Considering it’s the sport I grew up watching and playing, it seems odd that I’ve never really written much about rugby. Maybe being a Bristol fan it’s just too painful to do so. Nothing really compares to the pain felt by the entire rugby world today though with the passing way too soon of All Black great Jonah Lomu.
For most people weaned on the amateur game, the arrival of a then 20-year old Lomu at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an undeniable turning point in modern rugby. No longer were wingers always the scrawny kids with socks at half mast, they were now rampaging monsters built bigger and stronger than the majority of your pack.
Once Lomu had finished using Mike Catt as a doormat, a legend was instantly born, and the professional era really kicked in. There were even video game endorsements for the unstoppable All Black, and I for one will never forget the classic Sega Saturn outing where the pixelated Lomu was bigger than every player in the game, could hand off with ease and scored tries from everywhere, much to the delight of the commentating legend Bill ‘he digs like a demented mole in there’ McLaren.
Following the 1995 World Cup, Lomu was diagnosed with a rare but serious kidney disease. As was typical of the destructive wing, this didn’t seem to be much of an obstacle to him as he continued to play international rugby until 2003 before having a kidney transplant the year after. During his career, Lomu left defenders trailing in his wake time and time again and was the ultimate embodiment of strength against adversity, even when the injuries piled up.
I remember whilst at University in 1999, the money that was being pumped into Bristol Rugby at the time seemed to be on the verge of luring Lomu to the club. I pinned the Daily Mail article that broke the story to my bedroom wall, hoping and praying that we’d be able to pull off such a massive coup. Unfortunately it never came to pass and I was left ruing what might have been as Bristol eventually tumbled from the Premiership in 2003 and never really recovered to this day.
Once Lomu finally called time on his playing career, the world got to see how his brain matched his brawn as he tirelessly went about his duties as both an ambassador for the sport as well as for other charities such as Help For Heroes. Endlessly giving, Lomu even turned out in a charity match to support a local children’s charity in Aberavon, a game pulled together by friends he had made during his time playing for Cardiff Blues.
This year, Lomu came over to the UK to take part in promotional work during the Rugby World Cup. Having managed to get into the Heineken Lounge at Twickenham during the semi-final weekend, we decided we had to get in again before the Final, especially considering Lomu was the guest at the prestigious event. We donned All Black tuxedos, chatted up as many Heineken promotional girls we could find, but all to no avail; we got within yards of the big man, but sadly didn’t get what is now one final chance to meet him and thank him for all that he had done for the sport.
You can call anyone a legend if they happen to have been particularly successful in a sport, but Lomu never won the World Cup. His career was stop-start and plagued by injuries alongside his kidney issues. Despite this, for everything that Jonah Lomu did to prove that against all adversity you can be the best at what you do, Lomu was undoubtedly just that, a legend in life and in the game he loved. And for that, I thank him and hope that his legacy continues for all who participate in the game in the future. Thank you Jonah and rest in peace.
I’ve never done much travel writing before, probably because I haven’t travelled enough to warrant it, but having just been on a rather jolly excursion to Italy, I thought I’d wrap it all up in a bit of a report.
The trip to Rome started (as many holiday discussions do) in the pub as a tipsy pipe dream. Myself and a friend both agreed that the match that England play in Italy every other year in the Six Nations always looks like a great spot to take in a game of rugby. Open air stadium, sun shining, laid back Italian culture and a great atmosphere. The only difference between this and our plans to travel down under, or to Germany for Oktoberfest or pretty much everywhere else on the planet, was that this time we got hold of some match tickets. I say we, it was my friend who did pretty much all of the organising, but nonetheless, this time we were kick-started into action.
When the tickets arrived despite having bought them off the Internet via less than official channels, we thought we’d better actually get the plan sorted. Originally we thought we would fly out on Friday and return on Sunday, somehow fitting in a game of rugger in the middle. We soon realised that a) direct flights and b) any flights at all over this particular (Valentine’s) weekend in February were going to be costly, so suddenly the whole thing was looking less than cost-effective.
