Welsh dragons tamed – but retain their pride

Sixty thousand people filled the Millennium Stadium yesterday for the rugby semi-final
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The Independent Online

When the end came, it was harsh but not bitter. Honour was intact: there had been valour in the Welsh side's attempt to win a place in the rugby World Cup final in the semi-final against France. The 60,000 who gathered in Cardiff yesterday to roar on their countrymen 11,000 miles away were beaten but unbowed.

It had all started so differently: a day full of the chance to make history; the Red Dragon rampant and proud Welshmen singing in full voice before they even reached the Millennium Stadium, where they could watch the game on a giant screen. By 7am the city's streets thronged; pubs were already serving pre-match refreshment. More than a few settled their nerves with a pint.

On the giant screen inside the stadium, Sharon Cotter led the Welsh anthem as the crowd raised the roof with a chorus of Welsh voices, fired up by a specially recorded message from the team captain, Sam Warburton. Those who had left home before breakfast joined snaking queues for bacon and sausage butties served from vans parked outside.

Catatonia and Manic Street Preachers boomed from the stadium speakers. The screen exhorted fans to "Wake Up for Wales". No one needed telling and, plainly, some had slept little the night before. The legion of fans and the very air they breathed seemed to vibrate with expectation, fear and hope.

That hope brought people together. Deb Ryan, 60, a nursery nurse from Newport, met Jan Suter, 52, a childminder from Cwm, Ebbw Vale, for the first time, the two women bonded by their wish for their team to win. "Of course we can do it," Ms Ryan said. "And we will be back here again for the final. The amazing atmosphere is fantastic for the children to start supporting Wales. My husband didn't get up so we just met! But you can come on your own and meet people."

Lee Griffiths, 40, a builder from Penarth, harboured few doubts. "I'm very emotional and nervous. I think we will win and beat them by 10. Coming here at 7.30am is amazing. You'd better bring me some tissues later if we win." He didn't need them.

His mother Ross, 59, from Penrhiwceiber was enjoying the occasion. "It's lovely to come in this early and watch it filling up, seeing people's faces coming in. It's just brilliant, absolutely fabulous. Of course we're going to win!" His father Ronnie, 65, said: "I've been very excited for the last week. This has to be our time. This team is brilliant and the best team we've had for years."

In the end, the problem was that the brilliant team was lacking its brilliant if mercurial captain, who was sent off early in the game. The Welsh fought like dragons. It's hard to know whether losing by only one point made the defeat more or less bitter.

For a while, anything seemed possible. Wales had opened the scoring, kicking three points and dominating the first quarter of an hour.

Then, a sign of ill tidings: Adam Jones left the pitch with a calf injury. Warburton's dismissal in the 18th minute quieted the stadium. Did they dare to hope? They bolstered shaky nerves with beer in disposable cups. Red berets emblazoned with the Welsh dragon were turned for luck; red and white afro wigs were straightened; those dressed as yellow daffodils stiffened their spines.

Then, as suddenly as it left, hope returned: audacious, infectious hope. A try! And the quasi-religious fervour of a mass monosyllabic chant: "Wales, Wales, Wales!" Sixty thousand men and women were on their feet, arms aloft, willing their 14 countrymen forward. A collective groan greeted Leigh Halfpenny's so very nearly there kick from the halfway line. But just one point behind at 9-8, many refused to accept defeat until the final whistle, and some not even then.

Richard Noakes, 43, a mill worker from the valleys of Hengoed, spoke for his country: "It's very disappointing to come that close. I can just about remember 1987. So this is absolutely gut-wrenching. We'll be talking about a refereeing decision instead of the performance of the two teams. But for them to front up to come back is pretty special itself. It's just a pity Halfpenny couldn't get that one from halfway."

Wales's First Minister, Carwyn Jones, was philosophical. "We're obviously disappointed to lose by one point in those circumstances. We were on top towards the end, but that's the game. I think the decision to send off Warburton was harsh. It was a yellow card, no question, but the sending-off was not the right decision and wrecked the game after that.

"The team showed lots of character. A Welsh team years ago would have crumbled. To come back and almost win with 14 men is a fantastic achievement. And this team has its best years ahead of it. It's a very young team and we are very proud of them."

Stephen Bennett, 55, a postman from Ebbw Vale, had more reason than most for regret, pride and hope for the future. "I'm gutted, to be honest. But those Welshmen in those red shirts were absolutely magnificent. My son Huw Bennett was playing on that pitch today, and I am immensely proud of him and the rest of those players."