In central London on Monday night the assembled cast of almost 500 guests was a typically eclectic one. It always is at the annual Rugby Union Writers’ Club dinner, where no writing occurs and the dining can be a secondary concern. Sandwiched into the bleak no-man’s-land between Christmas and the Six Nations, flicking two defiant fingers at dry January, it is a reliable test of both character and stamina.
In addition to the camaraderie this year’s list of award winners was especially uplifting. The main Pat Marshall Award for the individual who has made the greatest impact on rugby in the previous 12 months went to Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s inspirational World Cup-winning captain. As anyone familiar with Kolisi’s extraordinary back story will know, he must be the ultimate example of just how transformative sport can be.
How many of us would have had the energy, desire, ambition and sheer bloody-mindedness to conquer the world from where Kolisi’s journey commenced? Now 28, he grew up in the tough township of Zwide outside Port Elizabeth, raised by his grandmother from the age of 15 after his mother died. There was so little money that his favourite childhood toy was a brick; so little food that often he had to train on an empty stomach.
What do they know of rugby that only rugby know? For whatever reason, the sport continues to attract extraordinary people like moths to a clubhouse porch light. Maybe it is the physical confrontation or the company of like-minded lunatics. For some, though, it is all about the challenge, of going beyond the bounds that others deem conceivable.
As the mountaineer Chris Bonington once described the essence of climbing to Chris Brasher in the Observer: “It’s not about sure things. It’s about challenging the impossible.” Those words certainly summed up the other main Rugby Writers’ gong recipient: Tom Smith, who received the sparingly-given Special Award in recognition of his unstinting efforts for Scotland and the British and Irish Lions and his ongoing battle, at the age of 48, with stage four cancer.
Sometimes it is the quietest of men who make the biggest impact and Smith – whose father died when he was six – was so quiet at times he made the average Trappist monk sound chatty. He also suffered from epileptic seizures from the age of 18 and, as he once revealed to the Independent’s Chris Hewett, he learned his scrummaging trade the hard way. “When I joined my first senior club in Dundee, there was an old prop called Danny Herrington, a bit of a local legend, who basically shoved my head up my arse in training, twice a week every week for what seemed like years. That’s what you call a learning curve.”
None of it stopped Smith making it to the international stage, where he won 61 caps for Scotland. Nor, ultimately, did it prevent him from being selected ahead of Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree as the starting loosehead prop on the triumphant 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. Like his former Scotland team-mate Doddie Weir, whose courage in facing down motor neurone disease has inspired the rugby world, he remains an unflinching example to us all.
The evening’s other four prize winners from the semi-professional, amateur or community game also have unusual tales to tell. Robert Hayward, formerly an MP and now a lord, helped to found King’s Cross Steelers RFC, the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby club, who celebrate their 25th anniversary this year. Bob Harding played 430 games for Walsall RFC, having survived a serious car crash that involved a four-inch stake going straight through his body and out the other side, missing his vital organs only because he was so tall. The stake, incidentally, is still on display in the club bar.
A refusal to adhere to the supposed norm has also characterised the career of Giselle Mather, Wasps Ladies’ director of rugby, who has done more than most to advance the cause of equality in coaching, having helped advance the careers of, among others, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson during her time with the London Irish academy. As she says: “I think it’s everybody else’s issue, not mine, that I am female. What players want is to be challenged and to develop. Providing they’re getting that, I don’t think it bothers them who is standing up in front of them.”
Last but not least there was recognition for the great Mircea Paraschiv, at his peak probably one of the best scrum-halves in the world, who had caught a plane from Bucharest with his wife. He played 62 times for Romania between 1975 and 1987 and during his time as a player Romania beat France 15-0 in 1980 and also defeated Wales and Scotland in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Romanian rugby may have fallen on harder times but, with Brexit looming, it is not the worst moment to reflect that the game in Europe has a rich and varied heritage and is not just about the elite few. From Kolisi to Smith and Mather to Paraschiv, rugby still has the ability to unite the most unlikely of souls.
An interesting set of figures emerged this week (courtesy of Esportif) relating to attendances in the Premiership and Pro14. With the exception of Saracens, every English club’s attendances are up on a year ago, with Bristol Bears leading the way. Across Europe there are average percentage increases everywhere, save for in Wales, where, collectively, attendances have fallen by 5%. Should that trend continue in 2020, regardless of how well Wales do in the Six Nations, the debate about how best to stimulate the regional game in the country is bound to be reopened.
One to watch
Wales will announce their squad for the Six Nations on Wednesday, their first since Wayne Pivac assumed control from Warren Gatland. Injuries will always be a factor, but the return to fitness of Toby Faletau to bolster Wales’s already bulging back-row resources would strongly suggest the defending grand slam champions will be competitive once again. Scotland are also due to unveil their squad, with the tournament’s opening weekend just over a fortnight away.