Sick Of This And That

THE power of words.

Something I know all too well as a journalist.

Something I know all too well from life.

One word in particular.

Cancer.

From the screaming death throes of the sister I adored, to the denial of adult loved ones.

The word scarcely murmured for fear of everything associated with it.

The word no-one ever wants to hear.

One word we all associate with a sentence. Of death.

Except, it isn’t always that way. But the word, the illness we dare not mention, impacts on life in so many ways.

Let me be clear, from bitter experience – people don’t fight or battle cancer. But they do bear it bravely. Often it is those of us on the outside that don’t.

I will never forget the courage of my late step-father, who talked of getting back to the golf course, of the life ahead he would never get to see. Always with a smile, no matter how poorly he was.

Seeing him that last time in hospital, he conned me into believing all was fine. And not just me. So when I got the call that he had died, it hit me to the core. Regrets I hadn’t been able to visit more often. That things were left unsaid. About his daughter, my sister, who died from cancer aged three on her daddy’s birthday.

I was 11.  And I’m still suffering.

Being kept in the dark and not knowing why she lost her gorgeous dark hair.  Visits to to see her in Birmingham Children’s Hospital where she had operation after operation. The sound of her screaming as she hugged me in a darkened room as she lost her sight. Me being ushered away with not a word of explanation.

Being told two mornings later that she was dead.

Then being sent to school as if nothing had changed.

The years of silence. The regret of not talking about it with Martin when the opportunity was there. When we worked together at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, or when I would put some work his way after his redundancy, when we met for coffee or beer. The regret he never opened up about it either.

Regret. Another word with so much power.

Of visiting a great friend in hospital and not recognising him. I tried to pass the error off as a joke. For a bloke who doesn’t often look people in the eye, I made the extra effort on this occasion. But I saw in his eyes that he knew.

Days later he was gone.

Richard Jones was a brilliant guy who deserved better. A Warwickshire Police officer, firearms trained, with a great wit, zest for life and such decency that is indecent. One of the best.

We’d gone for a beer to celebrate his wife’s remission from cancer. He was so happy after years of staring down the barrel at a life without her, just him and his two boys.

Then some scroats decided they would hold up the little post office where she worked part-time. At gunpoint. Dick was going to collect her when he confronted the robbers, when the gun was pointed into his face.

The stress saw the cancer return and claim his wife, but what none of us knew was that Dick was riddled with it himself. He’d got on with life, put his wife and boys first, ignoring the signs. The impact of the robbery and his wife’s loss added to the pile of crap he faced.

Regrets I wasn’t able to do more.

Because it’s something people don’t talk about.

Cancer has hit again recently. Two people I care about immensely.

With the one, it wasn’t mentioned much. She preferred it that way. Denial. Until the news that the tumour had been totally removed after two operations and she was officially in remission.

Then came the tears and the talk.

And since then the recognition that the tumour itself changed life. Of the body and mind still rebuilding. That remission doesn’t mean immediately fit and healthy.

With the other, a realisation that shock is very much the word of the moment. Of the fear the very word cancer conjures up, of the unknown. Of the months of being poorly and a health service slow to act. Of frustration and regret.

Of immense sadness that some of the best people face some of the worst circumstances.

But also a knowledge that some of us are survivors.

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Eye In The Sky

THE pundits from Sky Sports described the game as a ‘proper rugby match’ at the end.

Perhaps they were right.

A game in the rain, errors galore and a tight encounter which must have been thrilling for the neutral. Old-style rugby, maybe?

As a Coventry fan, I couldn’t enjoy it as much. Until the end.

This is the Coventry that I’ve supported throughout my adult life and teenage years, the side that flatters to deceive, that promises so much in attack and then butchers chances, that defends so heroically and then parts as if Moses was crossing the Butts Park Arena turf. A side that can be so clinical transformed into a side of thumbs and two left feet.

Don’t misunderstand me, I think the guys in blue and white performed like giants today, but I can’t help but feel our victory was more down to the failures of Yorkshire Carnegie than our grabbing the game by the throat. We’d been on the wrong side of a couple of key refereeing calls, but we should be the captains of our ship.

I’m grateful for the Carnegie cock-ups. Simply they squandered more chances than we did.

Two simple kicks to touch missed that lost them the advantage at times when they could have punished us. When Coventry should have been points down on the board and chasing.

