The harsh lessons for class of '95

While the Grand Slam winners face the future with confidence, a failing nation laments its lost youth Owen Slot studies the decline of rugby at school level in Wales
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The Independent Online
AS Alex Evans and Mike Ruddock were installed as the eighth set of coaches in 15 years to run the Welsh team, messages of sympathy arrived from their predecessors. "I'd never put myself and my family through that torture again," said Alan Davies, the previous incumbent. "You'll be hit if things don't go right," said Ron Waldron, who preceded Davies. "People will give you a roasting when you are walking down the high street. They'll even turn up to training to tell you what they think." And from John Lloyd, the man who had to pick up the pieces when the golden era of the Seventies era had run its course: "I thought we'd go through a short transitional period, I had no idea it would last 15 years. But what can you do if you haven't got the players? And where are they going to come from? I really don't know."

At Stradey Park, Llanelli on Wednesday night, Evans and Ruddock might have found part of the answer to Lloyd's question. There, the Wales under- 18 schools team were playing - and losing to - England schools.

Wales, however, were a more inventive, instinctive unit, boasting a dynamic pair of centres, both from Neath College, and the man of the match in Chris Wells, the hooker, also from Neath College. Their best move of the game came in the 39th minute when the ball, won by one of the two Neath College flankers, was fed to Darren Case, the full-back, who burst into the line and jinked past three Englishmen before being brought down on the 22. Case is also a student at Neath College.

Neath College is, indeed, the market-leader in Welsh schools rugby. In the five main representative Welsh sides this season, there have been 25 Neath or ex-Neath boys, the most notable recent ex-alumnus being Spencer John, the prop capped in the senior team only three years after leaving school. It comes as something of a surprise, then, that Neath College, which has 1,000 students, only runs one rugby team, and furthermore that this single rugby team struggles to find 10 fixtures a season.

"Other schools don't want to play us unless they have to in the Cup," said Darryl Jones, the college coach, who is also the coach of the Welsh schools side. John Lloyd, who is coach at Ynysawdre Comprehensive, reinforces this message: "We could never compete against them," he said with dismay.

It was not ever thus. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Ynsyawdre Comprehensive was called Garw Grammar, it was situated higher up the valley above Bridgend, and Lloyd was a boy in a school team which included Jeff Young, a British Lion in the making. "It was a great time," said Lloyd, recalling the school's five unbeaten years and the geography master who guided the team. "It was a very good grounding in the game," he added. At the same time, 30 miles away, Barry John was the star at Gwendraeth Grammar, a school which had already produced Carwyn James and from where Gareth Davies and Jon-athan Davies were yet to emerge.

The grammar school system, however, is long gone, and in 1987, industrial action forced the teachers to work to rule, sharply reducing their enthusiasm for extra-curricular activity. "At Ynysawdre it is only really myself and one other running 10 teams," said Lloyd. Gwendraeth does not even manage a regular 1st XV. "That is very sad," said Lloyd, "but I think it is a problem throughout Wales."

In his day, Lloyd explained, the winter sports were rugby and a little bit of cross-country; nothing else. Now, at Ynysawdre, he finds himself teaching swimming, gymnastics, hockey. "English rugby has a feeding ground in the public schools," he said. "We used to have one here in the grammars. But in rugby terms, they haven't been replaced." Which perhaps explains why, at schools level, Wednesday's win was England's sixth in nine meetings; in the previous 18, they had won only three.

At Neath College the following day sat Dr Wyn Leishon, a Commonwealth Games hurdler in 1974 and now the college's head of sport and science. In the absence of the six of his students who had been winning Welsh caps, the college team had just reached the final of the British Colleges Cup. And the good news brief continued: across the playing fields, the building of a new fitness centre, complete with sports physiology laboratory and lecture room, had almost been completed.

Did he not wish that other schools were in a similar state of good health? "All we can do is ensure that our own house is in order," he said. One school in order, however, is not enough for those endeavouring to put a whole nation straight.