So, I didn't make it to 30 games using just Saracens games, but I think given how many players we regularly supply to the England camp I’m justified in including the Italy 6N game and the Baabaas match (which featured Goodey and Brits in the opposition!)
To think about all I’ve done since the season started back in September; to remember all the tries and kicks, the victories and defeats, the trains, planes and automobiles that got me there, it’s been one hell of a journey and while I may not have loved every minute of it I completely and utterly appreciate the way it has changed me for the better.
In using this challenge to mark my 30th birthday I have done more than just celebrate a milestone age, I’ve actively lifted myself into a new level of my life, an ever-growing ability to survive and thrive under conditions that would have beaten me before.
There have been sometimes during this year that I have been battered and broken, but I’ve always found a way back, found people to help me through it, found family in this wonderful, brilliant club.
Because when people talk about Saracens being a family it’s not some trite cliché; there really and truly is a sense of storge and philia. Ours is not a club that is well liked outside our bounds, respected for its achievements yes, but not often liked. And so we find ourselves at times having to ‘circle the wagons’ to protect each other and remind each other that we are strong together.
The words that grace Allianz Park completely sum up the ethos of our club and everything we the supporters believe it:
“honesty, discipline, work rate and humility”
We love our club for many reasons but the fact that they consistently stand by these words and demonstrate them in what they do is what carries us during the tougher times and lifts us in those moments of heart bursting pride when we know that we have *earned* what we achieve.
Looking back on the season, I’ve had some incredible highs and some devastating lows – some in the same weekend! My experiences at various club locations around the country have varied massively and I have been carefully recording my thoughts about each stadium and club to guide my match choices next season and beyond – there are some grounds to which I will never return while there are others I will gladly revisit in 17/18.
So, casting my mind back through the months, here are my 30 games!
Game 1: Worcester Warriors (Twickenham)
The season kicked off with the now standard London Double Header at Twickenham featuring the first home games of Saracens and Quins against Worcester Warriors and Bristol respectively. I must admit I liked that Bristol got to play in the LDH as it allowed them and their fans to visit HQ - something unlikely to happen again for a while for them!
As I arrived at Twickenham there was a feeling of deja vu - to be honest it felt like barely 5 minutes since we'd been there in May winning the Premiership and claiming the Double!!!
At trip to HQ is always something a bit special and that day was no different; travelling with my sister, stepmum and one of my stepmum's friends (my dad had to work that day) it was a day of glorious sunshine and there was a buzzing sense of anticipation in the air from the moment the train pulled in to the station!
While the business end of the season brings great excitement and joy there is an almost unexplainable quality to the opening weekend of a season. Everyone back to zero points, all possibilities opening up ahead, a chance to see what this crop of teams can bring to our beloved game.
Of course, all of this was helped by the fact that England rugby was riding the crest of a wave higher than anyone could have dared believed back when the last season had kicked off! Coming from a crushing and bitterly disappointing world cup the start of last season had been despondent and subdued. Not this year. A storming Six Nations Grand Slam achieved followed by a virtually unthinkable 3-0 whitewash of the Wallabies down under and suddenly our boys were soaring high once more!
People say Saracens are lucky to have so many past and present England players in our team but it's not luck, it's our ethos, our way of life, the culture our club had invested in building. And what people are seeing now is a similar mindset start to appear in the England camp. Funny that, what with Eddie Jones having worked for Sarries a little while back!
Thing is, our boys achieve greatness because they understand that the team and the future is what is important, not the individual. Listen to Farrell or Itoje talk at any point - it's all about the lads and building a reputation as winners and focussing on the next game all the time leading to Japan 2019. And those two will be there, no doubt about that in my mind, The only thing I ponder is which of the two will have that C after his name meaning it's his mitts on old Bill first?!
Game 2: Exeter Chiefs (Sandy Park)
A trip to Devon was next on the agenda, nothing like a 4-hour train journey to test my dedication to the challenge! It was a Sunday game but I decided to go down the day before as I was able to arrange one of my dissertation interviews for the Saturday morning in Exeter, however this meant I needed to stay overnight.
Well, as it was the weekend all the students were moving in to the university the hotels were pretty much full so the best deal I could get was a room in a hotel in Taunton, a lovely town by the sea but quite a train/bus trek from the city. Still, I had a great Saturday in Devon and eventually managed to get back to my hotel via a long wait at a coach station and then a long walk from the coach stop back into town to find a taxi!
The game itself was brilliant to watch and I can’t believe the sense of relief I felt at the full-time whistle. However the experience had already been fairly ruined for me by that point unfortunately thanks to the way Sandy Park is set up.
Word of advice, if you’re autistic don’t go to Sandy Park without earplugs and money for alcohol!
The earplugs got used after half-time when the unbearable din of the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ and the awful acoustics of the stands got too much for me. The alcohol rate skyrocketed when the hideous ‘Kiss Cam’ showed up at half-time!
Still, we won and I had a nice couple of days in the costal sunshine, just a pity the journey home took so bloody long that it was Monday by the time I got back into my flat!
Game 3: Harlequins (Twickenham Stoop)
As I’d had to miss the first proper home game of the season (bloody Autism-Europe Congress happening in Edinburgh over a weekend!) Game 3 was a trip back to the hallowed ground…ish!
The Stoop is the lesser known son of Twickenham but still provides for a good day out for the most part. Unfortunately for me it was the first (but by no means last) time that I encountered the side of live sport I hate the most – when other people think they have the right to touch strangers!
I’m not quite sure how I ended up with a Quins fan sat behind me as I thought I was in the middle of a block Sarries booking but anyway, he’d been okay for most of the first half, some decent rugby banter and general chat, I’d told him that I’d walked past Eddie Jones outside the ground and we’d briefly discussed England selections for the Autumn Internationals.
Then it all went a bit wrong when Quins scored a try.
The gentleman behind me was quite entitled to be excited by this, his team were in the process of beating the current domestic and European champions.
What he wasn’t (in my opinion) entitled to do was to lean forward and grab my shoulders, shaking me and he whooped his delight.
It was game over as far as I was concerned then, it was all I could do to hold on to my reactions and not flee the stadium in utter distress, I felt completely violated and exposed.
To his defence, the guy immediately apologised and understood my reaction when I’d got enough control back to tell him that I’m autistic and he even moved seats to another part of the stand at half-time to give me space but the damage was done.
As luck would have it (fate if you believe in such things) I’d encountered a lovely bloke called Paul before the game with his son (who I’d met in Exeter with his mum Sue) and we’d been talking about why I request end of row seats (for my anxiety management) and we’d been able to swap my allocated middle of a row seat for the end one that Adam had originally been given (Quins had messed up the group booking and put all the child seats together in a row!) Paul and Adam were both really good and stayed with me after the match while I was trying to get myself pulled together for the journey home (Adam was fairly upset too as the loss was our first in quite a long time!) and even offered me a lift home in their car which I gratefully accepted – finding out on the way that they lived only a few miles away from me!
It ended up being the start of a brilliant and wonderful friendship, and something that I am incredibly grateful for, I truly believe that I would have had a far less enjoyable time the rest of the season and may well have given up on the challenge without the support and friendship of Paul, Sue and Adam.
Game 4: Bristol (Ashton Gate)
A Friday night game was a new one for me and something that brought a whole host of problems with it!
First and foremost came the issue that, to have a cats chance in hell of getting there before KO I’d have to be on a train leaving London by 5.30pm at the very latest. Well, I’m not normally due to finish work until 3.30pm on a Friday in a town at least 35 minutes train from Kings Cross, my best possible journey would see me arrive in London at 4.40pm and have less than an hour to navigate across to Paddington in rush hour (which starts at about 2pm on Fridays!)
Having worked all of the permutations of travel out time wise I then looked at the tickets. Sweet mother of mercy! To travel from London to Bristol after 5pm on a Friday was going to cost me over £100! And that was without my return journey costed!
So, back to the drawing board it was and it ended up being a trip to my headteacher to beg to use some TOIL owed to me to leave work early on the Friday. It got a little sticky as that Friday afternoon was a big celebration event as our school had its 40th anniversary but luckily my head realised that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be attending the event anyway due to the huge amounts of visitors and general stress so agreed that I could give it a miss and take the time off! This allowed me to book at 4pm train out of Paddington costing a ‘mere’ £45!
