For someone who claims to be suffering from rugby fatigue, as I did last week, the end of the union season is turning out to be both exciting and interesting. We should give thanks sometimes, as we certainly should for an inaugural Six Nations which France failed to win by some distance and England won (as the bookies had predicted) but without carrying off the Grand Slam.
The Heineken European Cup is turning out better than anyone would have predicted, with four of the old five nations represented, and one team from Britain, either Llanelli or Northampton, bound to be in the final. My bookies are offering Toulouse at 11-10 on, Northampton 7-4, Munster 7-1 and Llanelli 8-1.
Having been badly let down by France in the Six Nations, I shall be keeping my money to myself. On rational grounds, Toulouse are probably fairly priced. But I do not think it is local patriotism alone which makes me feel that Llanelli are a good sporting bet. Certainly they comprehensively destroyed Cardiff's pretensions on Saturday. The rivalry between these clubs is perhaps greater than that between any other two in Wales - or in England, for that matter. It goes back at least to the 1920s, when it was felt that the great Llanelli centre, Albert Jenkins, was being kept out of the Welsh team by the selectors' preference for what were scornfully called "college boys".
After the war the domination of the Cardiff midfield triangle of Billy Cleaver, Jack Matthews and Bleddyn Williams aroused similar resentment, thought it was ungrudgingly acknowledged that Williams was a fine centre who should be in any side. Then there was the player-drain. Les Williams and, after him, Gerald Davies, Barry John and several others all went east. It became the popular wisdom in the clubs and the pubs that, to get a Welsh cap, you first had to play for Cardiff.
And there were conflicts on numerous other counts: English v Welsh, irreligion (mitigated by the Roman Catholicism that the Irish immigrants brought) v Chapel, the big city v the small town, commercial prosperity v heavy industry.
Much of that industry has now gone, to be replaced by very little. And Llanelli are not the local side they used to be in the old days. They now number among themselves players from Tonga, New Zealand, Scotland, Walsall, even Bridgend. Only a handful could fairly be described as local boys.
One of the several who had migrated westwards was the player who caused Cardiff the most trouble, the Llanelli loose-head prop Phil Booth, himself formerly of Cardiff. For most of the match he had David Young in difficulties. Nor would I disregard the contribution made on the other side of the scrum by John Davies, who came to Llanelli via Neath and then Richmond but was born in Carmarthen and is accordingly one of the few local boys in the side. For the whole of the international season that has just passed I thought Booth was the second best loose-head prop in Wales, only Peter Rogers in front of him. It was surprising that Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, did not once nominate him as a substitute. On Saturday I thought he and Davies established their predominance quite early on in the match.
The television commentators, Bill McLaren and Jonathan Davies, disagreed. They seemed to think the Llanelli scrum became dominant only in the second half, after Cardiff's Andrew Lewis had been replaced by Spencer John. Well, they were there, while I was Our Man in Islington with a Sony television and a large drink. But how, otherwise, to explain Neil Jenkins' penalty haul of only one out of one in the first half?
The bringing of former players into the commentary box itself has so far proved a great success. Performers such as Davies and Stuart Barnes add substantially to our knowledge of the game. But when it comes to what is going on in the front-row, they tend to replicate dear old McLaren. "Oh, there are dark deeds going on in there and no mistake, I tell you. I wouldn't like to describe them even if I could. Would you, Jonathan?" "No, Bill, I'm glad I stuck to outside-half."
This jocular, oh, oh, oh-ing approach is all very well. But it is a clear abdication of responsibility. After all, front-row play may be a technical area, but it is not as taxing to the brain as molecular biology or quantum mechanics. When Brian Moore, a former hooker, is in the box he can usually be relied on to explain what is going on with complete lucidity. As far as I know, he is the only former front-row forward with even an irregular commentary spot. I should hire in addition Jeff Probyn, who is always ready to dilate on his craft.
There was also, of course, the tremendous performance of Chris Wyatt and, even more, Craig Gillies at the line-out. Still, the Cup will be won by place-kicking. Llanelli gave Jenkins no chance to shine. Stephen Jones missed several, as Alex King did for Wasps next day with fatal consequences for his side. Paul Grayson kicked everything. I only hope Jones can lift himself to Grayson's level at the Madejski Stadium on 7 May.
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