The dragon roars again

<preform>Wales can win a rugby Grand Slam this afternoon for the first time since 1978. It was a very different land back then, says Byron Rogers </b></i></preform>
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The Independent Online

If Wales beat Ireland today and win the Grand Slam, to the Welsh people their team will be princes arriving home after a long exile. Not since the glory days of the 1970s, when Shirley Bassey was in the charts, miners were down the pits and Harry Secombe was entertaining the nations, has rugby held the people of Wales in such thrall. It was in 1978 that Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and the others carried all before them, winning Wales's last Grand Slam.

If Wales beat Ireland today and win the Grand Slam, to the Welsh people their team will be princes arriving home after a long exile. Not since the glory days of the 1970s, when Shirley Bassey was in the charts, miners were down the pits and Harry Secombe was entertaining the nations, has rugby held the people of Wales in such thrall. It was in 1978 that Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and the others carried all before them, winning Wales's last Grand Slam.

"Come with me; I want to show you some social history," Max Boyce, the lead songsman of Welsh rugby, says, giving me a tour of the club room of Glynneath RFC, of which he is president. He lives 10 yards behind the dead-ball line, his mother nearby, just behind the corner flag. "Here ..." It is the roll-call of all those who captained the Glynneath XV, dating back to 1889. "Now see this, 1939 to 1944? See the black line? Second World War, right? So of course there's no captain; they didn't have the time. And here, 1914 to 1919, another black line. First World War. No captain. But what I want to show you is this: 1904 to 1906."

We stare at it together. 1904 to 1906? And a black line. No captain, just one word. Revival. "An old boy in the club, he tried to make out this was a man called Revival. Roger Revival, he said his name was. Said he was an outside-half, that's how much people have forgotten." Max Boyce stops. "But those were the only things that ever interrupted Welsh rugby, world wars, and a national religious revival."

In 1904 men saw the Holy Ghost materialise in flames above the pitch-pine pews, preachers reminded them that they were the elect of God, and in Glynneath, naturally they stopped playing rugby. The Kingdom of God was at hand, and, as a minister in Llanelli reminded his flock, if any impurity existed it had sneaked in from England.

So had rugby. It came out of the public schools of England, so the assumption is that it was imported by muscular curates. But Wales was chapel (it was, said Gladstone, "a nation of Nonconformists"), so its adoption is a mystery. Also, in England it was a game played by the middle class. In Wales, however, it took root where life was roughest, in the mining valleys of south Wales.

"Playing in England for the first time was a bit of a shock," said my old friend Fred Bevan, who played first-class rugby for Llanelli and Cardiff. "I'd never known anything like it. In England if a man tackled you, suddenly there was this face looking down. 'Sorry, old chap. Sorry, old chap?

"And then there were the club-houses. I remember playing against the Wasps, and there was this man whose job after the game was to write down the scores of all their teams on a board, which was the size of a wall. They were running 13 teams. I'd played against sides where if you asked where the showers were they pointed to two large milk churns by a hedge.

In the index to Professor Kenneth O Morgan's history of modern Wales, Rebirth of a Nation, religious revivals have four entries, the First World War six. Rugby has nine entries. In an academic history of Wales rugby is something that has to be analysed.

Like most things in Welsh history, it starts with a defeat, the disaster at Blackheath when the first English side to play Wales overwhelmed it 53-0. But in 1893 Wales won the Triple Crown for the first time; between 1901 and 1912 the Welsh won it six times.

But Welsh rugby, like the Welsh language, is a matter of geography. In the strongholds of the latter, in the north and west, rugby is not popular. And just as there are those who celebrate rugby for its focusing of a Welsh identity, there are those who castigate it for its deflection of that identity.

So long as the Welsh rugby team kept winning (at Twickenham), it was argued, all desire for political independence was shelved. Kenneth Morgan writes: "Rugby and investitures, the bread and circuses of the populace, became a peaceful therapy to suppress embarrassing political aspirations." It may be pure coincidence, but the Welsh Assembly, the first expression of home rule in six centuries, was established in the late 1990s, at a time when the team had stopped winning (at Twickenham).