On arriving at Paddington it appeared that the train I booked was rather popular with Sarries fans, I certainly wasn’t alone with my destination of Ashton Gate! In fact, on exiting the train some 100 minutes later I discovered that I had been travelling with the club’s CEO Heath Harvey and the bossman Nigel Wray! Heath was absolutely lovely when I (almost literally) bumped into him and remembered me from the Worcester game at the end of last season where we’d been sat next to each other and I’d told him about some of the difficulties I face in attending games as an autistic person. Nigel had charged on ahead through the station, eager to get to the ground but Heath has offered to share a cab to the ground with me and another two Sarries fans we picked up at the cash point! It certainly made for an interesting journey to the stadium, especially as one of my fellow fans didn’t know who he was in a taxi with and had to be subtly (see, I am capable of it!) signalled to change the topic of conversation when he started getting a bit negative about the way the club is run!
The game itself wasn’t much to write home about, I don’t really recall much of it to be honest, too busy enjoying the atmosphere of a proper ‘Sarries on Tour’ group! After the game was over there was a pretty standard ‘herding cats’ approach to trying to get people to the restaurant we had a table booked at! It all ended up being a bit strange and difficult for me though thanks to some mix ups at the restaurant and a nasty incident involving eggs being thrown at us afterwards while we were waiting for cabs back to hotels.
Well, I say hotels, I was in a hostel.
I’d gone with cheapness over quality and I paid the price! An awful night’s sleep in a full dormitory room above a club! Still, at least I was up and out early for breakfast in the morning. Luckily at breakfast I was offered a ticket for an earlier train home than the one I was booked on (advance tickets are a double-edged sword!) and I was able to be home before Saturday evening really rolled round. I’d pretty much already decided by that point that I was going to give the following weekend’s game a miss, as brilliant a fixture as Wasps at home was I knew I was starting to come down with something and that I would need the recovery time in order to do the things that I was prioritising – two major speaking commitments at Autism events the following week and then the Toulon weekend – all in all, missing the Wasps game to do those three things felt like a fair trade!
Game 5: Toulon (Stade Mayol) – ECC pools round 1
Ah Toulon! Une belle ville, un jeu fantastique, un merveilleux week-end!
Yes, the game I had been waiting for patiently for weeks had finally arrived; time for sun, wine and scrummaging on the French coast!!
An early morning flight out of Luton kicked off my weekend of European rugby (not my first ECC game thanks to winning tickets to the Sarries v Wasps semi-final last year in a Twitter competition!) Landing in Nice still very firmly in ‘morning’ I made my way to the train station where I had a first-class ticket to travel along the Cote d’Azur to Toulon!
Oh the views! I could talk for hours waxing lyrical on those views; how blue the sea was, how incredible the beaches and coastal landscape was, how huge the yachts were!
Eventually, have exhausted my imagination daydreaming about being rich enough to regularly holiday in Cannes or Saint-Tropez, I arrived in Toulon.
Well, I swear it was like being in Italy! It didn’t feel like France to me, this beautiful sun-drenched city with huge sweeping roads leading down to the port via open friendly squares filled with fountains and cheerful cafes. I’ve never felt so relaxed and at home in a city outside of England, this was like finding a little piece of the world that had been wrapped in a bubble, safe and untouched by the horrors of recent years, unblemished by the downward fortunes of the world. In essence, it was everything I needed it to be that weekend.
I had set off that morning mentally drained, a run of long hard weeks at work with a punishing amount of social activities and commitments had left me almost on empty. Just the 15-minute walk from my hotel to the stadium was enough to refuel my mental energy to maximum capacity!
I got to the stadium far too early for the game and so decided to wander around to search out the Toulon supporters bar, where I’d been told several Sarries fans would be gathering pre-game.
Well, it wasn’t hard to find them – I stepped around the side of the stadium and could suddenly hear Seven Nation Army blasting out from a stage across the road - a mass of people crowded around singing at the top of their lungs “ooooooooh Maro Itoje!” – I think I’d found the Sarries guys!!!!
What followed can only be described as a festival-atmosphere! There was food for sale next to this tiny bar that was selling more wine and beer than there is water in the ocean! The band on the stage were amazing, alternating between Toulon songs in French and our Sarries songs as we danced away in the sunshine. It was so much fun that when people realised it was time to head into the stadium for the match we were actually disappointed to have to leave!!!
But leave we did as there was a quite important match getting ready to start; one that we knew would set the tone for our whole European campaign. We had a point to prove after all as the reigning champions and we were starting off in Toulon’s fortress of a ground, somewhere they hadn’t *ever* lost a game in the European Championship!
It didn’t help that the last few times we’d met we’d come off worse; the losses in the finals and semi-finals still hurt but, hey, Toulon didn’t have the maestro Jonny Wilkinson in their set-up anymore and we had Faz back!!!!!
The game didn’t start brilliantly, well, no, that’s not true, the game itself started wonderfully for the boys but for me personally I could have cheerfully throttled whoever it was in the Toulon staff that decided to release a cascade of red and black balloons down the stands before kick-off!
Within minutes of the damn things becoming loose in the air people were stamping on them to pop them and within about 5 minutes I had the most horrific sensory migraine going! I had thought the bright sunshine might cause of build-up issue, I had planned for losing the game being a problem later emotionally but I had never considered the need to have to deal with dozens of bursting bits of latex everywhere!
The menaces were still floating around the stands and on to the pitch well into the second half of play, Faz stamped on one just a few metres in front of me and it was clearly displayed on his face how annoyed he was with them (although irritated does seem to be Owen’s default facial expression during matches!)
But the game, oh that game!!!!
Fortress Toulon was well and truly breached!! 6-25 at half time, we had 3 tries, 2 conversions and 2 penalties to their two penalties. DAMN!
The second half not quite as good for us, a run of play that ended with “the field littered with bodies” as the commentators put it! But all in all, we held out for long enough and got the 23-31 victory that saw the Toulon fans throwing their newspapers in the air in defeat – well, those that hadn’t already done so at half-time that is!
Post-match was a bit of a strange animal, we were fairly quickly herded out of the stadium, weaving between all the scaffolding and general building work that was about as part of the stadium seemed to be under construction or something! A return to the Toulon supporters bar then a seemingly mission impossible task of finding food followed; I’m not sure how long we waited in one restaurant that had a very big table booked by the Sarries supporters association before abandoning it for another place along the harbour front!
The next day dawned in a bright blur of hungover tiredness but there was a brilliant sense of camaraderie and happiness to every Sarries fan I encountered, having perched myself in an ice-cream bar on the harbour front that I’d found two friends sat at! I had to leave for the train back to Nice before the rumoured beach-side lunch plans came to fruition but it had been a fantastic weekend and I was glad in some respects to get some time back to myself to decompress and try to put my thoughts together ahead of work the next morning! Unfortunately, my plans for a simple trip home fell apart slightly at Nice airport when my flight was delayed 45 minutes but eventually I was back in my flat with a slight suntan, a suitcase full of alcohol smelling clothes and a heart full of passion and appreciation for my boys – bring on the rest of the tournament!!
Game 6: Scarlets (Allianz Park) – ECC pools round 2
Ah Allianz! It was my first game at home this season thanks to the LDH and two missed games but AP feels so familiar, so welcoming it was like I’d never been away – even though it was only my third time ever being there!!
The match was good fun, it was good to finally get to use my season ticket and see what the view was from my chosen seat! There was a tinge of sadness to the day given that we had a minute’s silence for Anthony Foley ahead of kick-off but once the game got going the Welsh fans were in fine voice!
Mako’s beautiful dummy for his try and Tompkins snaking dancing try were the highlights of the match for me but the real ‘taste’ of rugby came after when we were treated to a fine old sing song in the Olympic bar from the traveling fans!
Two from two in Europe, now back to the bread and butter Premiership for a few weeks before we lose some boys to England duty as the Autumn Internationals roll round!
Game 7: Leicester Tigers (Allianz Park)
Game 8: Sale Sharks (AJ Bell)
The memory that stand out most when thinking of my first trip to the AJ Bell is of the massive wince that accompanied paying for my train ticket! A £92.80 bill and that only got me to Manchester Piccadilly, there was still a tram to Eccles and a taxi to the ground to come after that!
Still, once I got there I was hopeful for a good match, although we had suffered our usual International Season squad reduction!
I’m not going to go into any detail about the SSA vs SOT issues here as quite frankly I just want to stay out of it and not take sides, I’m on the side of the boys Brad captains, not getting involved in squabbles about flags and seats and who’s friends with who!
Game 9: Bath (The Recreation Ground)
Early starts weren’t exactly a new thing by this point in the season but a 5am alarm to get to Hemel Hempstead in time for the 7am Fun Bus departure was distinctly not fun!!
The trip West was long but not too boring thanks to good company and a general feeling of festive spirit! Arriving in Bath in plenty of time for a decent breakfast followed by a quick perusal of the “December 25th” shop meant I was in high spirits by the time we headed towards the Rec.