Having said that, a win is a win is a win. Few will remember anything more at the end of the season. For Coventry, they stay in seventh, with London Scottish, who they had shared seventh position with, dropping down the table. For the new boys in a league so much tougher than National League One, Cov aren’t doing so badly.

Except…

This is still a Jekyll and Hyde Coventry. At half time, the Sky Sports caption was ‘Champagne Coventry’, largely as the result of some bullocking runs from Heath Stevens, George Oram, the electric Max Trimble and the Bulumakau brothers.

Such invention with ball in hand counts for nothing when tries aren’t being scored.

It’s hard to criticise Stevens, the skipper leading from the front, making the hard yards, putting in the hard tackles and doing a lot of the unseen Donkey work, but while his break was magnificent, the finish was anything but. If he had looked, there were players in support. Maybe a looping pass, or a little dink kick might have been the better option, but then, he’s captain of Cov and I’m a never-has-been.

It was a barnstorming run and should have yielded more, but rugby is about scoring tries, not near misses. Likewise, it’s unusual to see Stevens drop the ball, but here he did, in the company of Scott Tolmie, two men you’d not bet on to suffer such a fate.

Chalk one up to Carnegie.

They came out with spoiling tactics and it worked. They were superb in defence, but Cov failed to convert several chances.

Equally, Carnegie were the victims of their own failures. But it was so close.

Will Maisey seemed static at 10, waiting for things to happen rather than creating. He’s a much better fly-half than this, but it was a bit odd, watching with the advantage of the Sky Sports camera vantage point.

After watching New Zealand obliterate Australia with Beauden Barrett and his backs running onto the ball, Cov were standing still when the ball was being passed out. Maisey, for my money, was standing too deep.

There was one attack, deep in Carnegie territory in the second half when Tony Fenner, again playing from full-back, slotted into the 10 position and ran hard at the defence, creating space and sucking defenders in.

More of this would play into Cov’s desire to be an entertaining side.

The Bulumakau brothers were among the bright spots for Cov, both Junior and Andy creating space out of nothing, and quick to charge down the opposition. Cov did benefit from a box kick, where Junior on the wing was clearly ahead of scrum half Tom Kessell, but none of the officials picked it up.

If it wasn’t quite a day for Barbarian-style running rugby, it wasn’t a great day for the whistler and flag wavers. They missed quite a bit.

The Carnegie move which led to Phil Nilsen’s sin-binning looked like a clear forward pass to me, watching from the comfort of the sofa in Cornwall. They benefitted from another forward pass later, and their first try was inches short.

The Sky Sports commentary went along the lines of: ‘If you don’t think that Lucock grounded that ball, it doesn’t matter, the referee has given it.’

Quite.

There was also a feeling for this former 10 or 15 that the Carnegie pack was hoodwinking the young ref for much of the first half. Especially at scrum time. They were certainly lucky to get away with grappling for the ball with knees on the ground, which seemed a pattern of the first 50 minutes.

You can blame the refereeing all you like, but Cov were the architects of their inability to put the game out of touch when they got 20 points to 10 up. Forsyth’s run was so simple, spotting that the Cov guards were absent without leave, slicing through and then both Fenner, and replacement scrum half Pete White were guilty of going too high in their attempted tackles.

The good news for me is that it’s so simple to put right. Get Maisey standing flatter and  on the front foot when he gets the ball and it’s so much easier for the backline to purr. Get the lads hitting those tackle bags low so they won’t fall victim to easy hand offs.

If Phil Nilsen was singled out by Miles Harrison, the Sky Sports commentator without a rugby pedigree, for being a hooker from the 1970s, his replacement Tolmie, our try-scoring troubadour also had an unaccustomed foul-up with a line-out. Normally rock solid, this typified Coventry’s Championship wobbles thus far.

We are so much better than we’re showing. These guys are so much better than the performances suggest. The forwards were immense in their appetite for the tackle and drive. Adam Peters got the Sky Sports nod for man of the match, but he was in good company.

Max Trimble showed electrifying pace to be in the right place for the bounce to score Cov’s first. Plenty to be happy with.

While Carnegie weren’t a bad side, they are bottom of the table for a reason and I wonder how many of the top sides would have pounced on the Cov mistakes and ruined the home side’s proud record at BPA. Played 35, lost three, it reads during the Rowland Winter era.

