Toughs in a caring community

The Wrong Correspondent... Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, witnesses the friendly violence in Welsh rugby's heartland
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The Independent Online
You do social services, do you? Well, there's one or two out there that could do with some help from social services," said one spectator grimly at the Cross Keys-Blackwood derby at the beginning of the Welsh rugby season on Saturday. And that was before they had even played badly.

Looking on, it did appear that you qualified for some sort of care in the community if you did this sort of thing voluntarily on a Saturday.

Let me make clear my ignorance. I have never watched a rugby match before. It always appeared to be the sort of game the English invented so that they could keep on coming up with odd rules to stop the colonies winning or an excuse to indulge in mindless violence without fear of arrest.

"It's beautiful and poetic," one friend said. "You just need to understand it."

So I asked him to explain.

"Well, the difference between a ruck and a maul is that with a ruck you're on the ground and can't use your hands - oh, for goodness sake stop sniggering. I thought we'd got over all that with the hooker."

But thanks to my parents' dedication to Max Boyce records in the 1970s I at least knew that rugby in the Welsh valleys is not a matter of life or death but far more serious than that.

"There are two things in the village," Horace Jefferies, the press secretary, said. "Rugby and the church." He didn't specify but I had a fair idea of which came out top.

Cross Keys' ground, Pandy Park, is set in one of the most picturesque parts of the Welsh valleys, with the Western Valley mountains to one side and the Ebbw river running the other. Not that this was of much comfort to either team, who played in stifling heat on Saturday.

Most spectators stood: even in the grandstand the seats are nothing more than slats of wood. Horace handed round humbugs (in the clubs colours). The game started slowly enough: "Come on Keys... Oh you silly boys... Oi, referee, that was offside...Remembered to put your contact lenses in today, did you?"

Feelings run high when the players came off the pitch, swinging over the rail to sit in the grandstand among the spectators, granite-faced Welshmen who made no bones about telling them about the performance of their team.

For the record, Cross Keys beat Blackwood by 17 points to five, a drop goal and two tries converted by the skipper, Ioan Bebb, who is a maths teacher when he's not on the pitch.

Watching the game itself was an eye-opener. Yes, it was very fast when the passes work - admittedly not enough, according to the invective flowing -and there was a certain balletic quality to the line-outs. But there was still enough mindless violence and enough burly men seemingly meaninglessly throwing themselves on top of each other to confuse the naive spectator.

At least there was nothing to compare with the gruesome tale recounted in the club lounge afterwards of the player who had his leg snapped in two but had to lie screaming in agony for ages because they were scared to move the player on top of him. "It was scream, scream, scream," said one spectator ominously.

And it emerged that the political correctness striven for in the social sector has yet to make inroads in Welsh rugby. Joanne Lloyd, girlfriend of the full-back Chad Bushell, revealed: "There's not that many women who watch. They're mainly partners and girlfriends. And there's not a women's team. Chad trains twice a week and plays on Saturday.

"No, I don't see him on Saturday nights," she said in horror. "Saturday nights are for the men."

But Cross Keys could teach most social services departments a thing or two. First, the emphasis - as is very much in vogue - on positive thinking. "The game could have been very different," admitted Bebb. "We didn't take all our chances and were playing at about 50 to 60 per cent of what we're capable of. But being positive we won and we finished the last season 12 games unbeaten and now we are 13 games unbeaten."

Second, there is a strong sense of community. "We'll spoil you rotten," promised Mr Jefferies, and it was true. The welcome and acceptance of an outsider was the friendliest I've seen, certainly more than in most caring services. And then there was the sense of pride in the local boys, a real bonding. "Everyone comes here," said Grosvenor Thomas, who played for Cross Keys himself in the 1950s and is now on the management committee. "It's a real part of life."

"We want to encourage people off the field as well," Mr Bebb said. "We want youngsters to come and watch, give them something to do."

And finally for any social services department dealing with difficult youths who see violence as a problem solver, take them to a local derby. After seeing the consequences of 30 beefy men beating each other up, it is probably the most effective aversion therapy around.

Cardiff's opening victory,

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