Rugby ruminations

Cardiff is at its most exciting, most good-natured and most Welsh on rugby international days. There is a tangible feel of history in the air as the current generation walks in the old footsteps and sings the old songs. The city becomes congruent, fills with meaning and brims with possibilities. It stops being one more provincial British conurbation and starts to revel in the glory of being the one and only capital of Wales. The fact that it takes a game of rugby to bring this about is testament to the sport’s absolute centrality to Welsh identity. It is not by chance that rugby union is one of the very rare activities in which Wales has complete control over its own affairs.

For over 130 years, ever since the formation of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) in 1881 at a meeting in the Castle Hotel, Neath, Welsh rugby has been free to go its own way, set its own terms, interact openly with the world without asking permission from Britain/England, exult in its own triumphs, and endure its own disasters. And, because we have been quite good at it, rugby has given the Welsh people the unfamiliar and addictive tastes of victory and self-belief, supplying a vital corrective to the long centuries of defeat and despair.  What’s more, the game itself has been changed by Wales: the passing game, the three-quarter line, the idea of releasing wingers out wide, the tactic of supporting the ball carrier, the primacy of the fly-half, the anthems in the stadiums, the tribal gatherings, the sense of national occasion – all these fundamentals were brought to rugby by Wales. Try to imagine rugby union without Wales; it’s inconceivable. If Wales can have such impact in this one sport, it could do the same in all spheres if only given the chance. Rugby thus makes an irrefutable case for Welsh independence: it wouldn’t just be good for Wales; it would be good for the world.

Then there are the individual Welsh players who have lit up the game with their genius, set the standards against which all subsequent players are gauged, and become immortals. There is no space here for a long list; it’s enough now to just name check Gareth Edwards, accepted by rugby’s historians, writers, analysts and experts as the greatest single player of all time. The scrum-half from Gwaun Cae Gurwen, the dynamo at the heart of Wales throughout the ‘Second Golden Era’ of the 1960s and 1970s, and a club player for Cardiff RFC from 1966 until retirement in 1978, is the only person to be honoured with a statue in the capital while still alive. When one then adds the broader cultural imprints of Welsh rugby – the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff’s signature building; the mass singing; the clubs, often the only community centres left in embattled towns and villages where chapel and trade union have died; the apocryphal drinking yarns; the fans’ legendary trips to Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Paris and Rome, taking Welsh hwyl and fraternity around Europe in escapades carved into the collective memory; and the sheer majesty of the game’s flow, flux and organised brutality, as inspiring to Welsh poets and writers as the bullfight has been to Spaniards – it is clear that the Wales we know today could not exist without rugby, and vice-versa.

As the only outlet for Welsh expressions of nationhood, albeit a fictional simulacra of nationhood largely constructed by the BBC, rugby in Wales is actually an immense, intricate displacement activity striving to fill the vast void where a real nation should be – far too onerous a responsibility for a mere ball game to shoulder. Little wonder then that the WRU repeatedly cracks and buckles under the strain. The WRU is as flawed and fallible as any other controlling bureaucracy, attracting, as such bodies invariably do, the authoritarian, the incompetent, the time-server, the reactionary and the egotist.  Its mistakes are legendary, and legion.  Again, space considerations prevent a full list – but I’ll throw in a few.

There’s the albatross of the outstanding £30 million debt from the Millennium Stadium, caused by feeble accounting, unrealistic projections and over-reliance on shipped-in gimmicky events which don’t create stable income; the ticketing policies that have emptied the Stadium of ordinary fans and filled it with free-loaders, hangers-on, debenture-dealers and neutrals, with dire consequences for the once electrifying atmosphere; and let’s not forget the callous treatment of players who defected to rugby league in the ‘shamateur’ era, when malevolent lifetime bans were dished out to anyone who even played a friendly under league rules. This relocation of huge numbers of Welshmen and their families to northern England between the 1920s and 1995, when union finally turned pro to bring the long years of trench warfare between the two codes to an end, was the biggest sporting migration in history to date – the first manifestation of today’s global sporting market where mercenaries criss-cross the planet selling their prowess. It didn’t just do grievous damage to Welsh rugby (over 100 Welsh international players were lost to league), it exposed the WRU’s endemic class-bias and hypocrisy: while league scouts were making offers poor Welsh boys  in the unemployment-racked valleys could not refuse, the WRU’s favoured grammar school intake were being rewarded with ‘boot money’, brown envelopes and backhanders.