I’ve never encountered gate staff so rude and condescending before! Having followed some of our group towards one of the entry gates and watched them go through I was then thoroughly perplexed to be turned away when my ticket was just one row in front of theirs! Apparently, my ticket could only enter the ground from the “William Street” entrance which involved going *back* up the narrow winding steps I’d just come down, across the bridge and down the other side before looping back to the ground.
I was a bit grumpy by the time I got my ticket scanned, although I had managed to find some friends at least.
Then it came to finding the seats.
Well, I’m not sure I could have chosen worse seats if I’d been paid to!
£36 to sit at the top of a high stand, with only 75% pitch visibility and at a behind/side angle to the only screen meaning that half the game I had no clue what was going on as I couldn’t see it! We also discovered very quickly that the Rec like to ‘create atmosphere’ by means of the sodding trumpet fanfare sounds randomly throughout the match! Joy!
Eventually the match from hell finished and we had to very quickly vacate the ground and haul ourselves across the town to the pub we had a set space reserved in to watch the England-Australia match! Well, it was supposed to be reserved for us. By the time most of our guys had arrived the few seats available had been taken by a bunch of youngsters who definitely hadn’t come from the ground (you could tell by the shopping bags!) This unfortunately meant that some of our group ended up abandoning the pub to return to the hotel our coach was due to pick us up from later to get somewhere to sit down and not being completely squashed.
I was just about coping thanks to how good the game was but even so I was getting rather riled with some of the pathetic conversations floating into my ears from the idiots next to me; a group of university students who seemed to be there as a reason to drink copious amounts of beer, spending half the match talking about their holidays/girls they’d slept with/essays they haven’t done and the other half making remarks that just proved they don’t know rugby at all – questioning ref decisions, not understanding the scrums and getting players names wrong - I’m not sure how anyone can mix up Mike Brown and Ben Youngs!!
Game 10: Sale Sharks (Allianz Park) – ECC pools round 3
A game that can be summed up in one word - wet!
I got so beyond soaked to the bone watching this game that I actually abandoned my seat with 10 minutes to go in the futile attempt to not catch a cold but it was all for naught in the end as I spent the next 3 weeks snuffling and feeling sorry for myself!
Still, a decent result with 6 tries run in to make it 50-3 by final whistle!!
Game 11: Sale Sharks (AJ Bell) – ECC pools round 4
Ah the AJ Bell again! This time I managed to snaffle myself a lift to Salford so got to save a bunch of money as well as having less travel time with better company!
The travelling Sarries support was a bit thin on the ground but it was a 5.30pm kick-off on a Sunday!!
Because the ground wasn’t as full as previously (even the Sale fans seemed to have stayed at home, avoiding the crisp December chill!) AJ and I were able to hang out down by the placards surrounding the pitch for quite a while, watching the warm-up and trying not to distract the ever friendly Schalk Brits who has a tendency to get distracted from his drills by saying hello to everyone!
The game wasn’t our best but a neat try from Faz was enough to remind people watching that we had our international boys back and present for duty!
The boys did the usual applauding of the crowd after the final whistle (well, what crowd was left!) and most of the Shark kids quickly surrounded Farrell in the standard way – he’s great with the opposition kids, knowing this is probably their only chance to meet him, I just wish he didn’t keep running away from us adults in Sarries shirts!!
But, despite our string-pullers bashfulness with the travelling fans a few of his team mates did make it our way, the ever brilliant Jamie George leading the way and being a superstar in holding our flag up for a photo – little did he realise the tradition he was starting!
4 for 4 in Europe, our unbeaten run now at 13 - equally Munster’s record of successive victories in the European Cup!
Game 12: Newcastle Falcons (Allianz Park)
Christmas Eve came around with a flurry of tinsel, festive jumpers, and visiting Falcons!
Normally I would do anything possible to avoid London once the calendar turns to month 12 (too many years as a child living in London and too many times as an adult having to deal with overcrowded trains and the inability to move anywhere inside Zone 1!) however, this was important so off to NW4 did I trot, jingle bells and all!
I honestly don’t remember much of the game itself! Christmas Eve has long been my favourite day of the year (Shrove Tuesday a close second – as long as I can get to eat my Grandma’s pancakes!) and all I really recall of that match was the sheer joy of it!
Sitting outside wrapped up in a dozen or so layers, Sarries shirt proudly worn over the Christmas jumper during the game, having a ‘cheeky’ drink with friends made throughout the year and enjoying a game I truly love; that’s what made the day so special!
I celebrated that day, not only the team’s win but my own personal one: this game was game 12 (fitting as it took place on Christmas Eve!) and it was the first time I really let myself believe that I would achieve the goal I had set myself, the first time I really stopped and looked around, taking in all the year had brought me. It was our last game of 2016, our next to be played on January 1st 2017. The year had been one of trials and difficulties for me, but looking around the Olympic Bar after the game and seeing friendly faces that as little as 8 months ago I didn’t know, that to me was what this club and what Christmas is about – coming together because of things we have in common but still holding true to what makes us different from each other. And just being damn grateful of what we have!
Game 13: Leicester Tigers (Welford Road)
New Year’s Day arrived with the usual fanfare of bongs, fireworks and cheering – and then I went to bed! An early start was required to get up to Leicester for some lunch before the 3pm KO so any vague notions of NYE celebrations were quickly ditched (I was heartbroken, honest!) and 2016 passed into 2017 in front of my sober and contemplative eyes. It had been an odd year all things told, a lot of achievement but a lot of struggle as well. Maybe 2017, the year of my 30th, would prove better?!?
Leicester have always been a formidable opposition, we had no doubts that this was going to be a tough game even with all trouble Tigers were having in their boardroom. This match was a test of more than just rugby skills, it was a battle of wills and there were more than a few points to prove!
In the end points were quite thin on the ground by the final whistle, Faz being our man on the scoreboard with the only try, conversion and a couple of penalties to see off Burns’ efforts at the tee. The score was reflected in more than just table points however, as within 24 hours one of Leicester’s greats, coach Richard Cockerill had become the scapegoat for the club’s dismal run.
It’s never pretty when a club and coach part company but this felt particularly ‘football-like’ in the manner it was done, and that saddens me.
I hope Leicester can bounce back from this, they were the club I always heard about growing up, the colossus of a team who churned out superstars and legends. I hope to see them return to that soon, I’d love them to be our main rivals for top dog over the years to come!
Even a game like this one where I had a great time will have a cost to me in terms of my energy levels and 'social hangover' the following day, my autism fatigue is always worse after an away game because of both the additional journey time and the fact that new grounds take more energy and concentration to cope with - at Allianz I know where to go of I need help, with each new stadium I have to work out my exit route and emergency plans just in case.
So, I get why Owen only goes to the kids but I hope every now and again he recognises that his adult fans would like a chance to shake their hero's hand as well.
Game 14: Exeter Chiefs (Allianz Park)
A game of two passions is rugby - and this was definitely the case when the Chiefs came to Allianz!
The crowd from Devon bring a deep, loyal passion to their support, chanting that damn Tomahawk Chop as if the West Country depends on it! But we have a different sort of passion at Sarries. Ours is of an abiding love for our family, a passion that some accuse of being shallow or quiet.
Well, not that day.
We may have started out in small voice, our usual lungs and chords suffering in the January chill but then something happened to spark us off like a roaring mob - an injustice.
See, No one at that game that day nor watching it on tv will argue that the Barritt/Barrington tackle fiasco on Parling was bad. Few will argue that a card or two was deserved as the poor bloke got KO'd for his troubles. What is disputed is the manner of discipline handed out by the referee on the pitch.
Barritt hit Parling too high initially really, by the letter of the new laws he should have left the field for 10 minutes, more if a harsh ruling came down. Barrington was unlucky, he had committed before Parling was in motion and falling and so his knockout hit seemed so much worse than it was intended, especially when slowed down by the TMO.
We all knew a card was coming. We all knew Barritt was leaving the field and we all knew a penalty would be given.
I don't think anyone expect to see what happened.
The card that came out was Red but it was to Barrington it was shown!!
Game 15: Scarlets (Parc y Scarlets) – ECC pools round 5
Croeso i Cymru! And what a welcome it was - the Welsh know how to put on a sing-song that’s for sure!
It really was a lovely experience to be in a packed pub with songs being led by a beautiful choir-voice, even when I didn’t know the words half the time, and occasionally didn’t even understand the language it was being sung in! The only negative of the night really was the odd anxiety-induced issues around just how crowded the bar was but overall it wasn’t enough to ruin my night thankfully.
The sign inside the stadium did perk me however as its the first time I've ever seen such a warning, and I did appreciate it.
Side note - Schalk Brits is hands down the friendliest, smiliest, nicest bloke anyone could ever meet!! An absolute legend who is nearly always the last person still on the pitch after the whistle as he spends so long with the fans! I must admit I nearly broke my ankle leaping over seats to get down to pitch side with the flag for these photos - he was a bit bemused at first but I had tweeted him a few times requesting a flag photo (which he had responded positively to) so I think he worked it out in the end!!
