Time to move on from glories of the Seventies

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The Independent Online

A long time ago, I was being driven to Tenby in Pembrokeshire, which is – or used to be – the most agreeable seaside town in Britain. I guided my companion, unfamiliar with those parts, through Cefneithin in East Carmarthenshire, the native village of Carwyn James, Barry John and other less famous exponents of rugby union football. As we were passing through I said, not perhaps with complete accuracy: "This is the place that beat the whole of New Zealand on its own.''

"What on earth are you talking about?'' she said. "Are you feeling all right?'' I said I was feeling perfectly well, thank you very much, and went on to outline the then recent doings of the 1971 Lions, not only Carwyn and Barry but Gerald, Gareth, Mervyn and JPR, to name but a few. It made no impression whatever. I might just as well have been dilating on the Wars of the Roses to someone with a particular aversion to the history of the 15th century.

The moral is that not everyone is interested in the history of Welsh rugby. Nor was that history always so glorious as many of my fellow countrymen like to think. In the 1920s Wales did not win once at Twickenham. In the 1980s they won the Five Nations' Championship, as it then was, in only one year, when they shared it with France in 1988.

This was also the year of Wales' win at Twickenham when Adrian Hadley scored his tries. Eight years had passed since they had narrowly lost by two unconverted tries to three penalty goals what is still known as "the Ringer match''. The combative flanker Paul Ringer was sent off in the opening minutes for an allegedly late tackle on the England outside-half John Horton. I thought it was an attempted charge-down myself and that the episode was a case of giving a dog a bad name and then proceeding to hang him. But the referee evidently took a different view.

It was a bad-tempered occasion which had been built up beforehand as such, like a world-title boxing match in Las Vegas. Few of us could see that it also marked the beginning of the end of the supremacy which Welsh rugby had established in the 1970s.

This was an aberrant decade in two respects. For one thing, Welsh rugby had never before been so uniformly and comprehensively successful. The myth of most-favoured nation status had been established less by consistency than by a series of famous but isolated victories, notably over touring sides and in particular over New Zealand in 1905, 1935 and 1953.

For another thing, the 1970s was the decade in which Welsh industrial society as it had existed since the 1880s – what one historian has called "imperial South Wales'' – began to break down. This was true of other parts of Britain as well. For most people, the 1960s really began to happen in the 1970s.

For Wales, the change was accompanied by the accelerated decline of coal mines, steelworks, grammar schools and chapels.

The relationship of the chapels to Welsh rugby has always been ambiguous, to say the least. The game was originally brought to the South by curates of the then still established Anglican church (now succeeded by the Church in Wales): muscular Christians, chiefly from the English public schools. Rugby never found favour in the North, whose most famous son, David Lloyd George, referred scornfully to what he called the "morbid footballism'' of the South.

Even in the South the chapels were not wholly comfortable with the game, not only because it had been introduced by an alien church but also because it was associated with beer and with enjoyment generally. It took the minds of the young men away from the salvation of their souls. Even so, the chapels provided the crowds with their songs, now as remote as Elizabethan madrigals: "Aberystwyth'' ("Jesu lover of my soul''), "Diadem'' ("All hail the power of Jesus' name'') and, above all, "Cwm Rhondda'' ("Guide me oh thou great Jehovah'', which is more authentic than "Redeemer'').

Only snatches of the last hymn are now heard, when Wales are doing reasonably well and scoring a few tries during a match. On Saturday they were, understandably, not heard at all.

What then shall we do now? For a start, we might all declare a moratorium on the 1970s, constant mention of which does nothing for the morale of the younger or, for that matter, the older players. Then the Welsh Rugby Union must come to some decision about the future structure of the game and stick to it.

It would also help if Steve Hansen, or whoever is put in charge, picked the best side. Of the eight forwards who started against England, I would have chosen only two: Scott Quinnell and Chris Wyatt, disappointingly though both of them performed on the day. It is time to give Iestyn Harris, who by no means disgraced himself, a regular place, whether at inside-centre or at full-back. And the best scrum-half qualified for Wales plays for London Irish and used to play for London Welsh. His name is Darren Edwards.