Firsts and Lasts: From Croke Park to Twickenham

A reading of this post is available via Spotify here

I remember trips with my father to lots of sporting venues. I have very vivid memories of visiting Croke Park, the home of Gaelic games, with its old wooden benches for seats, the dated scoreboard and the fencing that made a poor attempt at preventing pitch invasions.

Keith Duggan of the Irish Times captured the old Croke Park so vividly in a piece back in 2003:

The old Croke Park looked like it was dreamt up by Bram Stoker, all shadows and cobwebs and crepuscular faces peering out from narrow boxes as they pocketed your money. Even on scorching days, children under 12 walked around the place with blue lips. Men whose idea of a pleasurable afternoon was a good bout of bare-knuckle fighting trembled at the thought of visiting the jacks. The old stadium felt like it was set in frost and that was fine because thousands came on the principle that they would be warmed by the game. A great match was like standing in the night cold around a wood-lit barrel.

Even when I re-read this passage now, I am transported back to that space that exists only in my mind and I recall too, my first time at Lansdowne Road to see Ireland take on Wales. A few years later, trips to one of the world’s oldest test grounds would be far more commonplace: schools’ cup finals, witnessing Richie McCaw’s ‘Man of the Match’ debut or seeing ROG hand-off Malcolm O’Kelly (yes, that is correct) and score as my friend JP, from Tipperary giddy with joy, beamed a few rows in front of me. These moments are etched so firmly in my being, they are almost palpable as I think over them now. Such places can reinforce and reignite the bonds between father and son, team-mate and team-mate, foes on the field but friends off of it, so vividly.

And so it was a privilege to take the team I coach to Twickenham for the Varsity Matches, Oxford vs Cambridge, last week. Having been so many times myself, it only dawned on me as we got off the bus: is this the first time for some of these lads to come to the home of English rugby? We soon discovered it was a very special occasion for five members of the group. I was eager to touch base with them throughout the day, wondering what memories they were forming in those moments as they watched one of the last great bastions of the amateur era, play out in front of them.

The Varsity Match: One of the most historic fixtures in rugby

Not only was it a privilege to watch such a historic fixture in Twickenham, but we are so fortunate to have been allowed to go in the first place. Any school teachers among you reading this will know the red-tape and hassle that organising an excursion can be. Now imagine trying to get such a trip in the penultimate week of term…

We were very fortunate that two main figures were crucial for this day to happen. The first is Dr Anna Stodter, whose Cambridge team we roared for in the Women’s game that morning. My last post spoke of how much my coaches and I took from having her lead on one of our sessions. Most of my team had never had a female coach before and yet later that evening, the fact they were searching for clips from the women’s game, proves how much they took from her session.

The second, and most integral person who was supportive of the trip was our Headmaster, Mr Gregg Davies, who has appreciated this project and has an innate understanding of what values rugby can bestow. Apparently he used to be a referee back in the day, even mentoring a very young Nigel Owens who officiated the Men’s game later that day. These days he just tells me off for how scuffed my shoes look or why I am wearing a tracksuit instead of a suit at work.

Even a rugby-nerd such as myself had reservations about spending the guts of six hours to watch two games. I need not have worried as both games were incredible clashes which kept us entertained throughout. We had made a promise, as an Oxfordshire school, that we would shout for Anna’s Cambridge in the first game and for the Oxford men (I couldn’t have shouted against you Jagsy (Oxford Blue and now coach of the men’s side) in the second game. We choose wisely as both the teams we backed, won their respective contests.

It was fascinating to see the ferocity and intensity of both games. We were are impressed by the physicality of the women’s game as the players threw themselves in front of powerful ball carriers with little regard for their own bodies. The stadium would erupt into ‘Ooo’s and ‘Ah’s with each and every bone shuddering tackle put in by both teams.

When Amelia Miller of the light blues on the left-wing was announced as Player of the Match, I was a little surprised. She had been incredible in her defence and smashed numerous Oxford players in to touch throughout the afternoon. I just felt that Jennie Shuttleworth at 6 was everywhere around the park. She was at the heart of the brutal physical battle that at one stage, left her with a head clash and bloodied nose early in the first half.

Amelia Miller is interviewed after her stellar defensive performance for Cambridge

While she was impressive, her work-rate was matched by her twin sister Fiona on the other side of the scrum who was vying for the title of most dogged Shuttleworth on the park. There will be Oxford players feeling stiff and sort for days to come as a result of these two who were crucial to Cambridge’s success.

Oxford finally cross the Cambridge line to make it 8-5 and with a few minutes left on the clock

It was great to analyse the game with the players on my team at half-time and full time. More than that, it was great for them to see such a good spectacle of rugby in such a historic ground. Arguments broke out over some of the tactical decisions made by both sides and which had been the biggest hit of the match. With the tense and nail-biting finish to the game, it was great to see Cambridge withstand the Oxford fightback and clinch the victory.

With the presentation being made in the stands, we were able to get close to the action to see the tankards presented to all the players and finally the trophy to Cambridge. With the cup-final feel, our lads were gripped by the whole sense of occasion as friends and families of the players hugged and posed for pictures. You could see the envy of many of the lads who began to dream of running out onto the hallowed turf to create their own memories.

The Trophy presentation

The Men’s fixture did not disappoint either with a close tussle in the first half being easily taken by Oxford in the end. Again, it was good to reflect and discuss what the players noticed in this game. Some felt Cambridge had done well to stay with Oxford while others thought there was greater quality across the dark blues.

On the bus home, I readied a surprise for each of the team. We were heading back to school to a rugby dinner which would also see the team presented with various awards: colours, most improved player, player of the season and others. It would be another evening of firsts as many had never been to a formal rugby dinner before. It need to be a quick turn-around as people needed to change into uniforms or black-tie.

Before we got off the bus, I realised too that the lads had a surprise for me as they presented me with a gift. I am not going to lie, there was a point where I feared they had got me some England jersey but clearly they know me far better than this as they had all signed an Irish rugby ball which is a fantastic memento for the past two seasons. 

What the team did not know was I had been in touch with their parents, asking them to write their sons a letter describing why they enjoyed seeing them play rugby or what they think they have learned from being part of this sport and this team. The idea was a variation on something Stuart Lancaster had done for the England team when he took the head coaching job. He contacted past coaches and family members to get them to record what it meant to see them play for England.

With this being the last time this team would be this team- some will move onto other schools for their final two years and they will play with another year group for the first time – I wanted to mark this and so we presented these letters at the end of the dinner. I hope that both players and their parents got something from the opportunity to express what they mean to one another. Even if they do not manage to hold onto the physical letters for years to come, in the same way I remember those trips with my father and friends, hopefully they too will not forget the feeling they had when writing and reading them.

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