Game 16: Toulon (Allianz Park) – ECC pools round 6
Ah, Toulon! The game I had been looking forward to since our epic clash back in October, the visit of the French giants to our humble home! And even better, they’d brought the fantastic Nigel Owens with them!
I was massively excited for this game, I’ve been a huge fan of Nigel as a referee for years now, loving the way he mixes quick wit with a determination to have the best game possible, balancing the need for sanctions against infringements with keeping the game flowing and not blowing the whistle every few seconds. In fact, my appreciation for him is so great I wrote a blog post about him and tweeted about – my notifications went a bit bonkers after that and the post itself has been read over 3000 times!
Back to the match in hand, the game itself was great fun, getting to watch class players like Habana, Giteau, Nonu and Bastareaud was brilliant, as was watching Ashy cross the whitewash against the team he’s joining come June!! So to was watching all the furrowed brows as half-drunk fans attempted to work out all the maths required to see who was getting home Quarter Finals come April! Our luck was half in, we got the home QF and a game to look forward to in Glasgow Warriors but were incapable of landing a home Semi Final due to ranking 3rd from the pool games – who ever would end up facing in the SF, it would be away from home, either in Ireland against Munster or in France against Toulouse!
But enough of the forward planning, there was a long time and a lot of rugby before even the QF game rolled around, and the stage was being set for one hell of a Six Nations period!
Game 17: Gloucester (Kingsholm)
I missed the trip to Sixways to see us play Worcester thanks to a bout of illness but the trip to Kingsholm was one I was determined to make! Luckily (for once) it was a Friday evening match as the weekend was a rather busy one for me, what with my 30th birthday celebration part 1 being held on the Sunday!
Game 19: England vs Italy (Twickenham)
Sunday arrived with a hangover and a desperate need for water! But even the lingering effects of too much wine drunken and 2am pizza could not put a dampener on my day, not when I was about to head to HQ for my first ever Six Nations game!!!!!!
England vs Italy was to be my birthday celebration part 4 and the first (early) celebration of my Dad’s 60th birthday in the summer; a memory we could share for years to come and it really was.
I thought it was something special to come to Twickenham for the Premiership final last year but my god it didn’t hold a candle to what it’s like when the 6N festivities come to town! The carnival spirit encompasses you from the moment you step out of the station, it’s like walking into a festival arena and yet you’re still over half a mile away!
I’ve always felt a strong affinity to Twickenham, knowing that my parents met in the area whilst both at university in St Mary’s, but that day, with my dad’s arm around my shoulder we strolled down Whitton Road waiting for that beautiful stadium to come into view, surrounded by hundreds of England and Italy fans, I felt truly at home.
I didn’t chose the Italy game to go to for any reason other than the fact that it was the only home game on a Sunday (my Dad works Saturdays) but I do think that of the 5 options the Azzurri game was the best choice for me; a team who’s supporters as brilliantly passionate, loud and cheerful and filled with that wonderful Italian excitement and yet none of the lingering, under the surface issues that arise from the other 4 nations – the nations that happily state they would lose to “anyone but England”. This wasn’t a game of fierce rivalry like England v Scotland is, it wasn’t one where ancient history is brought up to stir up intense emotions like England v Ireland is, it was one of mutual admiration for the “thug’s game played by gentlemen”
It was also, supposed to be the least stressful of the games! With no offense ever meant to the Italians, they were never our main worry when considering our defence of the title, never the game we thought would be tight or difficult.
To call rugby a game of two halves is normally a trite cliché but on that occasion, it really, truly was!
The first half was one of confusion and chaos as England struggled to work out what the hell the boys in blue were up to! No rucks forming to create off-side lines meant poor old Danny Care was left without his channels available to him and thoroughly perplexed as to why the opposition were in his way!
Eventually Dyl and Hask had a word with the ref about the situation, now obviously Connor O’Shea had told Romain Poite about their plans before the game but his come back to their queries was hilariously frustrating – “I’m a referee not your coach”
Luckily by the second half the boys had sorted out what was going on and how to work around it and got back to the job in hand, eventually resulting in a 6 tries to 2 victory over the Azzurri, even if Faz had a bit of a mare from the tee on his 50th international cap game!
Well, that’s a 6N game ticked off the bucket list – it’ll be a while before I can mark off the one labelled “Watch England play a World Cup final” though!!!!
Game 20: Newcastle (Kingston Park)
This was a bit of an odd game for me because, while I was excited to be heading north to Kingston Park, I had originally been expecting this game to be played in New York . . .
Thing is, back in July when Saracens had done their last Nandos Takeover event the lads in the last sitting had answered my question of "what game are you most looking forward to next season" with a resounding "New York!" - further investigation on my part had led to me being told by multiple people that this was to be the Newcastle game in March so I gambled and used the money I'd been given early for my 30th birthday to go towards this challenge to book flights to NYC! Only, the official announcement never appeared! So, when the new year rolled around and the date of the fixture was confirmed with the venue as Kingston Park I had to make a decision about what to do, I ended up paying to change the flights to ones to LA in the June half-term instead, have myself a holiday once the season was over, but it still left me feeling a little gutted about the Newcastle game as having a USA trip less than 2 weeks after my birthday would have been pretty cool!
But anyway, the game was in Newcastle so off up the country I set, managing to find myself in the same "quiet" train carriage as a motley SOT crew wen I joined their train at Peterborough! Beers, wine, sweets and chatter all flowed merrily as we wound our way up the edge of the UK, only stopping once we pulled in to the Toon and I parted ways from the merry band of brothers, setting off for my hotel and the swimming pool it had!
A few hours and a gallon of conditioner later, I was de-chlorinated and ready to join said motley crew for a night out on the Toon town! Only, most of the buggers had buggered off by the time I got there! So much for an epic night out! Still, a couple of glasses later and who cares that there’s only a few of you left and that you’re seriously considering a foot-long subway and an Uber back to the hotel and it’s not even 11pm!
Sunday games are properly rubbish though for the simple reason that you can’t enjoy them anywhere near as much when you know you’ve got work the next day – particularly when you’ve got a 4-hour train journey ahead of you!
Wooooohoooooo! Billy’s back!!!!!!!
Having not seen our Nandos-loving herculean Number 8 play since late November when he was forced into surgery by the Argentina game it was a tonic and a balm to see him back in our colours again and raring to go!
The game was brilliant, a bonus point in the bag and Billy did 72 minutes on the pitch so it looks hopeful for the tail end of the 6Ns!
The end of the game is not the end of the story however, the nonsense politics between the supporters groups was bubbling over for me and it all got too much after some social media exchanges. My meltdown wasn’t one of epic proportions, more of an inward implosion of pain and hurt. I seriously debated in that moment walking away from everything Saracens related and just washing my hands of the whole situation.
As was the case really in this game, one we came away the clear victors from with a 53-10 score line – 8 tries claimed by Sarries to just one paltry cross from Watson.
It was almost uncomfortable to watch at times, so far in front were we. Although watching the boys get to claim scores was brilliant; Jamie, Goodey, Sean, Schalla, Brad and Billy all deserved theirs and did Ashy with his brace. A good time to get back into the serious scoring groove as its back to European action next weekend when Glasgow Warriors come to town . . . . .
Game 22: Glasgow Warriors (Allianz Park) – ECC Quarter Final
My Dad accompanied me to this game, and what a game it was!
Of course, one of the best moments of the match itself passed me by at the time but thanks to the joy of TV I got to relieve the whole game, including the brilliant moment that Faz told Ashy to “get back on your wing man!” as he tried to stop him from airing a grievance with the ref! Our Ashy is a brilliant player but not often the guy you want chatting to the ref, and Faz knew exactly how to handle that before it became a situation!
At 4 tries to 2 the score makes it seem an easier victory than it was, Glasgow fought hard and their spectators were incredible, Warriors indeed! The army of fans they had brought with them were brilliant, outcheering us whenever possible – although I still hold a dark hatred for the bastards with the bagpipes in the South stand!!!
A brilliant day in the sunshine with a fantastic match to watch followed by ice-cream and frantic plans being made for a trip to Dublin – who could ask for more?!?!
Game 23: Harlequins (Wembley)
The showcase piece in the Premiership calendar, the annual trip to Wembley to play Quins was the game I had asked my friends to join me at as my final birthday celebration! And to my genuine surprise six of the seven did, the only one not able to come had a fairly good excuse as she's went out to Australia for a year just after the season started in September!
