Rugby Union: The dying of the light: Richard Williams traces the declining fortunes of Wales, a nation with a proud rugby heritage

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A FEW yards from where Barry John first kicked a rugby ball, a rock group were practising in the old wooden village hall, their rackety efforts fading into the drizzle that mantled the hills around Cefneithin. No children were playing on the sloping, tussocked pitch where the greatest of all rugby players learnt his craft. On this afternoon, a crow perched undisturbed on one of the stunted goalposts, long ago cut and bolted out of steel scaffolding by loving hands, their yellow and green paint - the colours of the village rugby club - now cracked and peeling.

This is where, almost 40 years ago, the young Barry John came after school, drawn by the example of an older boy practising his drop- kicks alone on the sloping field. Carwyn James, whose family lived down the road, was already the star of the local grammar school team, and on the brink of a place in the full Llanelli side over the hills at Stradey Park: a dark, serious, sensitive boy, born - like Barry John - to be a Welsh fly- half, and ultimately one of the great visionaries of British rugby.

Barry John and his friends from the pebble-dashed council houses just below the rugby ground would stand behind the posts to retrieve the ball for their hero. In time, they joined in his training routines. And, inexorably, Barry John would go on to follow in the stud-marks of Carwyn James, from the village primary school to Gwendraeth Grammar, from little Cefneithin RFC to Llanelli, the mighty Scarlets, and all the way to the jersey of Wales.

Gwendraeth Grammar, a mile down the old Carmarthen road, was one of the legendary nurseries of Welsh rugby. Every decade, a great outside-half emerged from its playing fields. Carwyn James in the Fifties, Barry John in the Sixties, Gareth Davies in the Seventies, Jonathan Davies in the Eighties: as regular as that.

'In those days, the boys in the rugby team were the talisman of the school,' Gareth Davies said last week from his office at BBC Wales, where he is Head of Sport. 'We had a real tradition to follow.'

And, of course, there was an inspirational schoolmaster. 'In my case it was Ray Williams, the former Wales and Llanelli winger,' Davies continued. 'A man to be respected. For me, he was the leading light.'

Ray Williams, now retired, sat at home last week and remembered the mass trials they held once a year to produce a side to represent West Wales. 'We'd start with the six schools in the vicinity: Gwendraeth, Llandeilo, Amman Valley, Llanelli, Carmarthen, Gowerton. These schools would all play each other in the first six weeks of the autumn term. Then we'd get together and pick 45 boys, and we'd try to sort out the sheep from the goats. At the end of that, we'd have a team to represent Carmarthenshire against West Glamorgan. And from that we'd pick a team to play West versus East.'

Like nuggets of good Welsh coal, young boys poured from a smoothly functioning system, adept in the arts of a game that had its distant origins in cnapan, the ancient game played from village to village, in which points were scored by grounding the ball in the porch of a school or chapel.

'At one time,' Ray Williams mused, 'rugby was as important as religion in Welsh schools. Now, I don't think so . . .'

It was 10 years ago that everything changed. Gwendraeth Grammar became Gwendraeth Valley Comprehensive, absorbing other schools. A year or two later the main teachers' unions ordered their members to work to rule, after which they were presented with contracts that, for the first time, specified their hours of work and at a stroke curtailed their enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities. Satellite dishes began to appear on the council house walls, bringing other cultures and their diversions into Cefneithin's front rooms.

Today, one of Ray Williams's Welsh caps hangs in a case at the school, along with memorabilia of the other past internationals. The sports hall is called the Canolfan Carwyn - the Carwyn Centre, with a bust of the great man in the foyer. Outside, the rugby posts stand tall and white.

'I'm not a fanatical rugby man,' said Robert Garrero, the school's headmaster, last week, 'although I enjoy watching a game now and then. Heritage is important, and the pupils are aware of the tradition. But it's important for people to remember that schools have changed since that time.'

So does Gwendraeth Valley Comprehensive put out a 1st XV every Saturday morning?

'Well, no, we don't,' Robert Garrero said. 'There's quite a lot of interest in the lower school, but there isn't a regular 1st XV. There's a growing diversity of interests these days, you know. Some children might get interested in American football, or basketball. It's all part of how life is changing.'

'That's the most heartbreaking thing I've heard in rugby for years,' said Cliff Morgan, another of the heroic figures of Welsh rugby, when I told him that the school at Gwendraeth no longer had a regular 1st XV.

'I can't believe it. Gwendraeth Grammar School. Once upon a time, just the sound of it was like a bell ringing across Welsh rugby.'

THE BELL tolls for Welsh rugby again on Saturday, when the national team meets Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park in a meeting of two desperate sides. A few weeks ago, Scotland were thrashed by the All Blacks, who were then in turn beaten by England, which cast the Scottish defeat in an even gloomier light. But for Wales, as so often in the past 10 years, once again everything - from individual careers to the self-respect of the nation - seems to hang on the outcome of 80 minutes' rugby football.

Twenty years after a golden era which some believed would never end, many reasons are being advanced for the continuing decline of Welsh rugby, and for the catalogue of humiliation it has endured over the past 10 years - the record defeats (49-6, 55-3, 63-8, 73-8), the first-ever whitewash in the Five Nations' Championship, the losses to minnows like Romania, Western Samoa and (most recently) Canada, the terrible surrender of Welsh pride and dignity in verbal fights between players and journalists and in actual fist fights between Welsh team- mates feuding in defeat.

As Alan Davies, the national coach, prepares his players for next week's match, he does so against a background of intensified conflict, thanks to the convulsions of the past year, which saw a popular uprising sweep away the committee of the Welsh Rugby Union - a group of men committed to reform - in favour of a return to a more traditional approach, such as a reduction in the unilateral powers of the coach (significantly downgrading his title from 'national coach' to 'coach to the national team') and a return to the system of a selection committee - once known in Wales as the 'Big Five'.

