Planning for the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Reminders have popped up on Faceboook from two years ago of the England World Cup and the regular media made coverage of a two year countdown in Japan – so seems enough stimuli to actually start planning for the 2019 event.

Tickets

The schedule is yet to be announced, with qualifying not finished, though the first game will be mid to late September with the final likely to be around Halloween weekend. Of dubious provenance, there has also been a ticketing website set up. Though this is only really at pre-registration levels at the moment, it makes sense to at least get some details down now.

I can recall low-tech methods for buying game tickets between 2002 and 2005, often including selecting a ticket via a terminal in a convenience store then paying in cash over the counter. Hopefully things have moved on, indeed I have seen CC bookings in for baseball games more recently, but it’s a nice demonstration of a cash-dominated society in what was once acountry of advanced digitalisation.

Games

There are a dozen locations already confirmed and in some cases almost been ready for use. Sapporo is a city built for events such as this with a covered stadium often a requirement for a snowy city and a big brewing history. Kumagaya offers a mini rugby city outside Tokyo and is the one location I can remember playing at, albeit one I suffered a broken collar bone at from a miscommunication with a Japanese playmaker.

The fan experience I’ve always found to be highly choreographed and enjoyable with any notions of alcoholism long since disregarded. The ultimate game accessory, beer attendants, has long been the norm. I partake at the baseball sometime in 2008 below. Colour schemes are all part of the routine, indeed getting my various Japanese shirts, flags and scarfs co-ordinated has long since been mentally planned.

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Transport

The crucial message from my post about the JR rail pass was that it was only really worth it if you took in two long-range (two hour plus) return journeys. In other words, if you base yourself somewhere and travel to two other places, it’s a good use of money buying one of the longer term passes.

What I also discovered recently is non-Japanese passport holders can get a JPY 10,000 flat rate for flights. If you only have one or two legs to travel between major cities, then it works out better in terms of cost. If money is no object, I found the speed of the bullet train is faster for point to point journeys under around 500 miles.

Accommodation

Again for the well heeled, the ultimate accommodation is the full service at a Japanese Inn, a Ryokan, with only a few rooms per establishment, meals served to your room, a stone bath and dressing gowns all part of the experience. My wife Becky deemed this the highlight of a two week Asia tour recently, Kyoto is the must-see tourist destination to do this from, based around games in the west of the country.

More expedient, Ryokans do go down to most budgets with the minshiku it’s more casual brother. For a late night drinking, the capsule hotel is another eponymous Japanese experience, from my friend’s experience, it does seem a male preserve. For really late and unplanned evenings out when the trains stop, an Internet cafe is a perfect crash pad with showers, melon soda and connectivity all softening the landing.

Exercise and decompression

Playing for Tokyo Gaijin RFC in Tokyo for two years pretty much kept me in Japan for a year longer than intended, with a bunch of English teachers and bar staff from all the major rugby nations and Canada proving an essential escape valve. A couple of weeks in Japan and an ad-hoc game would be perfect to round off the trip. As an esteemed former Gaijin skipper described the experience:

“We got up at the crack of dawn and travelled to the arse end of nowhere, the pitch is made of concrete, the warm up has been hopeless and the referee is crazy. I’ve played fifty games with some of you and it’s the first time I’ve met you others, but we need to make the most of it”

Good job the rest of the country is the land of convenience.

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Responsible tourism and visiting developing economies

Patronising a developing country through tourism I’ve found to be deceptively easily in the last few years and this peak UK holiday season has been punctuated by articles spotlighting the outright damaging effects of tourism. I’ve bought together a few successes, from a stack of patronising failures, from visits to South Africa, The Philippines, Vietnam and Europe.

Tipping versus understanding

White owners and senior staff visibly running South African restaurants while more junior black service staff are an instant demonstration of the huge inequality still in society. You almost, or do, feel guilty with the excellent service you inevitably get as an overseas visitor as well, so not giving a 10 to 20 percent tip is churlish. Whether this actually makes any difference in overcoming inequality, I’m not sure. More likely it simply consolidates the status quo – it’s maybe even regressive.