Maybe, there’s a reason to be cheerful that the game was played there and not in Leeds.

Supporting Cov is not something for the faint-hearted, but then, reading the tweets from other Championship sides, we’re not alone in that.

I hate to be critical of Cov, especially after a win, but it was a nail and skin biter all in one. I get the feeling we’re stuttering for one reason or another, and we’re fingertip close to it all coming good.

There were too many mistakes.

Cut that by half and Cov would be storming.

The Greene King IPA Championship table looks to be splitting in half, with Jersey six points ahead with one game in hand. How Cov will rue the mistakes of the first round that keeps them in seventh. Two or three games they should have won. The drubbing at Ealing where they could have, should have pressed the home side closer.

Sport, in all its glory. Where nothing is taken for granted, or should be.

And Cov will be wiser when the league resumes after a round of competitive friendlies. I’d wager they’ll be better, too.

Rubber Morals

FOR any fans of rugby union, the All Blacks in attack are mesmeric.

Few teams go forward with such speed and precision. Maybe Fiji in Sevens, but apart from that, the All Blacks are the grand masters of incisive, decisive running.

They are a joy to watch. An almost Barbarian-style of keep-the-ball-alive rugby. We’re light years behind in England.

Yet, watching their Bledisloe Cup game against Australia and there is a dark undercurrent.

They get nasty, often when things go their way, sometimes when not.

It’s the New Zealand way, we foreigners from Europe are told. Often, the tactic swings matches their way. It certainly has against England in the past.

The way the NZ hooker pushed at his opposite number and then kept coming has no place in the modern game, we are told. But it was the Australian 2 that got his marching orders.

The All Blacks captain, Kieran Read, was among the group called over by referee Romain Poite, but could (maybe would is a better word) not say anything in defence of the harshly treated Aussie, who, in my humble opinion was trying to counter the threat.

But he struck the New Zealander in the face. Apparently, that is a worse crime in the rugby universe, despite being a gentle caress by comparison.

We’re in a situation where the idea of innocent until proven guilty is being perverted. If we’re going to wrap up our rugby players in cotton wool, then referees have to be more aware, to nip such incidents in the bud much quicker.

But then pity a ref with so much to do and look for. Maybe it is towards the American Football model, with several refs, that we must go, as has been suggested in the past.

It wasn’t a great advert for rugby and the spirit of rugby. Legally, the All Blacks hooker was in the wrong, a penalty ‘awarded’ against him, but the Australian’s response was worse and the penalty overturned. In short, the New Zealander got away with it. It was telling that AB’s coach Steve Hansen pulled him minutes later, however.

Hansen must delight in winning these unnecessary battles. Like the AB’s defensive line, constantly encroaching here and there, and making a mockery of the offside rule. Success breeds success and Hansen must have the same fear of failure as many associated with New Zealand rugby.

So the dark arts are a great fit as long as the world’s greatest rugby team keeps winning.

Innocent until proven guilty. So the talk remains how good this All Blacks side is, a nod of encouragement to their less attractive approach, while the idea of sportsmanship in its most wonderful sense gets lost a little more.

Hansen and his henchman win the plaudits again.

And the sadness is that this IS a great All Blacks side, packed to the gunwhales with dangerous attacking threats and solid defensive units. There is no need for this bullshit machismo but I can’t see any fan of theirs agreeing.

The All Blacks side is a dark machine. In several senses.

And most of the world agreeing they seem to be favoured by refs can’t just be sour grapes, can it? Because I wanted rugby to be the winner in the Bledisloe Cup, and couldn’t have cared if either side had triumphed.

 

 

Downside Up

BACK in the good old days when Rob Baxter was a towering presence for Exeter on the pitch, the Devon team struggled in England’s second tier.

Having won promotion from National League One in the 1996/7 season, they won their first game in the then Allied Dunbar Premiership Two.

Then came a trip to Coundon Road, where they were trounced 29-8 by Coventry. While they got their own back when they hosted Cov later in the season, Exeter won six out of 22 matches, gaining 12 points for their efforts and finishing second from bottom.

I wonder what happened to them?

That season, Cov won 11, drew one and lost 10. Not a bad showing given the off-field struggles that were to drag on for years.

