It was an early morning departure from Barcelona, with the tour group still buzzing from the previous day’s visit to La Sagrada Familia. The four hour bus ride south to Valencia included several spectactular views of the Mediterranean Sea in addition to a number of castle ruins on the hilltops above the freeway.
On arrival in Valencia, the team checked into the Residencia Petxina, an apartment complex that caters to travelling sports teams. Staying, along with us, was a 30 strong contingent of soccer players from China, in addition to a dozen budding tennis pros from Indonesia.
From there it was down to the local park for a short training session, with an emphasis on team organization. The addition of the six basketball players allowed for some new combinations in advance of the evening kickoffs vs the CAU club.
The Juniors kicked off at 6pm, on the host club’s beautiful artifical turf field. A strong wind played havoc with ball handling and kicking, with several promising SMUS attacks coming to naught in the early exchanges. Eventually, aided by some erratic defence by the tourists, CAU found a rhythm en route to three first half scores.
Down 21-0, and turning round into the wind was always going to be a tough proposition for SMUS and so it proved. Despite the best efforts of John Throne, who registered an astonishing 22 tackles, Jonas Robinson and Bernard Tung, CAU punched in another four tallies before Robinson spied a gap and darted home from some 30 meters out for a well deserved consolation score.
The 1st XV, featuring a new look backline and with Angus Catto making a first ever start at loose head prop, opened with the wind. However, another disaster start saw a clearing kick charged down after just 15 seconds and the home team off to a 5-0 lead.
The game became a chess match between two totally contrasting styles, with SMUS, under the pump in the set pieces and outweighed all across the board, playing fast and wide at every opportunity. At the 16 minute mark, an inch perfect diagonal kick from fly half Graeme Hyde-Lay saw Max Pollen, outstanding throughout in his first ever game at fullback, level the scores.
However, SMUS failing to gather the ensuing kickoff, a problem area all evening, soon gifted CAU a second tally and a 10-5 lead. Undeterred, the visitors then notched the try of the night. After eight phases of play, with the ball swinging from touchline to touchline, a slick Pollen offload enabled winger Owen Sudul to split the defence. When the latter then added a fine conversion, SMUS moved into the lead.
Unfortunately, yet anther restart error undid all this good work, with CAU, the reigning Spanish U18 champions, going into the break up 15-12.
Now playing into a very strong wind, SMUS had little choice but to throw caution to the winds and run from everywhere. With a large and appreciative crowd on hand, and with the noise, music and firecrackers from the Las Fallas festival much in evidence, it was very much a carnival atmosphere. Not suprisingly, playing the bulk of the second half pinned to the goal line was difficult for SMUS, who conceded ten more points to fall behind 25-12.
There was still however one more moment of absolute magic, following the relentless Josh Graffi winning a turnover in midfield. Slick passing and support play culminated in Mitch Newman putting
Pollen through a small gap, with the fullback duly recording his brace. It even seemed that a gutsy rearguard action might be rewarded with an unlikely victory, but Sudul’s attempt to add the extras from wide on the right just slid by the post.
25-17 meant two scores would be required for the win, and the large CAU pack and a pair of very pragmatic halfbacks ensured the ball would stay deep in the SMUS quarter in the final minutes. In the end, despite some heroic defence and Houdini like attempts to get away, SMUS concded one final try in an enthralling 30-17 game.
Scrum half Carson Smith made several outstanding tackles to help keep CAU at bay, while Lucas de Vries on the right wing produced some runs which suggested he will be a handful to mark on the domestic scene this April and May. Josh Kahn did extremely well at #12, while the pack, though outgunned, stuck manfully to the task for the entire 70 minutes.
Following the post game festivities, the squad gathered back at the hotel in preparation for a sojourn downtown for “Las Fallas”, an annual celebration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of the carpenters. Some 80,000 people crowded into the downtown core to partake in music, drink, dance and incredible fireworks, all part of the “nit del foc”, the night of fire.
Of course, this being a Latin country, the festivities did not really get underway until just before midnight. Even a cold and steady rain could not dampen spirits.
Given the early morning return time to the hotel, it was not unexpected that most of the tour party opted for a sleep in before a 1pm return the next afternoon to the downtown area. The various squares played host to ear splitting “mascleta”, with the deafening firecracker sequences much like a relentless artillery barrage!!
While some in the group then took the opportunity to visit the Aquarium and also the City of Arts and Sciences, the finale, the “Cremata”, capped a wonderful 24 hours as the huge floats, made of wood and paper mache, were put to the torch in a spectacular pyrotechnic display. Magnifico!!
Morning will come soon enough, as the team heads south west to Granada, and the next stop on a wonderful adventure!