Rugby Union: Nations state their identities

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SINCE the end of the 19th century, team sports have been one of the most powerful expressions of collective emotion, rugby more so than many other activities. The late 1980s and early '90s have seen an increase in the emotional level. In this respect, as in others - for

instance, commercialisation - the game has reflected trends in the wider world.

Nationalism is more powerful now than it was even 10 years ago. Who, in those days, cared deeply about, say, the England and France fixture? The French were expected to be dazzling, the English dour. Happily, the French were uncomfortable at Twickenham, as the English were at Parc des Princes, or,

before that, Colombes stadium.

In that match people did care deeply about the result, as they did about the England and Scotland game earlier in the season. Previously, the Calcutta Cup was never fought for with great passion: I mean national passion, as distinct from team

effort. It was an object out of rugby clubland, to be talked about in the same way as the Ashes or the exploits of William Webb Ellis.

The England and Scotland match became a ferocious contest in the late 1980s, when the Scots thought they were being patronised by the English team and ruled by an English government which did not truly represent them. For a national anthem, they adopted 'Flower of Scotland' which to me sounds like the funeral march of a squashed haggis, but without any question inspired them.

The England and Wales match has long been the nationalist showpiece of the Five Nations' Championship. Among European nations, the Welsh have invested more emotional capital in their rugby than have any others. There are various reasons for this which it would be tedious to go into fully here. National pride reached its peak in the 1970s. It could plausibly be claimed that the little village of Cefneithin in Dyfed had, by nurturing not only Barry John but Carwyn James as well,

defeated the might of New Zealand. But national pride soon turned into national conceit. In rugby terms, the Welsh forgot the maxim that you should always be polite to people on the way up because you may meet them again on the way down.

After a period of dominance, England may themselves be on the way down. In that spell, which may now be coming to an end, English rugby itself has changed: it has become harder, meaner, less forgiving.

This has reflected English society in the period in question. It is reflected now in the pre-match comments for Saturday. Thus, my old friend Donald Trelford is, I know, one of the most

enlightened and liberal of men. And yet in last Thursday's Daily Telegraph he writes about the forthcoming encounter as if he would happily see Llanelli razed to the ground, and its innocent inhabitants put to the sword.

He says that he proposes to pay no attention to what he calls the 'statistical' matter of 16 points. It will be enough if England win, not least to discompose the 'Taffia', as he calls us, who (as he fancifully claims) dominate rugby writing, and have shown insufficient appreciation of England's win over France. But Trelford's comments are judiciousness itself compared to those of another journalist writing in the Sunday Telegraph two days ago:

'If the game is reduced to tackling, spoiling, poaching, kicking and playing the referee, they can compete. But no rugby, please, not in 1994. We're Welsh.'

I refrain from naming the writer because he likes nothing better than causing controversy and, I suspect, relishes his role as the man they (in particular the Welsh) love to hate. He only does it to annoy because he knows it teases.

At least I hope that is the explanation. As Wales have scored six tries to England's none, the quotation as it stands is not only unfair: it is simply wrong. If the journalist concerned really believed it, he would be well advised to seek the services of a psychiatrist or, even better, a priest.