The aim of the tour was to give the Kingham Hill senior rugby players the chance to experience a high quality sports tour, to develop our character and sporting ability as a team and as individuals, and also to make friendships within the community of world rugby.
We were also very aware that we were marching under God's banner and as such everything we did began with prayer and ended with thanks to God. We had a prayer meeting each morning after breakfast and continued the tradition started last year by praying as a team before each game (something that has now caught on with many other teams throughout the school).
We were also mindful of our heritage and reputation and as such we made sure that when celebrating and enjoying hospitality we remembered our founder, Charles Baring-Young; although the French were highly bemused whenever the toast 'to Charlie' was made and glasses were raised.
This year's Kingham Hill senior rugby tour to France began on Sunday 16th October as Mr Stannard, Mr Eyles and Mr Owen and 25 Kingham Hill senior rugby players travelled to France. The party assembled in the school dining room for a brief time of prayer with the school Chaplain followed by a hearty breakfast at 7:45am. There was an excited buzz about the journey to Bristol airport and it was clear that many of the boys were determined to strike the right note on this trip, although some of their singing suggested that this may depend more on luck than judgement.
In Bordeaux, our hotel was located at one corner of the 'Golden Triangle' in the middle of the city, at the top end of Cours d'Intendance. This is an historic and affluent area which housed some of the most powerful wine merchants in the region back in the early 18th century. Many of the buildings in Place Gambetta are adorned with the heads of the original occupants and it is highly likely that these heads were among the 300 aristocrats guillotined in this square during the revolution. As we stood at the entrance to our hotel, we were surrounded by numerous bistros, restaurants and ice cream parlours as well as many wonderful little side streets each with a myriad of different boutiques. The impact of our location was not lost on any of the tourists and the cultural opportunity that this rugby tour was going to afford them was obvious.
Following an energetic two hour rugby training session the next morning at the Lormont Stadium, the group had their first excursion. A trip to the seaside seemed like an appropriate way to enjoy the blue skies and 25 degree temperatures we were experiencing. However, it became clear that the stroll along the Dune du Pyla in Arcachon Bay was going to be a long way from the relaxing paddle which one might expect at Weymouth! It was in fact a trek and after scaling the 107m incline up the largest sand dunes in Europe we were faced with a 7km undulating walk. The stunning spectacle and wonderful camaraderie made every single step worth it.
Although many of the boys might have regretted running headlong all the way back to the bottom a couple of minutes after reaching the crest, their spirits were far from dampened after they struggled up the slope a second time.
Following the walk along the length of the dune, the squad sang most of the way down the incline towards the sea, at the far end, as we took the shoreline route back to the bus. It really was a team bonding moment which many of the boys will look back on as a real 'off field' highlight of the trip and only one overweight and under-fit member of the party made hard work of the final climb over the hill to the ice-cream reward waiting on the other side, although Mr Eyles assured everyone that he was merely taking it easy.
Our first game against Saint-Loubès was scheduled for a 7pm kick-off on Tuesday night and it was clear at breakfast that the boys were anxious to get on and play. There was, however, a challenging morning ahead of us at Accrobanche. A morning of death defying high ropes and obstacles proved to be another galvanising experience which provided much hilarity. This 'Go Ape' activity did nothing to support the evolutionist argument that our boys are distant relatives of monkeys; none of the natural grace and confidence which characterises these primates was in evidence. Props were found bear-hugging tree trunks and our full-back sought to settle a vendetta by launching himself down a zip wire on collision course with one of the forwards who clearly 'had it coming'. It was a great way for the boys to strengthen their bonds before going onto the 'battlefield' together later that day.
Saint-Loubès rugby club was well equipped with a large playing surface which had our backs licking their lips on arrival. Junior French rugby is not played through schools but local clubs. As such all our matches were scheduled for evening kick-offs and were played in stadiums under floodlights. It was, therefore, not good for our nerves to be going through the pre-match drills in the dark while a technician was wrestling somewhere to resolve an electrical problem with the lights! However, the problem was solved and match began on time. The boys were understandably a little nervous and some of the smooth running we had seen from the backs in our pre-tour matches took some time to become evident. The sheer size of the opposition was daunting and it was a typical battle with grisly French forwards. Once we had understood the importance of moving the ball wide at pace we began to capitalize and it was no coincidence that our first two tries were scored by wingers. Kingham Hill eventually ran out winners at 5 – 20. It was a scrappy yet determined performance and a much needed first win.
Wednesday morning was an opportunity for the tour party to learn a little more about the city of Bordeaux. I led a walking tour from Place Gambetta down to the cathedral and along to the contrasting working class district of St Michel's. Once here the boys spent some time at the various market stalls in Place Meynard. A short walk along the embankment and back to Place de la Bourse finished a most informative morning.
Our second game was against Stade Blaye Rugby. We had been warned that this was likely to be our toughest fixture as the team we were due to play were the Aquitaine regional champions. It was clearly a club with good reason to be proud of its achievements and standing in the locality and from the moment we arrived we knew we were in good hands. The club had organised for an English speaking historian to take us round the citadel which was conceived by the 17th Century architect Vauban and was a highly strategic river defence for Bordeaux.