After compromising by swapping planes in Paris, and also by flying out on Thursday, we got the whole flight and three night hotel deal for around £250. Not bad at all. And so with about a second mortgage’s worth of spending money in my drinking wallet, it was time to fly out.
Or so we thought. During the week of departure I got wind that the French were looking to strike, up until and including the day we flew. We also saw on the news that Rome had experienced its first snowfall in 26 years only the weekend before. Our equivalent flight on the Wednesday had been cancelled, so we got to Manchester Airport with some trepidation…but somehow we got lucky. The flight went ahead and the change over in Paris was smooth. Touching down in Rome, we hopped aboard the Leonardo Express and headed towards the main city centre train station, Termini.
First impressions of Rome sum up the city completely; it’s a bit scruffy. But to be fair to the Italians, this only adds to the charm. The trains (apart from the nice posh touristy Leonardo one) are scrawled from tip to toe with graffiti (much of it about Rebus, but we weren’t sure if this was some anti-Ken Stott protest, or the tag of the Italian Banksy). Arrivals in the airport also left a lot to be desired, but in all honesty we were more concerned with finding our way to our hotel. On the whole, the place oozed with the Italian attitude of “we don’t need to try too hard to dress things up, we know people will still come.”
We’d been leant a guide book by another friend and through this and other sources we had heard that the area around Termini was a bit dodgy, and our hotel, worryingly, wasn’t too far South of this. This made us a little apprehensive, but on arrival, the centre of town seemed just like any other. Yes, there were a few tramps about and some “interesting” looking shop fronts but overall the place seemed pretty relaxed and quiet as we meandered towards our hotel.
We stayed at the Hotel Santa Prassede which was, shall we say, functional. We had a nice comedy introduction to the chap on reception who couldn’t cope with the name Knight (Meester Cannicht!!!!!) and when we got taken to our twin room featuring only a double bed we were a little worried, but the chap let us have an adjacent room as well for the first night, offering to make the double into two singles after that. Overall, it was probably what we expected, and what we needed; somewhere to get our heads down after long days on the booze in an excellent central location.
We dropped our bags off and headed out to find some food. Upon finding an “Irish” bar and restaurant, Old Marconi’s, literally on the same road as the hotel, we couldn’t resist and soon found ourselves tucking into a pint of Guinness and a chicken-y and crisp-y potato-y plate of nosh. We thought we’d take it easy that first night, especially as it was about 10pm local time by the time we arrived, but for some reason the bar just didn’t close. There weren’t that many punters in there, although a few did come and go after us. Even so, the barman seemed perfectly happy to carry on serving as long as there was someone in there. A far cry from the strict British last orders system and this meant that I was already liking this city a hell of a lot.
We made an early start on the Friday with the intention of getting around as many of the tourist spots as possible by foot alone. Starting at the Colosseum we soon realised a flaw in the plan; Rome was pretty much shut. After getting mugged of a note or two by some long-johnned ‘authentic’ Roman Centurions for a few tourist snaps in front of the Colosseum, our new 2000 year old best friend Thomas (you from Manchester? Manchester Unite yes?) told us that the monument was closed, as was the Forum and the Pantheon due to predicted snow. Not actual snow, predicted snow.
Apparently the weekend before, the city had been caught completely off guard and they had to evacuate all tourists from the ancient ruins for fear of broken limbs caused by the ice. Luckily we could still get up close to these architectural works of genius but we were prevented from going in.
Moving on down the road we came to the impressive, if slightly Fascistic Il Vittoriana. Our guide book told us that the place was hated by locals for its imposing ice-white look, but I found the sight impressive even whilst getting moved away from the front of the building by scary looking police with guns. We would have liked to have gone into the building and even stood atop it to look out over the city, but as it looked like some official governmental event was going on, (flags were strangely at half mast throughout Rome whilst we were there), we hurried on with our journey before we got caps popped in our collective tourist asses.
