Rugby Union: Wembley welcomes quaking Welshmen

The oval ball brigade have often visited the Twin Towers but Wales must make themselves feel at home when they take on Scotland tomorrow. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
ROB HOWLEY'S chastened tribe of Welsh rugby romantics reacquainted themselves with the field of dreams yesterday as they made their final preparations for what has emerged as a watershed Five Nations match against Scotland. Anyone walking past Wembley Stadium might have been forgiven for thinking proceedings had kicked off a day early - the cacophony from the stands was deafening - but a glance down the players' tunnel revealed 75,000 empty seats reverberating to a tape recording of crowd noise.

Like the rest of his countrymen, Howley is acutely aware that a second embarrassing capitulation in the space of a fortnight would have such a deadly effect on national morale that he and his colleagues might easily spend the rest of their careers performing in front of nothing more animated than a large cassette deck and half a dozen loudspeakers.

"You could describe this as a must-win game," acknowledged the skipper, an unusually profound degree of seriousness etched across his Stan Laurel features. On the face of it, of course, Wales have every chance of winning; as the eternal optimists of the valleys point out, no national side from the far bank of the Severn has lost to a British team at Wembley in 15 long and happy years. But then, as the pessimists remind their starry- eyed brethren, Wales have not played a British team at Wembley for 15 years.

Since the football boyos went down 2-1 to England in 1983, the red shirts have paid only a single visit to the Twin Towers, for last November's one-off Test with the All Blacks. And the least said about that, the better.

Still, the Welsh are up for Wembley, a stadium they must call "home" until the reconsecration of their beloved Arms Park cathedral is completed in June of next year. "What a surface," Howley mused yesterday. "It's quick, that's the big thing. So quick, in fact, that even the New Zealanders were caught out by it during the last game. A bit of rain makes it dead slippery, but you have to say that it's an absolute treat for anyone who fancies the fast going. I hope the Cardiff surface turns out to be similar."

Seasoned Wembleyites are used to welcoming the funny-shaped ball brigade, of course; the grand old lady of world stadiums has hosted rugby league cup finals since time immemorial, flirted with American football and even opened its hallowed portals to the England rugby union team on a low-key and largely forgotten occasion in 1992 when a certain Ian Hunter slipped a couple of tries past the Canadians on his Test debut.

Tomorrow will be different, though. The harsh realities of professionalism may have left the Celtic fringe struggling to maintain their collective international credibility, but Five Nations occasions are special and the Welsh remain confident of transporting their traditional hwyl from the close-knit snuggery of central Cardiff to the warehouse-infested commercial wasteland of north London.

Wembley expects something special, too. "Ian Rush said it was every player's dream to score a goal here and Pele described the place as the 'church of football', but I know the union supporters will take something to remember from their stay here," said the stadium manager, Martin Corrie. "We're not just about football, although that's the impression people have of us. What we do is put on events - sporting events, musical events, you name it - and in my book, a Five Nations match has 'event' written all over it. We have no problems with rugby whatsoever. In fact, we're looking forward with great excitement to helping re-create a unique atmosphere."

For Kevin Bowring, a Welsh coach under a shed-load of pressure, that atmosphere will count for an awful lot. "I know our people will bring their usual passionate support across the bridge with them," he said. "It's of enormous credit to them that they have made this a sell-out occasion so far from home, even though we let them down so badly at Twickenham.

"We've talked about the humiliation and embarrassment of the England match amongst ourselves and discussed the things we feel we owe the people who are making the trip tomorrow and showing such faith in us. Against New Zealand, they drowned out the haka with a wave of noise and they'll be at it again this time, I'm sure. What we need to do is give them something to sing about."

As usual, the most vibrantly enthusiastic Welshman on view yesterday was Kingsley Jones, the Ebbw Vale captain not only recalled to his country's back row but also handed the leadership of the pack. "I always thought I'd get to play here, but as a footballer rather than a rugby player," he smiled. "A number of big clubs were after me at one time, you know."

Really? And who might they have been? "Well, Blaina Westside for one." And Jones creased up at the sight of a dozen reporters sheepishly closing their notebooks in the knowledge that they had been stitched up like the proverbial kipper. If Jones is still smiling tomorrow evening, Wembley will have done their tenants a favour.