WORLD CUP DIARY: England v Wales

Our second ‘World Cup Diary’ takes us to Twickenham and that game between England and Wales last weekend. Robert Harding was not only lucky enough to be there, but he also sang the anthems on the pitch. Here he gives us his take on one extraordinary day…

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This is the story of one of the greatest days of my life.

It starts two or three Sundays ago. I was in my flat, on my sofa, probably watching something dreary and contemplating another week in work. I received an email…or rather my A cappella group received an email.

(I probably should’ve told you I’m in an A cappella group – they’re pretty crucial to the story. They’re called The Buzztones).

The email was from Dr Haydn James. That name may not be familiar but, to anybody who’s been to an international game at the Millennium Stadium, those waving arms probably will be. Haydn is the official Musical Director of the Welsh Rugby Union and conducts the band and choir at practically every match. The Buzztones know Dr James from a few years back when most of us were part of a London-based male voice choir. Haydn had a proposition for us: would we like to sing the anthems (as part of a mixed choir) for the crucial England v Wales match at Twickenham. He had been asked to find someone last minute and had thought of us. All of a thousandth of a millisecond later, we said yes.

The next two weeks were equal parts excitement and anxiety. Excitement because we were faced with the real prospect of not only attending the biggest game of the World Cup but being in the centre of it all. Anxiety because it seemed too good to be true.

Fast forward to Friday 25th September and a rehearsal with Cor Llunsain Choir at the Welsh Chapel, Borough. ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ are ringing round this beautiful old church. Haydn’s swinging his arms around. This is beginning to feel real now.

Game day. The train from London Waterloo. Fans in white and red pack the carriage and engage in light-hearted sledging. A thousand and one potential scorelines are predicted, debated and dismissed. Seems real enough.

Twickenham station. The crowds spill onto the rail bridge and begin that ever so slightly too long a walk to HQ. Suddenly it comes into view. But this is not the Twickers I remember: all grey and lifeless. This is a bulked-up, brightly-decked, party-ready Twickenham Stadium resplendent in bright pink, green and blue. We reach our entrance gate and are greeted by our official contact for the day. We’re given our passes. Very, very real.

Those next six hours or so (from us entering Gate B to us spilling out onto a delirious Rugby Road) seem like a blur now: one glorious, life-affirming blur. But, as far as I can recall, this is what happened:

We are marched passed a giant screen (which would later be the focal point for Twickenham’s mini Fanzone) as Italy’s narrow win against Canada is concluding. A few moments later we’re shown to our ‘room’ for the day. To call it a room is doing it an injustice, for this is three connected rooms which would usually act as the office for the written press on match-day. It would seem they have plusher surroundings for RWC2015. Whatever the case, they’re not here…we are. More importantly, one wall of this three-sectioned room is adorned with glass and, through it, the inhabitants have an unspoilt view of the Twickenham pitch on the half-way line. When all is said and done, we’re in a box…in Twickenham…for England v Wales…at a Rugby World Cup. So far, so bloody fantastic.

Haydn instructs us to pick our jaws up off the floor and join us in the middle room for our first rehearsal of the day. We notice a film crew in the corner. Haydn explains these guys are making a documentary about England 2015 which will “be on ITV just before Christmas, and in cinemas in the New Year.” On a day of glorious twists and turns, this is the most mundane of the lot…but is met with an equal amount of excitement from the choristers. We begin our rehearsal. In this comparatively tiny space, the noise made by 50 men and women is electric. ‘God Save…’ sounds majestic, regal, proper. But nothing compares to the sound of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ which is sung as if lives depend on it. Haydn gives a look as if to say, “Save it for the pitch.”

It suddenly dawns on the English contingent of the choir (to be found almost exclusively in The Buzztones it must be said) that they are heavily outnumbered by Welsh counterparts. As a member of the Welsh Buzztones minority, I don’t mind this one bit but even I am forced to consider why the organisers have picked such a Welsh-dominated group for a supposedly ‘home’ game for the Red Rose. This is a Trojan Dragon of a choir, about to lead an unprecedented amount of Welsh away supporters in the battle cry of our forefathers: song.

(Of course we’re contractually obliged to give the English anthem as much gusto as the Welsh which we, again of course, duly deliver. Ahem).

A brief moment later (in which we scout out our ‘spots’ from which to watch the game) we’re called downstairs to the official dress rehearsal. The distance from our box to the gate in which you enter the Twickenham bowl is about half the stadium’s circumference. This allows plenty of opportunity for fans who have congregated early (probably in hope of watching a second Springbok defeat this tournament) to whisper comments along the lines of, “There’s the choir”…the black shirts and grey trousers probably gave it away. Some hopeful Welsh fans go one step further: “Make sure you sing ours mind”. Little do they know.

