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Madagascar Tour 2023 - Review

The dust has settled, the stomach has recovered and I feel that now I’ve slept enough to fully review what was a truly memorable tour Madagascar was. Since being home I have been asked by so many “Did you have an amazing time”, that’s a hard question to answer. It was many things and amazing would be one adjective you could use but it doesn’t really cover what the tour meant to myself and so many others. The tour of Madagascar 2023 was life changing.

The journey out was eventful; we met at Wetherspoons for large breakfast and few jars before the bus journey down to Heathrow, so far so good. It then took a turn - our superstar 9 Bryn Williamson known on tour as Kevin Macalister (which is even more impressive as he was given this name prior to the “incident”) was unable to travel due to his passport being outside of the 6-month window by three days. I hear cries that this is a Club Manager error… was not. He was warned but in true Bryn fashion “it will be fine”. Well, it was not fine and Kevin Macalister was left at home! We also nearly had our lead physio Charlie “Maurice” Samuels left on the tarmac due to Kenyan Airways booking him on the wrong plane. However, he was lucky and the changes were made. 51 out of 52 on the plane to Nairobi.

Kenyans are on average smaller than the average British male, and their planes are built for the Kenyan population. For those that don’t know me I am a large human, 6 foot 5, 23 stone with all the right lumps in all the right places. There is a reason my tour name was Moto Moto. Having squeezed myself into a Fisher Price plane seat the only option was to drink Bob Reeves’ vineyard worth of Merlot to fall asleep and pray the nine hour flight went quickly. I woke up around 3am as the plane was somewhere over Algeria to check on the tour party who were dotted around the plane (to the frustration of the cabin crew) to find our Social Secretary Xavier “anomaly” Christopher in the most incredible position with Alex “cant use this one” Pert’s head being between Xav’s legs. (Photo below) You may have had to have been there to get the full extent of the position but an image I won’t be able to forget in a hurry.

We arrived in Nairobi Airport for our seven hour layover… some more sensible tourists - myself, Maurice, King Jullian (Neil Pitman), Rainman (Tom Franklin) and The Ox (Cameron Keller) - were sensible paying £30 for a shower, breakfast, comfy sleeping area, and unlimited drinks. Others, including Hamish “The Flying Squirrel” decided he didn’t want to spend that kind of money but ended up spending over £50 in the airport bar, however he did meet Tim who quickly became the newest UBRFC supporter.

It was time for our flight to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. This plane was much smaller and many were surprised they didn’t have to pedal the plane with their feet similar to Flintstones sketch. Myself, Charlie “Porno” Beckett (always moaning) and Ben “20 watt” Murray were delighted to be upgraded, it was likely the only time Charlie didn’t moan on the whole trip. Three hours later we were in Madagascar, well not Bryn. We were greeted at the airport by Frederic, his wife Anastasia, and Daniel who were our hosts for the week and worked for the Madagascar RFU. Our drive to the hotel was around a 45 min journey into the centre of the capital city, it was 5pm but it was winter so was dark which didn’t really give us a true understanding of country or the city we were based at.

We arrived at the Motel Antananarivo and from that moment on were treated wonderfully and at times it did feel slightly like we were celebrities. I’m not sure Madagascar often sees 52 large white folks, and for those that are not aware Madagascar’s national sport is rugby with 410 teams and over 22,000 registered players so we were seen as big thing in the capital. The evening was dubbed by our social lead Louis “Grampa” Kassapian as the first night frenzy and I suppose it was. The students discovered that pints in the hotel were priced between £1.50-£2.00 and this was double the national average! Hotel prices even applicable in the Third World I guess. The team discovered the pool with Teddy “Flow Rider” first in it to my knowledge to win the much coveted Do Anything Challenge red vest. Grampa hosted the evening wonderfully handing out all the tour kit which included a white baseball top with our tour names on the back, with the name ‘Sled’ being my personal favourite.

The bar closed at a reasonable 11pm and a selection of excited students wanted to explore the streets of Madagascar’s capital. Obviously boys will be boys but my job became security that evening making sure that certain clubmen didn’t leave the compound and likely lose their valuables etc. The morning came fast enough and we were greeted by three noises. Cheering, as we learned that Bryn aka Kevin Macalister had discovered he was able to travel and join us having solved his passport issues. Groans from many who had been struggling with the effects of the malaria tablets that really troubled Sled, 20 Watt, sweet baby James and Grampa in particular. They were confident it wasn’t the 15 pints they had the other night or the 55 pints that Charlie Davies had put on his room, here was a lesson, don’t put drinks on rooms where students are involved. The final noise was moaning as we discovered how raw Malagasy people had their fried eggs. It was omelettes for all future breakfasts.