The day arrived with the usual chaos of our crew doing anything remotely planned; with us all arriving from different areas of the country it takes a while for the various journeys to be completed! In the end we were all together and getting lunch before the game, we were even joined by a Skype call from Sydney!!
It was a brilliant day in the sun again, ice creams bought as we walked down Wembley Way and ciders bought once inside! I was so happy I'd bought the seats I did way back in October, down on the lowest level a dozen rows back from the pitch, close to the 22m line.
Getting to point out the England stars on both sides to my friends was good fun, particularly noting how many there were to my Scottish friend! The scoreline at the end was pretty nice too with a comprehensive bonus point win over our derby rivals!
Game 24: Northampton Saints (Stadium MK)
A trip to Milton Keynes was in the cards for our away fixture to Northampton Saints. This makes Franklin's Gardens the only Premiership ground I've not been to now which is a bit disappointing.
The game was on Easter Sunday which was a bit of a pain to those of us who like to spend Easter with our families but for the sake of my challenge I chose to forego my usual trip home for this year!
The game didn't start well and continued in that from for a while really. Our squad is strong but being forced to rest Maro and Owen as a consequence of them playing all 5 6N games was tough on the boys who'd already done 7 weeks of cover while the tournament happened.
But manage they did, even if it took a huge bench effort to get the game back on track!
And what a difference the bench made!
From a game that had started with us conceding a try and a yellow card in the first 20 minutes we managed to win by just 2 points - scored in the last 3!!
For Loz to hold his nerve to convert Celo's try, having only minutes before slotted the penalty that took us to 5 points behind, was incredible to watch!
As too was witnessing Billy Vunipola revving up the crowd when he needed an outlet for his frustration before the ref's rebuke became more serious!
Game 25: Munster (Aviva Stadium, Dublin) – ECC Semi Final
"We know who we are, we know who we are, Champions of Europe, we know who we are!!"
It was one hell of an early start the day of our European Semi Final - a 4am taxi pick up to get me to Luton airport for the earliest flight possible to Dublin! And who should I encounter while wandering the gate areas but Sarries fans! Everywhere I looked were smattering of red and black, all waiting for the Ryanair flight we all rushed to book as soon as we knew Munster had beaten Toulouse!
Once landed there was the usual choice Brexit jokes about passports and visas with Simmo leading the way in making everyone laugh despite the still early hour!
The guys got their taxi to drop me at my hotel near the airport before they headed off to theirs in town, I wanted to drop my bag off and do as much of the check in paperwork as I could at that point as the next time I would be back in the hotel would be post game so with a high chance of drunkenness!
Using the lobby ladies to change my glasses for my contacts I wasn't paying much attention to the background music until a certain tune started . . . .
When you're in Dublin, waiting for Saracens to take on Munster in an epic battle of giants there aren't many things that can happen to give you a huge boost of optimism but one of them is hearing the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" come pounding through the speakers!!!
"Oooooooh Maro Itoje"
Bring. It. On!!!!
So, to the Aviva Stadium I go, well, via the pub anyway!!
It was incredible to see so many Sarries fans in one place waiting for our team to put the Irish in their place!
I managed about half an hour of flutes and pipes and an giant inflatable rugby ball being thrown around and hitting my head twice as I walked back from the ladies before I called it quits and said I needed to leave.
Easier said than done! I had to ask a friend to help 'extract' me from the pub before it really did overwhelm me to the point of a full blown panic attack. Once outside I could breathe easier but I was then alone, surrounded by Munster fans, stumbling along in the same direction hoping they were leading me to the stadium.
I was going in the right direction thankfully but the Munster fans I was vaguely following were obviously sat in a different section to my ticket as they went straight in the first gate I came across where as I was firmly told that 'Red Route' was up the road and on the right.
Well, strictly speaking that was true but given that it took me bloody ages to get there as I was walking over half a mile round the perimeter of the bloody stadium!
All in all it wasn't the best of starts to what I knew was going to be a tough semi final; we may not have been at Munster's home ground in Cork but just by virtue of being in Ireland we were vastly out numbered as travelling fans! Of course it was hard to tell really as a lot of our fans had worn our away kit that was pretty much the same red colour as Munster's home kit! Even the flags the club had sent were our red ones!!
Still, even though we were out-numbered, out-voiced and out-red flagged we valiantly carried on in our efforts to cheer our boys on, especially when Faz the 3rd escorted Brad out onto the pitch - Daddy Faz Snr obviously having asked his Irish team colleagues nicely if his youngest could mascot for his eldest's team at his new place of work!!
Oh, what a game!!!
To be in the stadium that has been the place of such heartbreak for English sides before (not least the recent 6N defeat that denied England back-to-back Grand Slams) and to produce such an epic performance was brilliant! We never gave up, we never stopped believing that we could do it - even when Kruis took out his frustrations on the whitewash after dropping a beauty of a try in the 52nd minute!!
Side note - getting to watch Marcelo Bosch randomly jump on Owen Farrell's back whilst they were walking round the pitch was brilliant! The obvious affection amongst team mates at Sarries is part of what makes our club so special!
The celebrations in the stand were full of flag waving, cheering and rapid fire discussions about the final and which bar we were going to from the stadium - we all quite fancied a drink or two! As an aside a huge thank you to the two Steve's who sorted out my ticket for me - I would have been lost without you guys!
This photo sums up the whole weekend quite well in my opinion!
Game 26: Bristol (Allianz Park)
I took my stepmum and sister to the last home game of the season as I knew they would both love the spectacle of the occasion, as well as it being one of the first times my sister was able to coincide a weekend away from work and a home game since the LDH back in September! (The curse of working for the NHS as a student midwife!)
We had a great time wandering around before KO, with both trophies on display (still current holders of both at this point!) and bumping into Will Fraser - who I introduced to my sister as "Henry's brother" (oops!) Will took it well though and asked us if we'd met Henry, my stepmum and I had been to his exhibition last summer and all of us had bought several of his things over the year, most recently buying one of his prints and the 'Lion' t-shirt for my Dad's 60th birthday gifts.
It was so much fun to watch such an enjoyable game in the sunshine, especially knowing that there were so many occasions attached to this game! Not only was it Schalk Brits 150th and Owen's 100th appearance in Sarries shirts but it was also the retirement game for the giants of Kelly Brown and Neil de Kock, along with potentially the last home appearances for Chris Ashton and Petrus Du Plessis!
No wonder the introductions/lead outs took so long!
I'm not sure how many kids were on the pitch before kick off with the Brits, Brown and de Kock broods all running about the place but it was certainly a heartwarming sight to be reminded of just what a family-centred club Sarries are.
The match was almost exactly as I expected, with Bristol giving a feisty performance, even though they knew they were already relegated, doing enough to be leading at half-time on penalty scores, with Sarries giving an underperforming show but still producing enough goods for a decent scoreline by the final whistle.
Ashy got his last home points, even if it wasn't a full on Splashdown with Tompkins picking up his first Premiership score and the Borislav got his maiden *and* second try after 155 games for Sarries!!
Soon the game was over and it was time for the tears and the singing as the guys took to the field with families en masse to celebrate the end of two illustrious careers, the beautiful voice of Kelly Brown belting out Bon Jovi is a memory that will stay with me for a long time!!
As is always the case with the last home game of the normal season the pitch was soon turned into a bizarre roped off square that we lined the edges of, waiting for the players to re-emerge from the changing rooms ready to sign and selfie!
Owen was one of the first out (not surprising as he had to rush off fairly quickly to get over to the O2 to watch the boxing that evening!) and was immediately bombarded - the poor bloke looked incredibly overwhelmed at one point and I did get quite empathetic with the way he must feel at times. As much as I would love a photo with him one day or the chance to have a brief chat I understand why he has to limit himself and to reject adults causes less PR stress than to ignore children so, I do get it.
The others ambled their way out slowly, Billy with a mouthful of something! I did ask him if it was Burger King or Nandos (harking back to his post Munster interview!) which made him laugh! The guys were absolutely brilliant with the whole thing, accepting anything handed to them to sign!
The only time I got both angry and panicky was when Maro came our way, suddenly what had been quite a nice calm area of the tape (that had chilled a lot since a group of kids had left with their team coach!) suddenly became a heaving crush as people ran in from other areas shoving us out of the way to get to Itoje. Having started out right near the tape with only a tiny kid in front of me I was suddenly 6 people back (the tape had more forward, not me!) with deep aches in my ribs from elbows flying! It was manic and horrible and I wished for that moment that I wasn't there. My stepmum did have a word with a couple of the worst offenders who offered up a limp "well we missed him round where we were" before just disappearing off into the crowd with no care for the injuries they'd caused! Luckily nothing really bruised and I got my spiking anxiety back under control fairly quickly thanks to my family and the lovely Pioneer I'd been chatting to the whole time.