A season later, with an expanded division, Cov won 14 and lost 12 games, finishing in a creditable seventh. This time, a wiser Exeter won 14, drew one and lost 11 finishing fifth.

The upward trend continued in the 1999/2000 campaign, when Exeter finished fourth having won 19 and lost seven. Cov finished sixth, with 15 wins and 11 reverses to their account.

Amazingly, both teams finished a place higher in the first full season of the new millenium. Exeter in third, Cov in fifth.

In 2001/2, Exeter remained in third, but Cov snuck up a place to fourth. Exeter on the Wimbledon-esque path to glory, Cov seeking to return to past heights. When Exeter came to Coundon Road that December, the hosts won a narrow encounter 16-15. Rob Baxter was there, while his brother Richard was opposite Cov’s imported Kiwi, Zinzan Brooke.

Now I’m not suggesting the Exeter Chiefs side that Baxter now oversees is a model that Coventry are following, but they have proved an example to all in the rugby firmament. When the Devon side finally made it to rugby’s top table, in 2009/10, Coventry were the team going in the opposite direction.

And here’s the rub. Back in the days of play offs to determine who went up or down, Birmingham and Solihull had finished bottom of the table in the regular season. Won none, drawn one, lost 21. The poorest record of the RFU Championship years, when just one team would exit in each direction.

Coventry had won five and drawn one – a win ratio of 25 per cent.

Interestingly, Cov’s win ratio since returning to the second tier currently stands at 37.5 per cent.

How does that compare to other promoted teams in the Championship in recent years?

Only Doncaster Knights, promoted for the 2014/5 season fared better, with a 38.64 per cent win ratio. For this purpose, I’ve included draws as half a win, which, of course, they are.

So, Hartpury College, last year’s promoted team, finished 10th, won six, drew one and lost 15 for a win ratio of 29.55 per cent.

Richmond, the previous year’s new boys, finished 10th of 11, winning five and losing 15. Even my poor mathematics skills have that win ratio as 25 per cent.

Ealing Trailfinders were more Ealing Trailing in 2015/16, finished second from bottom, with six wins, one draw and 15 losses, once again a 29.55 per cent win ratio. Two seasons earlier, in 2013/14, Ealing had suffered a worse fate, being relegated after their first campaign in the Championship, winning five, drawing one and losing 17 for a win ratio of just 23.91 per cent.

In between those two stuttering Ealing seasons came Doncaster Knights, winning eight games and drawing one – the best record since the restructuring of the leagues for the 2009/10 season. The club still came ninth.

The newly promoted team in 2012/13 was Jersey, finishing second from bottom with just six wins to their name, a 27.27 per cent win ratio. The same ratio befell London Scottish, the 2011/12 new boys, although they finished ninth.

And ninth place was waiting for Esher in 2010/11, with seven wins and one draw, a win ratio of 34.09 per cent.

If Cov can maintain the current trajectory, it will mean eight wins across the season, only bettered by Doncaster’s eight wins and a draw in 2014/15. Of course, they have won just three from eight so far. Nothing is certain until the final whistle is blown on the season.

But, the above examples show just how hard it can be to adjust to life in a tough division. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Talk from the Butts Park Arena camp is that coaches and players expect better. The desire to be part of Coventry RFC, with its proud history and loyal fans runs through the squad, there’s healthy competition and a camaraderie few clubs can rival.

As one player said, to put four tries on Ealing away was not a bad result, although the boys are rueing three or four missed chances that would have put a very different complexion on the result.

Everyone within the camp is expecting an upturn in fortunes. No-one is happy with the current run of results.

To be the first promoted club in a decade to achieve a higher finish that ninth is one target. Coventry are currently joint seventh and while there’s still a lot of rugby to play, Coventry are improving.

Things aren’t as bad as they might seem, then.

And those pulling on the blue and white jersey with pride are aiming their sights higher.

 

 

 

 

Out Of The Blue

THE man with a foot either side of the Pennines follows in the bootsteps of a true-blue and white Coventry legend tomorrow.

Phil Nilsen, Lancashire-born but now living in Yorkshire, captains a Coventry side eager to make amends for a faltering start to Championship rugby.

In the absence of skipper Heath Stevens to injury and club captain Phil Boulton on disciplinary grounds, the coaching team have looked to the abrasive hooker to lead from the front against London Scottish.