The new committee - a 'Big Six' - features familiar names from the glory years: Elgan Rees, Derek Quinnell and Geoff Evans join Davies, his assistant Gareth Jenkins, and Bob Norster, the team manager. But there are other influences. The new men at the top of the WRU have formed a National Player Development Committee, which called a very strange public trial session at Stradey Park 10 days ago, apparently against the wishes of Davies and Norster, who were forced to take the players through training routines and an hour of actual play on the night before they announced their selection to play Scotland.

'It was a farce,' said Brian Price, who captained Wales to the Triple Crown in 1969 and is now among the Greek chorus of former players who ensure that nothing Alan Davies does goes without the minutest scrutiny.

'There's no doubt that Alan Davies doesn't enjoy the confidence of the committee,' Price told me. 'That can only come through results. Last season's game against England is the only match of significance that Wales have won under him, and we were very fortunate to win that. Now he seems to have gone back to a game which we've never been much good at, an English style, for which we haven't got the size of forwards. We've always been good at moving the ball away from the opposition, not taking it back towards them and confronting them physically.'

That's typical of the sort of criticism heaped on Davies's head since his team followed its victory over England in Cardiff at the start of last season - when Ieuan Evans, the captain, caught Rory Underwood napping to score a famous try - with defeats at the hands of Scotland, Ireland and France. Now, particularly since the inept performance against a

second-string Canada selection, Davies can't do anything right.

A few days ago, the England reserve fly-half Stuart Barnes - who played for Welsh Schoolboys before opting for the land of his birth - used a newspaper column to accuse the Welsh coach of confusing his players and dulling their natural flair. The fact that Barnes looks and plays more like a great Welsh outside-half than anyone currently in contention for the role merely heaped insult on injury.

Everyone, of course, has a theory about the plight of Welsh rugby, and the dwindling of rugby in the schools is a part of most of them. Gerald Davies, the prince of wing threequarters, pointed out that the consolidation of grammar schools into comprehensives meant fewer schools, and therefore fewer potential opponents.

But there are many other factors, including fundamental changes in society, such as the national identity crisis caused by the destruction of Wales's industrial heart. The number of men working in the coalfields has gone from 250,000 to 700 in four generations. 'We've become a soft nation,' said Ron Waldron, Wales's last coach. 'We relied on steel workers and miners to play our club rugby. If you went to Cross Keys or Abertillery, you knew you were in for a hard game. That's gone.'

Waldron also pointed to the obvious depredations of the professional 13-man game across the border. 'It's not long since eight quality players went over to rugby league in the space of perhaps three years,' he said wistfully, probably thinking that the presence of men like Jonathan Davies, John Devereux and Jonathan Griffiths would have transformed his own brief, unhappy tenure.

There's the question of size. 'We're a small country,' said Jeff Young, the former Wales hooker who is now the technical director of the Welsh Rugby Union, 'with a relatively small rugby-playing population. We need to travel to expose ourselves more to competition outside Wales, to help us develop outside our own world.'

Most people, though, trace the origins of the 10-year crisis back to the mood that overtook Welsh rugby in the glow of the early Seventies. 'There was hubris,' Gerald Davies said, 'and a certain complacency set in. Those in charge failed to prepare for the future.'

'We felt we had a God-given right to success,' said John Ryan, Waldron's predecessor, 'and no preparation was made for the fact that all those great players would eventually finish. Other countries did prepare for the future. And they've come out stronger.'

'There was no development of international players,' Waldron said. 'They probably thought that the club scene would just go on producing them indefinitely. They didn't realise that more work needed to be put in. It's only now that the union is getting to grips with the problem.'

The man who saw it all coming was the son of Cefneithin, Carwyn James, who coached the British Lions to their greatest triumph in New Zealand in 1971 but was never given the Welsh job, because he wanted to take control away from the men in blazers. 'Of course he should have been given it,' Gerald Davies said. 'But he didn't want it under the prevailing conditions. And he knew they couldn't accept his proposals.'

Almost 20 years later, the national coach had just about attained the position of power that James had advocated when, at a special meeting in Port Talbot, an entire regime was swept away in a wave of neo-conservatism, led by the clubs, who are unwilling to follow the English example and made the sacrifices necessary to establish a successful international XV. The resulting bitterness continues to flavour virtually every aspect of Welsh rugby life.

'Alan Davies, Bobby Norster, Ieuan Evans - they're all lovely people,' Brian Price said witheringly. 'But you've got to have a bit more than that. If they lose on Saturday, Davies's position will be very precarious. He's contracted to the end of the championship, but if I were in his shoes I'd be contemplating resignation. And perhaps one or two of the committee won't be too sorry to see him go.'

'We're pretty good at fighting each other,' said Davies, who was born 49 years ago in Ynysybwl but speaks with a gentle English accent. 'And it may be that it will take a number of Alan Davieses getting their heads chopped off before we get Welsh rugby back where it belongs.'

AT THE bottom of the village, on the floodlit pitch opened in 1976, the men of Cefneithin RFC are playing a new year game: the over- 30s versus the under-30s. In the groundsman's shed, spectators shelter from the drizzle and argue the respective merits of the current candidates for the hallowed Welsh No 10 jersey.

It took foresight to create this little ground. For 25 years, at the club's behest, the council dumped waste here, until the soil could be tipped over it and the grass sown. Eventually Cefneithin had a setting fit for the heirs of Carwyn James and Barry John. You'd never guess what lies underneath.

Just like Welsh rugby, really. Time, finally, to bury the past.

(Photograph omitted)