Saturday, January 29, 2011

Abu Derby

I'm in Abu Dhabi for a few days to cover the first English club rugby match to be played outside England. London Wasps v Harlequins at the seven-star Emirates Palace, tomorrow night in front of half a dozen bored camels and a crowd of up to 5,000.

They're playing on a turf pitch that looks lush and  immaculate, a far cry from the bog that these two London teams played on when they met at the Twickenham Stoop three weeks ago. Genuine Colombian grass, I was told by a photographer. I think he was talking about the pitch, maybe he was offering me something. He did have a funny squint.

Perhaps the Wasps management were on the Colombian stuff when they came up with the idea of moving the match out here. It's a bold venture to take a sport out of its natural habitat. Football hasn't yet had the courage to move a competitive fixture out of the UK, for all the talk a few years ago of a "39th game" being played in Singapore and such places.

You risk annoying your season ticket-holders for a start, although the NFL seemingly put fan loyalty behind money with little difficulty when they decided to stage an annual league match in London. And in American football you only get eight home games a season.

But tomorrow's match is only an LV Cup game, little more than a competition for development sides, shoved in between the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations. I wonder how many of the Wasps season ticket-holders who are griping would have bothered to go to Adams Park this weekend. Wasps say that 200 of them have made the flight at Lord knows what expense, while those who haven't travelled will get a refund.

I appear to be the only British reporter out here, although others may fly in for the game tonight. To justify the expense, the paper wanted 1,000 words on the venture yesterday, which is all well and good and, you know, sort of my job, but it did mean that I missed the chance to see Daniel Barenboim, the maestro pianist and conductor, performing with the Berliner Staatskapelle last night.

The Wasps fans, an uncultured bunch, were oblivious that Barenboim was playing in their hotel auditorium. They were more concerned with whether Serge Betsen would be playing rugby tomorrow.

Told earlier in the day that the concert (Mozart piano concerto, played by Barenboim, and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony) was sold out, I did my usual trick when I have a big writing assignment and too much time in which to get it done: I titted around on the internet.

Eventually, with an hour and a half to go to the concert (but still three hours before my deadline), I went for a stroll in the hope that I might get inspiration and bumped into a woman selling a spare ticket.

£50, probably a snip for Barenboim. Certainly the cheapest thing that I could find to buy in the hotel, where even the buffet lunch cost more than that.

I was so tempted but I hadn't even started writing my piece. 1,000 words in an hour and a half is doable when you have done the research, but it would have been pushing it and I could have churned out bilge.

My colleague Simon Barnes, when asked what he does when he can't find the inspiration to write a great piece, likes to reply: "Simple, I write a bad one." Which is a nice line, but he can probably afford to write a bad piece more often than someone making their way like I am.

So conscience prevailed. I returned to my laptop and wrote a semi-decent 1,000 words. The subs didn't mess around with it, anyway, which is normally a good sign. But I was kicking myself.

And then blessed providence smiled on me. I discovered that Barenboim was doing a second concert, of Tchaikovsky's fourth, at 11am this morning for schoolchildren. My days of passing for 18 being long gone, I trotted down to the hotel prepared to nab a child from the swimming pool if it meant that I could get a ticket as their guardian. Although now I think about it, I could have got more than just a ticket for child-snatching.

No need for it, though. A kind teacher had a few spares and was happy to let me have one free of charge. I offered cash but she refused. The tickets had been given free to her school and she was glad that a seat wasn't going to waste. It was so nice in this country that seem so wealth-obsessed to see such generosity. The concert was good, too. But rather too many children.

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