Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 22nd March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

I have seen International rugby at all of the grounds in the British Isles over the years but without question the one where the emotions run highest is in Cardiff. It was in 1973 that I went to the old Cardiff Arms Park to see England taken apart by a Welsh team that must rank as one of the finest to have ever played Test rugby. The print on my match programme is fading somewhat but the names are clear and each is a legend (overused word, I know, but accurate in this case). J.P.R.Williams; Gerald Davies; John Bevan; Phil Bennett; Gareth Edwards; Delme Thomas; Derek Quinnell; Mervyn Davies; John Taylor…all members of the Rugby hall of fame. In that match thirty-two years ago England were beaten 25-9 and (I am ashamed to admit) I left before the end because I could not stand listening to yet another rendition of "Land of my Fathers" from the hordes in red surrounding me. The team that won on that day held together for the next five years and won their final "Grand Slam" in 1978. The hegemony of Welsh rugby seemed secure and one wondered what the other home nations (especially England) had to do ever to challenge their power. Well, as we now know, that 1978 "Grand Slam" was actually to be Wales's last for nearly three decades as age caught up the heroes and their replacements never quite hit the same heights. In recent times Wales have sometimes been the worst not the best team in the British Isles and there have been humiliating "Wooden Spoons" for their fanatical fans to cope with. But now the long, long wait is over and a new Wales team has emerged to capture the "Triple Crown", the "Six Nations Championship" and (above all) a long awaited "Grand Slam".

Margins in sport at the top are often so very fine and Wales's triumph has not been all plain sailing. But when it came to the crunch they always had sufficient reserves to prevail. There was an absolute will to win in the squad and formidable teamwork as well, which enabled them to cope with setbacks when they needed to. And then there was also that extra factor - the edge given to them by their extraordinary supporters. Rather as England did in the Rugby World Cup in Australia the Welsh supporters managed to be visible (and make enough noise) almost to turn away matches into home fixtures. At Murrayfield, for the Scotland game, there were apparently 40,000 Welsh fans in the ground. Where they all managed to beg, borrow or steal tickets I have no idea but they certainly out-shouted the Scots on the day. And then at the Millennium Stadium, for the final match against Ireland, there was a sea of red all around the ground and had the roof been closed they would certainly have made enough noise to have raised it. As it was, fine weather and perfect conditions make for a great spectacle of rugby in the open air and there was never much doubt that the Welsh would triumph.

Rugby fans now look forward to the British Isles tour of New Zealand in June. The "All Blacks" have every claim to being the best international team in the world and the fanaticism of their supporters rivals that of the Welsh. But curiously New Zealand seem very vulnerable in the very big tournaments - they won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 but lost in the final to South Africa in 1995 and have failed at the semi-final stage in the other tournaments. Last weekend a highly fancied New Zealand team lost to Fiji in the final of the Rugby Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong - again a failure by the standards that the All Blacks set themselves. The visit of the British Isles "Lions" to New Zealand will be the first for twelve years. It comes at a time when not only have the All Blacks got some outstanding young talent emerging but when Rugby in Britain and Ireland is very strong. Although the Lions team will be managed by England's World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward it is unlikely that many England players will be in the squad which should be dominated by the Welsh (and Irish) players who made the 2005 "Six Nations" such an exhilarating tournament. And the Lions play in Red as well - the non Welsh supporters better learn the words of "Cwm Rhonda"!