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Two men on bikes, 20 000km and a referee’s whistle

Ron and James’s epic cycle to the Rugby World Cup

Ron Rutland, left, and James Owens cycling in Laos. Pictures: Supplied

Now resident in the Midlands, Ron Rutland has pulled off some crazy stunts in his time. A rugby fanatic, his biggest coup was to cycle, with James Owens, from London to Japan for the kick-off of the Rugby World Cup 2019 finals.

Their mission… to deliver, on behalf of World Rugby, the official referee’s whistle to ref Nigel Owens to blow at the start of the first game of the finals in Tokyo.

From Twickenham Stadium on February 2, 2019, the pair, while raising funds and awareness for the official Rugby World Cup charity, ChildFund Pass It Back, cycled across Europe, parts of the Middle East and large parts of Asia to reach eastern China on a precise schedule and board a ferry to Japan. Then it was an adrenaline-filled ride to Tokyo for the World Cup opener amid a whirl of Japanese fanfair.

Cold, cold, cold, was the story of the first few months of their epic adventure. Ron Rutland, left, and James Owens, right. All pictures Supplied.

They rode about 100km a day, six days a week, through freezing cold and in some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes in the world, with the last few months of the trip cycling through the sweltering heat of South East Asia.

But there was a lot that came before to bring Ron, and later James, into this adventure, as they told The Meander Chronicle over coffee at The Collective at The Junction in Notties.

Rugby a common thread

Rugby is a common thread running through Ron’s life. He was an enthusiastic front-rower at UKZN Pietermaritzburg in the early 1990s, where he made a lot of mates from the Midlands, including Andrew and Richard Bates of Fordoun.

“I fell in love with the Midlands. Since then I’ve had a connection with this amazing area, which is so beautiful and has so much to offer, hence me living here now.”

Rugby took him to Australia at the start of 1997, to Hong Kong and to London (back-office banking work in latter) for about five years. He even played a season in Germany. “Rugby was somehow always a connection. Something I always did when I moved to a new city was to join the local rugby club. It was a great point of contact,” he said.


Gatvol of London, Ron invested in starting a telecoms company in Thailand and moved to Bangkok for a few years, a venture which ultimately failed, but he had yet another international rugby adventure to add to his CV, having joined a club there.

It was while working in Hong Kong in a second stint in banking that he went to Bangkok to assist with the Bangkok 10s rugby tournament. There the idea to start a Cape Town 10s tournament was sparked “over a few beers with Bobby Skinstad and Robby Fleck”, and the next thing Ron was on a mission to Cape Town to help get the tournament going in 2008.

It’s a long way from here… Ron Rutland pictured in Nepal during he and James Owens’ mission to deliver the ref’s whistle to RWC2019.

“I took the plunge and left my job; I thought it was an opportunity to get involved in something and to come home to SA.”

He was involved in running the tournament, with great success, for about five years, before there was yet another itch to scratch.

“I had started to do new sports like trail running and mountain biking, socially, and as a result was meeting new people. I really enjoyed it and met a few adventurers, like Riaan Manser, and this thing started growing inside me that I found hard to ignore. By the middle of 2012 I was pretty sure I was going to do something big. What it was I wasn’t sure yet.”

What that something big turned out to be was a massive undertaking, to cycle from Cape to Cairo, through 45 countries and, later, when he saw the dates dovetailed nicely, to cycle to the RWC 2015 finals in England.

“I had never done anything like it and it was daunting, but I knew it was going to happen,” said Ron.

Flogged everything

To make sure it did, he started flogging everything he owned on the internet. “If I couldn’t get R10 for it, I gave it away. I wanted to make damn sure that there was no going back.

“What I’d realised from being friendly with Riaan was that they (adventurers) are really not much different from you or me, they just act on their plans and do it. We tend to put people on a pedestal, but there’s no reason why we can’t make our dreams happen.”

His initial thinking that it would be a six-month journey turned out to be way off the mark. As he set about working through maps, tracing routes, he quickly realised that two years was a more reasonable estimate.

To cut a long story short, Ron, with the help of DHL, secured visas for dozens of countries (a massive undertaking) and set about getting his touring bike and 35kg of gear ready.

Speaking to Ron, he seems remarkably calm and unfazed about the whole thing. Other than a nightmarish start when his rather unfit body revolted against the rigours of cycling to Franschhoek and then getting up the Franschhoek Pass in the middle of winter, he said he gradually got used to the physical demands, while the hospitality of people on the road was remarkable. If he wasn’t camping, he was often offered a bed for a night by people recommended or whom he met on his travels.

Africa was pure adventure and Ron said at times he was totally at the mercy of locals for supplies and water, yet it always seemed to work out. He remained healthy and, surprisingly, managed to avoid malaria. His bike, overall, held up remarkably well, other than a crack to the frame which was only discovered when he’d left Africa.

His favourite African country?

“The variety of the places was something really special. But Ethiopia was totally different. The environment looked different, it was so beautiful, the people looked different, the food was different. I was taken aback and really loved the place. Morocco was amazing and camping on the Zambezi was memorable.”

Having finished his schedule early, Ron flew to Turkey and cycled from there to London.

When he arrived in Paris, he was met by a contingent of friends and supporters of Laureus Sport for Good, who cycled with him into Brighton on a fundraising ride. He said they were met with a massive storm which dumped the most significant rain he’d seen in two years all over them. “It felt almost right, like saying, this was the end.”

Ron picks up some fans while in Rwanda.

