrugby.net/rugby-world-cup/10-22-15-todd-clever-reveals-the-full-monty/

York is a beautiful and ancient city. It has a centuries old stone wall that surrounds the oldest part of town. It is like the wall in castles from movies about knights and kings and wars. You can stand on the wall and imagine you are there fighting a heathen horde that has come to get your women. There is a statue in front of the York Minster, which is a very big church, to a Roman emperor, Constantine the Great 274-337 AD. He visited York and made a proclamation which was the beginning of the establishment of Christendom in the West. I walked down a narrow street close to the statue to try to find a traditional English pub to sit, sip, and contemplate the significance of a Roman emperor saying some stuff in northern England and then Christianity began to move west. The street was lined with a Caribbean Reggae bar, a Mexican bar and restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Pizza Express, a Starbucks, … I wonder what Constantine would have thought about that?

For those interested I did find a proper pub. While I was sitting there contemplating the spread to Christendom to the West, an actor dressed like a knight came in, walked up to bar, and ordered a tankard of ale. A lovely Yorkshire lass pulled him a brimming pint of amber liquid and gave him a smile of thanks for keeping her safe.

New Orleans Masters Rugby Tournament switches from spring to fall in 2016

In an effort to provide the best experience possible, the New Orleans Rugby Football Club has made the decision to change the dates of its annual old boys tournament from the spring to the fall. The tourney, officially the New Orleans Masters Rugby Tournament, will be held in City Park in New Orleans, a little over four miles from the French Quarter. The one day tourney will be held on Saturday, October 15, 2016, which should line up with the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival (although that festival date is still TBD). Divisions will include 35+, 45+ and a 55+ exhibition match. Funds raised will benefit NOLA area youth rugby teams.
Why the change?
“As you may be aware, NORFC has sponsored the French Quarter Festival (FQF) Masters Tournament for a number of years in April,’’ writes NORFC’s Dale Thayer. “The FQF has grown so large and combined with other events the same weekend that flights and lodging prices have skyrocketed. We have also heard from many of you that the spring is awkward timing with many club teams in the playoff hunt.
“For this reason, we are moving the old boys fixture to the fall. In the past, we have also held the tournament at our home pitch in Gretna, LA. We have also heard from many that playing within the City of New Orleans would be a better experience. With regard to Old Boys, we agree. The tournament will be moved from this point forward under the historic Live Oak canopy of City Park.”
For more information about the New Orleans Masters Rugby Tournament, contact Thayer at dale.thayer@gmail.com or 504-444-6005.

10-21-15 Todd Clever Reveals the Full Monty

On July 19, 2015, the USA Rugby organization issued an online announcement that Todd Clever had “been released from the Eagles’ Pacific Nations Cup squad due to multiple squad conduct violations.” The Eagle’s coach, Mike Tolkin added the following, “Such behavior is contrary to the team culture that players and management have been fostering within the Eagles over time. Clearly, this is not a pleasant or desirable circumstance for either party.” Since then little has been said about this except rumors and opinions. Todd was excluded from the World Cup squad without a whisper.

Todd Clever was the face and heart of the USA national 15s side. If you ever watched a game regardless of how much you knew about rugby, you knew he was giving all he had. That was my English wife’s opinion. She watched Todd play a half dozen times. He had over 60 caps for the USA and most of these as captain. After matches he would spend time applauding the fans. I remember a World Cup qualifier in Charleston in 2013 when the USA was destroyed by Canada 27 to 9. USA fans were booing and yelling at Taku Ngwenya to use his fancy, bright colored shoes. After the match Todd circled the pitch, practically on his own, to shake hands and sign autographs when it was obvious he was devastated. A list of his awards would occupy paragraphs. He was the first American to play in the Super 14 in 2008, and when his 2015 World Cup dreams ended, he returned to professional rugby. He played a match for the world famous Barbarians select side in early September and then signed with Newcastle Falcons. He started for Newcastle at #8 in their opening match of the 2015-16 season.

Detractors who said Tolkin was justified because Clever was over the hill don’t know rugby. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Premiere League in March of 2015, and as mentioned above, he is now starting for a top level professional English side. The USA back row was ineffective in the World Cup. Chris Wyles played a reasonable tournament, but he was not the lead from the front captain that Clever was. How did such a bad decision to exclude Clever from a spot on the USA side happen?

Because of the depth of his commitment to the team Todd remained silent through the USA’s World Cup campaign. He had several opportunities to tell this story since the July 19th announcement, but his support and devotion to the players and USA team was the driving motivation to remain quiet until now.

Below is Todd’s story in his words:

“The biggest thing is a feeling of betrayal by the USA Rugby organization. Whenever you change something significant like the captain or excluding a very experienced player right before the World Cup, you are sending a huge message. Everybody is on eggshells after that. It is important to get the right story out, and everything that was said was not true. I asked Nigel Melville (CEO of USA Rugby) several times to open an investigation. I never missed a team meeting. I never missed a team field session.

During the USA 2014 November tour to Europe, Tolkin was putting a stamp down that it was going to be my way or the highway. I had issues with what he was doing and how he was doing it. I always put my head on the chopping block for the guys. If I am stopping practice and saying we are done, it is for the boys. The team atmosphere, morale, and conditioning all come together on the field, and we were being treated like high schoolers. During the tour several issues developed about training, rules being made without discussions with senior player groups, and false accusations, but the second to last night of the tour at the jersey presentation before the Fiji match everything seemed to be going fine. We had beaten Georgia in Tbilisi and were feeling good about winning a test series on the road. We were about to head back to our rooms to individually prepare for the match when Tolks stands up with a piece of paper. On the paper is the list of numbers 1-26. He tells us to rate the 26 players on the team from best to worst and slide the paper under his door. I was livid and disgusted, and he knew it by my body language. This was not how we prepare. There were some guys I had just met when they came on tour two weeks before and some I had known for over ten years. I wasn’t going to do it. Several players asked me if I was doing it. I said I wasn’t, but if they wanted to do it, do it.

A couple weeks after the November tour, in our tour review, he questioned me about if I filled in the player rating. I told him I didn’t and that I thought the timing and everything made it ridiculous. It was the night before a huge test. He said, ‘If I tell you to do something, you do it.’ In the same conversation he told me he did not want me to be his captain moving forward. That was December, and I said, ‘If you think this is best for the team, then do it. I am on board with it.’ I didn’t need to be captain, but I wanted to be part of the team. I told him I would follow what he said and give it my all.

