A Welshman Writes (yes, honestly)


Take your time to read this by Stephen Moss who on Saturday gave Grauniad decipherers his take on the game of Rugby Football.

Stephen earns himself an invite to this year’s Sharp Single Christmas party for a) making several valid,interesting and fair points; and b) being one of the few Welshmen I’ve every read not to claim to have been a schoolboy international. At anything. 

Rugby: a sport so boring its fans make it great

By 

guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 March 2013 

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In the depths of this grim winter we’ve all needed something to keep us going, and for me it’s been rugby union’s Six Nations championship, which comes to a crunching conclusion tomorrow with three matches, including what promises to be an epic encounter between Wales and England in Cardiff.

Now, rugby is not to everybody’s taste. It’s dull, plodding and the laws are unfathomable, say the cynics, who contrast it unfavourably with the flowing, relatively straightforward game of football. And in some ways those critics are right. But they are missing the point that rugby is sport at its purest because, in reality, all sport is boring. It’s a tribal rite, not an aesthetic exercise, and no sport does tribalism better than rugby.

I had better admit at the outset that I am Welsh: born in Newport, which once prided itself on the greatness of its rugby team. (The team has taken a nosedive since I grew up there 40 years ago.) At secondary school I was taught by quite a few rugby players who played for Newport, including Colin Smart, the England prop who became famous when he downed a bottle of aftershave in a drinking contest after the 1982 France-England match and ended up in hospital.

I grew up with rugby, and loved the way the game defined Newport, who in 1963 were the only side to beat the mighty New Zealand All Blacks during a tour that included a remarkable 37 games. This muscular, dour industrial town based on iron and steel articulated itself through rugby. The football team was a national laughing stock, but the rugby players were world-beaters.

An England-Wales match is a titanic clash of cultures, histories and identities that no other sport can match. Football might claim England v Germany has the same resonance, but I don’t buy it. The emotional charge of Wales v England at Cardiff beats anything, and much of the power of Six Nations encounters is derived from the way the fans impose themselves on the occasion. This is so much more than a game.

The anthems often seem to last as long as the matches, especially in Scotland and Ireland, where they set popular anthems alongside the official ones. And the singing during games is fantastic. Whenever I hear the Irish sing The Fields of Athenry, I feel like crying, especially if they are beating the Welsh at the time, as has too frequently been the case in recent years.

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Set beside all this emotion, whether the sport is a great spectacle is irrelevant. Which is fortunate because, if you treat it purely as an aesthetic form, rugby is unwatchable. The ball disappears under a heap of bodies for long periods; the scrums are endlessly set and reset as referees struggle to impose discipline; and no one really understands the rules, which makes the giving of penalties a lottery. A game lasts 80 minutes, and if 5% of that is made up of running rugby you’re doing well. The rest will be scrums, mauls, punch-ups and a small man squatting over the ball for minutes on end as he lines up a kick at goal which has resulted from some alleged offence no one can understand in the first place.

Last week’s Scotland-Wales game was reckoned to be one of the worst of all time, with neither team able to establish any fluency. It became a battle of the boot, and saw a record number of penalties in a Six Nations match. But I found it gripping. True fans don’t care about the boredom or opacity of their chosen sport. All they are seeking is validation. Of course it’s nice to win in style, as the Welsh teams of the 1970s did, but what really matters is getting one over the other nations, especially the English.

Sports like to pretend they are interesting for the casual watcher, but on the whole they aren’t. No one in their right mind would sit through a four-day golf tournament unless they were related to one of the players; cricket is best dipped into online or on the radio, or used as an excuse to sleep in a deckchair at Hove; a five-set tennis match between Federer and Nadal is a supreme athletic confrontation, yet even that starts to pall by about the third hour and I usually try to time it so I get back to the telly for the tie-breaks; as for football, it is entirely beyond the pale – all that diving, play-acting and moaning to the referee after the match.

Rugby commentator Brian Moore frequently says, “It’s not football”, when he is berating a player for indulging in soccer-style antics – complaining to the referee, say, or rolling around theatrically after being head-butted – and let’s hope that will always be the case. Rugby is the Eton wall game but with fewer points of spectatorial interest and a much less comprehensible set of rules. Therein lies its greatness. The game is so awful to watch that the crowd, the fans, the nation willing their representatives on to victory, have to create the drama.

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Six Nations Final Score


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Wales 23 vrs 30 Ireland.
Dogshit Park.
(No boots in the bar, please)

Wales’ Jonathan Davies‘ (no relation) turn to put the urn on (he’s done sod all else today). Wales to go on to play Basingstoke Ex A in the Plate competition, where they will field their new signing, the unexpectedly available, Peter Odemwingie, formerly of  QPR WBA.

 

Oh, That Fellow Davies


Long before I developed my typically English opinions of the Welsh (yes, yes I know it’s mutual), when I was merely a roly-poly soft centre waiting to happen, there was Mervyn Davies. Merve the Swerve Davies was one of those sensational players that, as a young boy, you couldn’t take your eyes off. He was a magnificent specimen, and was picked for both the victorious British Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971 and the infamous 1974 tour to South Africa (the ’99 Tour). When I first took an interest in the oval ball game in 1976 I quickly found two heroes to adore – JPR WIlliams and Mervyn Davies. Yes, they were both welsh and both were as hard as nails. Everything I wasn’t.

WHEN MEN WERE MEN, AND SIDEBURNS WERE ENORMOUS: Mervyn Davies, JPR Williams, Mike Roberts, Geoff Evans, Gerald Davies, John Dawes and John Taylor – London Welsh’s representatives on the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, 1971

Sadly Mervyn was to retire early due to a brain haemorrhage playing for Swansea in a Welsh Cup semi-final against Pontypool in 1977. It was a sad moment for Welsh, British and world rugby. Mervyn died today, and marks another piece of my childhood to slip away.
The 1970s was a time of welsh dominance and greatness, the reason everyone (me included) loved watching them play and the reason the unsuccessful Welsh teams of the ensuing years could never let go of, and for good reason. It wasn’t just the welsh who pined for the grace and skill of Mervyn, JPR, JJ, Gareth and the like – instead of the lame fair the WRU dealt up for the following 25 years. Little wonder they became bitter, twisted and unloveable. The boyos of the 1970s were a tough act to follow.

When the Welsh team pick up the Grand Slam tomorrow, which they look like they’re gonna do, their captain Sam Warburton will deserve the prize as he is next in a long line of great welsh back row players to ply his trade on the rugby field. When, as he surely will, he becomes the next British Lions Captain he will merely be taking the place of Mervyn who was odds-on to do the same had the brain injury not deprived him of it. Warburton could be truly great, and if Wales are lucky they may be able to find a few more like him and, who knows, rekindle the spirit of that great 1970s team.

Until then I look forward to the BBC digging out the footage of Merv and company thrilling the crowds around the world.

And, as Mervyn was playing No.8 in the 1973 Barbarians vrs New Zealand match, I see no reason for not showing the greatest try of all time again. And again. And in full

(normal English service will be resumed as soon as possible)