Alan Watkins on Rugby: In Wales rugby was part of the national culture. It is no longer

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The Independent Online
After Saturday's debacle, Kevin Bowring, the Welsh coach, said that Wales was a small country.

One of my colleagues then put it to him that New Zealand was a small country as well. Yes, indeed, Bowring replied: but in New Zealand rugby was part of the national culture.

Just so. In Wales rugby was part of the national culture likewise. It is no longer this.

However, it was never part of the culture of the whole country. It was confined to a narrow coastal strip, from Welsh-speaking, chapel-going Llanelli in the West to Anglicised Newport in the East, which until quite recently counted as part of England for certain administrative purposes.

It was brought to the newly industrialised South Wales of the late 19th century by the Anglican Church - which in 1914 became the disestablished Church in Wales - whose curates, largely products of the English public schools, were apostles of Victorian muscular Christianity.

For some reason, which has never been properly explained, the workers of South Wales (who included numerous English, Scottish and Irish immigrants come to the Klondike of the coalfields) took to the game: so much so that David Lloyd George, who was from the North and never properly understood industrialised Wales, was moved to lament what he called the "morbid footballism of the South."

The other influence was the Welsh educational system, in particular the county schools. These became grammar schools after the Education Act 1944. But their origin was different from that of most English grammar schools. The Welsh schools were set up by the local authorities, using their powers under the Intermediate Education Act 1889. Many of them had been mixed schools from the beginning.

Such an establishment was Gwendraeth Valley Grammar School in what used to be Carmarthenshire, which produced, among others, Gareth Davies, Carwyn James, Barry John and D J Jones. Now the school is a comprehensive. It does not even have any rugby team.

In the natural course of events, one would have expected it to have not only a team but a better one, because it would be drawing on a wider pool of youthful talent. One cannot blame the comprehensive principle. When taxed, the headmaster replied that young people now had numerous individual sports to claim their interest.

Clearly a social change has occurred. Wales no longer has coal, steel or grammar schools. I knew the rot had set in when the Cardiff Arms Park crowd were ignorant not merely of the Welsh songs - which would have been understandable enough - but of the English ones as well.

The Welsh clubs' fixture list has changed, too. It was based on a top four: Cardiff, Llanelli, Swansea and Newport. A few other clubs - Bridgend, Neath, Pontypool - made sporadic forays into and exits from the top division. But it was a conceptual division only, though later embodied in an unofficial merit table.

Not only did the big clubs play each other as often as four times a year, which could be tedious. They also travelled regularly down the M4 to play the leading English clubs, which was often enthralling.

The leagues, which are of comparatively recent creation, have had a see- saw effect, with one end permanently down. While the English clubs have gone up, the Welsh have gone down, for perfectly obvious reasons. The Welsh clubs no longer play the English clubs, except in meaningless "friendlies" when both teams consist of second, or even third, choices, owing to the risk of injury to first-team players. They also play sides in the Welsh top division who would count themselves lucky to be in the Jewson National League First Division (in effect, the English game's Third Division).

This development would have occurred quite apart from the advent of professionalism. Here, again, there has been a dual effect, both the forces in operation being antipathetic to Welsh interests.

As players naturally follow money, English clubs are better than Welsh clubs. Who would have thought, even five years ago, that Richmond and Saracens would each be the superiors of Swansea or Llanelli? The only present contenders, in boxing parlance, are Cardiff.

At the same time, many of the players who follow the money to England are Welsh. Nothing can be done to stop Allan Bateman, Adrian Davies, Andy Moore, John Davies, Barry Williams, Scott Quinnell and Craig Quinnell (who ought to be in the Welsh side) playing for Richmond.

The only solution I can see is for the Welsh rugby union to press as hard as it can for the formation of an Anglo-Welsh First Division, or even for a complete Anglo-Welsh League, divided into three or even four divisions. But English commercial interests and Welsh pride (or stubbornness) are both involved here, and I cannot see it coming to pass.

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