Pets (1) Photography (1) Rugby (2) Travel (5)

Sunday, 1 January 2012

My XV of 2011.

Here is my pick of the best XV of 2011. These are my favourite players of their position throughout the entire of 2011 from all domestic championships to Six/Tri nations to the RWC.

1.Martin Castrogiovanni
Was always devastating in the scrum. Makes no difference whether it's for Leicester or Italy he's a real weapon in the tight spaces.

2. Mahonri Schwalger
Hugely passionate. I went to two Samoa games this year and it was a great atmosphere. They really play for the fans and this guy leads from the front.

3. Cian Healy
Most notable performance for me was the RWC clash with Australia. Very powerful in the scrum and very mature for such a young age.

4. James Horwill
Hugely influential during the Red's triumphant Super 15 season and transferred this leadership to captain his country. Thrown in at the deep end on the eve of the championship yet handled the huge responsibility and honour as if he'd been doing it years.

5. Brad Thorn
I literally bumped into him in NZ, a huge guy with a huge presence. 36 years old yet still covering the yards. A real work horse for NZ.

6. Jerome Kaino
Loved watching him play for the Blues. During the RWC was immensely physical smashing every tackle. Carried this physicality through the whole 80 minutes of every game.

7. Sam Warburton
Another new captain of 2011. Very mature and lead from the front. Really summed up this Wales approach, young, fresh and fit - very fit. Very talented and gets my vote for the Lion's captaincy.

8. Sergio Parisse
Italy's main man. So passionate and full of talent. Has the handling skills of a back. Great leader. Italy suffer when he's missing.

9. Will Genia
Instrumental for both the Reds and the Wallabies. A key play maker and sensible decision maker. Really steers his forwards and puts his back line in the right position. Indispensable to Australia. 

10. Quade Cooper.
 I don't like the word 'Mercurial', I prefer unpredictable - admittedly sometimes even for his own team! I absolutely love watching him play. He is so exciting to watch and I think that's great for the modern game. He's the back line wizard and his partnership with Genia steered the Reds to victory. Not a great RWC to remember but his Reds and Tri Nations championships were fantastic. 

11. George North
Another 'freak' like Lomu. A huge (literally) contrast to Shane Williams style but that doesn't stop him finding the try line. Jumped from regional rugby to International and for someone 19 years old at the time handled it with ease. A huge future ahead.

12. Jamie Roberts
A very powerful centre. Always guaranteed to break the gain line. I went to see him play at the Wales/Samoa RWC match and he flattened some of the Samoan back line, not something that is easily done.

13. Manu Tuilagi
Was one of those 'where has he been all this time' kind of players. Just what England needed fast, powerful and a finisher. Has had some discipline issues but I would assume/hope they will get stop as he gets older.

14. Chris Ashton
One of the hugely successful code converts. Already a prolific try scorer. Top try scorer in both the Six Nations and RWC says it all. Saw him play against Italy in this years Six Nations and perform his ' Swallow Dive' - another player I enjoy watching.

15. Kurtley Beale
Such a threat to opposition in both International and Super 15. Constantly looking to attack. Very safe under the high ball and always backs himself when chasing his own kick. Australia missed him during his injury at the RWC.

For many it was a very tight to call. 2011 was such a great year for rugby with so much class on display. This s my best of the rest:

Adam Jones
Alex Corbisiero
Sean O'Brian
Imanol Harinordoquy
Courtney Lawes
Jacques Burger
 David Pocock
 Richie Mccaw.

James O'Connor,
Israel Dagg
 Mike Brown
 Rhys Priestland,
 Elton Jantjies
 Ma'a Nonu
Anthony Faingaa

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Doggy Baths.

It great going for a long walk with the dogs it clears the cobwebs and stretches the legs. What isn't so great is cleaning the dogs afterwards. Somehow they always manage to come back looking and smelling like they've rolled in horse dung. Now my dogs HATE the bath, one will try and escape at every opportunity whilst the other just sits there looking miserable as if hes being tortured. Here are the steps I take to ensure bath-time goes as smoothly as possible.

Firstly I distract the dogs with promises of walkies and a new chew. Luckily for me they are slightly dim witted and would follow me to the ends of the earth. Its only when I've got them in the bathroom do they give me the 'I trusted you, how could you do this to me' eyes.