It was a special ending to his odyssey, matched only by a special rugby match in which Japan’s Brave Blossoms scalped the Springboks to score rugby’s greatest ever World Cup upset.

“It was hard to be upset,” said Ron. “We were watching history and Japan demanded huge respect for the way they played.”

One of his enduring memories was cycling into Brighton and hearing SuperSport’s Matthew Pearce call out his name amid the driving rain, calling for a quick interview. “I knew then it was all over.”

In 2018, “just for kicks”, Ron caddied for Adam Rolston (also from Hong Kong), who, unbelievably, set a record for playing golf across Mongolia. Their madcap golfing epic covered a distance of about 2000km and took just less than 21 000 strokes to complete.

Ron’s next great adventure would be the one where he really made his name, his journey with James to Japan for the 2019 RWC finals.

James’ involvement came about when Ron went to get an opinion from his doctor on whether he would be able to cycle for months on end after having a much-needed hip operation. Ron got the OK and it turned out that the doctor was James’ dad. When he found out that ChildFund Pass It Back would be associated with the ride as the World Cup’s official charity, he suggested Ron contact James.

“I went to meet James in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we had a few beers and a chat to make sure we would be compatible and that we were aligned in our reasons for doing it. We shook hands and that was that,” said Ron.

James, who worked for ChildFund Pass It Back, was heavily involved in its educational programmes in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. He saw the opportunity to spread the word about the work they were doing, while enjoying the adventure of a lifetime, and leapt at the opportunity.

He was well travelled, having lived in Hong Kong and having travelled Asia extensively. He had done some much less ambitious hiking and cycling trips and was always on the lookout to get involved in something bigger.

Tight schedule

In May 2018 they firmed up their plans and both committed to the eight-moth ride. James would have to step away from his official position with the charity, but would be working in an ambassadorial role, and was welcome to return when it was all over.

“This time it was all very different. We were working with the backing of World Rugby, the charity and sponsors. Lots of mutual rugby acquaintances had given us support. While Africa was a great adventure into the unknown, this was a race, on a tight schedule, to ride 100km a day and deliver the ref’s whistle on time,” said Ron.

Not that there wasn’t adventure and excitement aplenty on their ride of more than 20 000km.

After dealing with Europe “efficiently”, despite “freezing winter” (33 days), the pair made their way across Turkey (still freezing winter), across northern Iran (“loved it, a bit hairy with the lack of shoulder on the road and traffic”) and towards Pakistan and the high mountains.

It would have been quicker to travel across China, but they detoured because they wanted to visit the Pass it Back programmes in Laos and Vietnam.

The going gets tough…

A highlight for James was their interaction with rugby coaches in Laos and northern Vietnam, where the game is booming and many new players are women. He explained: “Because it’s brand new there are no stereotypes about who is meant to play the game. It’s a level playing field and the boys and girls are seen equally when they take up the game. It’s a huge growth area for world rugby.

“The programme aims to provide children in rural communities with opportunities for life skills education, learning about sexual reproductive health, conflict resolution, financial literacy, challenging gender stereotypes. It’s a concrete, structured curriculum delivered through rugby.”

Ron raved about the ride on the Karakoram Highway and down into Pakistan. “Everywhere you looked there were peaks above 7000m. We’d never seen anything like that before. It still gives me goosebumps.” Both were impressed with the beauty of Tajikistan.

Grand arrival

Other than a nasty bout of illness for Ron when they were in Hong Kong and China, there were no major roadblocks and he said James, on the other hand, got stronger as the trip wore on. After a ferry trip to Japan, the two awaited a reception very different from the casual climax to Ron’s African adventure, with a grand arrival at the Tokyo stadium timed to coincide with the captains’ runs before the World Cup opener between Russia and Japan.

Handing over the ref’s whistle to Nigel Owens in Tokyo. The end of a very long road.

Thrilled, relieved, weary but pumped up, the two handed over the ref’s whistle to Owens and it was all over.

They had managed to raise about 130 000 euros for the charity.

“It was a strange feeling, after weeks and months with one goal in mind, it was all over. We were kind of, well what now?” said James.

But no worries, they were treated like kings by the organisers, and eventually got tickets to loads of matches, while the media and Japan treated them like stars. And there was the final result … let’s just say that Ron won that argument.

Six of the best from 2018/2019

Did they manage to live, cycle and suffer together for eight months, through freezing cold, boiling heat and over high mountain passes without wanting to tear each other’s heads off?

“You know, I think on bikes it’s easier. At times you cycle together and chat for hours, at other times you’re in single file or gritting your teeth and getting on with it, and there’s no time to talk. So you’re not always together, right in each other’s space. We didn’t really have any meltdowns. Maybe it was knowing we had a job to do and a tight schedule that kept us focused,” they said.

James Owens, revelling in his work promoting the efforts of ChildFund Pass It Back.

And, of course, there’s always time for more adventures! James is currently in SA and the pair will take on the Absa Cape Epic next month, riding as one of John Smit’s teams in his Barney’s Army, which is also a fundraiser.

By the same author: ‘Putting the good stuff back in’

*** Fordoun Village at Fordoun Hotel and Spa will host Ron Rutland for a talk on March 4 at 6pm.

R150pp includes a welcome drink, light snacks and a very inspiring story.

In his uniquely self-deprecating and humorous manner, Ron, who has inspired audiences in SA and around the world, will entertain with tales from the road and what it took for an ordinary person to achieve something quite extraordinary.

He will share tangibIe, “reaI-life” lessons he learnt chasing the most audacious goal imaginable.

*To attend, contact Lungi at or call 074 166 2797.


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