Two sides to every story

You’re probably bored to death with me moaning about the current crisis in Welsh rugby. “Leave it Dan! It’s not worth it! Get a life!”

Unfortunately I’m a glutton for punishment, so instead of retreating to the pub to watch Cardiff City and drink a few festive pints of ale, I’ve been sitting at home reading about, er, Welsh rugby.

pooler1On the face of it, a book about the Ospreys and a book about Pontypool RFC might not seem to have that much in common. The Ospreys came into being in 2003, long after Pooler’s final glorious flourish in the late 1980s had finished. But in fact the stories of these two famous rugby teams are intertwined, and they tell us all we need to know about the current malaise which is afflicting domestic rugby in Wales.

The Pontypool front row of the 1970s are still the stuff of legend. The reputations of Bobby Windsor and Graham Price in particular stretch all over the globe to this day. These were men who made the All Blacks’ front row look like schoolboys. Not many Welshmen can claim that accolade.

The Pooler style was considered to be the antithesis of the flair exhibited by the likes of Carwyn James’ Llanelli and John Dawes’ London Welsh in the 1970s. It was deeply unfashionable, but it worked. The same could be said of ¬†Warren Gatland’s brand of rugby. But it worked too, and it still does. Sometimes.

Ray Prosser’s name may not be as well-known as Carwyn James’, but Pross was the man who shaped Pontypool in his image and invented the hard-nosed and hard-booted brand of rugby which enabled the boys from the playing fields of West Monmouthshire Grammar to punch (often literally) above their weight.

What’s this got to do with the Ospreys? Well, the cynics among us might say that this is the story of the death of one kind of rugby and the birth of another. The decline of a community-based, ostensibly amateur game and the rise of a corporate, professional one.

10yrsospreysOver the past decade the Ospreys have provided Team Wales with a large proportion of their firepower, often at the expense of the region’s own progress. There have been a lot of trophies: Celtic League and Anglo-Welsh. But still no Heineken Cup. The “one true region” is still a work in progress.

The conclusion we are drawn towards in reading both these books is that Welsh regional rugby has been caught between the two stools of Team Wales and club rugby. Team Wales has flourished in the past decade, whereas club rugby has withered on the vine. In the middle we have the regions, the perennial also-rans whenever they venture outside the narrow confines of the Celtic League.

So what’s the answer? To find that I think we need to look at the Pooler story. When they were at their strongest, they were fearsome and teams from all over Wales and beyond were afraid to play against them. Can we say that about any of our regions or clubs?

Where did that reputation come from? It came from competitiveness. The environment where our top teams were playing against teams which challenged them and excited their supporters. Opposition that put boots on the pitch, bums on seats and feet on the terraces. The problem we have today is that a lot of our domestic rugby isn’t competitive, challenging or exciting.

On a positive note, tickets for the seasonal derby fixtures between our four regions are selling like hot cakes. These fixtures draw on the traditional competitiveness of near neighbours. Games which mean something.

If you need a couple of primers in the background to the current situation in Welsh rugby, you should read both of these books. They tell you all you need to know about the past, present and future of our game.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – the Rise and Fall of Pontypool RFC” is available now.

“Ten Years of the Ospreys” is published by Y Lolfa.