Once I have a dog in the tub its a 2 person job. One to hold/comfort whilst the other shampoos. One has to ignore the puppy dog eyes and get on with it. I would recommend wearing an old shirt to do this as I often end up as wet as the dogs! 

When finished all the dog wants to do is the old shake 'N' dry. Not something my bathroom agrees with so its now a wrestle to get them wrapped in a towel and carry them into the garden to dry off.

It wasn't all lies, both now have a bone as a treat for being well behaved :-)

And they can enjoy them drying off in-front of the fire!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Rugby World Cup 2011: A fan’s perspective.

There was no way I was missing this world cup! Even if it meant bankruptcy, which luckily it didn't, I would be there. I had always wanted to go to New Zealand and having a huge love for rugby I saw it as a perfect opportunity to do both.

Now to get to NZ from London you’re looking at 20+ hours of flight time. There are several different routes all depending on which airline you fly with however there are no direct flights. I flew via the Middle East, stopping in Dubai and then Brunei. Each flight lasted around 8 hours with about an hour or two in-between each one. My total travel time was something like 32 hours, from leaving my house to arriving at my hostel. I have no idea how many time zones you cross flying to NZ but it really isn’t easy on the body – I arrived in Auckland with the bloodshot eyes of a raging alcoholic and hair that would give any scarecrow a run for their money! As for tips on how to handle jetlag I just try to power through it, sticking to my usual routines and timings – despite this for the first few days I was still naturally waking by 6am!!

Due to work commitments I could only take 3 weeks for my trip. When you combine this with the flight times and consider how much there is to see out there I had a lot to fit in. When over there I had three RWC tickets taking me from Auckland to Dunedin and back. NZ has a brilliant infrastructure and so getting about is relatively easy especially with companies such as Intercity and Naked Bus. There are passes that vary according to how many stops or trips you need and all for a reasonable price – for my 2 week pass including 5 trips I paid around NZ$160. The drivers were very helpful and also acted as great tour guides when driving. Getting from island to island is also very easy with regular ferries and flights. You can book just about anything from bus passes to day trips from one of the I-Sites (Tourist Information Office) located in every city.

What really attracted me to NZ was the rugby culture down there. When I say they live, eat and breathe rugby I'm not exaggerating. It’s great to see a country so supportive and passionate about their team. As soon as I arrived in Auckland I was greeted by Richie McCaw’s face staring down at me from every billboard in the city. Every business and shop had some form of poster showing their support for the All Blacks. Every restaurant had photos showing an All Black had eaten there previously. I really got the impression that the whole country was backing the team. Something a local said to me sums up their attitude, ‘If aliens landed tomorrow they would struggle to figure out who was more popular, Jesus or Dan Carter’.

There is no better atmosphere than that found on game day- and that goes for any sport. I love the sense of anticipation you feel waiting for kick off. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on NZ for the World Cup, and for those without match day tickets the Fan Zones were a great alternative. Most cities had one, an area with beer tents, entertainment and giant communal screens so fans could watch the game together. For me the RWC was simply a chance to watch world class rugby. It goes without saying that I had an England match ticket however I also had tickets to see South Africa, Samoa and Wales. I was there to see the global spectacle, to support the game of rugby itself, then my team. I wasn’t alone in this, my first game, Wales vs. Samoa, I had an American on one side of me and a Japanese man on the other – not something I’ve experienced at Twickenham! There was always a positive atmosphere, no home or away fans just people there to enjoy themselves.

One thing that did surprise me was the number of opportunities to meet the teams. At the end of the day the players are travelling too, they are based in whichever city their next game is in and obviously can’t stay in their hotel room all the time. I was very fortunate, I bumped into the All Blacks in Nandos, I met Wales and Australia outside their hotels, I met some Scotland players in a Canterbury store, walked past the Fijian squad at the airport and to top it off met some of the South Africa team in Starbucks! As a fan travelling all that way, meeting your heroes and the players you look up to is really rewarding and really made my trip.

Rugby aside, New Zealand is a fantastic place to visit. The scenery is spectacular and the people are some of the friendliest and most chilled out your ever likely to meet. The most popular way to travel is to hire a campervan and then do your own thing. I was slightly more restricted and had a schedule to stick therefore missed out on some of the sights – Waitomo Caves, Fox Glacier and Milford Sound to name a few!

