For most rugby fans, the countdown to the World Cup begins in earnest on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, but, for Ron Rutland, the journey to Japan starts in a rather more literal sense on Saturday.
Shortly before 8am, Rutland will lead a peloton of 40 cyclists, including Sir John Kirwan, away from Twickenham and towards Canterbury Rugby Club. He will do so with a commemorative whistle in his bag bearing the engraving: “Japan v Russia, September 20 2019”. His task is to deliver the whistle to Tokyo, where it will be used by the referee to start the opening game of the World Cup.
To get there, Rutland and James Owens will cycle more than 12,000 miles through 27 countries in 231 days. They will cross the Himalayas twice, plot a course through countries as hazardous as Iran and Pakistan and spend at least half the trip camping by the side of the road. It is, Rutland admits, “quite mad”.
“I have lots of people who tell me straight up I’m crazy and others who say I’m not sensible, but if I’m on my deathbed and the worst people can say about me is I wasn’t sensible then I think I’d be all right with that,” laughs the South African, who is using the trip to raise money for Pass it Back, the tournament’s official charity, and Laureus.