While Hussar Grill and Butchers Table are what I had in mind here, a similar protein-focused meal can be had in Mzolis in a Cape Town township. It’s actually a butchers with a grill and tables attached and can be combined onto the end of a cycle or walking tour of the township, though I was gleefully regaled by a taxi driver who told me he took two German tourists there in the evening and picked them up later. The poor side of the economic/social divide, for sure, but it gives a broader view of society as a whole and an understanding of what has gone on in SA.

A lobster battered in what appeared to be popcorn in an Asian resort a few years back was all the incentive we needed to rapidly break out from the cosseting of a similar establishment in the Philippines this year. There are numerous pork barbecues throughout the country, a great value win and an easier way to better understand the country as part of a mixed foreign and local crowd. It’s easier to eat this way, on plastic chairs in a converted garage, in the Far East and then aim for global equivalents.

First world colonisation

Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein has been nearly a seminal work in my travelling experience. It contains some pretty strong words for international resorts sprung up in developing countries for reasons of poor ecology, economic sustainability and exploitation of workers. I don’t think it always has to be that way though and there are examples of accommodations developed ethically in developing countries.

Kinsterna, a renovated abbey in the Penopelese in Greece, seems to have a target of self-sufficiency: at least in certain products such as olive oil, wine, honey, water and dairy with meat and fish from the local area. All desirable, especially when staff get paid 100% of wages, rare in the country. What conversation did glean, though, was that staff were giving up careers in regular industries in Greece. Surely this will produce a labour shortage somewhere, but not directly linked to tourism.

Ecology I largely assumed was part of Kinsterna’s agenda as well, synonymous with self-sufficiency. GBP 40 a night promises ecological balance at Mango Bay in Phu Quoc of the Vietnamese coast at the Mekong Delta, important in an area of the country where sustainable agriculture is crucial for the whole country. Weird soap, grey towels and minimal night lighting is easy in the tropics and clearly doesn’t effect the food, drink and beaches. Especially when it’s all miles away from the nearest local inhabitant.

Barriers

This isolation maybe because owners think peace and quiet is what guests want, but likelier they think it’s more desirable without locals kicking around and demonstrating the wealth divide too obviously. Isolation seems the binding element of tourist enclaves in South Africa, Philippines, Greece and in Vietnam.

While I’m not usually fond of a mugging, it seems putting a physical barrier between the developing world while taking advantage of low prices is the common denominator. Personally, I can only live with this by, at a minimum, finding out what the other side of the often metaphorical fence is like. How far beyond varies. But chilling on the easy side doesn’t seem progressive for anyone.

Requirements for a weekend in Moscow

On the face of it, Moscow is a fringe, enigmatic but totally possible weekend destination from London and also a good BA miles run, given it’s the shortest long haul flight the airline do. Despite this though, there are a number of pitfalls to be wary of, not least a convoluted visa process. The below is a list of steps in chronological order for a quick pootle round one of the grandest, most enigmatic and now autarchic European capitals.

Flights

A result of a lot of political sanctions from the west and most likely a fearful lack of incentive, flights from London and the rest of Europe are cheap as anything at the moment with KLM doing indirect via Amsterdam for as little as GBP 150 and BA and Aeroflot offering around GBP 300 direct. I’m still a little suspicious of Aeroflot after witnessing one of their hostesses staggering out of the cockpit with lipstick smeared around her face clutching a vodka bottle in the 2000s, so it will probably be BA next.

Time zone woe is a slight factor on an otherwise easy four hour flight. Three hours plus from London takes a lot out of your day on the outward flight so I think as early as bearable in the morning is the best bet. The sequencing of tasks for getting a visa to Russia means getting the flight booked first makes things easier. Next step is booking, though not necessarily paying for, somewhere to stay.

Hotel

Even the shortest term visa, from the UK at least, requires a formal document: the letter of invitation. A friend or a business can supply this if you making your own arrangements, but even the lowliest of accommodation suppliers seem authorised to do this as well. I stayed in the self-styled artistic hangout Oh So Indie House Hostel in 2014 who were happy to provide this after paying a mere GBP 4 deposit for an twenty pound a night stay. This gets you a pod in a ten dorm room, a huge structure providing all ten beds and lockers arranged end first, like a giant wine rack. Think sleeping in a Jenga tower.

