It has been a positive year for Rugby, a sport proud of its roots, and proud of what it has evolved to be in present time.
A part of the world very proud of its own origins, and of its own established reputation as a rugby beholden county in the south-west of the UK, is Cornwall. I sat down with Alfie Martin, reporter for the Exeter Chiefs, and sports journalism student at Plymouth Marjon University. We talked all things Cornwall – where he lives – independence, and of course, Rugby.
RK: So Alfie, growing up in Cornwall, what was life like as a kid?
AM: Oh, it has been good. I have not lived in Cornwall my whole life, but I have definitely moulded to the Cornish lifestyle. Cornish people are really quite proud of their culture and their heritage. To be Cornish and have that Cornish pride is something that I do not think many places have in the UK, if any. They love the whole Cornish lifestyle and, I think I have kind of… dipped into that, and it has shaped who I am today. Just that sense of community; that sense of pride in loving where you live. I think it is quite a nice place to spend your time as a teenager especially.
RK: You talk about the pride of Cornwall, what do you think of the independence push that is going on at the moment there: do you agree with it, do you think it should not happen…?
AM: Yeah, I think they have always wanted to. They always considered themselves as a separate country to England. They do not like being called a county, a Duchy, as they like to say. Because of that pride, they like to think of themselves as a separate entity. I do not think that a serious separation and independence will come to fruition, but I think it is quite good to respect that they have that culture and they have that independence without declaring it as an [official] independence. I think that for so long, they talk about the Celtic origins, when the Romans came in, and pushed the Celtics to the corners of Britain. Wales and Scotland became separate countries, their argument is why can Cornwall not [become independent] as well? I think it has been so long that they have become part of England, and I cannot see them becoming a separate entity.
RK: Let us move on to your interest in Rugby then, where did it start for you?
AM: Well, when I was about eight years old, my brother started playing Rugby. He would have been about 10, so he would be in the U11s. He started playing with some friends at school, so I went along and my parents said: yeah this is something you can get involved in. I started it, I had no idea what I was doing, but at the time I started to enjoy it, I have made so many friends from it. It has been that one place that I have made friends, and I have become so involved with it. I have started to watch it rather than just playing it as well. The 2015 World Cup was when it really kicked off for me. I played quite a high level age-grade Rugby. Moving to Cornwall – Cornwall’s really quite Rugby orientated – they love their Rugby in Cornwall, they are very proud of it; their men’s team is quite high up in the country in terms of Rugby. And I think living in Cornwall and having that culture has help breed such a dominant part of my life. Rugby is such a big part of my life now and doing sports journalism here at Marjon and my connections with the Exeter Chiefs, it has only made that intensify. What can I say? It has only become more intense my passion for Rugby, and I think that is where it really got pushed on, when I moved to Cornwall.
RK: Take me to that moment when you discovered that you were going to be reporting for Exeter Chiefs; interviewing players; meeting key figures at the club – that must have been an incredible moment for you.
AM: Oh yeah, it did not happen overnight. I moved to my college and the Rugby coaches at the college had their contacts at Exeter. I was introduced to the media team there and I shadowed them for a couple of games. I think they thought I was just going to watch and sponge off them for a couple of free tickets, but I stuck with it and I said: Is there any way I can get involved? And they said: Oh, you can come and do write-ups for the U18s if you want. I said okay, yeah that would be great. I carried on coming to the Premiership games; I started recording the interviews and doing my own write-up on them. They would not get published but Mark [Stevens], the media manager at Exeter Chiefs would read them, give me feedback, tweet them a bit. There was one time I did it and he said: okay this is really good, we will put it up on the page, and I was persevering and doing it to the extent where it was kind of obvious I was not just doing it to watch the game for the novelty of it. I carried on with the U18s, I did that for the whole of last season, and I just kind of built up more on Instagram and Facebook, and I think that moment when I knew that I was involved was pretty special, because it is something that not many people get to do, and it is something that I have really worked for, and it paid off.
RK: How long did it take to convince people that actually you are there as a serious journalist and not just as a fan who is, as you said, sponging off them?
AM: Yeah I think it was when I was doing the U18s. So I had done the Premiership games, I had watched, and I would do my thing, I would walk around the pitch – anyone could do that! But committing to the U18s’ games… they are wet; they are horrible; they are in the middle of nowhere. You have got no crowd, there is driving rain, you are travelling up to London on a Wednesday, sometimes on a Saturday. Driving up to Exeter from Cornwall every week is a pretty big journey just to do; I do not get paid for it. I think they realised that they could get something out of it as well. It works as interdependence. I rely on it, they do not rely on me to create content and create stories in any way, but it does help them and I think that establishing a relationship with the players and the staff has built that up in a way that just going to a game just does not do. It is just perseverance and commitment.
RK: Has covering the sport changed the way you watch it?
AM: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Any game I watch now I will be looking. I will be able to see the different styles of play, and understand the management side of stuff. I have coached Rugby; I have been coached Rugby. Seeing the professional side of it and watching as a match day progresses from the start of the day to the end of the day, you understand that it is a lifestyle, and you really see the personal side of the players. They are just normal guys, they turn up on a Monday, go home, and it is a job for them. Seeing it as that, rather than just a game – it is quite an insight into the life of a professional sport, because many people do not see that; many people will just… not take it for granted, but almost de-sensitise to the fact that this is people’s lives, and it has really changed the way you look at a sport, as it does with anything.
