Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Spirit of Rorke's Drift

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LEAVING their hotel before the great match, and not a smile between them, the England players came under close scrutiny from Welsh supporters whose expectations were largely confined to the acceptable misery of defeat in a close match. 'Look at them,' muttered a veteran patriot, 'arrogant, they've come down here to take the piss out of us. I'm resigned to losing. But God, I hope we can hold our heads up at the finish.'

The head-holding being done in the Principality yesterday was directly the result of celebrations on a grand scale, the euphoria that erupted at the Arms Park when Joel Dume, of France, called a halt to the proceedings with Wales astonishingly still clinging to the one-point advantage they held at half-time.

Here was sport as it was meant to be. A nation revived; the excitement of a famous victory lifting hearts, symbolic, transcending sport. A cultural statement. On Saturday, to be Welsh was to be proud and - sentimentalists that we are - perhaps even a little tearful.

There has been much to deplore about Welsh rugby. Back- biting, local jealousy, internecine strife, a pathetic refusal to move with the times even when the debilitating effect of self-delusion was manifest in crippling defeats. Indeed, what would the future have held for the Welsh coach, Alan Davies, had his players not responded so thrillingly to the tasks he and Robert Norster set before them?

There is also some semblance of truth in the notion that the Welsh are as insufferable in victory as we are melancholic in defeat. Thus euphoria holds perils; short of handing out lead boots with the dole money, how can Davies keep feet on the floor? 'There is still a long way to go,' he said, 'a hard road to travel, but there isn't anything I can do to keep this result in perspective.'

Davies was sitting to the right of Norster and Ieuan Evans, the captain whose optimistic surge from an intuitive kick ahead in the first half gained the only try of the game, so grievously embarrassing Rory Underwood that the RAF flyer could not fail to convey the impression that unwisely he had switched to auto pilot.

On Monday of last week Evans, troubled by a thigh strain, was put through such a vigorous fitness test that he ran faster than ever before. 'It was remarkable,' Davies said.

No more remarkable for the England manager, Geoff Cooke, than the Welsh tackling. 'They stuck at it until the final whistle,' he said.

For one Welshman, it was stirringly in the context of Rorke's Drift. 'Fifteen bloody VCs, never gave an inch,' he said.

That was the essence of it all. Backs to the wall. Courage, tenacity. Here a red jersey, there a red jersey. Not much class and imagination, but plenty of grit. 'We hammered 'em,' roared a Welshman on Saturday night, groping on the pavement for his rosette. Hardly, but nevertheless a day that will endure in the memory.