Rugby has and always will be king in any household that I live in but growing up my poor mother had to deal with it 24/7. If it wasn’t the Five Nations, it was Rugby Special on a Sunday and if it wasn’t a home mini rugby game it was a three hour round trip to North Cornwall and back. Dad and I also came home to a few cold dinners as kicking practise over the road over ran now and again.
I think Mum was just secretly happy that it was rugby and not football as she doesn’t care too much for the round ball game if I’m honest and she has always been a massive advocate for the values and beliefs that are persistently taught at every rugby training session or local club house around the world.
My brother liked his rugby as a kid but as he has got older he has actually grown into the game more. He still plays, just, and he is three years my senior whereas I haven’t waddled onto the field for quite a number of years.
Back when I was just a young budding scrum half so my Dad and I religiously watched any rugby that was still on terrestrial TV. We had a complete set-up, almost a ritual. Kick Mum out to Safeway to do the shopping, make a juice, draw the curtains so no reflection on the TV and use the big brown foot rest as our table for snacks. We NEVER sat on the sofa, always the floor using the sofa as a back rest.
My earliest memories are of the Underwood brothers, Jeremy Guscott, Dean Richards, Mickey Skinner and Peter Winterbottom tearing up the Twickenham turf but there was one memory that still lives vividly in my mind and that is of my Dad openly crying like a baby as Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the William Webb Ellis trophy in Johannesburg on the 24th June 1995.
It was just incredible and I didn’t realise why he was so emotional at the time but looking back now I completely get it. My soft spot for South African Rugby had been created.
Just to quickly skip back a couple of weeks from this I actually, without realising it, encountered the Newlands Rugby Stadium in Cape Town for the very first time. It was my cousin’s christening but England were playing Australia in the Quarter Finals and we were missing the rugby. As soon as the service at the church had finished we bolted to the house that the reception was in and I was shoved through a window to open the door from the inside. We made it just in time to see Rob Andrew bisect the posts with the winning drop goal.
My next experience wasn’t so good. It was watching the late and extremely great Jonah Lomu plunder four tries over the English back line and seal our fate for that World Cup. New Zealand into the final and England into the ignominy of the dastardly third place play off that no one likes apart from the guys who do the World rankings.
Two years later though and Newlands became a mythical place for me. Magical and quite frankly heavenly. The British and Irish Lions were touring South Africa and the first test was in Cape Town. This was not on terrestrial TV as Sky Sports held the rights so my Dad and I trudged up to the local football Club of all places to watch the game. Dad bought me a Pepsi and talked me through the Springbok line up as I sat there in awe. I was a scrum half at the time so Dad told me to keep a close eye on Joost van der Westhuizen as he was the best scrum half he’d seen since Gareth Edwards. Guess what Dad? He still is the best I’ve ever seen and another true great that has been taken too soon from the rugby family.
The game was electric but one moment will forever live in my memory. Matt Dawson, the Lions’ scrum half picked off the base of a ruck and went blind. He threw the most audacious dummy that the behemoth, 1.95m Number 8 Gary Teichmann bought along with two other Springbok legends in the aforementioned Van der Westuizen and Andre Venter before touching down in the corner. I have a lasting image in my mind’s eye of Dawson with his head looking forwards and up, placing the ball one handed over the whitewash before wheeling away in celebration. It was a truly iconic moment and one I will always treasure.
One of the most vivid mental images of that try is actually the scoreboard, that to this day, stands at Newlands right in the middle of the stand behind the posts. It read Springboks 16 Lions 15 so the try changed the face of the game and eventually the series. Alan Tait later scored again but this try coupled with the aerial shots of Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background gave this stadium an aura that I have always wanted to experience.
Growing up in Cornwall there was an art shop in Truro that had a painting of that try, with the scoreboard in the back ground may I add and to this day I regret never saving up some money to buy it. I wanted that print so badly and you’ll realise why very soon.
Dad and I skipped home and a week later we made the trip up to the football club again and jumped in hysteria as Jeremy Guscott dropped the goal that won the series.
This was to be the last game of rugby that I ever watched with my Dad as he was hiding the fact that he was terminally ill with a Brain Tumour from me and my brother. Just over six months later Dad was taken from us but I always have the comfort that our last test together was one of the most iconic of all time.
Yesterday I went and watched rugby at Newlands for the very first time and it did not let me down. Dad made sure the weather was perfect for us and as I walked out to the seats I felt a tingle up my spine and something definitely flew in my eye as I started to well up a bit. I was finally here. This grand old stadium full of history and stories to tell and now I could finally tell mine. My first look was to the corner where Dawson had made my Dad and I hug each other with delight and then to THAT scoreboard which the plucky Northampton Saint had turned into the Lions favour.
I’ve been to watch rugby in all corners of Europe and have been to some special stadiums. I’ve been to Twickenham a hundred times and to this day it still gives me a huge buzz of excitement as I come around the corner after the train station to see the concrete beast but this was something that I had promised myself for well over half of my life. I’d always visited Cape Town in the height of summer so I’d been to watch Cricket at Newlands but kept missing out on God’s Game by a week or two.
The game, and the result to a certain degree, was inconsequential to my day as even though I was over 5,000 miles away from where I watched the game with my Dad, being there made me feel incredibly close to him again and made me smile from ear to ear just like Dawson did after that match in 1997.
It almost felt like a weight off my shoulders in some ways as I’ve never fully told this story to anyone before as it was so personal but now I feel the urge to do so as it’s so uplifting for me.
I can’t thank Maritha from Newlands and her incredible hospitality that allowed me to experience yesterday’s match but I will be back, England are coming in June so make sure that Castle Lite is freezing cold please as I need to buy you a couple after the game!! You helped me tick off a bucket list item yesterday with a massive permanent marker.
I know Dad would have loved to have been sat next to me watching yesterdays game but he can be safe in the knowledge whilst looking down that he was!