It may be even more of a coincidence but it has started winning as disenchantment with the Assembly quickens. The irony is that this is happening at a time of crisis in the call-centre scattered heart of what was once industrial Wales, the seed-plot of the sport, and in the sport itself.

When Boyce started in showbusiness, no entertainer had based his career so squarely on a culture few in his audiences shared. "It never entered my head there were people outside who had never heard of the things I sang about. I sang most of the time, not about the game, but about the passion of Welsh rugby fans," he said.

"When I did my first record, Live at Treorchy, in 1973, five of the 10 songs were about them. They called me in at EMI, they said I'd been very lucky so far but perhaps I should broaden my appeal. I listened, then recorded this song:

We all got doctor's papers,
Not one of us in pain.

And Harry Morgan's buried
His granny once again.

That made number one in the hit parade."

Boyce was singing of the world he knew. In fact, he had had so many medical certificates himself (especially when Wales played at Murrayfield), and buried so many of relatives, that one day his boss at the Metal Box factory in Neath called him in. "Apparently he'd heard me singing at work. 'Mr Boyce,' he said, 'I am totally confused. You seem such a happy man for someone whose life is unremitting misery.'"

On stage he taunted England with a song about the factory where Welsh outside-halves were manufactured, and welcomed the first Japanese touring side which lost itself on a pitch locals had deliberately left uncut (" Gareth Edwards got a very long pass/But not half so long as Penygraig grass").

He rarely sings these songs now, however. For as time passed, so the world out of which Boyce sang became a world in ruins, as the coal mines, from where both he and the club teams came, began to close. "We had six pits in this valley, and 1,000 men worked in them. Now there's just one factory. If that closes, what will become of the young men?"

The irony is that Wales's once heavily worked valleys have never looked more beautiful. A book called How Green Was My Valley no longer has any meaning, for the valleys have never been greener, the scenery-scarring coal tips having been dispersed and grass planted in their place. In some parts the valleys look like Switzerland, only this is a Switzerland of male unemployment and desk jobs. Wales's biggest export is no longer coal but Catherine Zeta-Jones.

What few outsiders seem to realise is that this is has been a long-term process. In 1921 the largest single group of workers in Wales was 270,000 miners; one Welshman in four was a miner. In 1977, as the glory years of Welsh rugby were coming to an end, the largest single group was 118,000 women in education and medical services. That year, 57 per cent of the workers in Treorchy were women; the members of the town's famous male voice choir, a Welsh historian observed drily, had plenty of time to rehearse.

Unlike the crisis in the country, however, the crisis in rugby was sudden. In 1995 something happened nobody had foreseen. Professionalism, the result of a decision in international rugby, did not affect only the top sides; it trickled down to the small teams, so Glynneath faced the dilemma of whether to buy players. If it did the team rose in the league, but faced bankruptcy.

"It's been a disaster for us," Boyce said. "You take a place like this; the clubhouse is the centre for village life. The brass band meets here, the male voice choir practises, even the Women's Institute holds its talks. This chap, he'd been away for 40 years, he came back. He thought nothing had changed. We couldn't bring ourselves to tell him we were hanging on by our fingertips."

Glynneath stopped paying its players two years ago, which gives a sad undertone to Boyce's stories. One runs: A man at an international game seeing an empty seat in the stand says: "Whose is that, Ianto?" "Oh, that's the wife's." "Where's she then?" "Oh you haven't heard. She's dead." "Well, couldn't you have given it to her brother?" "Good God, mun, I did, but he insisted on going to her funeral." Until recently, such jokes had started to sound hollow.

Most club players are lucky to have a career of eight years, but the great Gerald Davies, who was also at school with us, was a full international for 12. "Then the day comes when at the start of a season you smell the cut grass and the liniment, and suddenly they don't mean anything to you," he said, sounding like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes ("When thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them").

And now, Good Lord, here we go again.

Byron Rogers' latest book, 'The Lost Children', will be published this month by Gregynog Press (£95)