This was actually a very comfortable stay with the only slight downfall being the necessity of getting changed, then showering, in a cubicle I could only just get my shoulders through without getting my clothes wet. I spent a few hours in the communal, grandly high-ceilinged, lounge there and was interested to hear the Ukrainian crisis unfolding on TV with Russian guests getting increasingly befuddled with their neighbours unwise and ungrateful posturing. A good lesson in a bit of travel providing people-based insight you can’t get at home.

Visa

Having collated the letter of invitation, hotel booking and flight details, the visa is now possible. Reciprocity means this is now expensive, at over GBP 100 including fees for even the cheapest version. It may be possible to get part of the fee cheaper by going to the Russian Embassy, but the agents vfs.global in Old Street, North/East central London is, if you include some Russian surliness as part of the experience, easy if you are able to walk in there. Though a photo is required, this isn’t actually present on the visa when complete, the Russian states “Valid without photo”.

Moscow metro and Lenin: A lesson in Cyrillic

The imposing and inspiring socialist statues of the Metro are arguably a top ten tourist destination in their own right, which is just as well because using it for transport can be challenging. The network is as complicated as London, New York or Paris, but unlike a lot of Moscow written almost entirely in Cyrillic. Mix and match works to find your way, but the best method I discovered was to find the terminus destination of each train as it arrived, having planned your route before starting. It’s fairly risk-free though. As I understand, with trains every minute, it’s one of the most frequent in the world.

The embalmed remains of Lenin, sited in a tomb on the Kremlin-side of Red Square, are unquestionably a top ten tourist site and happily for the frugal, free. It’s a brisk walk round three sides of the tomb in the dark and silence, which adds gravitas to the whole procedure. Any thoughts about whether it’s morally acceptable for this reverence to the father of Soviet socialism, or indeed to be looking at a pickled visionary nearly 100 years after his death are quenched by this dark, silent and rapid walk-around. Like the metro, his tomb is marked only by an encryption in Cyrillic. You could miss it.

The alphabet I had learnt years before, so I could work around these things. For a trip longer than a weekend, it’s worth learning. You can do it over a weekend and I found even without knowing the language to go with it – it can go a long way.

London Cycle tour: London’s evolution

It wasn’t planned that way, but it has just been a weekend of several hundred years of London’s history leading up to its social smorgasbord present. This was also planned to be a TripAdvisor review of Tally Ho! Bicycle tours, a fine two-wheeled tour of historical sites in Westminster.

Evolution not revolution or creation

That the UK (or London) has evolved rather than being created or subject to design through revolution is a long-taught part of High School social sciences and this three and a half hour tour by on the quintessentially-British Pashley bikes contains food for thought with around a dozen stops around historical Westminster sites in three and a half hours of easy-going cycling. Our guide was Harry, London born and bred and while studying Economics and Government a source of real knowledge.

Tucked up between the back of the MI5 building and the Palace of Westminster, St Johns Smith Square is a peaceful, architectural gem of an address, demonstrating a lot of these qualities. The centrepiece was around St John, once a church now a classical music venue. The almost cubical design with four turrets was said to take its design from Queen Anne’s upturned footstool, which she kicked over and suggested was emulated in an argument with the architect Thomas Archer. It’s now surrounded by listed houses selling for anything between seven and twelve million pounds.

That the wide, sedan-chair-width main doors and gutter-access servant’s doors are now accessed by the same people represents social progress of sorts, though probably not as much as you’d expect. The recent cancellation of London’s Garden Bridge, though, is some reminder that architectural sycophancy is still around in some sort of form.

Some progress

Smith Square almost entirely merges onto Westminster School gardens, site of an actual reversal of equality. There is something monastic and gothic about this Square, entirely penned in away from the bustle of Victoria in a scene that could have been passed direct from the 1800s, especially with the distant sound of a choir practising.

Westminster School was originally set up for the orphaned destitute of the parish around Westminster in Dean’s Yard, but several hundred years of evolution has seen the market better utilise it as a public school with yearly fees of over GBP 20,000 for an education adjacent to the UK seat of Government. Nice intentions you feel, but subtly corrupted by the market benefits of the location over the years.

