It is a crisp, bright autumnal morning, the sun gradually clearing the dampness from the previous day’s rain. The air is crystal clear, with a gentle bite that barely fogs the breath. It’s one of those days that buoy you with a feeling of optimism, of excitement. This is rugby season and the conditions are perfect.
What better opportunity than to pilgrimage to that mecca of the game, Twickenham, for an England international. What better still to be witnessing the game in the company of former England international and 2007 World Cup finalist, Simon Shaw MBE, our host for the afternoon. The anthems played, the players take up their opening positions, the ball is placed for kick-off.
To be sharing the game with Shaw is privilege enough, but we’re doing it in style. We meet as part of M restaurants’ Match Day Experience, laid on with all the delights a rugby fan could wish for. Seats in the stadium, just over the players’ tunnel, are merely the icing on the cake to a day that began with a champagne reception at their Twickenham venue.
With kick-off not due for a few hours, we’ve plenty of time to tuck into a sumptuous and match-preparing lunch of wagyu beef scotch eggs, tomahawk steaks the size of actual axes (with a barbecue sauce that would fell the front row), and plenty of rich, fruity Malbec. As the hour draws nearer, the excitement becomes palpable, particularly when Shaw takes command of a microphone and hosts an entertaining and banter-fuelled Q&A with fellow internationals Lee Mears and Nick Kennedy, sharing many an anecdote about his 70-odd caps on the international scene, his dinner plate-sized hands, and giving us a few pointers for the match to come.
It is England against Japan. Following a single-point defeat against the All Blacks the weekend before we’re not resting on our laurels, particularly when we land an early try. But, as Shaw told us, Japan are no pushover and they take the lead after 20 minutes with a penalty and a try following persistent attack play. Fullback Elliot Day evens the score again with a halfway line penalty, but then the surprise; Japan captain Michael Leitch scores from a loose ball, dodging a tackle before the line, moments before half time. It sets up to be a great match.
From our vantage point, I look round and see an impassive Eddie Jones, the England manager, clearly unimpressed at the 15-10 score. My excuse is it’s England’s B-side but in fairness Japan are very quick on the ball. One thing we’re all in agreement on, though; a close game is an exciting game. And, by half time, with the chivalry that comes with the game, we are all commending the Japanese.
There’s nothing like seeing a live game in the stadium, with the view from pitch side. It offers a tangibly different perspective than cheering at the TV, or even watching the game back at the bar; seeing the players on the bench, the camera crews running the touchline, the subtle commentary from fellow spectators and, above all, the atmosphere of the 80,000-strong crowd.
Back in our seats, the floodlights come on as the skies darken, and the whole thing pops. Both sides come out fighting, there’s very little kicking in the game with both teams determined to run the ball. The atmosphere charges, the roar of the crowd swelling as a player gets a lucky break. Swing Low Sweet Chariot echoes round the stadium.
George Ford narrows the gap with a penalty kick for the home side. And then, as storm clouds loom to darken the day, Mark Wilson scores from a dummy pass to take the lead for England 18-15. The game’s fate is sealed from a loose ball at the halfway, passed just before the line to be put down on his international debut by Joe Cokanasigna. And, finally, a few minutes later, a ruck carries over the line for a last try from Dylan Hartley. In the spirit of the game, the crowd cheers on our opponents with many a ‘Come on, Japan!’ in the dying minutes, but it’s soon over. The final score: 35-15 to England.
But it doesn’t end there. M’s match day experience continues back at the restaurant with a debrief over pies and pints with our hosts. The bar fills, people are too energised to sit; instead bustling amid the music and jocularity. Shaw and Kennedy tower over much of the crowd, circulating graciously to share their commentary on the game and make predictions for the future. Two pints of Guinness later, and a hearty homemade wagyu beef pie to follow and it’s a short hop across the high street to the station and the train home, grateful that I’ve missed the surge by savouring M’s hospitality after a terrific day out.
The menu, the venue, the thrill of the game and the pleasure of Shaw and his co-players’ company make this an occasion to remember, certainly, and one that will be dined out on for many a match to come.
M restaurants ‘Match Day Experience’ starts at £125 per person. The next event is England v Australia on Saturday 24th November 2018. For more information, visit www.mrestaurants.co.uk.