I have to give a huge thank you here not only to that amazing Pioneer but also to the security guy on our section of the tape and another Pioneer further down; all three of whom were brilliant in getting my sister's programme into the guys hands to sign and getting Ashy, Loz and Billy to do photos with us two - I wish I knew their names and could find them one day to buy them a pint of Wolfpack as a thank you!
Having managed to get the photo with Billy finally and having got Mr Brits to sign my scrapbook next to my picture of him and me outside Nandos on my birthday (he complained about my "smiliest man in rugby" caption telling me it should say "sexiest"!) we then wandered off towards the Wolfpack bus where we encountered Al Hargreaves, Brad Barritt, Michael Rhodes and Will Fraser again!
All in all a good day really!
Game 27: Wasps (Ricoh)
To be honest, the trip to the Ricoh was never likely to be fun but this one was particularly not pleasant as a Sarries fan!
The silver lining on the whole day was the fact that I got to see my Uncle and Aunt who are both Wasps fans, even sitting with my Aunt as I had bought an extra ticket for the game just in case my Uncle couldn't get his sorted through the Wasps box office (he did so he used the 'spare' I had for my Aunt and her ticket for a friend of theirs).
The stadium isn't exactly disability friendly in many ways, not least the huge uphill walk from the car parks to the stadium itself - I'm pretty sure my wonky hips got even more dodgy during that walk as well as my breathing struggling a fair bit as I was still recovering from a nasty bout of sinusitis!!
Still, I endured to get to the Ricoh and made it through security and into the stadium. Deciding to forgo the queue for drinks as KO was only 10 minutes away and I can judge queue times pretty well now, we headed straight for our seats . . . up . . . and up . . . . and up we went!! I needed a bloody drink by the time I got sat down!!
Settling in it was interesting to look around and see the layout of the Ricoh for the first time, it seems like a brilliant stadium - if its your home ground! As an away supporter it was slightly intimidating, particularly when the tannoy got going with the buzzing Wasps sound - not good when I've got a very high level of fear of the damn pests!!
The main problem wasn't the stadium itself though but the management of it, the fact that with just minutes to go to KO time and announcement came over the speakers that KO was to be delayed by 15 minutes to allow for "the huge numbers of fans still outside to get in to their seats"!! Now I understand the need for this for safety reasons, no-one wants a crush as people queuing to get in hear the match start but bear in mind that this was the final day of Premiership rounds and every game was due to kick off at 3pm for synchronicity!!
So, we waited. Sarries came back out to do some more drills to stay warm as we waited for these 'huge numbers' to fill their seats.
Well, I swear the stands didn't change one iota. If there were people still outside at 2.55pm then they must have only got as far as the bars by 3.15pm when we kicked off because the empty seats I was looking at stayed empty! The cynic in me says it was probably some of the corporate lot who demanded KO was held until they got in and to their boxes . . . .
Regardless, the match was underway and the worries I'd had on seeing our team sheet were amplified within minutes. This wasn't going to be a game we won. We were going to end up 3rd in the table, it all came down to whether our semi-final was at Sandy Park or back at the Ricoh . . . .
Truthfully, as soon as I realised that I decided that I wanted Wasps to top the table so we played Exeter (1st play 4th and 2nd play 3rd in the play-off semi finals) as I did not want to come back to Coventry again!
The Allez! Allez! Allez! Wasps! Wasps! Wasps! chant was bloody irritating and got stuck in my head for a long long time, particularly when coupled with the buzzing and music at scores.
I missed our first try from Spencer as I'd decided I needed a break and had headed to one of the bars - typical timing! But it did give me a chance to scope out the layout of the internal part to the stadium, it was rather confusing with the entry/exit open 'wall gaps' to the gents/ladies and I wasn't the only one to get turned around inside and get confused as to which walkway to the seats I needed to use!
Ducking out just before half-time for the ladies isn't something I normally do, but again I was getting a bit of the 'restless leg' and needed to try to jump the main rush as I could tell I wasn't at my usual level of coping ability!
Back to my seat with some chips for my vegetarian Aunt (poor veggies really struggle at most rugby games as its all about pies and meat at most stadiums!) and a pie for myself along with a fruity cider to keep me going!
The second half proceeded in much the same way as the first, I was keeping one eye on the Exeter score and as soon as they scored their damned 4th try to claim another bonus point (I really dislike the try bonus point concept!) then I was silently rooting for Wasps to get their 4th if we couldn't beat them in order to preserve the order in the table!
And score it they did, the final tally being 5 tries to our brace from Spencer, a dismal display really from our boys but as McCall put it, it was the only game we could afford to lose and still retain both trophies!
Some of the Wasps fans were a bit nasty after the final whistle, jeering and 'fronting up' to Sarries fans. I avoided the worst of it I think but I know a few friends had some horrible experiences that afternoon, although the most common come back from those of us in red and black was "what are you doing next weekend?!" - a sarky question given that we were one of only 4 teams playing the following weekend along with ASM Clermont Auvergne and the Challenge Cup contenders Gloucester and Stade Francais!
Several of my fellow fans raced for the transport links after the game to get to Allianz Park for the annual 'Big Bash' but I had decided in advance of the weekend not to bother trying to do that again after last year!
The stress of trying to get back from Worcester to AzP last season (a 3hr train journey) left me in a highly agitated state, so when I got back only to discover that there was about 30 minutes left of the event before it was over I'd gotten fairly upset, meaning the subsequent fireworks sent me straight into meltdown! Luckily the staff at AzP are bloody awesome and really looked after me when I appeared at the bar requesting the strongest alcohol they had (wine before they remembered they had vodka) and downed it immediately requesting more wine! Both the bar staff and the security guys were absolute stars looking after me that night once I explained what was happening and why I was using the emergency crutch of alcohol to keep a stranglehold on what was left of my coping ability as I was teetering on the edge of a full blown catastrophic reaction by then!
So, not exactly an experience I wanted to repeat, no matter how brilliantly helpful people were that night - I still wish I'd caught the name of the lady who bartered with a taxi driver to get me all the way home for £60 (nearly 30 miles up the A1 at gone 1am!)
The only mistake I made during the weekend in Coventry was to bring a huge psychology book with me as part of my revision for my MA exams taking place a few days after the match. The textbook was useful during the study session I had in my hotel room on Saturday night but jeez did it nearly destroy my left elbow when I had to drag my super heavy tiny suitcase along behind me the next day to the train station!
At least my exams would be done with by the time I set off on the journey to Edinburgh!
Game 28: ASM Clermont-Auvergne (BT Murrayfield, Edinburgh) – ECC Final
The long and winding road to Edinburgh started with a very short hop train to Stevenage station where I encountered some very familiar faces - the White Hat now recognisable from quite a distance!
The excitement on the platform at Stevenage was palpable as we waited impatiently for the train to Scotland! So many fans were there, suitcases at the ready, shirts proudly on and red & black flags sticking out everywhere!
Arriving in the city a few hours later was an experience like no other; Edinburgh Waverley was awash with rugby fans of all shapes and sizes, with French voices ringing strongly across the concourse interspersed with Irish lilts and the native Scottish burrs!
Navigating out of the station and across to the pub that fans were congregating in was likely meeting an old familiar friend; I've been to Edinburgh a few times now and traversed the main city centre by foot a fair bit, wandering the streets and shortcuts to various locations. Finding myself back on the same paths I'd been on in September when I was in the city for the Autism-Europe Congress (the reason I missed the first AzP game of the season!) was a comfort on a day that was already giving me hyperactive butterflies! On arrival at the pub it was a sea of passion and excitement from both black & red and blue & yellow camps, an infectious joy in the air!
I didn't end up staying long as rain was making fleeting appearances and I still needed to drop my case off in my room before heading to Murrayfield for the team welcome, so it was time for a quick Uber ride across town to the place I'd booked back the previous summer.
Well, it didn't take me long to grasp the error I had made.
When I booked the place I hadn't fully comprehended the level of basicness, nor had the pictures given a realistic portrayal of the place in my view - the virtual building site I encountered on stepping out of the cab was enough to bring out my apprehension, the sight on entering my room upgraded it to full blown 'oh shit' status.
I've stayed in many different places over the years; lots of shared houses at university, sleeping on sofas and airbeds, hostels and B&Bs, boat cabins and tents, the whole range of luxury to basic accommodation. This room however really took my breath away with its simplicity and not in a good way!
A bed, a bedside table with lamp, some towels, a mirror on the wall, a bin, a row of hooks on the wall.
And that was it.
A shared bathroom and a Kitchen-cum-Communal area down the corridor to provide all the 'necessities' completed the package.
There have been a few times during this challenge that I wished I could have afforded more; hotels closer to where I needed to be, non-advanced booked train tickets etc, but this was really the one weekend where I nearly cried at what I had done to myself!