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Whether this conservatism is directly down to the church’s closed-shop attitudes is hard to judge, but another anecdote here gleefully passed on by Harry was the debate about women becoming bishops, which took place relatively recently in the tellingly historic looking, but actually 20th Century Church House. Though mercifully approved, a noteworthy argument against was that women would struggle with the emotional demands of the bishop’s role and may faint.

Pluralistic present

After stops at Horse Guards Parade, Lambeth Palace, Covent Garden and The Embankment, Street Art is the final stop under Waterloo Station, quite a nice ending and one where everyone is free to spray out some creativity. Intention or design I’m not too sure, but this jigsaw riot of clashing colour does point to a more positive, egalitarian and liberal present and future in London.

A riot of colour, smells of various types of incense and bashing of instruments were funnily enough the theme of Shri Kanagathurkkai Amman Temple (SKAT) festival in Ealing, literally a hundred meters from my front door on 13 August. Though I’d seen the elephant shrine in storage it was a lot more invigorating to see it used in the spirit it was intended. Though I missed it, and my friends Malcolm and Anita imbibed, the local park was distributing free food in the spirit of togetherness.

Similar to the graffiti, you feel new influences are where the good stuff and the hope currently is in London, the contemporary curve on over a couple of hundred years of evolution.

Hong Kong 7s: Getting tickets

Demand for the best rugby tournament in Asia means getting hold of tickets for the Hong Kong 7s is a challenge. I identify the easiest, most difficult and most frustrating ways to do this, influencing a wider schedule for a trip.

By and large, Hong Kong residents only are eligible in a ballot for cost price tickets, with an allocation packaged up with tours of various types. Of course, there is a reselling market as well through a number of channels, I’ve used all of these for trips to the 2008 and 2012 tournaments, while I’ve always kept an eye on the logistics for tournaments following this later visit.

Hotel packages

Sports specialist tour operators from Europe and globally organise a range of packages to cover flights, hotels and tours sold in combination with a match tickets for all three days of the tournament. This is probably the easiest way to do it, but the most expensive by a distance. UK-based Gullivers Travel, though, have recently started offering hotel and ticket only packages. This comes out at around GBP 750 per person for a very basic hotel on Hong Kong island and ticket. The pro rata cost of this, however, is equivalent to paying GBP 400/night for a small three star twin room for two.

From the very limited experience I’ve had with these touring companies, it’s a cosseted experience with an older crowd. But that was no protection of Champagne cork scrap I cowered from on a Eurostar carriage on a similar trip to Paris.

Flight packages

Cathay Pacific are main sponsors of the event and historically have offered a slightly overpriced tournament ticket if you buy a flight with them to Hong Kong from a global range of locations. I’m always well disposed to Cathay after getting upgraded with a bunch of English teachers when our dozy school failed to confirm reservations for us – it’s a discerning brand.

In 2016, however, this wasn’t available from anywhere in Europe but was from places like Dubai, China and Singapore. Depending on circumstances, it could be worth getting a cheap positioning flight to these locations, then picking up a package from there. This is better for later decisions as these packages only become available around the new year. Cathay’s site has placeholder text at the time of writing.

Independent logistics and free style tickets

From experience there is a massive resale market with varying levels of officialty. Viagogo is the official resale market and as a result is expense. Once tickets go on sale to the HK public this becomes quite an active pool and offers the benefit of being able to pick out individual days if you aren’t doing the whole tournament.

More independently, there is lots of activity on Asia XPat with less incentive for profit, I’ve benefitted from this before though it offers less guarantees. In 2012 I can recall running up and down flights of stairs with a horse’s head costume attempting to buy a ticket off a couple before their babysitter knocked off for the night.

Finally, just picking up a ticket off the streets leading to the stadium can lead to rich pickings as well. I picked up a ticket for one day of the tournament here for HKD 700 (street value estimate is 1000/day) from a mortally hungover scouser, limp hot dog costume at his side. Main tactic in the haggle was he needed to throw up before I could get more notes out of my pocket. As much as the supporter scene changes in rugby, dare I say sobers out, ¬†I can’t see a situation of a hangover-free crowd anytime soon.

