Gwlad Rugby Review of the Year 2010* No 1.

Another 12 months have passed and as the year slowly lists over onto its side, like Leo Cullen entering a ruck, we take this opportunity to look back at all the earth shattering events that the rugby world has offered up since we were last in a similar position in relation to the Sun as we are now. The unexpected bounty brought us a Six Nations, a Heinenken cup and a thrilling win in the Welsh Premiership for the true champions Llanelli RFC (who at the end of the league stage had amassed a record 28 point margin over all their other rivals*).

2011 has been a unique year (apart from one in every other four years since 1984) in that it has brought another Rugby World Cup. The tournament that challenges the best rugby players in the world (and Scotland) and that showcases all the Welsh regions shorn of their internationals (as they play a Connaught side that may have lost one of its TV analysts), started with a bang as the might of the Scarlets’ development region, Tonga took on the All Zealanders*.

The undoubted star of the tournament was Quade Cooper, who headed the stats leagues for roughly half of the key measures. He single-handedly showed that it wasn’t just the All Blacks who have a monopoly of funnily named players. Fortunately for Australia they found that having a nine as the best of their hand is slightly more useful in rugby than it is in Texas Hold ‘Em. They hung around the tournament until the bitter end hoping to pick up some reward, just like a fat bird at a party. This set them aside from Wales who stayed the course for exactly the same length of time, provided amble entertainment and talking points but ultimately ended up going home empty handed. Just like a fat bloke at a party. But what were the Pringles, Campari and other left-overs from this party, to push beyond breaking point this metaphor. Or simile*.

Allain “If I’m wrong, then my old man’s a Frenchman” Rolland provided a beacon of lite in the latter stages of the Games. Judging by the headlines in the Western Mail (“SOD OFF BACK TO BLARNEY (RO)LAND!!!”), the South Wales Evening Post (“Allain Quarterbrain!”) and the Wales of Sunday (“Roland’s Mother Once Visited Prestatyn”), reaction to the sending of off Sam Warburton was mixed. The focus to date has been on what was wrong with the tackle. Was Vincent ‘so-called’ Clerc lifted too far off the ground? Is the top of your head classed as ‘upper body’? And, why couldn’t I have a cool name like ‘Vincent’? What we should do is talk about the good aspects of the tackle. Just in the same way the police don’t pull you over for shifting down nicely into third, Allain was a consummate negative Nigel and failed to ac-sen-tuate the positive. What were the good aspects, I hear you ask? (How can I hear you, exactly? Aren’t I just typing this into a computer? Are you all in my head?) For a start, it wasn’t a high tackle. Warburton was at no point offside (which must have confused an Irish ref). And lest we forget, he didn’t trip or repeatedly kick in the balls, the Toulon Tyro*.

We also learnt the true meaning of ‘strength in depth’ as New Zealand progressed to their one and only Webb Ellis Trophy win*. The All Blacks used up more number tens than an entire series of Strictly. They finally opted for Stephen McDonald who had just spent the previous 2 months at his uncle’s company’s nugget testing facility. At one stage they were forced to put the bloke who acted as Mr Sullivan in the 1980s series, The Sullivans, on the bench. Fans were shocked to find that this show wasn’t filmed in black and white, as they remember, but in fact was set in 1950s New Zealand, which pretty much has the same effect. [For those interested in obtaining the series on video cassette or super-8, please send a stamped addressed envelope to New Zealand Film Studios, 1 New Zealand Road, New Zealand. NZ1 001]*

What have we learnt this year? Well, we’ve learnt that Wales aren’t quite as good as New Zealand at rugby union. We’ve learnt that Northampton Saints not only have a unique grasp of irony, but also have the keys to the factory whose production facilities provide a record number of players that look like the boy in your school who smelt of milk. Finally we’ve learnt that it will surely not be long before a Conference player finally graces the hallowed turf of Twickenham after the Barbarians picked the Widnes Rugby League side player, Johnny Northerner to turn out for them on the wing against South Africa*.

