Alan Watkins: Names of the game remain a power to conjure with
Tuesday 25 February 2003
After their spirited performance in Cardiff, Wales are on the up-and-up. Or so everyone says. They are now in rather the same position as the post-war Liberal Party. Every so often there is a success, or what can plausibly be depicted as a success. The long-awaited revival is, we are told, already at hand. Alas, it is two steps forward and one step back – or the other way about.
But things do change. The Liberals, under a new name, have in fact enjoyed a revival. Could the same now happen to Welsh rugby?
What may turn out to be important about the weekend that has just passed is not the match at Cardiff on the Saturday but the meeting in Port Talbot on the Sunday. For myself, I have always found it a spirit-lowering sort of place. But if the meeting of the clubs was not exactly calculated to raise the spirits either, things (as George Formby used to sing) might have been a great deal worse.
The clubs, by an overwhelming majority, agreed to go over to a provincial system for all extra-national competitions. The precise number of provinces was left unspecified. Even so, the proposal is to have four, through the merger of Ebbw Vale and Newport, Pontypridd and Cardiff, Bridgend and Neath, and Swansea and Llanelli.
Bridgend and Neath have already agreed to merge. No doubt this is all to the good, even though the two clubs and the areas from which they draw their support have little in common. And it is crazy to call the province so formed "Mid-Wales'', as is projected. Mid-Wales is certainly a region, but it is some way north of Neath and Bridgend, and consists largely of lakes, rivers, mountains and sheep.
Cardiff and Llanelli are not proving so accommodating. They each of them are threatening legal action. This is usually a foolish thing to do. The only people to profit from it are the gentlemen in the wigs. On their second bottle of champagne in a Fleet Street wine bar, one will say to the other: "I'm doing the Cardiff case next week.''
"That's extraordinary use, Charles. I'm for Llanelli the week after, if I've got the pronunciation right. Let's split another bottle, shall we?''
Cardiff maintain they have nothing in common with Pontypridd. Superficially, this is true enough. Cardiff is a cosmopolitan metropolis, even possessing its own peculiar accent. Pontypridd, by contrast, is your typical Valleys town, complete with chapels, grim stone houses and an abundant supply of rain.
Though the club contributed several players to the Wales team on Saturday, including the man of the match, Robert Sidoli, they are the junior partners. Moreover, there has long been a cross-fertilisation between the clubs, usually in the Cardiff direction, though that still under-appreciated outside-half, Neil Jenkins has now returned to his original club.
I would not place too much weight on the cross-fertilisation argument. It can be applied to Swansea and Llanelli as well. The full-back Terry Davies, for example, was one of the many fine players to represent both clubs during their careers. But Swansea and Llanelli are both major outfits, and always have been. Neither of them are the junior partners of the other, even if Swansea may be going through a bad patch.
Stuart Gallacher, the Llanelli chief executive, says that West Wales, the proposed name for the Swansea-Llanelli amalgamation, begins at Loughor, which is some miles west of Swansea. He is right. Indeed, when I was a boy in Tycroes, Carmarthenshire, during the 1939-45 war, the evacuees from Swansea seemed just as strange as the evacuees from Acton.
I do not suppose David Moffett, the latest wonder-working New Zealander hired by the Welsh Rugby Union to redeem the times, would understand what I was talking about. Why on earth should he? What he does understand, by all accounts, is money and marketing. I hope Gallacher is right in thinking the WRU can support five rather than four provinces. But why should they be called provinces, and not still answer to their old names?
I believe in the power of words, and names are some of the most potent of words. If comprehensive schools had been called high schools rather than comprehensives, they would be judged more of a success than they are. They would actually have been more of a success.
Likewise, more people will pay to see Llanelli than to see West Wales. Cardiff, though a diminished force, can still draw a crowd. So let us have five clubs: Newport, Cardiff, Bridgend-Neath, Swansea and Llanelli. Critics say: Look at the Irish provinces, and what a success they are proving. But they are historic entities. Look instead at the Scottish amalgamations – Glasgow, Edinburgh and, most recently, the Borders – and see what they have done, or not done, for rugby north of the border.
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