Watching rugby in Georgia: U20s Championship finals day

World Rugby’s tournaments have a festival feel with the final day actually comprising six games from two stadiums in Tbilisi. Clogger and I walked an hour to the Meskhi stadium from downtown to see things from a Georgian fans point of view. The hurried purchase of home nation shirts, scavaging the few remaining bottles of water available and elbowing our way past nut and seed vendors set the early fan experience.

Georgia V Ireland

Are props born and not made? The other way around? Georgian props appear to be churned off the production line as fully-formed, 35-year-old-knarled-and-bearded spherical scrummagers. Ireland had enough technical skill and ability to close out the ninth place final, but if Georgia are going to follow Argentina’s path into top tier international game a solid set piece, ferocious rucking and phase play geared to get their props careering into centres will force some teams into submission as part of their case.

With an aggressive crowd not quite warmed up and with an earful of sound whiteboard drills, Ireland started better. It’s clear tier one nations have an advantage in more developed skills, meaning Ireland were able to secure a constant stream of possession. The clear sense of purpose in their international structure saw a neat wrap around and some slick passing, reminiscent of their full international team, for a well-worked try by fullback Alan Tynan on twenty minutes.

A crowd fired on mainly by sunshine and ubiquitous sunflower seeds in a baked concrete bowl of a stadium was never likely to help Ireland. A fierce five meter defensive scrum, leaving tractor marks in the turf, flicked a Georgian switch somewhere to herald phase after phase of pick and goes and passes to heavy forwards running at backs mixed with kicks though the middle and commitment to dive on loose balls. Like South Africa and France, a lot of rugby seems to be played through scrum half in Georgia and Gela Aprasidze’s probing set up a prop special try and a penalty going into half time.

 

Fresh from a half time drilling, two quick tries from Irish close quarter play should have wrapped things up. Crank up the engine room in Georgia though, and belief flows. A fierce din enveloping the bowl with a crowd scenting blood willed Aprasidze over the line from beyond half way with a defence in retreat fearing more physical punishment. It’s probably one for the future to address, but a series of scrums Georgia attempted to milk for a penalty went the other way, consolidating a six point victory for Ireland. It sent a message that game management trumps emotional and physical blood and thunder.

France V South Africa

The full international between these sides on Saturday represented a play-off for which full international side has deteriorated the most over the last few years, evidently France after a 37-15 South Africa win. These under twenties, therefore, represented a sighter for their respective futures.

On first half performances, it appeared a movement away from the current, maligned, French bulk game and more flair, at least in patches, with faster and lighter forwards making ground and offloading attempted as default. This yielded the first try after 27 minutes with nuggety hooker Mauvaka recipient of a swiftly moved line out maul. Symptomatic of French sides playing away though, they slipped off their game plan and a typically direct South African pack started to assert themselves.

Looking for something more substantial at half time, we got involved in the hot dog and cured pork stand and waited there for about half an hour while orders were shouted across in Georgian. Hunger got the best of me and it seems risking burnt nipples leaning over the hot plate to mime an order is the only way to get things done. Bottled water is the only non-insane drink to be attempting in mid-afternoon sun, virtuous, but it doesn’t quite wash out the taste of rendered pork fat.

South Africa grew into this game with a more linked up performance than the French had followed in the first half. The best solution to racial quotas in South African sport is surely one where the squad is picked on merit, matching the demographic of wider society. This one certainly went some way to doing this with an athletic back division representative of the rainbow nation bolted onto traditional heft up front. As French cohesiveness evaporated, fly half Libbok punished through both long range kicking as well as having the luxury of time running the game ball in hand – though typical suffocating forward play put France out of this one.

Full time 37-15 to South Africa, same result as the full international, but heading in totally different directions.

England v New Zealand

This is a Gold Silver game across all formats in World Rugby in 2017, but even that rating masks vast differences between born rugby natives from New Zealand and a well organised and talented English team that has skills and physicality still to develop.

Any real sort of drinking on days like this in Tbilisi can only safely be attempted following 1800 and beer seemed appropriate for the final. Queue time for a Natakhtari lager was long, but only through chronically low supply than high demand. At GEL 3, less than a British Pound, boozing is definitely cost effective though alcohol isn’t the scene it is in established rugby countries and local supporters create the cauldron atmosphere on water alone. If I had my time again, I would have taken in wine and avoided queuing in the concrete bowels of the stadium and missing the haka.

