When Lady Barton St Mary opened the e-mail regarding my ballot application for rugby World Cup tickets all those months ago, I could hardly believe what she was telling me.
“You have two tickets for England versus Wales”.
This was possibly the best match of the first round of matches, with both teams in Pool A with Australia, Fiji and Uruguay, inevitably known as ‘The Pool of Death’. How quaint. I’d been fortunate enough to be at The Millennium Stadium last February to witness England beat Wales in their own back yard, as all good sports journalists say.
I made the necessary travel arrangements, booking a £20 park and ride at Hounslow Civic Centre. So, having arrived in good time, Master Johnny and I had the pleasure of being able to see the magical streets and lanes of Hounslow in all its glory on a 30 minute tour/search for the aforementioned Civic Centre. At last a young lad pointed us in the right direction, since whoever was responsible for parking arrangements had wisely decided to put all necessary signs within a 10 metre radius of the car park entrance, thus saving any inconvenient collection at the end of the day.
We arrived at Twickenham Stadium early, but it was already buzzing. Friendly volunteers calling out, offering help; supporters from all nations some dressed in fancy dress. Welsh fans as daffodils, leeks, dragons; English fans dressed as roses and crusaders. Fleetingly I thought how strange it was to dress like a medieval religious extremist with murderous tendencies and the
appropriateness of it all. Sorry, that’s just how my mind works.
We wandered around outside for a while, considering a stroll into Twickenham and a drink at The Cabbage Patch, but decided that it would be near on impossible to get a drink in there before kick-off, which was 3 hours away at this point, so instead we entered Entrance A for the in stadium experience.
We decided to dine on pasties and burgers with a small beer, which came at the usual Twickenham price of £10 apiece, which would send many of my rural friends into a faint at the shock. We found a seat and watched people passing, camera crews accompanied by legendary rugby players, cheerful volunteers, more ludicrous outfits. However, there is one outfit that does stand out, which can be best described as ‘public school casual’, a look also favoured by young men in the country usually involved in manual rural occupations (farming, tree felling, fencing). It requires a tweed jacket, preferably brown with a check, chinos, brogues and a formal shirt with the collar up. There is no age restriction – in fact, at one point, a middle aged man marched past calling for Toby, his 10 year old son, who was running off ahead of him, both of them in this outfit. As was Toby’s mum, a few yards behind Toby’s dad, carrying two foaming pints of lager.
A volunteer told us the England team were arriving at 6.30pm, so we joined the throng waiting to greet them, watching their progress with the help of the police helicopter shadowing the team coach overhead. They were late, but disembarked to loud cheers and a rousing chorus of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, as were the Wales squad on their arrival. The atmosphere was growing with the crowds. Nearly match time, so off to our seats in the south stand, where we had a magnificent view of the pitch.
The pre match entertainment involved an explanation of the rules, which was bemusing but acceptable considering the enormous number of corporate business people were there, who may not even know what rugby is.
The lights lowered. The anthems, the pyrotechnics, the roar of the crowd, everything was set for a great battle. The game commenced, Wales taking an early lead with two penalties, England responding with one of their own. Then the moment arrived when Johnny May received a pass and scampered behind the posts for a try. I was filled with jubilation, joy, rising from my seat and hugging Master Johnny. May plays for Gloucester Rugby, our team, so the thrill of it all made it doubly exciting.
The game ebbed and flowed, England just keeping their noses in front, like two thoroughbreds in a two horse race. We expected England to ease away in the second half.
Half time brought more ‘on screen entertainment’ from the benign presenter and the two former players, Nick Easter and the incomprehensible Ian Evans.
“We’ll be back after these messages for the second half,” said the generic presenter.
“When did a live sporting event turn into a TV show?” I asked Master Johnny. He shrugged.
“When it’s for that lot,” he replied, pointing to the brightly lit boxes full of men dressed in brown jackets with their short collars up, usually shadowed by carefully coiffured women in black cocktail dresses staring constantly at their mobile phones.
The second half started as the first half ended, with Wales clinging onto England’s coat tails. As it progressed, Wales appeared to be growing stronger, more confident. The lead was reduced to 7 points, even though Wales were losing players to injury.
“We need to score another try,” I told Master Johnny. He nodded. The man sitting next to us asked how many points you got for a draw. Two, Johnny explained, although a draw wasn’t conceivable.
And then it happened. A Wales attack, a cross field kick into England’s 22 with no cover, the ball rolling end over end, excruciatingly, languorously slowly, the speedy Welsh back Gareth Davies closing in to gather the ball to score under the posts, ensuring a conversion to equal the scores. A couple of minutes later, referee Garces raises his arm and my heart sinks. Wales score the penalty to take the lead, 28-25.
England has a chance to draw the match, but opt for a line out, which they lose, along with the match. Welsh jubilation, Master Johnny beside himself, head in hands. I just stare ahead, not wanting to take in the sheer disappointment of it all.
It’s hard to put your feelings into words at such a time – imagine your wedding day that ends with a rival shagging your spouse after the reception. All that money, all the time spent organising the event, getting to the venue, all apparently for nothing.
Waiting in the queue for the bus back to Hounslow was difficult, but we struck up a conversation with a lovely Welsh couple. Master Johnny explained how glad he was that he wasn’t going to Swansea University until next year, the sheer horror of being surrounded by jubilant Wales supporters would be all too much as they chuckled. I explained we came from Gloucester, where rugby was everything. The man, about my height and of slight build, informed me that his son had played at Kingsholm, in fact, his son played rugby in France now.
“Gosh, he must be quite good,” I replied.
His wife was a very elegant lady and much taller than him, over 6ft tall. She smiled proudly.
“Actually, he came on and played tonight,” she stated.
I stared at her. She informed me they were the parents of Luke Charteris, the second row colossus, former Scarlets and Perpignan player now with Racing in
France. I enquired as to how they were queuing for the bus rather than being dined in corporate. They explained that, no, the players had no special privileges and in fact were returning immediately to Cardiff after the game. Such is the difference between rugby and professional football.
The bus journey back to Hounslow cheered us up a little, singing songs initiated by four men from Birmingham who’d befriended a couple of young Uruguay fans. For some reason, the Birmingham quartet were accompanied by a prosthetic leg wearing a pair of England shorts and a sock; no explanation was offered, but the Uruguayans were keen to be photographed with it. Don’t ask me.
The following day, Lady Barton St Mary feels slightly aggrieved that we’ve spent a large amount of money, enough to watch Gloucester for a season, on an experience that was so ultimately crushing.
But that is what rugby is about; it’s what all sporting events are about. If you want to spend a lot of money to see exciting entertainment, where you know what the outcome will be, buy front row tickets for the opera. You can’t buy tickets for an international match on the proviso that your team wins. On the drive back, hurtling along the M4, comfort eating Haribo Tangfastics, my mind replayed the match over I my head. What could we have done to win that match? Where did it go wrong?
And for the first time, perhaps, I realised something. It had nothing to do with me. I had no control over the result, I had merely witnessed it. I could show my support and try and affect the outcome by shouting and cheering, but that is all. Sometimes, that’s what life is like.