Our first trip out was a visit of the local area and here is where we had our first real taste of Antananarivo. As our coaches left the hotel we became the attention of everyone. The group quickly learnt to smile and wave and became true professionals by the end of the week. We drove around 30 mins to our meeting point and got to see the city in its morning glory. It was extremely busy, full of children, beggars, sellers, minibuses, Zebu (an African cow used for everything which is also very tasty) and pot holes…lots and lots of pot holes. We took a walk through the upper streets of the capital and looked down on the city from above, including an incredible stadium that looked like something from the Premier League surrounded by the backdrop of the third poorest country in Africa. It was our first example of so much that was wrong with the Madagascan political system. The stadium was once home to the national sport Rugby but the current president put a running track around it which made it too small for rugby pushing them out and brining in the presidents favourite sport, football… not dodgy at all.

The locals loved meeting the students and the students were wonderful getting to know locals, speaking to passersby playing with the children and being great ambassadors of the University and the rugby club. We took with us to Madagascar around 50 rugby balls, some for us but most to hand out to rugby players we met. We took five balls on this particular excursion with five all going in the first 45 minutes we were out. Frederic our host told me “rugby balls are harder to buy than gold in Madagascar”. It was to the point you would give a ball to a child and 20 other children and adults would run over to claim it. The streets were wonderful, full of culture and colour with almost every house and shop displaying the Madagascar flag. It however was clear how poor this country was with many children on the streets with no shoes, ripped clothing and looking for food. It was also clear to those few trying to leave the hotel the evening before why I prevented that happening.

After lunch we headed of to a local school, this became my highlight of the tour. Not just for its purpose but also for how proud I was to watch the young UBRFC players flourish in the environment. Every clubman knew their role and they were excellent. Another memory that will live with me for ever was seeing Nick “Prit Stick” Cunningham-Ash in the middle of a large group of singing and dancing with the school children. We spent an hour there coaching and playing with the school children on their rugby pitch which was a giant sand pit that opened up a number of our sensitive First World knees, but not Malagasy knees. The children smashed each other, rucked like their lives depended on it, dived for the loose ball and on one occasion two 12 years old dumped tackled Dom “Mackenzie” Holmes like he was a ragdoll. It was very funny. The most useful man on tour was Hamish “The Flying Squirrel” McMillan who was fluent in French and became a true club legend sorting out all our translating issues which also on this occasion was teaching 250 school children a politically correct version of Allez Allez Allez.

Due to Kenyan Airways generous baggage allowance (unlike EasyJet) we were able to take out 15 x 22kg bags full of balls, kit, boots and donations. It’s a great opportunity for me to thank parents and players of Portishead, Gordano RFUC, Bristol Bears and Frampton Cotterell RFUC who supplied the 330kg of donations that were taken to the school. The children who were receiving the kit were very much in need of it, many wearing no shoes, some wearing one and playing with old banged up rugby balls. It was a privilege to hand out this equipment and the joy on their faces when getting the secondhand stash was something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have five wonderful children and children who are very appreciative of everything they get but even when my youngest got his brand new Xbox this Christmas it wasn’t as joyous as seeing one young man being handed a potentially third-time handed down Gordano jumper.

I had hidden in my rucksack a pair of almost brand new Adidas boots, bright yellow and were top notch, I had hidden them in my bag so I could decide who got this pair of boots. The session I was running was with the girls’ side who were full of pace and skill. However one girl stood out, she was class must have been 15 years old, could spin pass off both hands, tackled boys bigger than her and had pace that Jake “The Olympic Torch” could only dream of. At the end of the session I found an appropriate time and handed her the boots that were in my bag. She was already wearing a top from the mighty Gordano u12s who I coach so was even more on my side. She couldn’t speak any English but as I handed her the boots she had a smile that could reach the UK, she began to cry and hugged the boots like a long lost loved one. After a short while I noticed her friend joined us who was wearing her brand new Frampton Cotterell top, I stopped and watched as she handed her friend one of the boots. I was frozen in awe or was it shock that a young girl who wanted something so much and needed it so much handed one of them so her friend also had a boot. Life changing… not excellent, far from it, it was tragic that in 2023 a child couldn’t afford shoes but will change my view on things forever.

The next day it was time for our first taste of rugby. We took 3 x 7s sides to the Maki Stadium - a 15,000 seater stadium on the outskirts of Antananarivo on the banks of the Ikopa river. We were split into two groups of four with our first team, the Maroon 7, in a group with three Madagascar sides and our 2s and 3s (who were filled with FRU) in the opposite group. We soon discovered that Malagasy people were fast, strong, fit and determined and built for 7s. As soon as they broke the defense they were gone and as soon as we broke their defense we knew we would get caught. It was a tough day for the squads with the Maroon 7s narrowly losing two and winning one in the very last play. This was the wake up call we needed for the XV a side matches that were coming at the end of the week. The press were there and they did not speak well of us in the papers the next morning, thankfully it was in French so as long as Hamish didn’t read it we were ok.