We’re marched along the side of the Twickenham turf (as walking on this perceived hallow ground is strictly limited). From here we perform each anthem as the backing track (no military band for a World Cup) blares over the stadium’s speakers. Our mission here is to listen to the monitors in front of us and not to the sound of the backing track bouncing of the walls of Twickers some one or two seconds later. It takes a few goes although Haydn seems more concerned about getting the Welsh anthem right. Four reprisals later and he’s happy. I suspect he’s only done it to cheer that smattering of Welsh fans who’ve taken their seats (very) early. That said, even the battle-hardened Twickenham stewards are compelled to clap and shout approval. We could be on to something here. As we’re about to finish the dress, a familiar face reaches out over the advertising hoardings and his familiar voice beckons Haydn over. It’s John Taylor. THE John Taylor of the successful 1970s Welsh and British and Irish Lions sides. A man rightly considered a legend in Welsh sporting circles. He’s also the man that provided the commentary for Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the 2003 final. As such, he’s Twickenham’s stadium announcer for their home World Cup. But, for now, he just wants to say hello to Haydn who he seems to know well. After, Haydn is eager to explain to us who that was, but I know…and I’m in awe.

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We return to the room and the next hour or so feels like an eternity. From our vantage point we can see streams of people entering the ground. The sun sets in the distance. Kick-off approaches. Finally, we’re given the call. “It’s busy down there”, we’re told. It is busy. Making that same journey to the pitch takes twice as long as just an hour before: the concourses packed with fans. The nerves, tension, excitement and camaraderie is palpable. We finally get to the gate (albeit in small choir-shaped batches) and are hurriedly pushed into a holding pen at one corner of the stadium. From there we wait, in the lines we’ll be standing in on the pitch itself. We can see a quarter of the crowd (it’s packed). We can see the players training on the field (they’re huge). And we can see the face of the Assistant Floor Manager who is poised to give us the nod to “Go, go, go”. All we can do is wait (and take a few cheeky selfies).

The call comes. We march along the turf and then, through a small hole in the hoardings, are invited to walk onto the pitch and place ourselves at it’s centre. I can only describe this as the greatest view I have experienced in my years of attending rugby games. We have a 360 degree picture of the bustling crowd as smatterings of ‘Wales, Wales’ are drowned out by a wave of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. From my position on the front row, I look straight down the tunnel as the players line-up. They slowly start to fill in. There’s Warburton. There’s Faletau. There’s Robshaw. The lights are dimmed. Spotlights circle every inch of the arena. The players emerge and then burst onto the pitch. It feels as if they’re running straight for us. Alun-Wyn Jones comes very close as he hurtles past the group. I am counting each and every one of my blessings as they enfold before my eyes. It’s incredible. The players line up. Mike Brown takes a step back and has a good look at the Welsh. He looks furious!

“Ladies and Gentlemen would you please be upstanding for the anthems, supported by the Cor Llunsain Choir and The Buzztones”. To hear our name announced in Twickenham (by John Taylor no less) was thrilling…but no time to think on it. We have a job to do. ‘God Save The Queen’ first. The noise from the home crowd is tremendous. The English are up for it. Wales’ next. For a moment, you could swear you were in Cardiff. We choristers can’t hear ourselves over the din but everyone’s singing in time and on note. We’re doing it. We’re leading the Welsh in song. The moment passes by in a flash and, soon enough, we’re walking off that Twickenham turf. As we do, I can’t resist giving a thumbs-up to Taulupe. Strictly against protocol but strictly worth it. As we walk along pitch-side, on our way out of the bowl, we’re applauded by the crowd nearby. That feels good. Job done. Time for that quick dash round to our box for the game itself (with a stop at the Heineken stand of course).

You won’t need me to tell you what happened over the course of those next two hours. But to witness the to-and-fro of the first half, to scream at the defensive shambles that led to England’s early try, to feel that our world had caved in when Scott Williams left the field (shortly followed by Hallam Amos and Liam Williams) and then, then for Wales to find the courage, energy and determination to win the game with two scrum-halves and two fly-halves on the field…to witness all that was a privilege. An honour augmented by my experience on the pitch itself. The English lads were (quite rightly) folorn on the final whistle but even they had to admit this was one hell of a day.

But there was more: an epilogue to this amazing few hours, a cherry on our welshcake. By some wrong-turning on their part, and this is not a joke (although it sounds like one) our celebrations were interrupted when Lewis Moody, Gabby Logan, Sir Gareth Edwards and England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson entered our box. The look on their faces as it dawned on them what they had walked into (especially Jonno) was priceless. My mate James leapt at the chance. “Jonno! Can I get a picture with you?!”. Johnson’s reply said it all: “They just stopped playing”. This was a man still coming to terms with what he had just seen. He (and Gabby and Lewis) soon made their excuses and left. Sir Gareth though was more than happy to have as many photos with the girls of Cor Llunsain as they wanted.

We left Twickenham late having made the most of our fortunate surroundings and, if truth be told, because we didn’t want to let go of that feeling at full-time. As we spilled out onto the concourse, a chorus of Calon Lan broke out and those dizzied Welsh fans joined us for one last song. We partied on into the night.

I get back to my flat in the early hours of Sunday morning, and I sit on that sofa where I first read Haydn’s email. ‘Did that just happen?’, I ask myself. Was it all a dream? If so, it’s one of the sweetest dreams a Welshman could experience and one that I’ll be replaying in my head for many years to come.

“And we were singing hymns and arias, ‘Land of my Fathers’, ‘Ar hyd y nos’.”

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