What a brilliant game on Saturday! Wales needed an 8 point win but hammered England by 30 points to 3. Even a non-expert like me could see that England were completely outplayed, especially in the second half. It was truly awe-inspiring, even on a tiny TV, to watch these great man-mountains knocking the hell out of each other for eighty minutes. I think I heard somewhere that the game of rugby union was designed so that no matter what the players’ physical attributes, there was a role for them. That may not be the case so much these days where you need to be both fast and huge to be successful! Needless to say there would never have been a place for me on a rugby pitch, though, unless it was to bring on the refreshments. Playing frisbee on the beach has been the pinnacle of my achievement in the world of sport.
I moved to Wales in 1978 and gradually became interested in rugby union during the 1990’s. Football seemed to have become a cross-fertilisation of religion and big business, played by overpaid prima donnas, and watched by idiots. The beautiful game? Surely they must have meant cricket? As my interest in rugby grew I felt Welsh in my heart but in my head I could still find some support for England. Now I can fully and justifiably count myself as Welsh; the sound of the Welsh National Anthem being sung by a crowd of 70,00 supporters brings tears to my eyes. It had always been one of my greatest desires to see a game at the Millennium Stadium before I died, and I was able to do so last summer when Wales played the Barbarians. Not being a full international it was a bit of a damp squib, though; more of a family affair with many hardcore Welsh supporters probably not even there, and the ground only half full. And most of the action seemed to be about a quarter of a mile away in the far corner of the pitch! So I resolved to stick to the TV.
Not that I fully understand the game, mind you. For long periods it seems to involve endless brawling, punctuated – if you are lucky – by brief moments of intense excitement as a player breaks away towards the try line. At other times it seems like Mornington Crescent, one round in the radio panel game “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, where the players actually DO make up the rules as they go along. But what impresses me over and over again is that those men on that pitch are not like you and me.
I mentioned earlier that football supporters were idiots. That is, of course, a gross generalisation, and what I should have said was that some of them were idiots. Drunken behaviour, violence and the potential for violence at football matches was a real turn off for me, as was the link between football and right-wing politics. I began to realise how different the atmosphere at a rugby union match was, even though in my youth I had been pretty dismissive of the “rugger buggers” at university. Crowds seem good-humoured (even if still drunk), and the players largely respectful of the referee’s decisions. I loved it that the referees in some big competitions were sponsored by Specsavers. And the ball is not even round….nowhere near! It seemed perfectly safe for children and women to attend big rugby matches and the two teams’ supporters were not kept in separate cages. The atmosphere in Cardiff city centre on a big match day is, in my experience, one of drunkenness and fun – not nationalism and hatred. An opportunity for both teams supporters to let their hair down, and a great opportunity for the photographer!
Wales is a small country, and it doesn’t really excel at many things. So it means a lot to the Welsh when their rugby team does well. You can be sure that last Saturday evening, at the final whistle, three million Welsh men, women and children felt part of that team.
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