After that Tolks and I had a couple of conversations which made me a little suspicious that he might be gunning for me, but generally everything leading up to the World Cup seemed o.k. We spoke about my future rugby plans and if I was going to stay in Japan. I had offers in Japan. A few clubs in Europe and one in the southern hemisphere were interested. I told him that I knew my body. From where I was, I would be in the best shape for the World Cup if I was fresh rather than after having played a lot of games. Coming back to the USA and playing for OMBAC was the route I wanted to take to peak at the World Cup. He was on board with it. He knew what I was passing up to be ready for the World Cup.

In June I did the photo shoot for ESPN. It was USA Rugby that made the contacts that led to the photo shoot. On Friday, two days before our first team meeting, the magazine came out. ESPN and the ESPYs had contacted me about an invite to the awards party, and I told them I didn’t think I could make it because I would be in camp in San Jose with the team training for the Pacific Nations Cup.

At one of the first team meetings we got the week’s schedule, and Wednesday was a free day. Wednesday was the day of the ESPY awards. I went to Tolks and asked if I could attend the ESPY’s, and since Wednesday was a day off, it didn’t seem to conflict with any team activities. He said it was my day off. I had the schedule. I could do what I wanted, but I needed to be back for 9:30 am on Thursday. I checked flights and could be back at 7:30 am. It was pretty cool to have an opportunity to be part of the whole ESPN/ESPY thing, so I invited Scott LaValla, and we went.

On Wednesday the coaching staff decided to put in a 30 minute gym session for 6:30 – 7:00 am on Thursday. They sent the email out announcing the added gym session at something like 4 pm on Wednesday. By the time I got the email it was probably 11:30 or midnight. Scott and I knew we couldn’t make the early morning gym session, and there was nothing we could do about it. We felt hopeless. We had planned everything out to be back and do everything on the schedule, and now it was impossible.

We caught the morning flight, arrived at 7:30, had breakfast, and were at the 9:30 am meeting. We went to training … no problem. Trained well. Everything was good. After the session, they called us both in and they dropped me from the squad for that match. Scott was on the bench, and I was out of the 23.”

(If you listen to the tape, the emotion in Todd’s voice is palpable. It quivers as all it meant to him to be dropped from this match before a hometown crowd of family, former teachers, and friends flows out and his eyes water. )

“What do you say to your parents who have tickets booked to the World Cup and who have been to every one of your World Cups – under 19s in 2001 & 2002, Rugby World Cups in Australia in 2003, France in 2007, New Zealand in 2011?

At this point I thought it is only for the one match. Their reasoning was, like, this is a demerit. Scott was going to start and I was going to be on the bench, so now Scott’s on the bench, and I am off the team. In the room with Scott and me were Mike Tolkin and Dave Williams. After the meeting I asked Mike what should I say to media. Should I say it is a disciplinary matter? He just shrugged and gave me no direction. That is when I put up, “Awesome to be here. Sad I am not playing. I’m in time-out.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I decided to take it light heartedly.

Friday was the captain’s run and jersey presentation. I didn’t get a jersey. Then if you are not in the game 23 + 2 deep reserves, you have to go for drinks with the coaches. They will buy the drinks. There were 5 or 6 of us who were not playing. If you don’t drink beer, you have a Coke or whatever. Mike had beers. The other coaches had beers. I had beers, and that was the end of it. They planned a jog for the 6 guys not playing the next morning with Dave Williams

It was game day in my hometown. I had been cut from the team for questionable reasons. Then the people who did it require me to go out drinking with them and want me to go for a jog the next morning. I slept in. I went for a jog at the hotel and did my own warm-up. Then there was the game, and we supported the guys against Samoa.

The next day they called me in.
They said, ‘You missed another session.’
I said, ‘What? The morning jog?’
They said, ‘Yeah. You are going to be sent home.’

By the Australian and Harlequins warm-up matches I was fairly sure my World Cup dream was over. There were communications about still being on the call-up list, but you don’t want to be hoping somebody gets hurt.”

Todd has moved on. He hopes one day there is an investigation into how this came about. Mainly he would like an investigation so this sort of thing doesn’t happen to another player but also to clear his name.

Was this an ego battle where ex-high school teacher cum USA Coach Tolkin decided to make an example of the recalcitrant pupil?

Sir Clive Woodward, 2003 World Cup winning coach of England, said 95% of coaching is selection. Does the mishandling of Todd Clever signify significant weakness in the coaching taking place for the USA men’s national 15s team?

Even if ref didn’t blow it, Aussies had time left to beat The Scots

Even if ref didn’t blow it, Aussies had time left to beat The Scots

By Fran Thompson
The chief executive of World Rugby joked that referee Craig Joubert “may have needed the bathroom” after he sprinted off the pitch following Australia’s controversial World Cup quarter-final win v. Scotland. Not a sole in Scotland found that funny.
Joubert’s quick exit was due to the fact that he mistakenly pinged prop Jon Welsh for deliberately playing the ball in an offside position following a Scottish knock-on during a final minute line-out. The Scots were ahead by two. It was a bang-bang play. Unfortunately, Jourbet got it wrong. Australian Nick Phipps tried to play the ball before Welsh laid his mits upon it. The correct call should have been a scrumdown to Australia.
Lost in all the hoopla that ensued is the fact that the Aussies still would have had a chance to pull out the victory. With all the talk about the brave Scots, it was two huge tuornover trys that put the Wallabees that close to the RWC 2015’s second huge upset in the first place.
World Rugby conceded that Joubert should have awarded a scrumdown to Australia, while also noting that going to the TMO was not an option under current TMO guidelines. Those guidelines will certainly change bevore Japan 2019. But World Rugby chief exec. Brett Gosper made a valid point in his defense of Joubert: “It is interesting that at the beginning of the tournament everyone thought there was too much TMO and suddenly at the end there is not enough.’’ The Scots were alreadyi fuming over a Jourbert yellow card early in the second half that was also questionable.
My pet peave for four years has been about that same ref refusing to call three obvious ruck infrigements against the host Kiwi’s in the final five minutes of the 20111 RWC final. At the end of that day, France was the better team. Australia was clearly that team in the 2015 quarterfinal. And it is my gut feeling that they would’ve found a way to win, even if Jourbert did get it right in the final 60 seconds.

