A good time to be Welsh

The Rugby Union team are set for the Grand Slam, Cardiff City are in the FA Cup semi-finals, and Duffy is on top of the charts. Andy McSmith reports on a principality that's right on top of its game
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The Independent Online

Cardiff City football club, Aimee Ann Duffy, the Welsh national rugby team, Rhys Ifans, the organisers of the Dylan Thomas literary festival: oh yes, if you're Welsh, your boys (and new female starlet) have had one hell of a weekend.

You may have heard the Cardiff fans if you were travelling on the motorway network anywhere between Teesside and South Wales on Sunday evening, as coaches, cars and minibuses bedecked in blue and white made their triumphal way south, singing all the way from Middlesbrough, where an FA Cup quarter-final had just been won 2-0. Wembley awaits.

Listening to their car and coach radios as they swaggered home, the travelling Welsh hordes will have doubtless heard of the happy triumph of another compatriot. This week's music charts are dominated by the 23-year-old Welsh singer known only as Duffy. Her debut album Rockferry went straight to No 1, making it the fastest-selling album of 2008, and her single "Mercy" has stayed at the top of the singles chart for the third successive week. For good measure, "Mercy" is also top of the download charts, not surprisingly, since it is the first UK single to reach No 1 on downloads alone. Rockferry chalked up 180,000 sales, more than the rest of the top 10 put together, pushing Amy Winehouse into second place.

This puts the girl from Nefyn, north Wales, in the small group of artists whose debut albums have topped the charts. She was first noticed four years ago, when she was runner-up in a talent show on Welsh television, and she is quite marvellously, affirmatively, Welsh. Having dropped out of school at 16, she has vowed to spend her earnings "knocking down the bad schools and building new ones in north Wales". A great voice and patriotic pride to boot.

Concentrating on her own good news, it is unlikely that Duffy has time to watch the rugby. But what a story the Six Nations championship has turned out to be. Only six months ago, the Welsh rugby team was so poor that they failed to make the quarter-finals of the World Cup, after losing to Fiji. Now, suddenly, they have got good, not just good, but very, very good. Twenty-four hours before Cardiff beat Middlesbrough, Wales ruthlessly saw off Ireland by 16-12 at Croke Park, Dublin, despite being behind at half-time with one player in the sin bin.

This means Wales now hold the Triple Crown, a trophy awarded if one of the four "home" teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, beats each of the other three.

With only one game left, Wales are also strong favourites to win the Six Nations overall. To deny them that, France would have to beat them by a margin of at least 20 points in front of a home crowd in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Welsh hopes are set on a Grand Slam, by winning every match.

With rather les s publicity, the Welsh women's rugby team have not been doing badly either, having won three games in a row. If they can beat France at Taffs Well in Cardiff on Saturday, they will have secured themselves second place in the women's Six Nations and overcome some of the embarrassment of their opening match, when they lost to England 55-0.

Then there is Rhys Ifans, who played the layabout Spike in the film Notting Hill. Ifans has had a patchy career off screen, attracting criticism for his alleged support for a militant Welsh nationalist group that advocates violence against English property owners, and more recently for cavorting with his girlfriend, the actress Sienna Miller, on a flight back to London from Los Angeles. Arguably, in a remarkable weekend for the entire country, Ifans had the best news of all. Last August, Ifans sent Miller note in Welsh saying: "Marry the misfit". He proposed a second time at Christmas and yesterday, after the third time of asking, it was announced that the wedding is on.

The good times are set to keep rolling, and not just for Ifans. You want culture? Go to Dylan Thomas's former home town of Laugharne, in Carmarthenshire, which this month is gearing up for its second literary festival. The singer Patti Smith and the writer Will Self are scheduled to attend.

The festival director, Richard Thomas, decided on a festival when he was watching Neil Morrissey, former star of Men Behaving Badly, doing a DIY commercial on television. Thomas realised that he was looking at scenes from a village with a rich cultural history that he had known all his life. He teamed up with the Cardiff-based author, John Williams, to organise the first weekend festival last year, which was a roaring success.

Moods like this are infectious. In Wales at present, no matter what your line, you're feeling pretty confident. A team at Swansea University claimed yesterday that they have developed a new kind of paint that absorbs the sun's energy. Paint steel girders with this substance, made up of little solar cells, and you will be able to heat a building with the energy captured by its exterior, its inventors say. Dr Dave Worsley, a researcher in the engineering school, has calculated that if all the steel cladding produced annually by Corus, who helped fund the research, were painted in the new material, it would generate at least as much energy as 50 wind farms.

Even the members of the Welsh Assembly are exuding a sense of optimism. Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales, has been thoroughly enjoying himself since Tony Blair called a referendum a decade ago to decide whether Wales wanted its own Assembly. Mr Blair agreed to a voting system that has prevented Labour from having permanent control of the Assembly, though he certainly did not anticipate that the independent-minded Morgan would emerge as Labour First Minister in a coalition that includes Plaid Cymru.

The resulting administration has thoroughly enjoyed poking the English in the eye. After the announcement last week that car-parking charges at Welsh hospitals were to be abolished, the Westminster Health minister Ben Bradshaw, under pressure to follow the example, testily claimed that Wales had longer waiting lists than England's. No, it has not, the Welsh Health minister Edwina Hart retorted, that was just English "sour grapes".

Then there was that furious exchange of at least seven letters between Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain, who was then Welsh Secretary, because Mr Morgan wanted to increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly so that, among other measures, it could ban Welsh parents from smacking their children. Mr Hain flatly ruled out that possibility.

So now the members of the Welsh Assembly have decided to award a 8.3 per cent pay rise to the people who, in their estimation, have done more than anyone else to make Wales a success: themselves. The Assembly presiding ffficer Lord Elis-Thomas, says this is not so much a pay rise as a "changing differential in pay". With so much good fortune raining on Wales, who but a churl would begrudge them their changing differential?

A good weekend for all then. But the best of all, the crowning glory, may be yet to come. The Welsh capital has hosted a few FA Cup finals, during that long period when the new Wembley Stadium was under construction, but the last time the Cardiff City team actually played in a final was 81 years ago, in 1927. That was the last time that the FA Cup was won by a non-English club, Cardiff beating Arsenal 1-0. Cardiff celebrated, and now the good times are here again.

About 40,000 Bluebirds fans are predicted to make a journey east along the M4 to north-west London, to see their team play in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, which they have a decent chance of winning. They were drawn yesterday against Barnsley, in a contest between giant killers. Barnsley have the wind in their sails after knocking Liverpool, then Chelsea out of the contest.

But in 2008, the year of the Welsh dragon, there can surely be only one outcome. Maybe Charlotte Church can sing the Bluebirds' cup-final song. She seems to be the only one not to have got in on the act so far.

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