While it’s 21 years since the two sides last met in league action, the fixture will always be an echo of Coventry’s successful centenary year in 1974. The year when David Duckham led an experienced side to victory in the club knockout cup, retaining the trophy they had won 12 months earlier.

Duckham captaining against London Scottish. Now Nilsen. What a proud moment that must be.

Memories past. Memories to be made.

A bittersweet time, too. Of two top clubs that fell from grace.

Coventry, with its post-war dominance and a production line of star internationals, from Ivor Preece to Peter Jackson to David Duckham.

London Scottish, which has provided more Scottish internationals than any other club with 220 and counts four Lions captains among its number, most recently Gavin Hastings.

Think of the changes that have befallen both sides since those heady days. Two clubs from the 1870s which almost disappeared because of financial woes in the professional age, which have been consigned to the smaller stages of English rugby and which go into tomorrow’s clash on equal terms.

Played six, won two, lost four. Tied on 11 points, but Coventry with the slight edge in points difference. Coventry have leaked fewer points, but the Exiles have scored more.

The Butts Park stage set for a thrilling encounter. A winner takes all moment. Much in the spirit of 1974.

Yes, each side will have a chance to avenge defeat tomorrow later in the season, but tomorrow’s result will mean as much as a cup final victory.

A chance to prove the critics wrong.

A chance to move up the table.

A chance to set down a marker for the other Championship sides.

A chance to make up for misfiring performances.

A chance for each and every player to prove themselves.

A chance to emulate a proud history.

A chance to write a new history.

History. What a side that Coventry vintage of 44 years ago was. Names to be conjured with even now.

Rossborough, Duckham, Corless, Foulks, Barnwell, Cowman and Gittings.

Broderick, Gallagher, Fairbrother, Ninnes, Darnell, Rolinson, Cardwell and Walker.

I hope that tomorrow the spirit of the great Coventry sides of yore goes with Stokes, Trimble, Halaifonu, Tuitupou, Fenner, Sharp and White. That the pack of Gibbons, Nilsen, Jeannot, new boys Woolford and Faleafa, Peters, Ram and Nutley play with the verve and passion of the Coventry forward gangs of legend.

That Tolmie, Titchard-Jones, Beech, Jubb, Oram, Kessell and Bulumakau know they are a key part of this historic fixture.

That the roar of a city will be behind its sons and a history going back 144 years.

That the strength of an elephant with a castle on its back is in the DNA of Cov teams.

That 15 elephants – obdurate, stubborn, charging forward in a herd – will tame the lion rampant of their guests.

Fly half Jake Sharp will have something to say against his old club, while Jimmy Litchfield, the prop surplus to requirements at Butts Park Arena, will be out to prove that Cov lost out.

Coventry haven’t clicked yet. A barnstorming performance against London Irish, favourites for promotion, which ended agonisingly short of victory, and two home wins that were full of nervous moments for the fans.

Three away performances where Cov shot themselves in the foot. Games that should have been marked up as easy wins, down with a big L in the table.

Home advantage tomorrow then. A partisan crowd eager for the Big W. Players eager for the win. A coaching team eager for it all to click into place and above all, victory.

The spirit of 1874, of 1974 and of Coventry Rugby down the ages. Oh for that to be channelled by the players tomorrow.

 

 

 

Everybody Hurts

THEY used to say ‘talk is cheap’.

Now talk seems to be everything.

People encouraged to talk about the minutae of their lives, their thoughts, their troubles.

In one war, people encouraged to keep schtum, in another to open up.

Welcome to the social media blitz that accompanied World Mental Health Day. Well-meaning tweets, posts and pictures urging people with depression to call this number or that – and chat.

Personally, I think it’s brilliant yet at the same time missing the mark. Very often those trapped in depression don’t want to talk. It’s the very last thing they want to do.

Because of the stigma of depression, because of the fear others won’t understand, or simply that they can’t see any light at the end of their dark tunnel so what is the point?

Sometimes, people suffering from depression can’t listen either.

Because it’s a complex illness driven by complex causes.

Not like a broken arm that can be fixed with a splint and a plastercast.

Not like a cut that a plaster will help heal.

Not like a headache that will disappear with rest and a couple of asprin.

Mental health issues aren’t linear.

