In the midst of the enormous pile of lazy dross in the London press describing Wales’s ascent to glory in the Rugby World Cup, there have been some truly laughable pieces of work. The Telegraph’s “How To Be Welsh” is a particularly puerile example of the new genre peddled by the bored Jonny-Wilkinson-come-latelys of the English press.
Back in 1987, when Wales last graced the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup with their cheeky sidesteps and brutal forward play, international rugby was still a fairly level playing field. Hell, in 1991, Scotland managed to find their way to the bronze play-off game against New Zealand, only losing 13-6 at the old National Stadium in Cardiff. Professionalism was still the word that dared not speak its name. And it remained that way until 1995, when Vernon Pugh QC of the IRB announced the abandonment of the amateur ethos.
New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were best prepared for this. Uncle Rupert was ready for them with his chequebook. England soon followed the Tri Nations into the professional elite and by 1999, the gap between the haves and the have-nots of world rugby was wide enough to prompt Paul Ackford to claim that England would “put 100 points on a Celtic Nation within a couple of years.”
How we laughed at him after our victory over England at Wembley on April 11th, 1999. 32-31. The beginning of the false dawn. The Great Redeemer’s finest hour.
Wales had already beaten France in Paris in that final Five Nations tournament; the first time since the 1970s. And our first ever victory over South Africa was yet to come in the inaugural match at the new Millennium Stadium later that year. From such highs came such lows. Wales were co-hosts of the 1999 World Cup, but another needless defeat to Samoa was followed by an undignified exit from the tournament at the quarter-final stages thanks to Australia, who went on to win the tournament in a fairly one-sided final against France.
Shall we mention 2003? We must. The 22nd November: my stag party at London Welsh RFC. England vs Australia. Who to support? What a choice. I chose England, and they won.
But that was the beginning of the end for England. Yes, there was a brief flash in the burning embers in 2007, when by sheer bloody mindedness the Saes managed to drag themselves into the final, beating the All Blacks’ conquerors France on their way. But South Africa stemmed the tide to win their second World Cup.
After 2003 Wales got better, albeit with some stutters along the way. There was a Six Nations whitewash, but on the other hand we won two Grand Slams. On the whole the Noughties were an upward curve for Wales.
So here we are 24 years since our last appearance in the final four. The protagonists are the same: Australia, France, New Zealand and Wales. Is it still a level playing field? I would say it is. These days, being prepared for a big tournament means burning hours in the gym and freezing hours in Polish ice-houses. It means strict diets and recovery regimes, psychological programmes and debriefing sessions.
If you look at the last four standing, in these terms alone Wales are well above the average in their preparedness. The best thing about this is that the new superiority hasn’t come at the expense of traditional Welsh attributes such as flair and imagination. The ability to create magical attacking moves from almost any area of the field is still there. But now it’s accompanied by ferocious, unrelenting tackling, intelligent commitment to the tackle area, a reliable lineout and probably the strongest scrummage in the world.
We have three world-class fly-halves and the best scrum-half on the planet by miles. Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and George North have been the most threatening back three of the tournament so far, and we have the sumptuous prospect of Jamie Roberts smashing holes in everything in front of him.
Wales stand on the cusp of greatness. Fleet Street’s finest Anglophiles are now courting us. On the one hand, it’s nice to have the attention. But on the other it feels a bit uncomfortable. What if the boot was on the other foot, as it was in 2003 and 2007. England in the final: who do you support? In 2003 I supported England, mostly because I was surrounded by a number of my favourite English friends and I didn’t want to offend them. But I also wanted a Northern Hemisphere team to strike a blow against the Southern dominance of our sport. And they did.
2007 was different. The England team were a gnarled old bunch of whinging buggers, and they were universally hated by the rest of the rugby world. After having seen France steal a win against New Zealand in the quarter finals, I wanted to see them go and win the whole thing. But England spoiled it. Nothing much has changed this time around, except that France have done the job they failed to do last time, and where they’d previously just spoiled it on the pitch, England also spoiled it off the pitch. Good riddance to Prince Bendy-Nose and his dwarf-chucking neanderthals.
But in the midst of England’s shame, there was a beautiful moment when Pitbull-turned-puppy-dog Brian Moore lost a bet with Gwladrugby.com over the outcome of the France vs England match. True to his word, Mr Moore donated £50 to the Gleision Miners’ Fund and encouraged many others to do the same. Diolch Brian.
Here in Wales we don’t need an excuse to whip ourselves up into a national frenzy when we look like we’re about to win something, and this time is no exception. We’ve even managed to persuade David Cameron to fly our flag over his house.
I’m always suspicious when politicians take an interest in the sporting success of their constituents. That’s why I was never keen on seeing Rhodri Morgan and his mates on the pitch before an important match at the Millennium Stadium. The campaign of the last few days has seen Kevin Brennan (Lab, Cardiff West), Paul Flynn (Lab, Newport West), Cheryl Gillan (Con, Chesham & Amersham) and David Cameron (Con, Witney) all attaching themselves to the success of the Welsh rugby team.
Basking in the glory of someone else’s effort and achievement is so much easier than doing the hard work yourself and delivering bad news which may or may not be a result of your own incompetence.
Unfortunately, over 16,000 people in Wales have lost their jobs since June, so you’ll forgive me for being a little bit cynical about the motives behind David Cameron’s decision to fly our flag over his house. What annoys me even more is that the people who are supposed to be fighting Cameron’s job cuts are tripping over each other to wrap themselves in the flag.