While New Zealand stormed into the final swatting teams aside, England needed to hang on in games, a pattern fully evident in the first half. The All Blacks’ domination of number one ranking in full internationals is though strong core skills across all players with forwards passing and drawing men and backs swatting tacklers aside. The Baby Black wing Faingaanuka in particular demonstrated the full spectrum of tactics to rule the left wing. Despite it all, the fundamentals of scrummaging highlighted the gulf in class and all action hooker Asafo Aumua¬†took the first of his three tries as well as showing off a hooking masterclass in the tight.

England had won two previous games against Australia and South Africa chasing the game with quick taps, fast hands and industry through the middle, the only way they were going to get back into this one, though fatally undermined though knock ons and execution errors created through work rate and physicality in defence. Number eight Zach Mercer and Fly half Max Malins had shone in earlier games, though neither could impose themselves here in a 64-17 defeat.

How many of each team were missing in Tbilisi was a slightly taboo, almost unspoken sub-narrative of this game. New Zealand had Reiko Ioane and Jordie Barrett eligible, but required for a full test series against the British Lions back home. England had five players with Eddie Jones on England’s two test series in Argentina, albeit a tour itself of a development theme. England’s past performance in this tournament suggests otherwise, though on this game and from the team’s graduates, New Zealand’s new intake is ready to go at full international, England have a bit to go yet.

More from Georgia

Culture in Georgia: Day trip to Gori and Uplistsikhe

If there is still some ambiguity about whether Georgia is now in Europe or Asia, there is certainty about its former role in the USSR as birthplace of big beast dictator, Joseph Stalin. His home town of Gori is reachable quite easily by public transport and combines nicely with former pagan worship site, Uplistsikhe, an expanse of caves and sacrifice pits over a flowing sandstone hill.

Getting there and away

It actually wasn’t the easiest to find information on trains, such is the proliferation of advice about set tours combined with hired drivers, but at one hour west of Tbilisi, a train works well. It’s fractionally bureaucratic, with passports needed, but a train out from Tbilisi at 0900, returning at either 1556 or 1915 costs GEL 14 / GBP 2.80. Soviet built trains clank along and are more or less reliable, though bring your own coffee. Uplistsikhe needs a cab, easy to pick up in the centre of Gori on the assumption that the driver will get you there, wait an hour, then drive you back for GEL 30 / GBP 10. Just a shame our’s tested his English by stating he was an Arsenal fan.

Dictator fill

Stalin avenue gives way to Stalin square with his cottage of birth and museum at the epicentre of town. If Russians and post-Soviets are clear on strong leaders but divided on Stalin, in Gori it’s only a one man town. The museum is reverential of his legacy and focuses a mainly photographical display on his achievements industrialising the USSR from 1924 to 1953 and reaching out to the world through a room of gifts presented to him from overseas including pipes, swords and shaving kits.

Perhaps the highlights of the museum are the semi-mausoleum with a gold statue of his head in it. This contains the story of how he once shared a tomb with Lenin in Red Square before public opinion turned against him. Also of note was his personal train carriage and a gift shop with t shirts, water bottles and mugs with his mug on them, all in a worshipful sense. I don’t think I could carry the water bottle off in gym in even an ironic way, and definitely not at GBP 13. I have two boxes of matches instead.

Changing religion

Christianity is definitely one facet of society that tilts Georgia firmly towards Europe, especially with next door Azerbaijan being Islamic. Uplistsikhe was first a pagan worship site dug into a massively exposed rock in the countryside, though clearly a residence as well given the size of it. It works pretty well on a child’s level as well with kids excitedly running and jumping all over a the inclines up to an Orthodox Church on the peak. Consensus is this was an attempt to cover up the instances of goat sacrifice.

If this subterfuge ever worked is unclear, though it is perfectly crystal that religion is a big part of Georgia now. I’ve seen multiple people cross themselves before walking past churches, and sites themselves all have people selling candles, or in some cases icons, outside. Stalin’s more paranoid spells as dictator saw religion cracked down on as a form of intellectual challenge. I’m unable to judge if this is a break from the past with evidence of a plural society thriving, or if this is another barrier to overcome.

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