Not so much a feast as an appetiser

BEING THERE: The Barbarians once were a main course on the Welsh rugby menu. Now they are just a starter, writes Geoffrey Nicholson
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Since BBC Wales was showing the Barbarians live last Saturday, it sold the game hard all week. A Hannibal Lecter look-alike stared out from behind bars, teeth clacking excitedly, to promise "a feast of running rugby". Then up came the title, The Silence of the Baa-Baas.

More striking, meanwhile, was the comparative silence of the Welsh Rugby Union. The Barbarians were playing at the Arms Park by their invitation, and to dignify the occasion they were awarding international caps, which now seem to come up with the rations. (How can you have an international when there's only one nation playing? Oh well, never mind.) Talking on the phone a few days before, Geoff Windsor-Lewis, the Barbarians' secretary, said he'd heard that Wales were also paying win bonuses, "which is a bit regrettable". Winning at a price is not what Barbarian rugby is supposed to be about. Especially at an extra pounds 2,000 a head.

But beyond these gestures, the WRU hadn't done a lot to promote the match and seemed to be keeping their eyes fixed on a future beyond it. They also had France, Italy, Australia and South Africa to play before Christmas, a World Cup to put on in 1999 and a dispute to settle with their own clubs over the proposed Anglo-Welsh competition. The Barbarians were just the first of the stepping stones across a crocodile- infested season.

It didn't help matters that last week's Welsh squad sessions were held in camera, so wiping out photo and interview opportunities. Or that by chance on Friday, while the Barbarians trained, the WRU produced a counter- attraction, the launch of their "Run with the Dragon" scheme to foster junior rugby. And pricing match tickets at pounds 15 and pounds 20 was an offer that, after Wales's forgettable summer tour of Australia, their sceptical supporters could only too easily refuse.

As depicted by the Green Valley school of writing, the day of the Big Match in Cardiff means a human tide of caps and mufflers flowing towards the Arms Park; hymns and the feats of heroes on every lip; the rude, convivial jostling around the gates in Westgate Street, backchat by courtesy of Emlyn Williams. That sort of fervour hasn't been seen since the 1970s. But on the showery Saturday morning, as people queued by the half-dozen at the temporary ticket office, there wasn't even a reminiscent sniff of it.

After the match began, the official crowd figure was given as 19,000, compared with the 32,000 at Murrayfield the week before when the Barbarians played Scotland. A far more emotional occasion, of course, to aid the Dunblane appeal. All the same, there were unaccustomed bare expanses around the stadium, and even in the press box many rugby correspondents from the nationals had, in AJ Leibling's eloquent phrase, "come disguised as empty seats".

The game, like the attendance, turned out to be no more than moderate. Agustin Pichot, the Barbarians' Argentinian scrum-half, with his flowing hair and eccentric running and passing, was always worth watching; so was Nigel Walker, the thinking man's wing-threequarter; and the uncompromising Arran Pene, the very model of an All Blacks No 8. Wales, too, had their moments. Nigel Davies's second try was clearly stamped "Made in Llanelli": a shallow attack in one direction while the defence moved in the other. And Rob Howley, largely upstaged by Pichot, finally stole the show as he sped dangerously up the touchline like a high-wire artist on a unicycle. His try rounded off a 31-10 victory for Wales.

Yet the Welsh still played like strangers, not really making space for one another or seeming to trust those outside them. Even when they had an overlap, they would turn back to their forwards. And though they did their best to keep the ball in their hands and play running rugby, it was only at times that they played a flowing game.

Meanwhile, in the face of hard Welsh tackling and foraging, the Barbarians weren't strong enough to impose their own traditional style.

The Welsh camp were relieved at the result. "It was pleasing," said their coach, Kevin Bowring, "to play at home again, to win and to score five tries. But the players will also be disappointed, knowing that they should have scored three times as many points."

But the spectators didn't know quite what to make of it. Wales had won, but what was that worth against a scratch side of such varied quality? In the closing minutes, the announcer asked spectators "not to run on the field afterwards". Had it really occurred to anyone to do so? It seemed unlikely.

Since they had scored only two tries, it was easier to blame the losers for this sense of anti-climax. But few rushed to judgement since Cardiff has had a soft spot for the Barbarians for almost a century. Their four- match Easter tour of South Wales, begun in 1901 and becoming an annual fixture from 1925, was immensely popular during the post-war boom in spectator sport. And when in 1948 they were persuaded to put up a team for a farewell game against the Australian tourists, they played it at the Arms Park to guarantee a maximum gate. It was not until the eighth such match, against the 1967 All Blacks, that Twickenham got a look in.

The Barbarians' insistence on playing with style and opportunism, not just playing to win, provided the gala ending to the Welsh season. They set up camp at the Esplanade hotel in Penarth, where they played on Good Friday. On Saturday, it was Cardiff before crowds of up to 35,000 - near- records for club rugby. Sunday, golf on the Penarth course. Then on Monday and Tuesday more games at Swansea and Newport. After which, there being no league or cup competition to detain them, the players turned to oiling their cricket bats.

The club prided itself on having no money and no home. And it was also their custom not to announce the team captain in advance; it was as if the players picked him on the way out through the tunnel. That sounds democratic enough; in reality, the Barbarians could be highly autocratic. While willing to promote from the ranks, they expected officer-like behaviour in return. Horseplay and getting sloshed were one thing; uncouth conduct and insubordination were another. Unconscious breaches of etiquette in the bar cost many gifted players their Baa-Baas blazer badge and tie. Pity, but there were plenty more yearning to take their place.

In the last decade, with club and international competition becoming more intense, the Easter tour has been reduced to a series of flying visits, and the Barbarians have found it harder to attract suitable players and fixtures.

It seems to follow that professionalism will close the last loophole for this Victorian gentlemen's club. Not so, Windsor-Lewis argues. It will make the Barbarian approach even more attractive as relief from the grinding rigours of pro rugby. "Over the last 18 months, the game has been turned pretty much upside down and is in a real mess, which has still to be sorted out.

"But we're having a tremendous response from the Southern as well as the Northern Hemisphere. And those players want us to stay as we are, an amateur club," Windsor Lewis says. "They're more than happy with that. After all, the big clubs are building squads of 35-40 players, and the scope is there for us to support top players who aren't getting first- team rugby. We don't pay our players, but we do look after them. We make it clear to them - you can have the house wine if you're happy with it. But if you want something better, that's OK with us. We have a lot of goodwill, and I believe that in a few years' time we could emerge stronger than ever."

After Saturday's game Pene, Barbarians captain on the day, was asked whether Wales had improved since he last played them as an All Black, and whether they had been right to award caps for the match. An instinctive Barbarian, he said they had played pretty aggressively, their rucking was good and their back row had been everywhere. "And if the WRU thought this was a good enough game to deserve caps, that's up to them. Jesus, I'd make a good politician."

Mickey Steele-Bodger, the president, was only a little less diplomatic. But without blaming anyone directly, he made it clear that the game hadn't compared with the one at Murrayfield. "It was flat by last week's standards. That was a superb game. This one didn't take off. You can never say exactly why this happens. It might be differences in the opposition, the atmosphere, even the refereeing. Anyway, it takes two sides to play the game."

Unspoken was the thought that the two sides might have been playing to quite different agendas.