RUGBY UNION: Wales must beware misplaced conceit of early 1980s

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The Independent Online
SEVERAL ACCOUNTS of the Wales v England match have referred to the statue of Aneurin Bevan in Cardiff, bedecked with a red jersey and a flag. As it happened, the founder of the NHS had no interest in rugby or any other sport apart from snooker, at which he was adept. Likewise David Lloyd George. George, a North Walian who had been born in Manchester, denounced what he called the "morbid footballism'' - he was referring to rugby - of the south. And the great journalist Hugh Cudlipp, who came from Cardiff, possessed no interest at all in sport of any kind.

Even so, these famous Welshmen were an unrepresentative minority. South Wales, the coastal strip from Newport to Carmarthen and its hinterland, is perhaps more obsessed by sport than any comparable slice of the United Kingdom: not only rugby, but football, boxing and cricket as well. Did you know that 20,000 turned out to see Bradman's Australia at St Helen's, Swansea, in 1948?

Rugby, however, has always been pre-eminent. For all kinds of historical, geographical and, formerly, religious reasons - for the chapels were against it - it has never been a truly national game. It was nevertheless the only game, perhaps the only activity apart from singing, at which Wales could take on the rest of the world and win. It therefore possessed a unique importance in the national consciousness.

Young men whose talents were to run and to pass and kick a funny-shaped ball found that the weight placed on their shoulders was oppressive. Players of the past 15 years or so became thoroughly fed up with hearing stories of Merve and Delme, Gareth and Barry, Gerald and JPR.

Their successes did not bring the pressure on themselves but their elders did, with their endless talk - partly boastful, partly full of regret - about the glories of the past. So if Wales do go on to win the Six Nations Championship, the Triple Crown or even the Grand Slam, I hope we shall have no repetition of the misplaced conceit of the early 1980s.

England supporters went in for something similar after winning the World Cup in 2003. Their euphoria lasted for something over a year, when retirements, injuries and a new head coach in the form of Andy Robinson combined to persuade them that they were mortal after all. And Saturday's match did nothing to dilute this realisation: quite the contrary, in fact.

Wales could and should have scored three tries rather than Shane Williams's one. One of those could have come from a similar overlap, of which there were several, of varying degrees of obviousness. The other try - or, at the least, penalty kick - should have come from the spell when the Welsh forwards were camped out yards from the England line. Danny Grewcock then caught Dwayne Peel on the head with his boot. I do not say that Grewcock was trying to injure Peel, but he was trying to impede Peel's progress towards the line, even though Peel did not, I think, have the ball in his hands at the time.

What Grewcock was not trying to do was to heel the ball back to Matt Dawson or Charlie Hodgson to enter a relieving kick. Or, if he was, he must be a monumentally incompetent exponent of rucking.

Gareth Thomas, the Wales captain, then entered the fray, running 15 yards or so to give Grewcock a big girl's push. This was idiotic. Wales were sure of a penalty at least. The result was that Stephen Walsh, the excellent New Zealand referee, gave both miscreants a yellow card.

If a kick had been awarded instead, it would have been taken by Stephen Jones, who took all the kicks at goal, except the last one by Gavin Henson, which belonged to the old "Boy's Own" paper; as did the rest of his performance. Jones would presumably have got it over from that distance. But the truth is that throughout the evening he did not kick well, whether for touch or at goal.

The question now arises: with Henson now a fixture, do Wales need Jones as well? There is certainly a case for giving a run to Ceri Sweeney, who played his part in the Welsh revival in Australia in 2003, who was among the substitutes, who can kick also but who, strangely, was not called on.

As it was, Saturday's match produced four Welsh candidates for the Lions XV in Henson, Shane Williams, Peel and Martyn Williams. By the end of this splendidly unpredictable competition, there may be more.