It is immediately obvious why NZ was chosen as middle earth and being a Lord of the Rings fan I was intrigued to see more. Hobbiton is a must see! It’s actually located on a working sheep farm outside a town called Matamata. Your picked up from the I-Site and taken there on an old rickety white bus aptly named ‘Gandalf’. As soon as you arrive it feels like you’re leaving NZ behind and entering The Shire, there are luscious green hills and dozens of Hobbit holes. I seemed to time my visit perfectly as the following week the site was closed off to the general public so filming on The Hobbit could commence. During my tour some areas were screened off from the public so the gardeners could add the finishing touches to the sets. Photos were allowed but the guides were very strict on the no go areas and we all had sign a document ensuring we weren’t then going to publish the photos before the films release.

Wellington was one of my favourite cities; it reminded me of San Francisco with its steep streets and coastal winds. I did another LOTR tour here taking in the local filming locations. Another must do. Again I booked this in the local I-Site and was picked up outside my hostel. The tour began with a tour of the city and its filming studios (Welly-wood) and then headed to the Weta Cave which was fantastic. The gift shop is full of props and costumes and left with a considerably lighter wallet!

Dunedin was probably the wettest place I went to. Situated on the east coast of the South Island it is the furthest city away from London before you start coming back on yourself. Being a major student city it has a very lively nightlife. I watched the England vs Romania game here in the new Otago stadium, a great piece of architecture with its transparent roof and natural turf.

Unfortunately Christchurch still resembled ground zero when I visited in late September. The devastating February earthquake had really reduced the city to rubble. The CBD, (city centre) was a no go zone. I had to see it for myself before I believed it but the inner city was actually fenced off and was a ghost town. It was tragic to see some of the ruins that were once people’s homes. There was a still a Fan Zone for people to watch the games but I only stayed for one night before moving on, it’s such a shame, with the bunting on the river and the willow trees the city is really picturesque.

Queenstown. The adventure capital. There is so much to do here; rafting, bungy jumping, ski-diving, jet boating, mountain biking the list is endless. I saved myself about $40 by booking a bundle package in the AJ Hackett Bungy Centre and so went white water rafting and did the 134m Nevis Bungy Jump! Surrounded by mountains it is a top skiing destination and at first glance you could easily mistake it for a Swiss skiing resort. As with Dunedin, Queenstown is also a big nightlife spot with hundreds of bars to choose from. It would be rude of me not to mention Fergburger, world famous for its enormous burgers the size of dinner plates.

NZ did a fantastic job of hosting the RWC. It felt like the whole country came together. There was transportation and entertainment provided at every game and there was always someone available to help. I only had 3 weeks over there but I still came back satisfied and wanting to return. There is still so much for me still to see and  for anyone thinking of heading that way my advice would be to go for it. It’s a really long way to go so as long as you schedule enough time and plan your trip properly you’ll have a great time. I now look forward to 2015 and hope England can do as good a job as host as NZ did (the same result wouldn’t go amiss either!).

Monday, 5 December 2011

Gecko's Adventures

  Geckos was originally recommended to me by a family friend. Since going on one of their tours not only have I often recommended them to others but also have many stories to share. Here I thought I would do both. I spent 3 weeks on a Geckos tour in South East Asia, travelling from Vietnam through Cambodia and ending in Thailand.

With a maximum of 16 people Geckos has all the benefits of group travel however remains personal and flexible. My tour ranged from 8 to 12 people. Each new destination saw people either leave or join us and with tours ranging from a few days right up to a month or two there all always people coming and going. With each new city you get the option to either have your own room (small additional cost) or share with a member of your group so there is always opportunity to get to know new people.

The majority of your meals are usually included (breakfast and some lunches) but your main meal is usually out of your own pocket. We used this to our advantage and spent each night somewhere different trying new foods and the local beer. Our tour guides were great, not only would they suggest somewhere good to eat they would usual join us too. We would usual go out as a group, order a variety of dishes to share amongst us all and then make our way to a night market or local bar – at $3 a beer it would be rude not to!