While we were there we were met by 50 or so young people. I asked Frederic why the children were not in school and Frederic informed us they were orphans. That took 30 seconds to sink in but even more when you see an 8-year-old carrying his 2-year-old sister. Our food was delivered soon after this which was a box of rice and meat with a large baguette filled with hams and cheeses. The feeling I had looking at my lunch when there were 50 hungry orphan children looking at you isn’t a feeling I want again. I grabbed all the food I could and handed them out and the students soon followed. I am too often used to making two or three different meals at my home for the intolerances or the foods certain children don’t like. Did one of the 50 children say they didn’t like it or turn their nose up and refuse to eat it? No. They took it in turns passing a spoon around to ensure everyone got an equal amount of food. It was a quiet bus back to the hotel.

That evening we were collected and taken to a local restaurant in an area of town that clearly had more money. We took the lift to the top of the restaurant to discover they had reserved the whole of the roof top bar area for us. They had provided us with a traditional Malagasy buffet which saw Zebu fried, baked, curried and pulled. I personally got excited by the £2 cocktails and enjoyed the evening chatting with the locals who particularly liked our full squad rendition of Free From Desire. We were treated to a performance from a traditional Malagasy band and dancers who entertained us with traditional music and dance. The students fully embraced the evening dancing and trying out the instruments Jamie “El Corito” Treasure was a dab-hand at the Malagasy version of a guitar. The highlight was when the party were treated to a surprise as Will “The Cleefton Raider” O’Connor appeared on the stage in full African dress and danced away for us to the delight of the staff and the hosts Frederic and Anna.

The next morning we were off to the Lemur Park which was a 60 min bus journey out of the city towards the greener areas of the country. Nothing is fast in Madagascar and the journey probably should have been a nice 10 min drive but the due to the traffic and the dodging of pot holes, some which were the size of our coach, it did make it slower. The jounrey allowed us to see more of the city and the vast amount of people washing their clothes in the river and then drying their clothes on the banks for the remainder of the day. It seems that even in the poorest of countries people still stick to rules of not taking what is not theirs. Other interesting things were live turkeys being sold in cages on the road, hundreds if not thousands of Ronaldo Manchester United shirts and every other business being a convenience style shop. There is definitely not a gap in the market for McColls in Madagascar.

We arrived at the Lemur sanctuary and the air felt cleaner which was welcome by the few who were nursing hangovers. Worst was Ben “Clive Woodward” Stringer on this morning who went into some kind of spasm, he was fine after a pep talk. The sanctuary was home to 50 species of Lemur and over 300 in total, most of whom enjoyed showing us their jumping skills and vocal ability as they warned others of our arrival. An interesting fact on Lemurs; the leader of the pack is always a female Lemur which completed ruined the Madagascar film and the King Julian character, which the guide enjoyed telling. It was a welcome break from the city for the students had an enjoyable afternoon. Even in Madagascar the guided tour ended in the gift shop and apart from Toby “Tony Stark” Wilcox who purchased a few bits for his loved ones at home, most of us purchased a well needed bottle of water! We were soon back on the road towards our hotel at Antananarivo for some well-deserved free time. Most students opted for the swimming pool and others visited the local shops however the latter missed the funniest moment on tour where our new 1st XV captain Teddy “Flow Rider” Gibson has a accident pool side following a cannon bomb and diving competition.

Once Teddy had sorted himself out the team headed out once again to a restaurant that was sorted by our hosts. It was £10 for all you can eat and drink! Let that sink in. The place was called Carnivore and yes you guessed it, it was a constant train of meats. Pork, Zebu, Lamb, Zebu, Zebu, Zebu and then Snake which did, all jokes aside, taste just like Chicken. Sweet Baby James, like everywhere we went apart from rugby, really got himself involved with the locals and was found throughout the night in the kitchen with the chef practicing his French. Here we were also joined by a very drunk group of French SAS Soldiers who tested my patience somewhat but did supply the team with some type of orange liqueur. The main event this evening was Callum “Mark Zukerberg” Erskine birthday and on arrival the media guru was greeted with a rendition on Bon Anniversaries, multicoloured balloons and a pint. The night didn’t stop there - The Cleefton Raider made friends with locals and El Corito was found on the bar dancing at 9pm. It was time to leave; half of the party headed back to the hotel for some shut eye while the other half, led by “Maurice”, headed to a nightclub that had been sourced by our hosts and our translator the Flying Squirrel. A excellent safe night was had, I couldn’t tell you much more as I was fast asleep in bed!

