Dunvant U16s tour of the Low Countries
Two years in the planning and fund raising, the U16s tour to Antwerp lived up to expectations and proved to be a trip all involved will never forget.
As one of the “Frequent Flyers” who were unable to contemplate a 13 hour coach trip at our age, I can’t comment on the journey out. Reports suggest it was a subdued affair with most fast asleep by Sarn, I do know that on arriving in Antwerp they decided to take the scenic route past Kelly’s Irish bar (where we flyers had been sat for over an hour) several times before finding the hotel two hours later.
The first night saw tentative forays into the closer bars and restaurants with some of the more intrepid journeymen extending their range to find the cheapest kebab in town. All the boys were tucked up in bed by 9.30 as per mums’ strict instructions.
Refreshed after a good night’s sleep (!) we all met for the drive to Etten-Leur Rugby Club at 11.00 sharp. The location in a picture-postcard pretty village and the outstanding weather set the scene. The boys resplendent in their new pink tops and socks took the game to the Dutch with merciless efficiency scoring many tries adding up to a somewhat hazy 84-0 by the final whistle.
Other “games” followed the main event with dads v lads races and a rowing competition taking place in unseasonably hot weather. These raised a thirst which needed serious quenching before we regaled the locals with renditions of ‘Calon Lan’ and ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’.
That evening, being students of local custom, we immersed ourselves in traditional Belgian culture via their many breweries’ produce, helping to put their economy on a good footing in the process. Some made a better fist of this than others of course.
Dave Cole had organised a visit to the monument to the Welsh soldiers fallen in the First World War, Essex Farm War Graves and the nearby town of Ypres. We weren’t sure how the boys would react to this but to their (and their parents') credit, they were visibly moved by the experience and showed complete respect throughout.
We laid a wreath before standing facing the monument with heads bowed as Mr Cole read some lines from “For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon before leading us in a suitably subdued rendition of the national anthem. This proved to be an immensely moving moment which will stay with us all for many years.
The town of Ypres stands as an example of how a place can recover from almost total destruction to retain it’s former glory. We visited the Menin Gate which holds 72,000 names of soldiers whose bodies were never identified. Sobering, indeed.
That evening, following letting off steam with ten-pin bowling, the boys decided to give each other some spectacular haircuts and eyebrow shavings. Jamie Fairbairn seems to have a successful future in barbering ahead!
Judging by the dark rings around some people's eyes (Mr Black), the relentless pace was beginning to catch up with most, and a hastily rearranged trip to Bruges instead of Brussels was a popular decision - apart that is for the inexhaustible Mr Cheyney who had bought himself an “I Love Sprouts” t-shirt especially for the purpose, no matter, he wore it anyway.
Bruges in the spring sunshine, for those who saw it, is possibly the most beautiful town in Europe, canals, breathtaking architecture and more chocolate shops than you could ever want to visit.
On returning to Antwerp we met at the Irish Bar from the first evening only to find that, not content with haircuts, the boys had all dyed their hair too. Fair play to Mr Hopkins who had also dyed his hair red in solidarity with the lads and is now looking for a new job.
Without displaying too much smugness, the trip back for us flyers was a breeze, whereas the coach trip took on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow for sheer duration. The main thing is that everyone got home safely - the dads just tired, but the boys changed forever.
As the last game of their junior rugby careers approaches a word about what the last nine years has been about.
By bringing our sons together in rugby we have given them a life experience and a chance to meet friends they will never forget. They have learned the joy of winning and the pain of losing. They’ve learned that to succeed they need to work hard in training and work together on the field. They’ve learned that sometimes even that is not enough but when they fail, they shake hands, smile and get over it determined to try harder the next time.
In short, we have have had the immense privilege of seeing them become men. Good men at that.
I am so proud of my son.