All the must see sights are included in the tour cost. Any additional activities are usual available at an extra fee. When in the Angkor Watt temple complex all the main temples were included (include a sunrise and sunset visit) but there was also the option to go on a hot air balloon or an elephant ride. We arrived at the complex around 5am for sunrise and were greeted by young children willing to guide you to the temple with a torch and then f ix you up with a chair and hot chocolate when you got there – all for a small fee. Word of warning – there are ‘beggars’ everywhere, mostly in the form in children offering fruit or to take your picture but then asking for a dollar or two in return. When crossing one of the borders there were some children with tarantulas offering to let them crawl on us whilst they took our picture, the only catch being we had to buy some bananas off of them – nothing too much but just something to be aware of.

When entering a new country we were met by a new guide. Having someone who spoke the native language was really helpful. It was great to have some local advice on which flee market to go to or help explain the contents of a certain dish. The border crossings were also made a lot easier by having someone assist you in filling the correct form and speed up the visa process. When on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border I could have sworn I saw the guide slip some cash inside my passport – not that I was complaining I got through with no issues! Another thing to watch out for is the border guards. One minute their checking your passport the next their trying to sell you some local currency for a hugely inflated price.

Transport is another worry that is taken care of. The majority of our inter-city or inter–country travelling was done by some form of minibus. In Vietnam the rail network is quite extensive and the overnight train was also included. We had a boat ride in Bangkok included and a rather scary ‘cyclo’ ride through Saigon. I cannot think of a word to describe the traffic in Vietnam. The majority of vehicles are some form of motorbike or scooter. It is absolutely mind blowingly crazy, with a side dish fantastic. It’s surreal. Its one of those things that you can’t describe to someone who hasn’t been there. Renting a scooter is highly unadvisable in many guidebooks but wow is it fun! If you do choose to use some form of taxi or tuk tuk I would strongly recommend bartering -always arrange a price before you get in.

What I most enjoyed was the friendly atmosphere. There is a really good balance between travelling on your own and being part of a group. When I arrived in Vietnam the group had already been together for over a week and initially I was slightly apprehensive. However after some introductions we all went out for dinner and I soon felt welcome. The unique thing is the group numbers are constantly varying. With so many tours operating for different lengths of time there are always people coming and going midway through. Before leaving Vietnam we parted with some of our group before heading over the border to Cambodia and meeting some more newcomers. One particular night in Phnom Penh started with a ‘quiet’ meal and ended around 4am. Not the greatest idea when the next day consisted over an 8 hour drive to the Thai border – got to be the worst drive of my life!

For such good prices and with great frequent traveller deals Geckos are very hard to beat. Their tours are very comprehensive and extremely safe. They strike a great balance between independent travelling and a social group experience. Now everything stated here was from my own personal experience and so details may differ depending on which country or tour. However what won’t change is the fact that it’s a great way to see a new country and make new friends. Go ahead and try it for yourself.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Still to come.

Am heading to Rugby HQ Saturday to celebrate my birthday. Am watching the Help4Heroes charity game. Will post article after.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Summer Camps