Then there’s the long, dirty war waged against Welsh football in schools to try to harm the round-ball game and justify rugby’s bombastic claim, quite incorrect both numerically and geographically, to be the ‘National Sport of Wales’; and the repeated futile attempts to implant the game in north Wales in defiance of the historical fact that rugby came to Wales via Gloucester not Chester; and how about the entirely unnecessary years of craven arse-licking  by the OBE-hunting blazers whenever the English are within tongue’s reach? I’m spoiled for examples: the continued use of the Three Feathers logo, the emblem of a 14th century oppressor who snatched the title Prince of Wales by violence, the grotesque decision to make hereditary Hooray Henry and passionate England fan Prince William the ‘Vice Royal Patron’ of the WRU, the cringing inauguration of a trophy in his name for the fixture against South Africa, and so on. William Windsor wouldn’t dream of attending a Wales match if England were playing simultaneously, and daren’t show up at the Wales/England fixture for fear of being caught on camera braying support for the boys in white.  It’s the equivalent of Twickenham asking Max Boyce to be England’s figurehead and, not for the first time, made the WRU look astonishingly out of touch.

I could go on, but want to home in on the regional rugby fiasco of 2003, the brainchild of management-wonk David Moffett during his brief tenure as Chief Executive and the cause of the internecine warfare currently tearing Welsh rugby apart.  At a stroke the famous, thriving clubs of Wales were demoted to junior status and the infrastructures and community loyalties they had painstakingly built up over more than a century were profligately chucked away in an ignorant attempt to replicate the arrangements in completely different New Zealand and Ireland. They were replaced by five regional monstrosities with dumb names (Dragons, Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets, Warriors) which nobody could identify with and which quickly became four when the Warriors (the Bridgend/Pontypridd franchise) went bust. The traditional clubs either had to surrender their identities or accept a permanent ceiling on their ambitions. Along with a dog’s-dinner fixture list with its jumble of stop-start competitions, this caused a haemorrhaging of interest in rugby’s valleys strongholds and the severing of the game’s vital grassroots connections. This in turn brought Wales’ most historically fruitful production line of players to a shuddering halt and thus ended Wales’ unique position as the only country where rugby union was a working class sport. Once upon a time WRU scouts could whistle down a mine shaft and find a fly-half; now they keep fingers crossed there’s a few likely lads with ball skills and a Welsh parent pumping iron in the Cardiff Met Uni gym.

On top of this, the creation of the regions was virtually a blueprint for future conflict because, inevitably, they evolved into self-serving, empire-building corporate entities, motivated by their own balance sheets rather than broader Welsh interests. This is what we are witnessing now as the regions, ludicrously, compete with the WRU to sign players to contracts while threatening to sever links with the parent body because there could be an extra £million going in England and France – having conveniently forgotten they were invented for the purposes of enhancing Welsh rugby not to boost their own balance sheets. We are witnessing the age-old Welsh disease of tail-wagging-dog-itis (see football, cricket, local government).

Since the WRU is so stodgy, hidebound and self-important and the four regions are so brazenly self-interested, the temptation is to adopt a plague-on-both-your-houses stance. But that would be wrong because, if the WRU is the embodiment of conservative establishment Taffydom, the regional franchises represent something much worse: unthinking Anglophiliac Unionism. Just look at the people running them. WRU chief executive Roger Lewis is infinitely preferable to his opponents. The ex-Radio 1 head of music and Classic FM managing director may be many things, but he’s certainly a patriotic Welshman (he headed the Yes campaign in the 2011 referendum) and what’s more, he’s that most unusual combination: a winning Welshman, and a lucky Welshman. His decision to sack coach Gareth Jenkins and appoint Kiwi Warren Gatland in 2007 was a masterstroke that has delivered Wales’ greatest run of success since the 1960s/70s, allowing the debt millstone to be halved in the process, and his pumping of resources into elite player development just keeps on unearthing international diamonds of the highest quality. It could all be a coincidental blip, but who cares when George North presses the accelerator or Leigh Halfpenny pings one in from the touchline. Lewis, perhaps with a push from the many good people on the WRU board, should strike while the iron’s hot and use the WRU’s muscle to do what all true Welsh rugby fans crave in their hearts: abolish those flabby, failed regions and reinstate the marvellous, multifarious clubs of Wales to their rightful place at the pinnacle of Welsh rugby.

The WRU has been plagued by controversy, sackings, resignations, emergency meetings and crises almost since it was founded, its follies debated and slated in pubs and clubs across Wales. But it is still a totally Welsh institution, somehow democratically accountable and never so remote that it can’t be brought to heel. Oh yes, they’re bastards alright – but at least they’re our bastards. It beats being run from Twickers.