They can affect anyone. It’s not just the weak or ‘feeble-minded’ as the story once went.

And there’s no easy cure, no easy answer.

It’s great that people are being urged to talk, because in the cases of those who do, they can be a little further down the line in getting help. But what of the others?

For years, mental health has been the black sheep among illnesses. Invisible. Menacing. Awful to witness.

Friends and family rendered helpless, often unable to understand why.

Because often people with depression are those that on the surface have everything to be happy for. If only it were that simple.

As a society, we in Britain are getting better at our understanding, our tolerance and desire to be part of the solution.

But it seems ever increasing numbers of people are suffering.

That might well tell us something about the society we live in, the pressures, the shared goals, the straitjacket of convention up against reality.

Austerity is playing its part. Job losses, public services struggling to cope, rising crime, a general hopelessness.

But don’t forget those not tainted by austerity in their lives, who might still succumb to depression and all that it entails.

Professional footballers making millions, the successful self-employed businessman or woman making enough to be comfortable in their lives, the entertainers bringing joy to tbe lives of millions.

There is the tale of the man who goes to the doctor and says he is so unhappy, his life is in a mess and he doesn’t know what to do.

The doctor smiles and says: ‘My friend, I have the cure. Go and see Grock, the great clown.’

The man says: ‘But doctor, I am Grock.’

 

Stand And Deliver

AS POST-MATCH summaries go, Rowland Winter’s was unlike any I’ve heard following sport or Coventry Rugby.

He was withering of his side’s performance.

‘Mediocre’ was the word he used after the final whistle had gone at the Athletic Park, even when describing the efforts of one of the players praised by the BBC Coventry and Warwickshire commentary team.

If John Butler and Alec Blackman had been unimpressed by Cov’s showing at Richmond it was nothing compared to the view of Coventry’s Director of Rugby.

There was no soft soap, no false praise or easily trotted out line of being patient and players coming good given time.

Winter, when asked how he could change things for London Scottish’s visit to Butts Park Arena next week, said simply: ‘You pick 15 players who have got the balls to play…’

Ouch.

Winter is refreshingly honest, even if his words are sometimes not nice to hear. For fans or players.

But the message is clear. The players are good enough. The coaching team are working their socks off and no-one has a clue why this Championship team are rugby’s equivalent of Jekyll and Hyde.

I wasn’t able to travel to Richmond today, but the commentary on BBC C&W wasn’t easy listening. After the heroics against London Irish, some players seemed unable to lift their games and some were obviously below par.

Tom Jubb seemed imperious in the line out and loose, despite the protestations of Cov’s rugby boss no-one was above average, while Rob Knox appeared to be doing what he could to provide a spark to the team, coming off his wing and being busy.

They were the positives.

Other mentions came for knock-ons, dropped balls, poor passes and poor kicks.

Nobody talked up Richmond, with all due respect to our traditional rivals, as anything but ordinary.

Which says even more about Cov’s poor showing on the road.

Nobody expected Cov to achieve promotion to rugby’s second tier and win, as if by some god-given right.

But I doubt anybody expected this.

If the coaching team are deflated, the fans certainly are. And I’d lay money that the players probably feel worse than anyone.

This Coventry team is a good one, with some exceptional players, some nudging towards the end of their careers, others at the start of theirs.

How can they show such heart and fight one weekend and then abject surrender the next?

They alone have the answers. Few gave them on the pitch today.

Saturday is an opportunity to start again. London Scottish, another traditional fixture. A nod to the days of dominance for both clubs, when Coventry edged out the exiles in the knockout cup final of 1974.

Skipper Heath Stevens talked of the club’s history being talked about by the players.

Last season’s National League One side etched themselves into that rich history. So far, this season’s Championship team have yet to start writing that fresh chapter.

We’ve had some disappointing years, most notably since the leagues began. Winter’s fine record is suffering, too.

But this isn’t a bad Coventry team. This isn’t a team of lads come for the easy money. This is a squad of players proud to pull on the blue and white. This is a squad of men eager to make their mark. Squad rotation aside, we’ve some real quality in depth, footballers with the brains, skills and temperament to make it at Championship level and beyond.

I love Winter’s honesty. I love his commitment to the Coventry cause and his refusal to accept second best.

If that vision isn’t worth supporting, I don’t know what is.