This time a week ago, I’d never met Colin. Last Saturday the two of us hugged in an eruption of spontaneous joy, as though we’d been lifelong friends. Louis Rees-Zammit had just glided over in the corner of Loftus Versfeld, stunning the home crowd into silence, and prompting raucous celebrations among the small, but vocal, pockets of red-shirted fans.
And that sums up this tour in a nutshell. Strangers become friends in the blink of an eye. MSG Tours is fast approaching its 7th birthday, and the “MSG family” is already a tight-knit and joyful one. There’s an undeniable preponderance of Scarlets fans among the travelling band, but it’s a disparate bunch overall. North Walians, Cardiffians, a strong contingent from the South Wales Valleys, a mother-and-son from Gloucester via-Aberdare, and a solitary Swansea jack make up the touring party.
Oh, and me. I’ve been invited along as part of the group as a tour leader, and have been enjoying life from the other side of the fence. During my broadcasting career, overseas assignments – while obvious highlights – have usually been a dizzying whirl of airports, hotel rooms, press conferences, training sessions, equipment malfunctions, failing WiFi and late nights filing copy. So far the only late nights I’ve endured have been those spent trying to keep up with the Llanelli contingent who are drawn to the nearest bar like Josh Adams is to the try line. If you need to get in touch with them, that’s where they’ll be. Don’t try calling because most of them have lost (or been “relieved” of) their phones.
So instead of finding myself in a faceless chain hotel, cursing the WiFi for failing to send a TV package within minutes of a deadline, I find myself in a luxury safari lodge watching Zebra lope languorously past my window. A few hours earlier, we watched in wonder as Jonny donned his “magical safari hat”; a fetching headpiece that enables him to spot giraffes from several miles away, somewhat embarrassing the local guides who clearly feel threatened by the superior spotting skills of a mortgage adviser from Llanelli.
In the background to all of this, the serene figure of Mark Gardner glides effortlessly around ensuring the wheels of the fun bus are kept spinning smoothly and efficiently. Mark is the MSG of MSG tours, and is the company’s beating heart. Remove him, and it’s easy to imagine things collapsing into chaos – especially with the Scarlets’ girls running riot. Lost luggage? No problem. Hotel rooms disappearing into the grasp of a greedy competitor? Leave it to me. His love of travel, and obvious affection for his clients is what keeps this show on the road. As are the efforts of his trusted lieutenants, Andrew Henry and Dan Vaughan.
And this isn’t a company that has to shout loudly from the rooftops. Its success can be measured by the smiles on the faces of its customers, from an 82-year old former headmaster, to a teenager on a post-exam high. Whether they’re being regaled with anecdotes by Jamie Roberts around a log fire, trundling around the streets of Soweto in a tuk-tuk, or enjoying a sundowner on a rooftop bar in Cape Town, laughter and merriment are never far away.
And if Wales can sneak a victory against the World Champions in Bloemfontein on Saturday, we can expect more plenty more hugs and spontaneous eruptions of joy.