I have so many memories and experiences from my two summers spent in America that I thought I’d share them with those who are considering going.
 My first piece of advice is DO IT! - The only thing I regret about my time spent at summer camps is not returning for a third year. There are so many different camps out there to choose from - sports camps, religious camps, day camps, special needs camps etc. There are thousands of camps located in every state in the USA and so there really is something for everyone.
I spent the summers of 08 and 09 over in the USA working in California and Missouri. I am being 100% honest when I say that these summers were the most enjoyable and satisfying I’ve ever had, yet having said that they are also enormously tiresome. It is not a holiday in any sense (there is room for that after!) and you leave the camp both emotionally and physically drained.  
If you have already applied or are in the process of doing so, my next piece of advice is not to panic. I spent my time in-between camps working for Camp Leaders interviewing applicants and so have dealt with a fair few applications. Once your application is accepted you are pretty much guaranteed a place. It may not happen straight away but be patient as there are thousands of camps out there each requiring different types of people. I was extremely lucky, whilst attending a recruitment fair in London I was interviewed and given a place on the same day, however some friends of mine have had to wait until May to hear where they were going. Now if you have a particular skill (sailing, lifeguarding, rock climbing etc..)  you may be placed sooner than others however it all depends on the camp and position you’re applying for.
·         Specialist counsellor/Activity leaders are pretty self explanatory, you have a specific skill that you teach to the campers, you also muck in at dinner times and are usually (in my experience) attached to a group/tribe/unit.
·         General Counsellors are responsible for the children 24/7. You sleep in the same cabin as the campers, eat at the same table and escort them to and from their activities. It can be an extremely rewarding position as you really get to know your campers and form a special bond.
·         Support Staff make up the back of house roles; kitchen staff, maids, office admin etc.
Now it is important to point out that not one of these roles is easy. They all have their own unique challenges whether it’s the kitchen staff preparing the breakfast at 6am, the activity leader cleaning up after an eventful arts and crafts lesson or a counsellor changing a camper’s bed sheets at 3am as they’ve wet the bed – Yes it happens, and often!
I have been very privileged with my time at camp. I spent my time in California located amongst the great Redwoods in the north of the state. The kids were split into ‘tribes’ according to their age and sex; the males staying in log cabins and the females in teepees! The camp has a really rustic natural feel and all activities were taught outside . The camp was part of the Boys and Girls Club program and so the kids were from under privileged backgrounds and inner city areas. My second camp was located on the Missouri river and surrounded by luscious green forests and hills. Both camps were full of staff from all over the world and so it was really great to make some interesting friends and learn about new cultures.
It’s hard to describe a ‘typical’ day at camp as no such thing exists! Each day is different and brings new challenges. For one of the counselling positions your day usual starts around 6am. 95% of your time is dedicated to the campers and so it’s only when they are in bed that you can sort your own admin out (writing letters/emails, showering etc).
Campers are usually woken up around 7:30 by some form of bell or bugle and then the whole camp proceeds to the flag rising ceremony. This is a huge part of the American culture and really shows how patriotic and passionate they are. Usually any announcements are made at this point before everyone heads for breakfast. Now regardless of the meal, the dining hall has to be the most chaotic place at camp. In both my experiences long benches have been set out for each unit of campers and the counsellors sit with the kids. I developed a bit of a bad habit of rushing my food. This made things easier as someone was bound to need the bathroom, fall ill or spill something and so by finishing first I was always on hand to deal without whatever happened. During my time at Camp Shawnee my unit used meal times to display our latest chant/dance to show off to the other campers. This was often responded to with a dance and so lunch would soon turn into a dance off!
Depending on how long each lesson is (normally an hour or so) there are usually 5-6 activity periods each day. Unfortunately I have never been to a camp with a lake, my first camp had a river running through the forest and my second had an outdoor heated pool. The water based activities are a big part of camp life and can help build confidence and teamwork to the kids.
 After the evening meal there is always some sort of communal gathering. This is usually done around the main camp fire. Here is when songs are sung, awards are given out and shows can be put on. During my time at Camp Mendocino the staff put on a Disney extravaganza for the campers. This included all lessons being Disney themed and then rounding the week off with a musical show – including costumes! If I was to count how many times I had dressed up (including in ladies clothes) to amuse the campers I would soon run out of fingers!
It goes without saying that summer camp is all about the kids; however it is also a fantastic way to see America. You are literally living over there for 4 months and so it’s a real insight into the culture. From being baffled by your first grocery shop to celebrating Independence Day it’s a great way to embrace their lifestyle. The money you are paid will vary depending on the camp and position you have, however you don’t really have that much time to spend it during camp and its after that it comes in handy. Some people may have to leave straight away or may only stay a week, I however had no university to rush back to and so spent 3-4 weeks seeing what I could of the USA. Currently I have been to 22 states, 20 of them I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t met people at Camp. It’s here where the term ‘Road Trip’ really comes into its own. During my second year I joined a close friend of mine travelling from Missouri to New Orleans then on to San Francisco. It was around 3000 miles I believe and was fantastic (Thanks Eddie!). We set off in the morning and stopped whenever something caught our fancy. During my first year I joined a group tour going to all the desert states and then finishing in Las Vegas.
I really do believe that spending a summer over there can change your life. Now this may be as drastic as moving over there to live with your newly met girlfriend (good luck Mat!) or it may be as small as returning home with improved confidence and a more outgoing attitude. Either way you are certain to return with a positive and memorable experience. Like I said my only regret was not returning for a third year, I would head back over there tomorrow. If you are considering going then I cannot encourage you enough, if you have already applied then you have already made the best decision!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Watch this space.

Am working on an article about my time spent in summer camps. Will try to get it up next few days.