It was a much colder night than the previous one but that did not deter a large number of spectators from the local area from coming down to the spectacular stadium to watch their boys take on Kingham Hill. For us it was also very heart-warming to be joined by a number of our own parents and their voices were much appreciated!
The opposition were tough and talented and we knew we were in a real battle. Kingham took an early lead by means of a well worked move through the backs but the regional champions showed great character and what ensued was a very well fought contest which may well have been a defining moment in the rugby careers of many of those involved. The lead changed hands a number of times and with three minutes to go Kingham Hill were three points behind their opponents. We were awarded a penalty in front of their posts which provided an easy opportunity to ensure the game would be at least a draw. However, we came to win and the decision was made on field to keep the ball in play and go for the match winning try. The ball was won from the line out and the forwards started to go through the phases to set good platform for the backs to launch a final attack in the dying seconds of the match. The referee had called last play when Barnie Moul, the 1st XV Captain, took the ball at pace and danced, in enigmatic French fashion, past the opposition and over the try line! The conversion was missed but the final whilst blew and it was 17-19 to Kingham Hill.
As a town, Blaye was, and is, not coping well with the recession so the warmth and generosity of the club's post-match hospitality was extremely humbling. More and more platters of food kept coming from the kitchens, local wine was sampled and despite being at battle on the field, the two sides were brothers in arms in the clubhouse. The singing went on and on and on... the Kingham boys had found their voice and certainly did us proud. A lot of new friends were made that night – in fact a number of them tried to smuggle themselves onto the team bus as it prepared to return to Bordeaux! It was an emotional evening which will live long in the memory of all of us who were privileged enough to be there.
Day five gave the tour party a chance to change the scenery and so we relocated even further south to Biarritz. We arrived late morning and were left with a couple of hours to explore the seaside town and take on some lunch.
In the afternoon, the group kayaked in Hendayne which is one of the bays of the Basque coast. The salt air and the more relaxed atmosphere seemed to encourage a more mischievous approach to the activity. Piracy ran a-muck as people ruthlessly commandeered each other's kayaks, leaving their victims floundering in the water. Eventually, once the group had managed to negotiate its way around the cove, our guide announced that we were now in Spain! After leaving the kayaks on the beach we were able to spend a short amount of time investigating the small Spanish town.
That night the tour party enjoyed a three course meal in a restaurant overlooking the sea in the town of Biarritz before a quick late night paddle on the beach and a long drive back to Bordeaux, to arrive at our hotel in the early hours of the morning.
Friday morning provided the boys with an opportunity to relax and visit any one of the numerous museums, art galleries or shops which they had been unable to see so far. The squad convened for lunch at a steak restaurant beside the hotel. The fantastic quality of the food was very much appreciated by all – especially the bottomless bowl of chips!
That night we played our last match on tour against Pessac Rugby. The boys were keen to maintain their unbeaten record and the unity and confidence of the group was tangible. From early on in the fixture, it seemed as though Kingham were going to overwhelm their opposition as early tries were scored through the backs. It seemed that a number of late arrivals to the Pessac forces strengthened their side at the start of the second half but Kingham Hill rose to the challenge and ten minutes after the break began to assert themselves again. It was clear that we had won the psychological battle and therefore the match was ours. The French could not cope with the waves of forward runs that were made and in the last quarter of the game we were scoring at will. This was the greatest team effort of the tour with a stunning amount of hard tackling ad quick and elusive running rugby that had our French host applauding us and the entire squad getting great match time! The final score was 0-72 with one of our props scoring the last points of the tour by kicking a conversion to the rapturous cheers of the rest of his team-mates.
The final morning gave us all a couple of hours to buy last minute souvenirs and gifts as well as enjoy a last taste of the wonderful French cuisine. There were many tired bodies but everyone had some great memories which would last a lifetime.
The Headmaster had voiced his confidence that this group of boys would give a good account of both themselves and the school. They certainly did not let him down. These ventures often see boys grow into men and the maturing process was certainly evident in a number of the tour members.
Everyone played their part but the following awards were made:
Best Tourist Award: Tom Weaver-Smith and Gus Edmondson (joint award)
Best Young Tourist Award: Sam Bishop
Best Translator: Seb Mahony
France 2011 Tour Squad:
Back Row: J Goddard, A Martin, L Dawson, B Moul (Captain), M Chappell, D Anderson, J Sindhar, S Bishop, H Stafford
Middle Row: N Stannard (Head Coach), L McCarter, S Frost, C Fute, T Weaver-Smith (pack leader), E Lai, L Kaffenberger, O Mahony, K Mockford, M Eyles (Tour Manager)
Front Row: I Stafford, N Stewart, S Mahony, C Lewis, K Tang, T Lewis, N Cretu, A Edmondson,
Also: R Owen (Coach – not pictured)