10-18-15 Close the Barnes Door after the Springboks Have Bolted

I sat in the crowded Cardiff Blues club bar in the shadow of Millennium Stadium surrounded by red shirts with a pint of Brains in my hand. The sound on the tv went on the fritz as the anthems began. Someone made the joke that the South Africans sounded like they were singing in Welsh. When the Welsh anthem began, the tv sound was not needed. The room exploded with 200 harmonious voices that must have been heard in Twickenham. When Wayne Barnes was announced as referee, the room sagged in agony. Maybe not this time. “Come on bechgyn!”

The club knew they would be playing against 16 and soon it was evident. An endless stream of penalties (22 total) slowed play and seemed to favor the Springboks flowed from Barnes’s whistle. By the second half the Springboks plowed into loose play with an abandon which seldom left anyone on their feet. The Welsh repeatedly penalized for this and other marginal infringements in the first half started to hold back. The South African’s amount of possession in the second half soared on their way to a 23-19 win that put South Africa into the semi-finals. The South African’s ended with 7 penalty kicks at goal and Wales 4. The final play of the match had Springbok #16, Strauss, throwing the ball out of a Welsh ruck laying on his back as Barnes stood over him. Insult to injury as South Africa’s first penalty points came from a very marginal call on Welsh winger, George North, as his knee went to ground almost simultaneously as he stripped and passed the ball.

I wandered through the Cardiff throng of dazed and devastated Welsh, colorful and hopeful French, black clad and confident Kiwis, a sprinkling of blue striped Ole’, Ole’, Ole’ Argentines, and green clad intoxicated Irish. When I signed in at the press center, they told me my seat was only 15 meters away. I thanked them for taking care of the old guy and found my way to a fantastic spot at midfield ten rows up. Three minutes before kick-off the stadium rocked to “Allez les Bleus” as the All Blacks got ready to Haka. Eight minutes into the match the score was leveled at 3-3. At half the French were trailing 29-13 and there was a deluded smidgen of belief that this French side could pull off an upset like in the ’99 semi-final. When the French #8, Picamoles, was yellow-carded for punching All Black captain Richie McCaw six minutes into the second half, the Kiwi try machine shifted into high gear. They scored 5 tries in the next 20 minutes and the French scrambled ineffectively, but at times valiantly, to catch a train that had long left the station. When the French finally kicked the ball into touch at full time to end their misery, the score was 62-13.

The southern hemisphere was half-way to filling all the semi-final spots. Hopefully Wayne Barnes watched and learned from Nigel Owens (14 penalties).

10-17-15 Hemispheres Collide

The 2015 World Cup seemed to shift to slow motion last week. After 40 matches in 3 weeks, it stalled to 8 matches in 3 weeks. The media has spluttered around for stories about players being cited and the injustice in the citing process, the shame of England, lessons to be learned, rail failures, price gouging, and the glory of Japan. Now the focus has turned to the hemispheric imbalance.

The quarterfinals will have four southern hemisphere sides (South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina. Australia) playing four northern hemisphere sides (Wales. France, Ireland, Scotland) respectively. Ireland is the only northern team favored, and there are several who doubt if they will triumph with their injuries and a citing that will exclude Leinster star flanker Sean O’Brien from tomorrow’s clash with Argentina. If the north is battered out of the quarterfinals, this will be the first World Cup with a completely southern hemisphere semi-final.

Last night we cut the chill by a fire in what is self-advertised as the oldest pub in Wales. The Blue Anchor opened in 1380. The pub was crowded with locals and New Zealanders. As we sampled the pubs wares, talk swirled back and forth between talk of a French repeat of their famous upset of the All Blacks in Cardiff eight years ago and the South African being favored by bookies against Wales.

In a few minutes we board the train for the 15 minute ride into Cardiff. From this distance the buzz and rumble and hopes for northern hemisphere upsets are rumbling into the marvelous rugby loving city of Cardiff. The city is so mad about rugby they kicked a giant rugby ball through the Cardiff Castle wall; although, the joke going around the Blue Anchor was the kick was from an  Englishman because if it was a Welsh kick it would have gone over.

10-14-15 Rugby, Friendship, Performance, & Revenge

This morning I left Monk Haven Manor B&B owned by Jan & Rob Mathias on the western tip of Wales. It is an idyllic spot with stone cottages scattered around a stone vicarage and chapel from ancient times. Rob & Jan’s daughter, Sian, and her architect husband, Simon, run a pub in nearby Dale that was recently voted the second best pub in Wales. In 1981-82 Rob and I were flankers for the Freeport RFC in the Bahamas. Sian hadn’t started kindergarten yet.

Rob was Welsh and grew up playing rugby and cricket. He played for clubs that had existed since the 1800s. He knew the sport and played with the enthusiasm and skill of a good youngish Welsh flanker from the amateur era. I grew up in southern Mississippi playing football, baseball, & basketball before a year playing rugby at Tulane University followed by seven years as a founding member of the New Orleans RFC.

We have been friends for 33 years now. Since 1982 we have probably seen each other 6 times, but it is that cliche of a relationship where when we get together the years vanish. Of course now with bald heads and aches and operations and medications and friends dying there will be no repeats of days having Newcastle Browns for breakfast the morning after the post-match party with Balmy Beach while on tour to Toronto. A few bottles of wine around the table after grandkids have been put to bed will be followed by a morning of physical remorse and tea.

Time has moved us from the joy of playing the sport to fans who let the sport draw us together for joy. The fun of carousing and hanging out together after a match was a large part of the fun of the sport. It was this aspect where I developed many of the friends I have today. Tomorrow I leave for Cardiff and will visit with a friend I played with in Ecuador 1983-85.

I wonder what type of relationships the current players in the professional era make. Does the spirit of what will probably become a lasting relationship with a teammate affect team performance? Is this a factor in Australia’s success? It has been reported that Australia turned-down the English team’s training camp because there was nothing to do there in down time. The English coach, like the USA coach, was reported to be strict with players and their free time. Their teams are both out of the tournament. Maybe it is time to let the professionals have a beer and sing a song.