We carried on pottering, and soon realised not only how easy it was to get around the place but also what astounding architecture there was at every turn. One minute we’d be walking down an alley only to emerge into a piazza boasting a massive, imposing obelisk in front of an equally impressive building dating back hundreds of years. Many were embassies or other governmental buildings and it was great to see such ancient buildings still in use.
We then went to visit the Trevi fountain, famous for its role in La Dolce Vita, and were amazed by its size and grandeur. Desperate for a coffee at this point, we took our first Espresso “at the bar” (where you pay less than at a table) and continued on our way West. The Pantheon was our next sight, a glorious old Roman temple which again was unfortunately closed. Despite this slight issue, there was still no denying the epic spectacle.
We eventually arrived at a bridge over the Tiber that would take us into the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City. Despite the now-rainy weather, the sights we saw and the sense of occasion that is produced by the place was really amazing to behold. St Peter’s Square leading up to the Basilica is vast to say the least, and you can only imagine what the atmosphere is like when the throngs descend to witness one of the Papal addresses. Following our guidebook around the Basilica itself we heard the stories behind all the fantastic architecture and history of the place. To think that the building was first constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and yet remains so intact and impressive is astounding, as is the fact that Michelangelo played such a massive part in its construction at such a late stage in his life.
We continued around and down into the grotto beneath the Basilica, witnessing the tombs of Popes past, before setting off on a climb to the top of the tower. You can choose to either get a lift part way and then climb 300-odd steps or do the whole caboodle of 500+ by foot. We chose the latter, paid our money and began the journey. Towards the top, the spiral staircases tilt to such astounding slants that they give the place an Alice In Wonderland feel, and you begin to wonder how much narrower it will get. Once at the top though, the effort was definitely worth it. Despite the weather, the views across the city from atop the dome were incredible and after catching our breath and spending a few minutes walking around above the whole city, we began the descent.
After a pizza and beer lunch (we were in Italy after all), we went to the Vatican Museum, trying to avoid the ridiculous amount of umbrella sellers on the way. Featuring works collected over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the museum features just about every type of art and artefact you could imagine, from wall-dominating tapestries through to thousand year old sculptures and paintings from throughout the ages.
Of course, the one part of the museum that no-one wants to miss is the Sistine Chapel. The incredible frescoes covering every inch of the place leave tourists and pilgrims from across the world agog and you could spend hours just scanning the intricate works and finding parts that you missed first time around. Despite the warnings, pretty much everyone took photos in there, and you can’t really blame people when they’ve travelled from far and wide to see it.
After the museum visit, we began walking back towards our hotel, and by this time it really was throwing it down with snow, the ancient cobbles providing a hazardous walkway towards the city’s South-east. We decided we deserved a quick Peroni Red on the way back so we stopped at a café on the Piazza outside the Pantheon under an outdoor heater (we’re not completely insane). Whilst taking this breather we discussed the fact that we needed to scope out the best place to watch the Man Utd v Liverpool match the next day so thought we’d check out some “traditional” Irish bars on the way back. First up was Finnegan’s which seemed highly recommended in the guide book but in reality was pretty full of hateful Brits abroad, blasé bar staff and not the finest quality Bombardier or Nastro Azzurro. We thought we’d press on and find another couple of bars which sounded like they’d be smaller, and in no way were we disappointed.
The first, The Druid’s Den is a great little place. Run by JJ, a Scottish ex-pat, we struck up a rapport and enjoyed a few quality pints of Guinness at the bar. We mentioned we were also going to try The Fiddler’s Elbow, and JJ said to ask for Heather there, as the place (which was only round the corner), was run by one of her friends. Sure enough, The Fiddler’s also provided a great welcoming atmosphere with amazing bar staff, better Guinness than you get in some bars back in Blighty and all the laid-back joviality you need when on a trip abroad.
