Yesterday afternoon I travelled to Twickenham Stadium for the launch of the RFU’s Rose & Poppy Gates opposite the middle of the West Stand – essentially a memorial to the England internationals who were killed in the First World War – but (and I was unclear on this point) possibly also to all England rugby internationals, or indeed all rugby players, who have given their lives in military conflicts since.
Those attending, I’m not brilliant at estimating these things but perhaps between two and three hundred counting all participants, had been asked to be in position by 3.00pm for a 3.20pm commencement signalled by the arrival of a military band from the Army’s nearby music school Kneller Hall.
The weather seemed determined to play a part in proceedings. As I was walking to the ground from the station at about 2.45pm the skies darkened, the heavens opened and those in the vicinity were drenched by a ten-minute monsoon-like hailstorm. There was a cohort of public address system teckkies, RFU executives and military men resplendent in dress uniforms and medals milling about, together with a mix of local fans, players from various clubs (who had been asked to come in tracksuits) and school parties.
Exactly on cue the Kneller Hall band could be heard playing and marching through the West car park, led by a female conductor/baton-twirler.
The ‘order of service’ had it that they would play music for twenty minutes until the commemorative service and then unveiling began, but the unsettled weather took a hand.
A sudden squall of gale-force winds that blew PA speakers over and several caps and hats off heads arrived, seemingly forced the organisers to improvise. Within a couple of minutes the VIPs began streaming out through Gate A to line up in front of the lectern and microphones, about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule – almost as if a high-level ‘Oh hell, let’s just go for it’ decision had been taken somewhere.
Amongst the notables involved were former international Lewis Moody (apparently the RFU’s Great War Ambassador), the RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie, RFU president Jason Leonard, the First Sea Lord Sir Philip Jones and three-ranks’ worth of others who, though I could not identify them, were plainly important and/or seemed familiar.
The military chaplain taking the service – evidently a man of distinction for he had an MBE or OBE after his name – was a double leg amputee operating out of a customised wheelchair with one of those clear, baritone voices filled with ‘presence’ that senior military gentlemen tend to possess.
The RFU has been running an initiative since 2014 to commemorate rugby union’s sacrifice in the 1914-1918 War, in which about 130 internationals of all nations lost their lives.
In England’s case, of the team that played the last-ever international before the War began – a 39-13 victory against France at Stade Colombes, Paris, on Easter Monday 13th April 1914 in front of a 20,000 crowd – no fewer than seven of the fifteen perished, two of them (James Watson and Francis Oakeley, aged 24 and 23 respectively, both serving with the Royal Navy) within eight months of that match.
I noticed with interest that the well-known ‘last words’ of captain in Paris that day, Ronald Poulton Palmer – “I shall never play at Twickenham again” – were mentioned in the order of service, since I once met a rugby historian chap who told me categorically that Poulton Palmer had died without speaking after being shot by a sniper. He suspected that this ‘never playing at Twickenham again’ comment was an apocryphal invention, possibly by Nigel Starmer Smith, for the England captain’s original Wikipedia entry – since when it has long since become an erroneous part of England rugby folklore.
After the commemoration service and blessing were over, Jason Leonard supervised the unveiling of the Gates and, a few minutes later, the dignitaries retired back inside the ground and the rest of us crowded in front of the Gates in order to examine that which we had come to celebrate and takes selfies etc.
Afterwards, strolling back to station via the roundabout on the A316 (not an easy passage in the inevitable afternoon rush hour) I looked to my right and could just make out the stands of the Stoop, where only days ago forwards coach John Kingston had been named at Conor O’Shea’s successor at Harlequins.
Mr Kingston is a good man, Quins through and through – he’s been with us since 2001 – and though I wish him and his coaching staff (to include former England forwards coach Graham Roundtree looking after the pack) well, I fear the ‘honeymoon period’ he’ll enjoy from my viewpoint will be brief.
I’m in the camp that felt, after Conor O’Shea’s departure, Quins needed to make a high-profile appointment as successor, both to give new impetus to the playing side of the club and make a statement to the world at that we are aiming at nothing less than world domination.
Names such as Wayne Smith, the highly-respected All Blacks coaching legend, and former Springbok coaches Jake White and Heyneke Meyer, which had been rumoured as candidates under consideration, would have been my preference.
Firstly, whatever his attributes, they do not include visionary thinking or indeed a ‘big media personality’ as his predecessor had. My hunch is that his appointment signals that finding someone with a ‘safe pair of hands’ at the wheel had become the top the priority as regards the decision. As a result, both the club and its fans can expect stability for the foreseeable future, rather than the prospect of the sort of experimentation and edge-of-the-seat rollercoaster ride that would get the Stoop buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
Secondly, it is an internal promotion. I’m a strong believer that five years in any job is about the maximum period for which anyone is ever effective and positive. No disrespect intended to any of them, but the Quins coaching core of John Kingston, Mark Mapletoft, Colin Osbourne and Tony Diprose have all been in place, in one role or another, that long and more.
Continuity is one thing, but shaking up the place and taking the club to another level is what I feel the Harlequins require. After the ‘continuity’ we’ve endured since we won the Aviva Premiership in 2012, you might argue that ‘more of the same’ is the very last thing we need!