The trouble is, when you're like me and barely making enough salary a month to pay the rent and bills, its really hard to justify spending huge amounts on hotel rooms. In hindsight however, I should have known that this would be a weekend not to skimp on as it always carried a high risk potential for emotional backlash at some point, win or lose!
Deciding that ultimately it was just someone to sleep that night and I would deal with it later, I freshened up and headed off on the short walk to the ground - and I really do mean a short walk, about 10 minutes at my pace - the slowest in Britain according to one family member!
BT Murrayfield is quite impressive from the outside but I wasn't overly impressed by the 'festival' that was outside, it was all rather subdued when I got there as I think most of the spectators where still in the city's drinking establishments!
I did quickly bump into my Sarries family however, and having had a good old laugh at some of Adam's most recent 'special moments' we got ourselves set up for the team bus welcome.
I thought we'd got a fantastic spot right at the barriers facing where the team would walk up and into the door - we even got a test run with booted and hobbling Sean Maitland - only to watch the poor bugger get turned away from the door and forced to go around the side to another entrance! And he's Scottish!!!
A shortwhile later the team bus did arrive, proceeded (of course) by a battalion of sodding bagpipers!!
The team were cheered, I was nearly strangled by the black and red ribbon they fired out of a cannon somewhere as it got whipped up by the wind and tangled round my neck, and Adam got some great photos from his position up on the staircase!
We abandoned our place after the boys had gone in - the coach was headed for us trying to get out after all! Another, smaller, bus arrived not long after which confused us until we heard the cheers of "Nigel!" - the referees had arrived and one Nigel Owens was getting the hero's welcome he deserves!
A lot of wandering around later, picking up programmes and ref links and finding various Sarries fans and it was starting to get towards time to head in to watch the warm ups. The strange thing about Murrayfield is that all the bars and stalls are outside around the perimeter, there is nothing but toilets inside the main structure! So, having discovered this I headed for the bar nearest my area of the stadium and bought myself a bottle of wine.
Yes, a bottle!
Not one of the tiny ones that is normally available at rugby grounds but a full size plastic bottle of white wine! The only problem now was that the bar was cash only (as was the entire ground from what I gleaned, not that anyone had said before hand as warning!) and I was pretty much down to silver coins at this point, so I had to try to find a cashpoint.
Well, there was only one place to get cash out once you'd gone through the ticket barriers, a 'Cash Van' that had 4 ATMs dispensing cash with queues close to half a mile long! Still, I grit my teeth and told myself that I might need it - I *hate* being without at least a tenner on me but had used my emergency money to buy the wine when I realised it was cash only!
Eventually I had my cash and my alcohol and was able to head in to the South Stand where I found Simmo and the gang before Kick-Off for the required programme photo
I had gone for an aisle seat in the lower tier of the South Stand as they were on the cheaper categories of seating and I knew a few people were in that block. Again, probably not the game to have tried saving money on!
The seat wasn't bad view-wise for the game but I had a lot of empty stretches around me, the few people nearby were either French or Irish - the fella who eventually shuffled up to two along from me telling me that he had bought tickets as he "assumed at least one Irish team would make it!" given that Leinster and Munster had made the semi-finals!
The first half was slightly awkward and a bit lonely, I did have my flag proudly waving but I did feel a tad isolated, particularly with a very loud and excitable Clermont fan in front of me who spent most of the game out of his seat on his feet gesticulating to the pitch!
The second half wasn't as bad as I started interacting with the people in front of me, making the first move by complimenting one of the ladies hair colour (a brilliantly vibrant deep red) and she then was fascinated by my bottle of wine!
The Irish gentleman then started to wind up the Clermont fan with my flag, although it was all good natured and he saw the funny side at least - well, up until the final whistle anyway!
BACK TO BACK!
"WE KNOW WHO WE ARE, WE KNOW WHO WE ARE, CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE WE KNOW WHO WE ARE!!"
Tears of joy streaming down my face by this point, utter contentment at being there, having witnessed such a brilliant match, such a superb display from my team and getting to see the moment we had dreamed of since Brad lifted that cup back in Lyon - RETAINED!
Actually my Clermont 'friend' was very gracious in their defeat, even going so far as to borrow a red jacket from someone and attempting to use it to cover his yellow shirt, claiming to be a Saracens fan during the trophy presentation!!
That, unfortunately, is where my day starts to go a bit sour. Already a bit upset that I'd buggered up my seating choice and wasn't with the huge crowd of Sarries fans right next to the trophy presentation section of the stand (that I was squinting to see) my day got even worse after the Champions photos.
Our guys have always been phenomenal at 'thanking the crowd' - circulating the pitch and applauding the fans, taking the time to show their appreciation and even stop for the occasional selfie and autograph. I was down by the pitch barriers ready, I knew they were coming, I knew the trophy would do its lap of honour, I knew my boys wouldn't let me down.
But they did.
They didn't come my way.
They turned and went to the East stand behind the team photo set up and then carried on round to the North stand and finished up in front of the West stand again where they'd been given the trophy.
They never once came near the South stand.
Only one solitary Saracens player came close, Duncan Taylor came over to speak to his family along from me at the barrier and briefly shook some hands and had a few photos, but that was it.
I was heartbroken, my tears of utter joy at the result slowly morphing into desolation and rejection.
My boys, who were so happy, so rewarded for their efforts, didn't care about me or any of the others in my end of the stadium. We were ignored.
Now, I know that wasn't the case, it wasn't deliberate or even conscious, I've watched the TV coverage and the guys were fairly shepherded about and once their families got to them that all took over and they did what they needed to do to process the enormity of what they'd just achieved.
But so did I.
I needed it to be real for me, I needed to see that trophy in Brad's hands with my own eyes, to see those smiles and medals. But I didn't, I couldn't, they were too far away. Instead it felt like a slow moving nightmare, a dream that was held out of my reach as the boys moved off towards the tunnel and into the dressing room for their celebrations - a tiki tonga awaited along with a Bazz remix session.
I left Murrayfield still in tears after being told by a stadium staff member to effectively 'get out', taking my shirt off and shoving it in my bag as I went, abandoning my flag somewhere.
Standing outside the ground I was faced with a choice; turn left and follow the crowd to the Metro and into the city, I'd find plenty of people to celebrate our victory with, or to turn right and walk back to my room.
I spent close to twenty minutes just standing and crying, teeting on the edge of meltdown, not knowing what to do.
I turned right.
I'd been tweeting during the game and at the end, my way of controlling my anxiety, and as such my Dad was well aware of my state of mind when he called. I'm not sure my Dad has ever actually dealt with me that far into meltdown before, certainly not knowing it was an autistic meltdown anyway. He was able to say mostly the right things however and got me calm enough to avoid my pain turning to anger too much, my initial reaction to destroy my challenge scrapbook being tempered by his words.
I was still desperately hurting however and it took a good 2 hours of tears on my bed to get me to the point where I could even think straight.
By this point a few people had noticed I was missing from the celebrations, contacting me to say where they were in case I was elsewhere and trying to find people.
I'm grateful for those messages as it did at least let me know that I wasn't as utterly alone as I felt at that point.
But I couldn't join them, I couldn't do that to people, bring them down with my pain and hurt, ruin their night with my tears that would just not stop flowing.
I think, in hindsight, my reaction was to more than just the disappointment of the boys not coming over. I was so on the edge, so broken by then that everything just came crashing down that night. I was worried about money, how much I'd spent during the season doing all these matches, worried about the exams I'd just sat, certain I'd failed one of them, stressing about both jobs workloads and how much coursework I still had to do and ultimately functioning on far too little sleep when measured against how much social interaction I'd been doing. It wasn't so much Autism Fatigue at that point as Autism Absolute Exhaustion!
I did what I needed to do to get through that night, walking around the corner to purchasing sweet and sour chicken balls and chips from a Chinese takeaway (food I could eat without utensils!) and trying to sleep as much as possible.
The next day was hard at first, I didn't even want to touch my Sarries stuff at that point. The shirt had been lobbed at my suitcase when I got in, my remaining flag kicked under the bed, my SSA pin shoved in my coat pocket and the programme buried under my zip hoody which had been covered by my discarded jeans. For a room with barely anything in it I had created a war zone!
Eventually though I gathered all my possessions and left to check out, ordering an Uber to take me to the city centre where Sue had told me I could come meet them in their hotel room.
Thank god for the Feasey family that day, they lifted my spirits straight away - I walked in to Adam, in his bed/fort doing Latin homework!
We left the suitcases and other bits and pieces in Reception to collect later and wandered off in search of lunch, a side trip for me and Adam into a souvenir store to purchase a fluffy cow for Sue, which was promptly christened "DunCow Taylor"!!