The quarterfinals start Saturday with South Africa vs Wales in Twickenham. If opportunity to bond off pitch boosts performance on the pitch, then South Africa might have given Wales an advantage by moving into England’s facilities in somniferous Surrey. In Cardiff Saturday Argentinians could regret the Irish lads lifting a glass of Guinness on the 19th hole in a vow to win the whole thing for their injured captain, Paul O’Connell. The following day in Cardiff the French’s joie de vivre might prove too much for the aging All Blacks. Deja vu all over again? Unfortunately for the Scots the Aussies have hung on to their training ground close to golf, cinemas, and a good source of prawns for the barbie. But at Twickenham on Sunday one thing might cut-in on the Wallabies waltzing into the semi-finals. An Australian match commissioner might have inadvertently inspired the Scots to greatness when he cited two Scottish players, Ross Ford and Jonny Gray, for a tip tackle vs Samoa. Even more unifying than having a laugh and a beer together after a hard match or practice is when the other team has done somebody on your team wrong. Aussies beware the spirit of William Wallace.

10-11-15 Two Good Halves

Thirty minutes before kick-off the teams were on the pitch warming-up. The announcer went through the USA’s record in this World Cup. He explored the motivation of each team to win. ‘The USA does not want to go home winless with their tail between their legs. Japan is looking to triple the best record any Japanese team has even had in a World Cup and be the first team to ever win three pool matches and not get through to the quarterfinals.’

As the stands filled, “Ni-ppon clap-clap-clap” competed with “You-Ess-Ayy” to show dominate crowd support. The announcer went around the stadium asking who fans supported. If they weren’t from the USA, they were backing Japan. Although the Eagles had won both previous World Cup encounters and had beaten Japan a little over two months prior, they were the underdogs.

The USA’s early 3 point lead from a McGinty penalty kick in the 3rd minute quickly vanished as Japan scored a converted try in the 6th minute. As a chill began to seep into Kingsholm stadium it was clear this would be no repeat of the Eagles win over Japan in California in July. By the 15th minute the Japanese fans cries of Ni-ppon clap-clap-clap had the USA fans drowning out the claps with You-Ess-Ayy. It was like everyone was cheering for both teams.

In the 24th minute a try by USA star winger Ngwenya, his only try of this World Cup, put the Eagles briefly ahead. Two minutes later Japan drove a maul over the line and that was the last time the Eagles would be ahead. Ten minutes before half a few Eagle fans lost any hope of swaying anyone who might be leaning to support the underdog as, to the shame of most Eagle fans, they yelled to distract Japanese fullback, Goromaru, as he slotted a penalty kick to make it 17-8 at half.

In the second half Japan scored 11 points to the Eagles 10 to make the final score 28-18. Not bad against a side that had beaten South Africa three weeks earlier. Although the Eagles were going home winless, their tail was not between their legs. They had 2 halves of rugby from the eight halves they played in the tournament to crow about. The first being when they led Scotland 13-6 in Leeds before losing 39-16, and the b-side’s holding South Africa to only 14 points in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium before the Springbok 64-0 tryfest began. The players were moving on with their lives and going back to their day jobs whether they were rugby related or not. For many this would be their last and possibly only World Cup and they had good memories.

At the post match press conference Japan coach Eddie Jones said this was their toughest match of the tournament because they were not playing for anything. Scotland’s win over Samoa had closed the chance of making the quarterfinals, and the USA were a desperate side looking for one win in this 2015 World Cup. He talked about the specifics of taking a small team and making them a quick attacking side against the increasing larger and larger defensive teams. Creating a good attacking side is harder than creating a good defensive side. Being an attacking side opens you up to risk of turnovers, but it was what Japan had to do. He used the previous evening’s tryless clash between Australia and Wales as an example of a great test match between two great defensive teams. He leaves Japan to go to a professional South African team, the Cape Town DHL Stormers, a much loved coach.

The USA coach, Mike Tolkin, rolled out banalities about losing momentum, simple errors, and letting Japan back in the match at his post match conference. At the end of the match and tournament it was clear to most that the Japanese were quicker, fitter, and better coached. What will happen to Tolkin now that the much touted best USA side ever disappears from the World Cup with 2 good halves, no wins, and the largest losing deficit in the tournament? It won’t be to a top professional team with a nation of rugby fans waving signs that say, “We Love You, Mike”

10-11-15 British Rail Get Me to the Match on Time

As I sat calmly finishing a flat white and pondering how a Kiwi name for a coffee with milk had managed to make its way into the English coffee selection, Carolyn dashed up in a panic, “Grab the stuff. We have to catch the 10:03”.

We were scheduled on the 10:27 to Gloucester. This train had been routed straight to Cardiff with no stops. With 5 minutes to spare we rushed to the giant electronic board to find our platform to see “Delayed”.

A brief chat with a very pleasant railroad official, who had the unenviable job of making announcements with a megaphone to the ever increasing throng of confused rail passengers, left us slightly bewildered, but clear that we needed to try to get to Swindon and see what connections we could find from there.

Twenty minutes later the platform location flashed and the wave of passengers surged past the scrum of Irish and French waiting in the queue for the Cardiff trains. Hundreds of us streamed down the long line of cars. Carolyn, who once swam for West Yorkshire, snaked smoothly past lumbering second row types like Habana through the Eagles second string. She disappeared into the mass of bobbing heads, baby carriages, and bemused travelers. I hobbled down the line of cars wondering if I would ever see her again. Car after car I peered through the shaded windows hoping to catch a glimpse of that dart of Yorkshire pride when almost out of hope I heard my name. I leapt onto the train and into the comfort of the seats she had saved.

People swarmed into the cars with tickets declaring they had reserved seats as announcements begging forgiveness, blaming the unexpected number of French and Irish rugby fans, and declaring there were no reserved seats soothed mounting tensions. Once again the French and Irish were the cause of English problems. The station manager continued his stream of information.
“The train will leave in 5 minutes”
“The train driver has not arrived yet. He is stuck on a train that is coming from the depot and is delayed because of the unexpected number of people going to Cardiff.”
And by people he meant French and Irish.
“The driver has arrived and the train will be leaving in 5 minutes.”
“The driver is on the train and is waiting for clearance to leave the station. Train service has been delayed because of the unexpected need to put on more trains to Cardiff.”
And by “unexpected need” he meant French and Irish who did not plan ahead.
Finally we began to move. As the city of London gradually merged into sunny countryside allotments and forests, the announcements came about connections that were being held at Redding and Swindon and Bristol. Some clapped and laughed. Everyone joined in a collective sigh.

10-11-15 The Last Sprinkling of Pool Play Titillation

It is Sunday morning and soon I will board a train from London to Gloucester for the last pool match, Japan vs USA. For parts of Scotland’s narrow 36-33 win over Samoa yesterday, there was the potential that the Eagles’ match with the Brave Blossoms would be truly momentous. If Scotland lost, then a Japan win would put them through to the quarterfinals. If Scotland tied Samoa, then Japan would need a 4 try bonus point win to get through. But ‘what if’s’ are fun for pub talk and when there is nothing else to write about.