This year, there’s been much debate about what’s the key position on the field in rugby union. After the World Cup many have stated that it’s the No.7 (the rugby players, not the make-up) that is key. This is however wrong, you stupid arseholes! The key position, as Munster, Leinster and the whole of the All Blacks pack with testify, is 2 metres offside at every, single ruck holding back defending players and generally getting in the way. Like a protagonist in US TV series Alphas (which in NO way should be confused with Heroes), lingerers hang around unseen tugging on sleeves like a cigarette desiring 11 year old outside an offy. How do the referees not see them? Are they complete incompetents? Were they all given this chance to be at the top of our sport in a long deleted episode of Jim’ll Fix it? Are they killer cyborgs sent from the future to annoy rugby fans? Or are they all from North Island? This correspondent doesn’t have an easy answer but as sure as Rabo-Direct 12 will compete with Amlin and LV for most effortlessly forgettable brand name of 2012, they’ll be back next year to cluster-fluke their way into a continued career. Hell, if they get any worse they may end up being a representative of FIFA. Or those people that look after cricket; the IOC*.

* I haven’t done ANY research.

Frank and Dai do Trelai

“And she’s had the other one off as well….” opined my mother as my cellular phone buzzed into life. A textual message plopped through. The scribe ?; none other than Dan of this parish.

So here I am, an older, sadder, wiser man having enjoyed one of the most disappointing, yet thrilling, pieces of sporting theatre ever to’ve been scripted.

Why ? Well, I’m pleased to say that those fine people at Principality (“The most popular pint in Wales”) saw fit to offer the Gwladerati two free tickets to the WRU Rolling Thunder Cash Generating RoadShow which took place last Saturday.

And I tell you what else comes at no charge, that’s the arrangement fee for the 2 Year Fixed Mortgage (4.9% APR) currently available at the Principality (“Du vin, du pain, du Principality”).

Naturally, Dan would’ve snaffled them up for himself, and rightly so too given the amount of unmitigated nonsense he has to put up with from the dribbling brownies-outing of thumbsucking bedwetters known as Gwladers, but he had decided to set aside that day to inflict torture and degradation upon himself by going to see Llanelli play Aberavon.

But no, he kind-heartedly offered them up to me, so I would be enjoying the hospitality of Principality (“You buy one, you get one free”).

And that’s why I found myself on the 11.15 train (operated by Arriva Trains Wales; “even when it’s early, our staff are astonishingly surly”) from Penarth to Cardiff Central surrounded by an excitable throng of supporters, shoppers and teenagers who felt sufficiently threatened by my handlebar moustache that the only form of reaction they could muster was to point and laugh. But I tell you what’s not laughable, and that’s the 2.85% per annum rate currently available on the E-Saver Issue 4 currently available at the Principality (“They’re grrrrrreat !”).

Cardiff’s an odd old place. Not quite small enough to be a homogenous provincial drear, but not quite big enough to command sufficient talent to its municipal authority to develop a long-term sustainable transport infrastructure. That said, no matter how bad the busses, Cardiff has plenty of branches of the Principality (“Never knowingly undersold”) and all are accessible by foot.

I offered the other ticket to young dai-banjo. The reason for this was that prior to the world cup, he offered me a free ticket to the Wales v Argentina game, provided by S4C. My, how I looked forward to it. But, S4C being S4C, when we picked the tickets up, they were for entry to Radnorshire’s most popular alpaca farm.

So we met in Wyndham Arcade and had breakfast at Servini’s. Dai enjoyed a cheese Panini and a strawberry milkshake, while I had full breakfast with chips and a glass of red wine. We then had a cheeky snout while looking in the window of the tobacco shop. Sadly, the arcade’s beadle chased us off the patch. I don’t know why, probably the ‘tache again. Still we had plenty of time to enjoy a couple of pints before the match. And I tell you what else you’ll have plenty of time for, the home insurance quotes currently on offer by Principality (“Whoooooaaaah, Prin-ci-pal-i-teeeeeee ! Bodyform for yooooooo !”); you can get a quote in as little as 2 minutes, and it’s valid for 180 days.

So we queued on St Mary’s Street to get into The Goat Major and it was a joy and a pleasure to bump into an old Gwlader, Dai Hampshire who, I’m happy to report, is still breaking records in the charm and loveliness department, and breaking wind in the trouser department.

Sadly, dai-banjo was not feeling too chipper. The previous night he’d been at a big posh do in Cardiff, and had one too many Drambuie shandies. He sipped gingerly at his pint, like Bella Emberg with toothache.

And so to the stadium. I find it amazing that within minutes of finishing your pint in a city centre pub you can be in the stadium and in your seat and feeling utterly revolted by the behaviour of the members of whichever nondescript valleys hellhole rugby club that your freebie has fortuitously landed you in amongst. I’m aware that I ended that previous sentence with a preposition which is not the done thing. But I tell you what should be the done thing, and that’s the Variable Rate Cash ISA; with a minimum deposit of £1 and attracting a whopping 0.6% AER, it’s yet another fine product available either online or in person at a branch of Principality (“Maybe she’s born with it ? Maybe it’s Principality !”).

