Rugby duo riding to Tokyo with whistle for charity

AFP, HANOI

Tue, Aug 13, 2019 - Page 16

They survived angry dogs in Iran and stomach bugs in India, and have slept in monasteries, underpasses and on farms — it has been a madcap adventure for a pair of rugby union enthusiasts cycling from Twickenham to Tokyo for charity ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

With little more than a weathered map in their baggage, Ron Rutland and James Owens have been on the road for 191 days and counting, having set off from London in February.

However, the clock is ticking, as Rutland and Owens are also carrying the whistle to be used for the World Cup’s Sept. 20 opening match between Japan and Russia in Tokyo.

The trip’s aim is to raise cash for the tournament’s official charity, ChildFund Pass It Back, and to spread the rugby message in parts of the world where few people have ever heard of the game as Japan prepares to host Asia’s first Rugby World Cup.

However, the bushy-bearded pair, who barely knew each other before embarking on the 20,000km, 231-day journey, said they have found so much more along the way.

“Cycling through countries like Iran and Turkey, numerous times people slowed down, opened their windows, handed us Cokes and water, oranges and fruit, countless, countless times,” said South African-born Rutland, a former rugby player.

“Little acts of kindness like that ... really make you see the best of the human spirit,” he told reporters on the Vietnam leg of the trip.

It was not just free food that humbled the burly 45-year-old. A monk in Myanmar opened his monastery to them, they stayed with families in Tajikistan and when the weather was warm enough, they pitched their tent wherever they could.

It is not the first jaw-dropping expedition for Rutland, who used to work in a bank. He cycled through every country in Africa en route to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and in 2017 played what has been billed as the longest hole of golf in history — 80 days and 20,000 shots in total — across Mongolia.

However, this trip came with a few special challenges. Following hip replacement surgery last year, Rutland said that he set out from London “not quite the fattest of my life, but not far off.”

He is also vegan and finding animal-free food in meat-mad central Asia was no easy task, especially when averaging about 600km a week on the bike.

“You end up eating a lot of rubbish just to get enough calories,” he said.

His cycling partner, Owens, a Hong Kong-born Briton whose father happens to be Rutland’s doctor, has a less restrictive diet.

Still, both came down with stomach bugs in India.

“You just have to get better on the bike,” said Owens, who worked for ChildFund Pass It Back in Laos and Vietnam before embarking on the 27-country overland trip.

They said that they have been lucky so far; besides a few minor spills and a few bike repairs — their handlebars came loose after corroding from sweat — the worst they have encountered are some aggressive street dogs in Iran and Turkey. So far they have only had one day off and are to cycle the full route save for a few ferry rides — one across the English Channel, another on the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey and finally from Shanghai to Osaka for the final leg.

They have learned to pack light along the way. Besides a few first-aid essentials, very little clothing and a GPS tracker mapping their real-time progress online, they only have two crucial pieces of cargo: that world map and the all-important gold whistle.

Oh, and a rugby ball that they bring out wherever they go in a bid to teach rugby to locals in places like Bulgaria, India, Vietnam and Laos, where the sport remains for the most part unknown.

“That’s been a really good ice-breaker, especially with children,” said Owens, 28, whose work with ChildFund has helped bring rugby training and lifeskills programs to remote corners of Southeast Asia.

They have also learned a lot about each other. One is a self-described “obsessive” planner (Rutland), the other less so. One is a morning person (Rutland again), the other not so much.

That planning has served them well. They have stayed mostly on schedule cycling though the European winter, along to Central and Southeast Asia, and on Sunday entered China from Vietnam. They are to eventually wheel their way to Japan to watch the tournament, and despite a few frictions over who they want to see crowned — Rutland is rooting for South Africa, Owens for England — they both agree that they would like to see Japan go far.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the game in Asia,” Rutland said.