Japan has already shown they are the wonder team of the tournament with victories over Samoa and the mighty Springboks of South Africa. The USA will strive to not join Canada, Uruguay, and Namibia (after they lose to Argentina today) as the winless teams of the 2015 World Cup. Less than 3 months ago the Eagles beat Japan by 5 points in Sacramento. Although the Eagle team will be very much the same, this is a vastly different Japanese side. USA coach MIke Tolkin’s gamble to throw his reserves against the Springboks in the tournament’s record loss (64-0), could make this a match that seals an end to his international coaching career. It is hard to imagine that anything less than a win will be enough to encourage the forces that decide his fate to keep him around.

Yesterday after a full English breakfast complete with beans and brown sauce, the Quito RFC contingency trudged through thousands of people clambering outside Buckingham Palace to glimpse the changing of the guard. I was astounded at the numbers gaping at a few guys on horses and a band that the St. Augustine Purple Nights would have shamed more than a host team jettisoned from their own tournament. The Piccadilly Line from Green Park station delivered us to Hounslow Central, on the doorstep of our destination. After a few pints of hand-pulled London Pride to fortify us for the final chunk of our crusade, we boarded the shuttle bus that delivered us to Twickenham, the holy ground of English rugby, for Wales vs Australia.

The stadium could not have been more accommodating. A security guard directed us to the bar where he rightfully assessed we would be most comfortable. There we made do with John Smith’s ale while watching on multiple screens Scotland’s narrow escape from Samoa’s match of the tournament. As the TMO dragged out the final exciting moments of the match the screens were blinking, “Take Your Seats, NOW!”. With the final whistle the mass surged from bars to stadium seats to shouts of “Wales! Wales!” and lovely Welsh voices surging together singing, “Bread of Heaven”.

At half all was still well. Wales, down by only three, seemed poised to take the grail of top of the “Pool of Death” and a quarterfinal against Scotland. Welsh fans in harmonious roars lifted their side with “Land of Our Fathers” and “Bread of Heave”. Early in the second half the Aussies had two men sent off and Wales spluttered as they wasted ten minutes on the try line crashing into an immovable defense. The Welsh defense would also deny the Wallabies a try, but the sure boot of Bernard Foley would convert 5 Welsh penalties. Wales put over two penalties to end the match 15-6.

Both teams will live to fight another day. Australia will skirmish with Scotland next weekend, and Wales will seek to send the South Africans home. Was last night’s match a precursor to the tournament Final? Will this be the third consecutive World Cup where the teams in the Final came from the same pool? The excitement continues to build. Although most of the drama that could have been part of the USA’s tussle with Japan has evaporated like the Samoan sweat and tears that fell in Newcastle yesterday, today’s top of Pool D decider between France and Ireland will sprinkle the last few drops of pool play titillation.

10-9-15 Waning Days Wading through the Pools

With 8 matches left before the knock-out round, the pools are about to dry up. Canada, Fiji, and Georgia can already go home. South Africa will hang around to try to show the world their loss to Japan was truly a fluke when they face the loser of Saturday’s match between Australia and Wales when the quarterfinals start on Oct. 17th.

Early yesterday morning I wandered the cool, sunny streets around Victoria Station looking for an Australian press conference. Children were biking and scootering to schools with cathedral spires stretching to heaven and watching over the tiny voices that shrieked in play below. Residents stood outside B&B’s in robes and slippers having their first fag of the day. I arrived to find a wall of cameras and no seats. Australia, the team playing the best rugby in the toughest pool, was news for everyone. Coach Cheika fielded questions with the skill his team has shown on the pitch. There would be no pride before a fall. They were a team taking one match at a time, learning from every phase, and avoiding thoughts that they had momentum that would carry them past a tough Welsh side. Saturday would be game one, and when they faced either South Africa or Scotland (Japan?) in the quarterfinals, that would be game one, again.

Wales and Australia are tied at 13 match points. If they draw on Saturday, the winner of the point differential decider will be Australia, 97 to 58. Wales will get South Africa in the quarterfinals and Australia will most likely face Scotland. The match right before Australia vs Wales is Scotland vs Samoa. If Scotland loses and Japan beats USA on Sunday, Japan becomes the 2nd place team in Pool B. There are other scenarios involving draws which I won’t waste words on. If Scotland and Japan end up with the same match points, Scotland will go through because they were the winning team when they played each other.

Pool C has been called the Pool of Snores. As expected New Zealand will top the pool with Argentina second. The only burst of caffeine as the final pool weekend approaches had been the strength of Georgia. Talk of expanding the 6 Nations tournament and possibly adding a relegation spot began to dwindle Wednesday as Georgia napped in their one point win over Namibia. Today New Zealand has set their alarm to awake from the bed of mediocre performances they have produced so far. Tonga, with only one win against Namibia, will valiantly dream they have an upset in them and this is their last chance to show it. Saturday Namibia will finish a winless World Cup with a brief delusion they can cause an Argentine nightmare. But even if these two highly unlikely upsets occur, New Zealand and Argentina would still finish 1st and 2nd in Pool C.

The penultimate pool match will decide Pool D. Ireland doesn’t have to beat France on Sunday to avoid the All Blacks in the quarterfinals. A draw will put Ireland through as top of Pool D. They are currently tied with 14 match points. If their match on Oct. 11th ends with the score level, the decision of who wins the pool is based on the point difference between points they scored and points scored against them. Ireland has an 84 point difference to France’s 72. France has to win or they will face the All Blacks in a quarterfinal in Cardiff. Or is that the briar patch the wily French cockerel craves – 2007 all over again?

