Rugby Union: Field day for Welsh optimism

Andrew Longmore reports from Wembley on a rugby tournament within a tournament
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The Independent Online
THE TOLL at the Severn Bridge seemed less like a tax demand for the Welsh returning to base last night. Leaving Cymru is free; entering costs. For much of a devastating fortnight, the temptation to stay at home and save the pocket money must have been overwhelming. For the Five Nations' Championship read the Celtic Shield, a tournament within a tournament, a sort of rugby repechage. In its way, yesterday was as agonising for Welsh supporters as Twickenham. Victory was not a matter for debate; somewhere in the short journey across the capital it had become an imperative.

I swear that through the 80 minutes the hair of the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring, turned from distinguished grey to silky silver. For a half, Wales were nowhere and though Arwel Thomas, a mid-half substitute for the injured Neil Jenkins, kicked two penalties to keep his side within distance of the Scots, the sight of Scott Gibbs leaping up and down with frustration as the half-time whistle blew summarised the continuing inadequacies of the men in red. The handling of the Scots was slicker, their support play, once the bread and butter of the Welsh game, far superior.

Yet you cannot fault the Welsh for optimism. Even as their coach, Bowring, and captain, Robert Howley, were talking in hushed tones in midweek about the humiliation of the record defeat at Twickenham, the bigwigs of the Welsh Rugby Football Union were announcing a new pounds 7m state- of-the-art national centre to be sited on the banks of the River Usk. Nothing like a bit of forward thinking to take minds off the poverty of the present.

At roughly the same time, Welsh supporters were learning that their trip up the M4 would continue for another season. The new Millennium Stadium will not be ready until the World Cup year of 1999. Yesterday, the question of whether the Welsh team would be presentable by then was buried beneath more immediate concerns. The editorial in the Western Mail had it about right. "Short-term gain to avoid short-term pain". On its front the paper featured a full-page picture of the Severn Bridge beneath a quote from John Masefield: "One road leads to London, one road runs to Wales." For an hour yesterday, there was a third option: the road to oblivion.

The short-term pain has been considerable for a proud rugby nation. Words like "humiliation" and "nightmare" for once were not just the common currency of defeat, but the true expression of shattered pride. The first meeting of the Wales side last week was "horrible" in the words of Howley, a cathartic half-hour which none cared to articulate fully.

"The last 10 days have been the worst in my rugby career," said the Wales captain. "There has been a lot of soul-searching but out there you saw a side digging deep."

Revivalists meeting had characterised Wales's other religion, but a similar spirit continued into kick-off yesterday. The Wales team linked arms, not an inch of daylight between them. The Welsh anthem became a slow march, every note a call to duty. And dear old Wembley, the subject of speculation over its own future last week, was dressed in sunlight to greet the strange new visitors, the majority of whom stayed in the bars as Celtic rivalry was temporarily shed in honour of Ireland's heroics in Paris. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir were left to serenade swathes of empty seats, but Wembley did belatedly enter the spirit of the afternoon. The bars were kept open for an extra hour after the final whistle.

Whether for drowning sorrows or toasting heroes was in doubt to the very end. Having got their noses in front early in the second half, Wales scrapped for every last yard. Thomas, smarting from the heavy criticism of Twickenham, managed to calm his nerves just long enough to ensure victory and make the long return journey west a pilgrim's progress.

"We want to give our supporters more to sing about,"said Bowring. "But at least we gave them a win."

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