RK: How different is Rugby, would you say, in terms of the culture of the sport, to other sports like, for example, football? Because it seems like a very unique sport; the players are not quite as arrogant in a way as you see with other sports…
AM: Yeah, I have always said that, with football especially, going back to working class times, the football club would be the centre of the community and, speaking from experience, I have friends up in Sunderland. They live and breath Sunderland Football club. If they did not have the club, then what would they have? That rivalry, that intense passion – it is their lifestyle. Rugby is the same and then completely different at the same time. People love Rugby, they love playing Rugby, but there is such a drilled core values sort of thing with Rugby; that whole respect. There are five core values: Teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship. That is drilled into Rugby players from a young age since minis and juniors, Under 6s, all the way through, and it is a staple of the Rugby community that you have respect. You will never see a Rugby player shouting in the face of a referee. You see after the game, they will be swapping jerseys, the fans are respectful to each other and they do not have to get separated. I think a lot of that comes down to the historical culture of it, but I also think that it is expected that this is the right thing to do, it is just that, if it were to ever become hostile or aggressive, people would just say no, that is not Rugby. And I think that it has created that identity of this is Rugby; this is what we do. And that is how the sports have become different. Football, if you think back to football hooliganism and proper rivalries, that is a part of the sport as much as the game is. It is as much about the chanting and the proper rivalry, that you just do not get with Rugby. They are just different sports. I do not think there is anything wrong with it; it is the just the way that they are.
RK: Talk to me about England, because they have had this magnificent journey in the World Cup. They are facing South Africa in the final in Japan. What have you made of their journey this year? Do think they have earned their place in the final and how do you think they will fare against South Africa?
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely. England hosted the last World Cup, and did not even get out of their pool stages. I think the only way was up. They were at rock bottom, Stuart Lancaster was out, Eddie Jones had his critics. He had that big 18-game unbeaten streak, and everyone loved him. Then he lost a game, and everyone started to think: I do not know about that. They have fluctuated in the last couple of years, but since coming to the World Cup, I think people have realised that it has all been building up to it. They topped their pool; they have only been getting better as the competition is going on. I think when they played New Zealand in the semi-final, a lot of people almost wrote them off. New Zealand have been dominant for years. They have been number one for three years. They have won the most World Cups; they are the All Blacks. They are top of the tree, and England made them look average; they made them look so amateur almost, and people have really started to believe in England, and I think they can go all the way against South Africa on Saturday.
RK: What do you make of South Africa’s performance against Wales? Were you surprised by Wales?
AM: In my personal opinion, I thought it was quite a boring game. It was kicking, neither team had any real intent to attack. It was not a running game; it was a big kicking game, and they [South Africa] were trying to play it safe; they were trying to get points on the board which, I understand you need to do in a semi-final game, but you are potentially the top team in the world; in the top four teams in the world at the moment in a semi-final… you have got to do better than that, you have to take your opportunities because otherwise you are a boring team and if you are not taking your opportunities you do not deserve to be in the final. But it will be an interesting game on Saturday to see if South Africa change their game plan, and change the way that they play to battle England, but if they are just going to play a mediocre, bottom shelf game, then I fancy England to win against them. They are a fired up England team that have just come off a big victory over the All Blacks, that are enjoying the way they play, they love the way they are playing; they believe in the way they are playing and they are playing exciting Rugby. It will be interesting to see how South Africa react to that.
RK: What kind of game do you think England will need to play against South Africa? Similar to New Zealand?
AM: Yeah, I think they will be looking to exploit South Africa’s weaknesses, as they did against New Zealand, they did not give them an inch. In a World Cup Final, an inch is a mile. Their line speed against New Zealand, their tackles, they will be looking to do that again. South Africa have got the biggest pack in the World Cup, England are going to face the biggest pack they have faced this tournament, and the likes of [Sam] Underhill, [Tom] Curry, [Maro] Itoje, their tackling rate that we saw against New Zealand is going to be huge, especially with the likes of Eben Etzebeth running towards you, you need to be hitting tackles and not giving them anywhere to move. Hitting that line, driving them back, turning the ball over like they did [twenty times against New Zealand]. An immense number, and just get into their 22 [metre area], put pressure on them until they crack; I think that is their game plan. It will be interesting to see how they react to South Africa’s game. It is not going to be the Same as Wales, they will be up firing, and they are going to have a different game plan. We are going to look to bring it to them, and England have to make sure they are not complacent.
RK: After such an incredible performance against New Zealand – as you say, they made them look average – what is your score prediction for the final against the Springboks?
AM: I am going to say… 21-13 to England. I do not think it is going to be a high scoring game, I think there are going to be penalties in there, I think there is going to be a drop-goal. I will be very surprised if we do not see a drop goal in there, or at least an attempt. I think England will score first. I think South Africa will keep them on their toes, especially in the first half, but if they [England] play like they did against New Zealand, play with that same intent and belief, and really suffocate them of possession in the second half, I think they will come away with the win.