Thoughts on the USA Eagles
A highly unlikely win over Japan in the very last pool match will lift Coach Tolkin’s Eagles from the disgrace of going winless and suffering the worst Eagle defeat in World Cup history. The previous record was set by Coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s Eagles in their 67-5 loss to Australia in 2011. The ten try, 64-0, shellacking Tolkin’s B-side took from the Springboks on Wednesday moved the record point difference up 2 points. Below are comments on the match from DeepSouthRugby.net’s long time friend, Jack Redwater of the Jack & Dougie Rugby & Whiskey Radio program:
(Editor’s note – Some editing for syntax and supposed typos)

“Why concentrate on the first half? Matches are 80 minutes long. If you put a positive spin on the first forty you are ignoring the real heart of the match. The truth is abundantly clear that we are athletic rugby players but not natural players.
A perfect example of a confused player is the interception of Du Preez. Blaine Scully had no support and in his mind immediately in the first ten yards must have been:
1. I am all alone, shit!
2. Can I out run the two maybe three South Africans chasing me?
3. What should I do? Or what can’t I do?
A thirty yards and closing ,
4. The options now are to put the foot to the ball straight ahead and chase it or cross kick and hope that whatever support I have is in the middle of the pitch.
5. Pin my ears back and make the opposition tackle me but don’t look back. If they tackle me, I must try to stay in bounds as they will try to get me out of bounds and get the lineout.

But he made the classic gridiron mistake and that was to slow down and go back inside which allowed all the opposition to close on him.
And we lose a try as simple as that.
The other try gone begging is when the tight head knocked the ball on at the goal line.
The best move of the day was the MOHAWK hooker picking and going and making the break with nobody within ten yards of him.
We simply do not have the proper anticipatory knowledge which I strongly feel is the fault of the coaches. How can a coach teach what he doesn’t know?
Once again that is my tuppence.
It wouldn’t have mattered who we had out there. It was gong to be bad.
It’s such a bummer to see this because what it tells me is we are not keeping pace with the other minnows.
I thought Hayden Smith and the back row were liabilities . Zach Test played okay, surprisingly, but Danny Barrett is not a fifteens player from what I have seen.
Todd Clever would have been a big plus.
Your Man in the Homeland,
Grouchy Jack?”

A lovely fall day with temperatures in the low 50’s is forecast for the pool stage finale in Gloucester. Has Tolkin cleverly positioned his Eagle squad to upset Eddie Jones, who masterminded his Brave Blossums of Japan to the greatest upset in World Cup history just 3 weeks ago? Or does another Day of Infamy await?

10-7-15 Eagles Hold Springboks to 14 – for a half

Thirty-five years ago I laced up my boots and entered Estadio Atahualpa, the Olympic stadium in Quito. Ecuador was playing Peru. In a couple of hours I will enter Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium with 2 friends who played with me in that distant memory. This sport of rugby has a power like no other. From creating friendships that span continents and decades to healing a nation (South Africa) or throwing a country into soul-searching despair (England).

Today South Africa played USA Coach Mike Tolkin’s b-side. Twelve of the Eagles who started were selected to start for their first World Cup match and five had no previous World Cup playing time. Although Tolkin has said the Eagles go into every match with the belief they can win, he must have believed the more winnable match would be Monday against Japan, a team that beat South Africa a little over two weeks ago. South Africa had already qualified for the quarterfinals as top team in Pool B, but were looking to work out final player combinations before the knock-out round. Nobody even considered an upset. The Eagles’ side, composed in good part of current or former national 7s players with a young, once capped, South African born scrum-half, could play with reckless abandon and delight. Three decades from now some of them will get together at a stadium to enjoy a rugby match and revel in stories of the day they played the Springboks in an Olympic stadium at the 2015 World Cup in London.

At half the mighty Springboks led by only 14 points. One of their tries coming from a penalty as French ref repeatedly penalized the US scrum. Several tryline stands deprived the Boks of more points, but in the first minute of the second half Bryan Habana scored the first of his 3 tries. The Boks poured through ending with 64 points to none, the largest point difference in the 2015 World Cup. The Eagles who faced this onslaught of Springbok try scoring will probably not want to remember the second half or that they were the first team in the 2015 World Cup to not score a try in a match. They will want to remember the 54,658 rugby fans who marveled at their first half courage and skill.

10-6-15 Dramatic Finish to Forgotten Match

With knees bandaged and cane tapping along with my steps to the train, I left sunny Stockport for drizzle and Canada vs Romania in Leicester. The newspapers I perused on my 2 hour journey were still bemoaning England’s exit from their tourney with not a mention of this match. One had a short mention of Fiji’s bad luck to be included in the “Pool of Death” ahead of their last match today against Uruguay. Most of the English press were questioning whether Coach Lancaster should stay and advising not to do anything too rash, unless it is to sign Japan’s coach Eddie Jones before he gets on a plane to South Africa.

The weather cycled from drizzle to downpour to sunshine and back as kick-off approached. Romania’s dream on this typical English day was to cruise past Canada, defeat Italy on Sunday, and return to Bucharest automatically qualified for 2019 in Japan. Canada’s hope was to get a win before they depart England after this, their final match. Except for the team’s involved and, possibly, Italy there did not seem to be much interest in this match from the rest of the World Cup community. I watched Romania’s tenacious 38-11 loss to France in London two weeks ago. Ten days ago I agonized as Canada lost a frustrating battle 23-18 to Italy. I thought the teams were evenly matched. A bookmaker I checked had Romania favored by 2 points. Not really worth a bet. The odds for a draw were 22-1. I pondered dashing out before kick-off to find a betting shop.

One hour to kick-off and the sun cautiously peaked through dark clouds. I wandered from the media center to try to soak up some atmosphere… And there was some to be absorbed. A Leicester Caribbean carnival drum and dance group was entertaining fans and the Canucks brought their costumes and love of beer.

Canada took an 8-0 lead into the half. They moved the ball quickly and well, and had several overlaps that just didn’t connect until Van Der Merwe’s try in the 34th minute. Second half Canada continued in control. Canada’s other wing, Hassler, impressed with strong running and another try. Hirayama took over kicking and added the conversion. Then the shape of the pear appeared. Romania powered over a driving maul to close the gap to 8 points. With 6 minutes left Romania’s #8 slips off another driving maul and slides in, and Canada, who once led by 15, was now holding on to a one point lead. The crowd erupts. Romanian fans are singing “Rome-Uh-Nee-Uh Ole’ Ole’ Ole'”. Canadian fans surge in response, “Can-Uh-Duh!!”. But Canada is disheveled and the match slipped away in scrum penalties and lost chances. Romania kicked a penalty in the 78th minute to make the score 17-15. Canada was penalized again with one minute to go. Romania won the line-out and kicked to touch to keep their dream alive.

Canada’s World Cup 2015 ends with a thrilling finish, but that will be no consolation as they fly home thinking of what could have been against Italy and Romania.

As the final pool matches are played by the 12 teams that won’t be here for the quarterfinals, I raise the same question I had in New Zealand four years ago. Why not let them play off? On the Tuesdays and Wednesdays between the knock-out matches have the 3rd, 4th, & 5th place teams in each pool compete for 9th-20th place.