We then decided to head back to Old Marconi’s for a quick bite to eat before doing another tour of the pubs. We ended up on the electronic dartboard in The Druid’s and found ourselves on the receiving end of a bit of a hustle from three swarthy European rugby chaps. My form soon plummeted, especially as I failed to truly comprehend the rules of the darts variant “cricket” that we were playing. Despite the loss, we had some good banter and after a couple of hours realised they were Spanish rather than Italian as we had thought all along. Typical ignorant Brits abroad, but hopefully you won’t see us on some awful reality show that reveals our drunken idiocy on the continent.
The next morning’s hangover was special to say the least. We intended to get an early start to see some more sights but rolling out of the hotel at 11am, we thought it best to just focus on breakfast and getting to the pub for the football.
The previous night, JJ had agreed to open early for the lunchtime kick off so we headed down there after an Irish breakfast at Old Marconi’s accompanied by a couple of litres of Coke. Once again though, the snow became a worry. JJ had offered to ring for a few taxis for us and a few other chaps in the pub so we thought we had plenty of time to watch all the football and then potter on up to the Stadio Olimpico, but as the weather worsened, we began to get more and more concerned. At halftime, when JJ tried phoning through, the taxis had been taken “off line” just as they had the previous week – the police deeming it too dangerous for nutbag Italian taxi drivers to be out on treacherous icy roads.
Helpfully, JJ gave us directions to get to the Metro underground station, which would get us to the tram, and eventually the stadium. We decided to head off early in case of delay and negotiated the simple underground (cheap tickets, straightforward line layout) before hitting the tram queue. And what a queue it was. Snaking around a couple of blocks, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a cold, wet wait. One of the guys we were loosely following checked his iPhone and declared that it wasn’t too far (maybe a couple of miles) to walk to the stadium, so after some umming and erring, we decided to travel on foot. After a slushy, cold, slightly more than two miles walk we eventually arrived at the stadium, and rewarded ourselves with a big Peroni and a pig bap, which surprisingly was cheaper than the equivalent at the Manchester Christmas Markets, and tastier too.
As this was the first time Italy had played a Six Nations match at the Stadio Olimpico, we weren’t sure what the turnout would be, but my word, they and their fans put EVERYTHING into the occasion. With balloons and hats on all the seats, the near-capacity crowd became a sea of red, white and green, and the Italian anthem was a typically boisterous but good-natured affair. Despite the snow on the way to the ground (and indeed the snow on the pitch), we were on time, and the game went ahead. I won’t go into detail about the match itself, other than to say England were awful in the first half and after conceding two tries in two minutes towards the end of the first 40 minutes, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. England still triumphed, and the atmosphere really contributed to an enthralling, if scrappy game.
On our way out of the stadium we decided to walk for a bit and then flag down a taxi, as conditions had improved a bit. I suddenly heard a female voice to the side of me exclaim how “f**king cold” it was and when I agreed, she apologised for her potty mouth, and we soon struck up conversation. Debs (her name) was there with other half Phil, a great Essex couple who had experienced a rather warmer Italy v England match 10 years previously. We mentioned to them that we were intending to head back to The Druid’s to watch the France v Ireland game and they came along. Failing to find an available taxi, we eventually found a Metro and somehow beat most of the other punters back to The Druid’s, only to see the other rugby game called off at the last minute. Realising how lucky we were to actually see a match, we settled in for the evening, grabbing pizza from next door and nailing Guinness and Harp until the wee small hours with our new acquaintances.
On Sunday it was time to head on back home, so we meandered to the train station, sad to see the back of a now-sunny Rome. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and experienced those typical heading home from holiday blues, made worse by being told that our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Manchester had been cancelled. Fortunately Al Italia got us onto a Paris flight and after some negotiation and tense moments at Charles De Gaulle, we successfully boarded a flight to foggy Manchester only a couple of hours later than planned.
All in all, the trip was an amazing experience. Arranging a holiday around a sporting event proved successful, and the freak weather meant we got to experience something that few others have or ever will. Yes, it was disappointing not to get into the big famous monuments, but we still made the most of our time, and were treated brilliantly by every single local we came across. As a first time in the country, it could barely have been better, and I must say that next year’s planned trip to Dublin is going to have to go some to beat it…