And so to the game. If sport is meant to be a feast, then this was stealing sandwiches leftover from meetings.

I was far too interested in the array of glittered popsies surrounding us to take too much notice, but from what I did see, it was not a particularly edifying spectacle. One player stood out for me, and that was Berrick Barnes. Maybe it’s the scrumcap, but he reminds me of Stephen Larkham, but he also offers so much more. And that’s as much rugby chat as you’ll get out of me, I’m there purely to support, much like the wonderful support provided to the Oriel Un gallery at St Fagan’s Natural History Museum which is provided by Principality (“Probably the best lager in the world.”)

And so came the end. We all saw it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried openly, because I’d bought Australia at +10.

Heads Held High

As a phrase, “A picture says a thousand words” can be over-used, but when you look at the miles of column space devoted to Wales’s ultimately doomed 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign, it would be nice to have them all distilled into a wordless series of dramatic, emotional and revealing photographs.

Heads Held High from Seren Books does exactly that, albeit with the photos sandwiched by a pragmatic assessment of Wales’s campaign by Phil Bennett, and a typically poetic epilogue from Max Boyce.

For those of us who are still feeling the pain of that fateful night in Auckland when fate conspired to rob Wales of a deserved World Cup Final place, this book serves as a reminder of the immense highs and lows we all experienced during the Autumn.

It’s amazing how a photograph can take you back to a moment during a match, bringing it back to life and forcing you to re-live the emotions you felt as you watched it for the first time. As a piece of silent reportage on Wales’s World Cup campaign this is a splendid memento to have.

There will be many more books written about Rugby World Cup 2011, but few of those thousands of words will come close to capturing the spirit and fervent feelings we all experienced when a nation dared to believe that the impossible was possible.

“Heads Held High” is published by Seren Books.

Uncle Owain

In Wales we like to win but the process, the enjoyment of playing, having a go, is important, more important to us than any of the other home nations. Why is this? Well, firstly, lets be honest, we’re generally not the biggest – not in individual size anyway – playing an open game, taking, as Gerald Davies says, ‘calculated risks’, is a way around this – being faster, more alert, quicker on the feet and in the head. Then there’s the argument that we’re compensating for or celebrating our past; rugby’s often compared to battle or war, down the years we’ve often been brilliant at playing guerrilla warfare rugby, a sanctioned form of Owain Glyndwr rebellion. We’re the sons of Owain.
So all of a sudden we find ourselves going into a game with a squad consisting largely of players who recently finished their GCSE’s, who like to play a running game. What’s more, we appear to have spawned yet more youngsters who’s apparent dream in life is to identify the tallest, widest, most muscular member of the opposition and make him look like a fool; the appearance of Mathew Morgan, Rhys Webb, Liam Williams, Gareth Davies and Rhodri Williams is a sign that the players who largely made up the world cup squad are not a flash in the pan, that Shane might have reinvigorated Welsh rugby on his own. So who do we have to thank for these youngsters? Shane? David Moffett? The regions? Gatland? We know it can’t be the WRU, they might have been OK recently but I’ve still got the nagging feeing they’re going to sell the Millennium to Toyota next week. For a tenner.
No. None of these are responsible. When I said we’re the sons of Owain, it wasn’t pretentious, offensive, cultural analysis, well it was, but apart from that – it’s biologically true. Now you all know there’s no record of his death, meaning only one thing, he’s still alive and he’s sneaking around Wales shagging our wives. At his cheekiest he’ll nip in through the bedroom window, inject you with Ketamin while you sleep, and then get down to business while the Optimism Gnome has a wank in the corner. ‘Jesus, I’m late for work, why didn’t you wake me up?’ you’ll say in the morning to your wife / beloved / that girl who hung around The Oak a lot a few years ago, ‘Had to go to the launderette’, she’ll say, suddenly interested in the floor, slightly to the right. Then twenty years later your son’s stepped eight players behind his own line on his debut, made the English hooker knock himself out on one of the posts and whispered ‘You smell lovely’ to the giant meathead in the second row. As for the fabled ‘Fly Half Factory’, your missus ever gone to visit a relative in Panteg, a relative she’s never once mentioned before? Come back a bit refreshed did she? A bit reinvigorated perhaps? Hmm?
God knows where Jamie Roberts came from. Here’s hoping Shane does his father proud on the weekend.