The rest of the day was spent meandering the city, eating ice-creams and going for coffee whilst laughing at the social media posts from the boys and other fans - especially the ones of the guys in the train station heading for their ride home, Alex Goode still in full kit - boots included!!!
When I'd booked my return journey I'd purposefully gone for the same train and carriage (first!) as Sue, Paul and Adam so I would have company on the way home. (It hadn't been possible on the way up as they had gone on the Friday to see the Challenge Cup game that Stade Francais won)
Spending the last few hours in the Virgin Trains First Class lounge was bliss; free tea/coffee/water available along with charge points for phones and free wifi! Exactly what we needed to wind down and rest before the long train ride home.
The fourth seat on their table wasn't booked when we boarded so I switched my seat over to join them, letting someone else have my single seat
We had a fairly good journey to begin with, free drinks and snacks coming round and a lovely staff member who went in search of a different meal option for me when I told him that I couldn't eat either of the two sandwich options available as they both contained things I cant stand! (One was Egg and the other Mustard!) He came back with a ham and cheese baguette which pleased me immensely!
All was well until we reached the Durham area, when we stopped.
And stayed stopped.
The announcement told us that there was a trespasser on the tracks and we would have to wait until the police moved them on.
This later transpired to be not the full story - the trespasser was actually someone threatening to jump from the viaduct up ahead and so had to be helped away from the edge before we could go anywhere.
No fault of Virgin or anyone really, but it did mean by the time we got moving again we were nearly an hour behind schedule! Luckily we had no connections to make as Paul was parked at Stevenage but a fair few passengers were worried about getting into London after the last tubes had stopped!
We eventually made it to the car and I got dropped off in the wee small hours of Monday morning, no time to think about anything but transferring the essentials from my handbag to my work bag ready to go off to work just 7 hours later!
Still, Champions of Europe!
Game 29: Exeter Chiefs (Sandy Park)
Urgh, Sandy Park. Not exactly my favourite ground in the world, nor my favourite journey either!
Luckily this time I was in the Feasey car and not on the cross country train which made it slightly more bearable!
A rather early start again to get across to Devon on time as we had the earlier KO, having to account for local traffic relating to a Country Show or something happening round the corner from the ground!
The ticketing had been a nightmare in the run up to the game, at one point we weren't sure how many Sarries fans would actually manage to make the match, a fair few deciding the troubles with the tickets and general logistics was too much and they would save themselves for Twickenham . . .
Not to put too much of a downer on the day but the weather wasn't nice, the ground isn't brilliant in my eyes and the home crowd were a bit, er, rude.
Did manage to get a few photos of Craig Doyle getting his hair and make-up touched up before rolling cameras, the usual TV build up to a big game with lots of roving cameras sweeping around the crowds - not my cup of tea!
Once inside I stuck mostly to the pitch edge, watching our boys warm up and getting some waves from the younger lads, as a few of the fans got collared for TV interviews with Andy Goode - I'm sure it was complete coincidence when a long range kick of Alex Goode's nearly landed on the camera . . . . !I took a group shot photo for the scrapbook but even at this point with 10 mins to KO I was having serious doubts about being there, feeling incredibly penned in and struggling.
Helen and John were really good with me, as they have been in the past but unfortunately it was the group the other side of me that I didn't know that well and truly ruined my day in the second half.
Already feeling very apprehensive about our ability to win this game when we lost Ashy and Rhodes in quick succession early on, the game never felt like ours, it always felt like we were scrambling, tired and running on fumes against a rested home side.
The half-time break seemed to involved a reshuffle on my left, ending up with a lady I'd never met sitting next to me, and when Wyles crossed for his try this lady grabbed me round the shoulders and shook me while screaming in my ear
Well, I don't think anyone would be too surprised that I didn't react well to that!!
She got very huffy with me when I wrenched myself away, reaching again to put her hand on my arm when I told her to not touch me, she eventually got the message but later tried to tell me that "it's hard not to touch others when you're celebrating a try" . . . .
I'm still not entirely sure why there wasn't some kind of sanction to Henry Slade for his tackle on Ellery, yes Mike managed to handstand his way into getting the ball down and scoring but either Slade tip tackled him to get him almost 180` the wrong way up *or* Ellery was already jumping when Slade hit him so its taking a man out in the air . . . either way - Yellow!
But nothing happened to Slade and then just a few minutes later he was the one taking a penalty for Chiefs, booting a massive effort down to find touch just 7m out, a ridiculous kick that at any other point I would massively admire!
So, lineout less than 10m from the try line, well, it was always going to end with a Chiefs rolling maul and rumble over wasn't it? I don't think Steenson even really bothered with the conversion, the clock was in the red and they were two points up . . .
And thus our season ends, with a whimpering sigh of guttedness.
The boys did come round to applaud the crowd, Ashy getting the biggest cheer as he waved us goodbye, not the exit any of us wanted for him, how different the game might have been had he not had to depart early injured
The journey home was tough, I knew a massive crash was coming for me emotionally, the twin realisations of the season being over and not achieving my 30 was going to hit me hard.
But when it did it surprisingly came with a large dose of pride and relief; I was done, I could rest.
Game 30: England vs Barbarians (Twickenham)
Having not reached the Aviva Premiership final as I had expected, I was left both with no Game 30 and two tickets I didn't really want any more!
Luckily my Wasps fan uncle was wanting to go watch his team take on the Chiefs on the hallowed ground so that solved the second problem! (Sorry it didn't go your way Chris!)
The first was a dilemma at first but ended up solved quite nicely.
See originally I wasn't going to go to the England vs Baabaas game as it would be kicking off as my flight to LA was taking off but, the week before I'd decided to cancel my holiday.
I hadn't been feeling like going for a while, 7 days on my own in the USA wasn't sounding as fantastic as it did when I first organised the trip back in the February - the rearranged NYC flight from when I though we would be playing our Falcons game out there! So, I was all ready to call Virgin Atlantic and cancel my flights, losing all the money as they were non-refundable tickets (the reason I'd changed the NYC trip rather than cancelling) when something incredible happened . . .
There was an announcement out of camp Saracens - the Sarries v Falcons game in September was to be played in Philadelphia!!!
Well, I got those flights changed to be Philly flights pretty damn quick!!
I had considered the possibility of 'saving' Game 30 to be the Philadelphia game but in the end my decision was made by two team announcements; as Sarries weren't featuring in the final, suddenly our non-Lions boys were available for selection! England vs Baabaas quickly became Goodey and Brits versus Wiggy, Loz, Nate and Nick!
How could I not go to that game?!?!?!
So, Game 30 did involve a trip to HQ in the end and I wore my shirt with pride for our 6 guys involved, celebrating the end of a brilliant season with a glass of fizz in the London sunshine!
Even our Scottish friend DunCow made an appearance at HQ that day, cheering for the Baabaas of course!
The game was brilliant fun, as all Baabaas games are, with flashes of pure magic from our dancing maestro Mr Goode and some wonderful moments from our youngsters wearing the rose shirt with pride for the first time!
To get to watch our boys take the chance offered to them by Eddie and leap at it was something special, even if Loz did have to leave the field early with a shoulder knock it was still so exciting to watch the next generation of England and Saracens superstars ready to go!
The match ended in an England victory and seats on the plane to Argentina for Nick, Nate and Loz!
A brilliant walk around applause was made even better when our boys came over to us (hangin over the barriers with our huge SOT flag on display!) - although I think Wiggy was heading for his kids rather than us as we were stood next to them!
Nate and Nick were both brilliant though and pulled Wiggy in for a group shot as we were gibbering with excitement over getting a photo with them in England kit, such a fantastic memory to have, thank you so much guys!
After the game we didn't really want the experience to end, so we headed to the players exit and set up shop to wait patiently! And rewarded we were! The ever wonderful Mr Brits and the hugely friendly and happy Goodey both came over and spent a fair amount of time talking, signing and posing for us!
The England team then trickled out too, with our boys willing to pose for another photo with the flag, as did Mr Jones himself! We even roped in Paul Gustard to have a photo with Schalla joining in again! I then spent the next 20 minutes of so taking photos of the girl I was standing next to as she got her much wanted shots with Chris Robshaw and George Ford!
All in all, a simply wonderful day that really summed up the season and my challenge to me - a fun match at a great location with superb company!
I'll miss the sense of achievement I got from doing my scrapbook after each game and I will miss going to all the games as I will have to really cut back next season for financial reasons but I know I've got a few key games I want to go to - Philadelphia being the main one!
It's been an incredible year, one of real self-discovery and challenge, and I know I have come out stronger and wiser for it.
Thank you to all those who helped and supported me along the way, it really means the world to me.