Last weekend I took my kids to watch Cardiff Blues playing Toulon at the Arms Park. They’re sufficiently young never to have known what came before regional rugby in Wales. My eldest was born the year Wales won the first of their three Grand Slams in the professional era, 2005.
After last Sunday’s game I came home and picked up Lynn Howells’ book, “Despite The Knock Backs,” and from the first page I was stridently reminded of what a troubled birth regional rugby had in Wales. He’s known as Yoda on Gwladrugby.com, and the story he tells is one of a struggle between the Valley rebels of Pontypridd and the evil WRU empire led by Darth Moffett.
Devotees of recent Welsh rugby history will know there are several sides to the sad story of the Celtic Warriors. Back then the WRU were in dire financial straits, and the regional model was born out of the need to cut costs. It wasn’t about rugby, the players or the supporters, it was about cold, hard, cash (or the lack of it).
Things are very different now. The WRU’s finances are in rude health, our national team have won three Grand Slams and came within a whisker of reaching the World Cup Final. However, the domestic garden is far from rosy. Our regions are floundering on the European stage, and attendances at Pro 12 matches hover well below the break-even mark.
Yoda tells the compelling and passionate story of how the Celtic Warriors and rugby in the South Wales Valleys were hung out to dry by the bone-headed machinations of David Moffett and Leighton Samuel. The moral of the story is that money can destroy as well as create success. There has never been enough money to support professional rugby in Wales, and it’s unlikely that there ever will be.
Once he’s done with the demise of the Warriors, Yoda turns his attention to his own career. From Maerdy, via Tylorstown and Pontypridd to the bright lights of Cardiff and back again. What we see is a loyal (some might say naively so) servant of Welsh rugby working hard to win the respect and accolades of his peers. The grandson of a communist miner, it’s clear that Lynn Howells has no time for the blazers and the money men in Welsh rugby, with a few notable exceptions such as the late Vernon Pugh QC.
Howells tells his story with a refreshing level of self-awareness and honesty, providing a stark contrast with the preening show-ponies he had often had to manage in the dressing room and on the training paddock.
I’m of an age where my experiences of Welsh rugby have bridged the wide gap between the glory days of the seventies and the glory days of the twenty first century, with all the disappointment and despair which came between. This book is a valuable companion to those memories, and it sheds a light on some of the darkest moments in recent Welsh rugby history. It is a story which serves as a lesson to those who are now trying to fix the dog’s breakfast that is regional rugby, and as a warning to those who think everything in the garden is rosy. Our fortunes on the international stage may well be blooming, but domestic Welsh rugby is withering on the vine. We need more honest men of Lynn Howells’ calibre if it is to be revived.
“Lynn Howells: Despite The Knock-Backs” is published by Y Lolfa on November 2nd.