Wow, it's true what they say. The years fly by when you are getting old. Four years on from my Odyssey, the World Cup is less than 150 days away, the Festival of Rugby less than 50 days and the World Cup starts again. Yesterday I attended the Best of English, Northampton Saints v Saracens, at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes, (known locally as the Moo Camp), but I didn't spot the concrete cows this time, maybe it was milking time. The event was a trial one for the World Cup and I expected a similar experience to that in France and New Zealand.
I chose to go on the train, I did the sums and in an expensive rugby watching year, I decided to save money. The Saints website ( nominally it was their fixture, although Sarries have played as many games there), said free shuttle buses to the ground, so it sounded so easy. I chose a couple of books to read on the journey, estimated to be 3 hours each way, bought my lunch and parked at the train station.
On arrival at Milton Keynes, Central station, I looked for the stewards to direct me to the shuttle bus. No stewards were around so I asked a Saints supporter where the bus was leaving from. He pointed at a lime green sign 10 yards away saying Shuttle Bus this way. I walked for maybe 10 minutes, across the bus station next door, to get on the bus. The bus seemed to go round millions of roundabouts and pulled up on a bridge, the stadium not in sight. We were directed under and underpass, and told that the bus left from the same place. It was a 15 minute walk before the stadium appeared before us. I have been before, to see Richard Hill's last game (now famed for appearing on my debit card, my Facebook site, my mantlepiece etc.)
Rugby has always had a connection to the Armed Forces, and on the nearest weekend to St George's Day, the chosen charity was Help For Heroes. Both the forces and rugby share similar values, fighting for each other, comradeship, body on the line. Main difference is that rugby doesn't get sent into life threatening situations by their spineless leaders.....
Saints should be commended for their marketing, souvenir shirts, (more of that later), souvenir glasses, and at every seat, a card, which could be folded into a clapper. On one side printed Heart, Passion, Pride, values shared by our Forces I think.
I digress, to carry on the patriotic feel to the day, Saints wore a special red and white shirt, while Sarries ran out in their away kit of white. Ironically the Saints shirt looked like the Sarries away kit of 2003! The guy next to me said, ' why did we change from black?'
Rugby, in England, is classed as a middle class sport, whatever that is. For those who are better off, it is important that we help those worse off than ourselves, and rugby leads the way in its links with charities and also its community programmes - watch School of Hard Knocks for a sobering view of life for the underclass, but also what sport can do in building self belief and discipline in young men.
The game started, and the shirts were so close in colour, that the Sarries kit man was sent off to collect the black kit. Wished we'd never changed as we were winning in white, the ref penalising Saints at the scrum, and in the loose, and at half time we were winning 17-6, the game hinged on two moments, a charge down that couldn't be grounded, and an injury both incidents involving Billy Vunipola, although the challenge that led to his injury will probably be reviewed by the citing officer.
The second half saw carries come out in their back shirts, and Saints were revitalised. I think they may have been subjected to a little chat at half time. All of a sudden the referee decided teams that play in black are baddies, and every penalty bar one was awarded against them, whilst a variety of offences by the team in white and red committed a series of ignored misdemeanours, or is that my frustration at losing? The classic comment of the day was when our prop dropped a ball, and the guy behind shouted, "you wouldn't have dropped your bloody pie".
At the end of the game, the dejected Sarries team came over to thank us. I got the impression from their demeanour that could well be the end of the season, too many disappointments, no adventure for us at HQ! (Mind you after last season, when a very dubious decision at the end by the TMO led to us losing, I don't want to go through those emotions again.)
I trudged off towards the shuttle bus, asking a steward which way to go. He sent me the wrong way and I lost 5 minutes. Never mind I thought, I've got an hour and 15 minutes to the train. I joined the human train to the buses, an unsupervised crowd walking towards a crowded underpass. I stood there for 5 minutes, and the buses on top weren't moving, the steward on the side said 30 minutes walk to the train station. Decision made, I couldn't risk missing my train - 50 minutes before it left, plenty of time and off I set with mostly Saints supporters towards the station. We walked, and walked, and walked. 10 minutes later the sign posts were still saying 2 miles to Central MK. It was a very 'green' walk, along a cycle track, but not a concrete cow in site! 10 minutes later it was 1.75 miles away. I realised that I was now under pressure, so stepped up the walk. At 6.30 I was still half a mile away, and that was the time my train chugged out of the station. Bugger. Night out lost with friends.
Good points: nice arena for a sporting event, good atmosphere, two nice tries by Sarries, (we don't score tries don't ya know?).
Bad Points: bad placing of the shuttle buses, badly trained stewards, running out of Guinness and cider - 'this is not soccer' (Misquote Nigel Owen)
Next adventure: Training to be a RWC volunteer, in a fortnight at guess where? Stadium MK. Think I will be going in my car to that one.
PS to my workmates - can you guess my clever password?