Here is probably what it would look like this World Cup for matches on Oct. 21st:

3rd Place Teams
England vs Georgia & Japan vs Italy

4th Place Teams
Fiji vs Tonga & Samoa vs Romania

5th Place Teams
Uruguay vs Namibia & USA v Canada

And then the winners and losers would play-off the following week. Two or more matches could be played on the same day at the same stadium to help fill stadiums. This was an approach the women used successfully in France at the 2014 World Cup.

10-5-15 The Pool D Wooden Spoon

This time next week the pool matches will be over. Twelve teams will have already gone home or will be leaving soon. The very last pool match is USA vs Japan on October 11th and will have no impact on the quarterfinals unless Samoa surprises with an upset of Scotland the day before. Four teams will be going home winless. In all likelihood Uruguay, Namibia, USA, and either Canada or Romania will plaintively crawl home, the smallest of the minnows who dared to paddle in the deep end of the pool.

Tomorrow Canada and Romania struggle in Leicester to see who gets the Pool D Wooden Spoon. I am about 2 hours and $50 by train from there. A little skirmish is swirling inside me on to go or not to go. I was in Leicester yesterday for Argentina’s 45-16 lesson in composure to a Tongan side that is almost always fun to watch. The exception in my mind is a 2007 World Cup match in Montpelier where they protected a small lead against the USA for it seemed like 20 minutes by letting the ball lay in the back of a ruck. Fortunately referees began insisting teams use the ball they win. Yesterday they wore grass skirts in the stands and a fantastic early try put them up 5-0,  and I thought they could upset. I saw them beat France in 2011 and when the Tongan scrum magic starts and the offloads are connecting with strong soft hands they are near invincible. Although there were phases when a great Tongan side glimmered, Argentina’s quickness and self-assured poise were way too much.

Leicester was a lovely day out. The walk from the station to the Fanzone, where we were hoping to catch a shuttle, and then the walk to the stadium was close to 4 miles. I then walked around the stadium a lot. I went in one press accreditation entrance and the right entrance was on the other side of  a large protected area where the Tongan side was arriving. I walked around a large crowd of people to get into the media accreditation center to tell them I had bought a ticket. I should have just gone straight to the the Media Center. To cut the long story short I walked a lot and I think a trip to Leicester tomorrow will involve a lot of walking. The English weather is teetering on miserable, and the following day I leave for London and the USA’s penultimate World Cup match against 2 time World Cup champs South Africa and four days later  watch Wales titanic clash with Australia in Twickenham which will decide the winner of Pool A.  The winner will get Scotland and the loser South Africa in the Twickenham quarterfinals.

I think I will rest my foot except during all my hiking yesterday I was invited to request a press ticket for Canada v Romania. They took my details and said to email press operations, and they would send an invite, also.  I did this and got an automatic reply message that ticket allocations were finished. That is fair enough. I need to rest for the big match.

I was thinking about buying a ticket for Canada and Romania yesterday. A volunteer at the station said he thought I could do this at the ticket counter at the stadium. I went by the ticket counter several times in my wanders, but there were always long lines. I took a picture of the queue waiting to pick-up will-call tickets 15 minutes before the kick-off. Oddly they were all reasonably cheerful. The picture didn’t come out very well. I thought this picture of Tonga threatening was better. Does Argentina look offside to you?

Leicester was a delightful city. The bobbies had their photos taken with blue-striped Argentines and grass-skirted Tongans wearing their hats. Two bobbies walked behind us the 2 miles back to the station. I swear I was not under arrest. They chatted about how rugby crowds are much easier and fun than football (soccer) crowds. Anyway, if press operations call about the ticket, I will have to strap on my boots, break out the cane, and hop a train to Leicester to cheer on our North American neighbor’s avoidance of Pool D’s Woden Spoon.

10-3-15 A Day of Promise, Joy, Despair, & a Comforting Embrace

This is a 700 word epic about one day in a tournament that will last six weeks. The hopes of a nation were nourished. The pride of a country was restored.The dreams of a once great world power were shattered. On a Saturday afternoon in early October Japan claimed a place as an emerging rugby power with their 26-5 victory over Samoa. South Africa had Nelson Mandela inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame before emerging as the Pool B side that can make it through the knock-out phases in their 34-16 dismantling of Scotland. England crumbled before their once outlaw colony Australia 33-16.

On a cloudy afternoon I entered Plough-on-the Moor pub in the northwest of England. The pub had advertised on the internet they would be showing the World Cup matches, and they were. Tucked in an alcove over a family of 8 the match competed with the coming and going of burgers, fish and chips, sausages, and a set of grandparents enjoying an afternoon out with daughters and grandchildren. I was the only one in the pub watching as Japan slowly gained confidence and momentum after only getting a penalty try early in the match when Samoa had 2 players in the sin bin. At the table in front of the tv one of the daughters knowingly informed those around her Japan was playing Fiji. She later would explain that she was a woman, so she planned ahead. Her father promptly agreed with her adding, “Yes, you plan ahead for yesterday.”

As South Africa and Scotland were about to kick-off a handful of rugby fans gathered. The table under the tv had been vacated, but a party of hipsters looking like something from Love Actually had reserved it. The wait staff asked if I would move even farther back. As I complied I asked 2 English chaps if there was a better pub to watch rugby. The poor lads were heading to an Aussie bar in Manchester. After the opening ceremony which brought tears to my eyes as Mandela was inducted and the camera panned Springbok fans of the rainbow nation proudly singing the two versions of their national anthem, I joined 3 Irishmen at a small table. They were a father and two sons from Northern Ireland. We talked about rugby, Gaelic football, and a nation torn apart by religious bigotry. The father had been a school administrator as I had. He told me how his school had been set on fire 5 times. He was a Catholic struggling as a politician now to hold on and grow a still shaky peace. They hopefully spoke of how rugby brought the two Irelands together. As the final whistle blew on South Africa’s domination of Scotland there was an unspoken dream that an Irish World Cup triumph would further heal a long wounded country.

