Rugby Union: Passion without the romance at Old Deer Park
Tuesday 03 November 1998
The tendency of most of mankind is to take things for granted. We now take for granted the high standard of play at the top. It is not always beautiful. But then, South Africa and New Zealand have not always been pretty to watch either.
I am not saying that our standards are the equivalent of theirs, either at national or at club level. But a decade ago Harlequins, say, did not even play Wasps regularly. If they did meet, in a cup competition for instance, neither side would have been as big, fit or fast as their successors, even though the individual skills of particular players may have been just as great or greater.
No team of 30 years ago embodied those skills as productively as London Welsh. Before then, it should be remembered, they were a well-regarded side who had their ups and downs. They were not feared, as Coventry were, or regarded as a glamorous side, as Llanelli used to be, or both feared and regarded as glamorous, like Cardiff.
Of these sides - and others I have not mentioned - only Cardiff have maintained their reputation consistently over the years. Despite their win over Stade Francais last Saturday, witnessed by a crowd of under 2,000, Llanelli may now be embarking on the same downward run as London Welsh did, roughly after the English leagues were inaugurated.
London Welsh could even have joined the Welsh league. An invitation was extended but declined. When they were languishing in the lower English divisions, there were those (myself included) who thought they had been imprudent to refuse. Now, when they are fairly comfortably placed in Premiership Two, and the Welsh league is a mess, deserted by Cardiff and Swansea, it looks as if the decision to stay in England was wise.
All the exile clubs have performed well so far, the Scottish and the Irish better than the Welsh: but partly because they are all now open clubs. Scottish may go down at the end of the season with West Hartlepool, the permanent yo-yo of the new leagues. But they still managed to beat a virtually full-strength Bath on Saturday. Irish are adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If they had enjoyed a bit of luck, they could have been up with the leaders of the Premiership.
In a professional age the order of the exile clubs accurately reflects the relative wealth of their main supporters. Irish are supported by builders who never went near a university in their lives, except to erect a new building or two; Scottish by shrewd solicitors and weary accountants; and Welsh by romantic teachers who have degrees by the sackful but, alas, no spare cash. Still, the journalist and former international flanker John Taylor (an old teacher himself) and some other supporters have worked wonders to restore the club's fortunes in the past couple of seasons.
In the press box last Saturday I had Les Cusworth, the Worcester director of rugby, on one side and Tim Glover, of this paper, on the other. I did not expect to meet the ghost of Christopher Wordsworth, but he was there all the same. He was one of The Observer's team of rugby writers, who died last month at the age of 83.
After the match, untipped cigarette between his lips, he would stay in the press box to write his report, striking metaphors and apt similes as abundant as currants in a welshcake. He was one of the few Englishmen actually to like the Welsh (Kingsley Amis and Ricky Bartlett were others), partly because he has spent a good deal of his unconventional life in the country. He reported matches until he was well into his seventies. It was his good fortune that he was at the height of his powers at the exact time when London Welsh were at the height of theirs.
If Wordsworth had been at Old Deer Park he would not, I think, have enjoyed himself greatly. As someone who had once literally lived off the land, he would not have minded the rain or, if he did, he would have put up with it. He would almost certainly have disliked the new London Welsh outfit of dark red (almost maroon) jersey with two horizontal black stripes, black shorts, and red and black stockings. What, he would have wanted to know, was wrong with the old kit of scarlet jersey, white shorts and scarlet stockings? But most of all he would have been disappointed with the rugby. O my Gerald and my Mervyn long ago!
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