The next day was a zero-alcohol day as we began our focus on tomorrow’s matches, so a lazy morning was had before our journey to the Maki Stadium for our training. There was a different feeling today, the lads seemed focused and thinking about the day that was coming. We had been told at least 5,000 people had purchased tickets and that was starting to sink in. When we arrived in an adjacent field there was a school match. I took the opportunity while the lads got warm to have a watch. The game was fast, disorganized but full of aggression there were no markings on the pitch and one touch line was marked by a small stream and the other was a wall. The wingers always seemed to not go on the outside and cut in which makes so much sense as they didn’t want to get wet or probably hurt as they hit the wall. The skills were so high with some lads in boots and other bare foot but my lord they were fearless, and why wouldn’t they be. They have been fighting for everything all their lives be it food, water, clothes… a ruck is just a ruck! They were fearless. Training went well for the students and the national coach was there taking some notes for tomorrow’s game.

The evening was tame; a visit to the local supermarket and a tour of the shopping district of Antananarivo was had, we visited a market where a few students returned in a traditional Malagasy top. The next day we were up in good time, had a hearty breakfast and headed to the ground for the games. When we arrived there were around 5,000 in the stands watching two games that were happening before ours. A few of the players took the time to mingle with the locals and that created a big stir in the stadium. It was a truly magical experience as the students were seen to be like celebrities in Madagascar having armed guards surrounding the players due to the attention they were getting.

The first game of the day was the Second XV v The Maki U20s, and what an experience as the players walked out in front of the 8,000 plus Malagasy supporters, singing the national anthem before taking the field. The game was the mirror image of the 1st XV and for 60 mins the game was even. We dominated technically, territorially and at the set piece but breaking them down was difficult they were tenacious, hard and faster than fast. In attack they took flooding the gaps to a whole new level, when one broke they were supported by seven or eight teammates who were equally as fast and as strong. The game was 22-28 with 20 to go and then their fitness and speed took over running in a number scores before the end of the match. However the spectators loved it especially seeing Wilf “Gloria” Kemsley smashing people left right and centre. At the end of the game the second team thanked the crowds to an overwhelming reception. I was immensely proud of them and thank you to Neil “King Julian” Pitman for leading them into battle.

Over to the 1st XV, I took the opportunity to speak to the players before the game informing them that many teams and universities refuse to travel to Madagascar due to poverty and safety reasons. I told the players that they were not just playing for UBRFC they were playing for Madagascar who deserved a performance for all the political and social troubles the country suffers.

As mentioned, the 1st XV game was carbon copy to the 2nd XV game but this time it was against the national side. Before the anthems the teams were greeted by the head of the Madagascar RFU and also the British Ambassador which was very surreal. Prior to kick off the players received the Haka which was far less intimidating than it could have been, we were expecting more we will kill you than a similar dance move to Steps “Tragedy” however, it was another moment that will stick with the players for a long time. With 20 mins to go it was 25-25 - they refused to maul and scrum and started to run it in from everywhere. The temperature was warm the ground rock-hard, and the shots being fired were brutal. Some of the team were really struggling with the affects of the Malaria tablets and changes needed to be made early. A huge shoutout to Charlie “Dodgeball” Dore who played over 120 mins. In the end the national team ran away with it as the flood gates opened. I spoke to Jake “The Olympic Torch” Williams after the game who is one of the fastest in the team, he said you would make a line break and you knew three or four of their players would catch you due to their incredible speed and fitness. The game ended and I was swarmed with press as I had to make a post-match TV and newspaper interview. A very odd and strange moment. The full touring party met in the middle where the British ambassador said some thoughtful and thought-provoking things. It was at this point I looked up and realized that 2,000 or so spectators had surrounded us as they tried to get kit, balls and pictures with us however the army were on guard and had created a circle between us and the fans. We managed to say our final thank you to our hosts and thanked the leavers for their final contributions to the club. Having swapped loads of stash with the opposition were on our way to the hotel. A thank you to James Irving and Charles Samuel for their incredible support.

On the evening of the match the country was celebrating its independence and it celebrated in style with an hour-long firework display, this was another interesting political decision. The country had no food, no running water, pot holes but they could afford to do an hour long firework display. That evening our time was up, we thanked our hosts and headed to the airport for the long journey home which was fairly uneventful apart from nearly leaving Xav, Matt Dougherty catching some 24 hour super bug, and myself getting upgraded.

Thank you so much to Frederic and Anna who without them this would not have been possible, thank you to the staff who joined me, the support of the university, Louis and Xav who made the tour unforgettable with their humour and energy, Hamish for getting us out of trouble with his French skills and to the students for being wonderful throughout.

Madagascar,,,, it was life changing.

Slymy “Moto Moto”

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