Before leaving the Irish lads bought me a pint and directed me to Cassidy’s, an Irish pub around the corner. They warned me the Irish crowd would be largely cheering for Australia. When I entered Cassidy’s, Chelsea footballers were leaving the pitch with stupefied expressions as South Hampton fans celebrated a 3-1 win by singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”. The 10 televisions and the large screen were soon turned to the main event, England vs Australia. A young Irish couple, only married 2 months and longing to make enough money in their new jobs in England to move back to Ireland one day, sat in front of me and quietly cheered for the Aussies. As the match wore on and the Red Rose of English rugby wilted from the tournament they were hosting with such dignity and energy, a sadness fell over the pub. The crowd no longer cheered the Wallabies amazing display of rugby prowess. There was a sentiment almost of a comforting embrace for a brother who used to tease you remorselessly, but who was now dying and at the end of the day was still your brother.

10-3-15 The Law According to McCaw & Day of Destiny

Am I missing something or is Richie McCaw offside in every opposition’s scrum? Granted the laws are vague.

20.3 (f) Binding by all other players… Flankers must bind with at least one arm prior to scrum engagement if they remain in front of their offside line.

If they release that arm bind, are they still part of the scrum?

20.1 (g) The referee will call “crouch” and then “bind” … some instructions on how front row binds … Following a pause, the referee will then call “set” when the front rows are ready. The front rows may then engage …

From law 20.3 (f) does this mean all a flanker needs to do is bind with an arm on a lock for a moment during the crouch or bind phase and then they are good to go?

While watching Georgia’s probing of the All Black scrum in their gritty 43-10 loss last night, I kept noticing Richie would slide around to a position in front of his prop with a hand nimbly tugging his lock’s jersey. He paused in what seemed an offside position ready to pounce on any ball coming out the scrum which was wheeling the other way. I know I am not the first to write about the difference between the World Rugby Laws and the Laws According to McCaw. If refs think this is in accord with the laws, I hope one will respond on how.

All the above said I am a huge Richie McCaw fan. I love everything he does even trying to get away with whatever he can. I especially like how he talks to the refs with a seriously pained face imploring them to correct all the injustices the other team is trying to get away with. He has a great career in Hollywood if he ever hangs up his boots.

Last night New Zealand secured the first guaranteed spot in the quarterfinals. Today Japan will battle Samoa to determine who will more than likely get the coveted 3rd place in Pool B and an automatic spot in the 2019 World Cup. Also, South Africa will tussle with Scotland for who will top Pool B. Samoa could yet prove a spoiler if they can find the form they showed when they tied Fiji in California in July. They will need to start today and carry the improvement through their October 10th match with Scotland.

The closing match of the day is the much reported do-or-die tangle between England and Australia. I won’t belabor that England faces the horror of being the first host nation to not make the knock-out round. It is time to put on my gloves and a few layers and head to the bus stop. I’ve gone on line to find a pub in the Stockport area that is advertising World Cup atmosphere. The Plough on Heaton Moor Rd. is calling my name. With any luck I will be settled in with a steak and kidney pie and a pint by the time Samoa launches the Manu Siva Tau, their form of the haka. I’ll have my eye on the flankers to see how much they are exploring the vagaries of the scrum offside laws and developing thoughts on my next rant about the inconsistent application of laws in a driving maul.

10-2-15 The English Working Class & the Meaning of Life

imageI strolled down a sunny litter strewn Stockport Road looking for a pub. The smells of curry and kebabs swirled about as cars, white vans, and buses rushed to and from Manchester. In an hour Wales would kick-off against Fiji. I was on a quest to find World Cup rugby atmosphere.

The sports pub would be showing rugby, but it would be Wigan vs Huddersfield in a rugby league contest. The Fiddler’s Green was devoted to horse racing. The Levenshulme had its televsions installed that very day. There was some uncertainty about the connection. I settled in with a pint of John Smiths and fingers crossed. As the Welsh anthem started, the television flickered “no signal”. The barman rushed to fiddle with the cable. The few anxious moments faded as Fiji’s Bole, their version of the haka, came in clearly.

There were a half dozen folks in the pub listening to Rod Stewart and lazily passing a Thursday afternoon. One was child minder absentmindedly rocking a stroller while sipping her lager. Every 10 minutes or so she would push the baby outside for some sun while she had a smoke. As the time moved past 5 pm a few more people came in. There English accent was all but unintelligible to me. This was a working class pub on the fringe of the great industrial city of Manchester. The street outside was lined with betting shops and kebab takeaways. The sport of choice was Footy, soccer to us Americans.

As Wales was valiantly holding on to claim a 23-13 victory over a constantly threatening Fiji, the fellow in front of me slid over to chat. He was finishing his 3rd pint and his 4th was in front of him. I struggled to understand his words. It slowly dawned that he was talking about England’s chances against Australia in their upcoming match on Saturday. He knew England would win because he had never heard that Australia played rugby. He asked, ” They only play cricket, right?” He was not having me on. He told me he liked football, but followed the rugby when England played. Then the conversation detoured into an area which I had even more trouble understanding. I’m not bad at English accents as I worked in London for a few years with Scousers, Cockneys, Geordies, and am married into a Yorkshire family. This seemed a garbled mash of them all. Slowly after several repetitions I got the thread. He was talking about the pub and gays. The new pub ownership tolerated gays. He asked if I was ok with gays.I assured him I was. Not being sure if this was the the answer he was looking for, I finished my pint and wandered off to find a kebab before France v Canada.

Four years ago before leaving for New Zealand I was in London for a couple of weddings. While staying at a B&B by Victoria Station, I spent an evening at a nearby pub. As you do in pubs, I started chatting with Shane from Sheffield. He was working in London restoring an old building for Google or something like that. He was a Manchester United fan with a love of golf and a passing interest in rugby union when England was playing. We talked for a few hours about everything from sport to the meaning of life. We explore the possibility of a house swap for the 2015 World Cup, and then we went out separate ways. A couple of emails over the next 4 years determined the house swap was not going to work for either of us. I had the vague impression he lived in Stockport. When I knew I was going to be watching matches around Stockport, I sent him an email to see if he wanted to meet up. Shane now 4 years older with 2 more kids showed the email to his wife, Jill. When she saw it, she said, “Well, you have to go. Don’t you?”

We met outside The Levenshulme where 3 local chaps were questioning Shane on why they hadn’t seen him in the pub before. He told them he was meeting an American to watch the rugby. They didn’t believe him. When I walked up wiping kebab juice from my chin, Shane presented his American friend. I impressed them with my best south Mississippi accent and left them a bit bewildered as Shane and I walked off to find another pub to watch Canada’s ever improving effort in their 41-18 loss to France and catch up on the meaning of life.