At the beginning of his account of life inside the Welsh Rugby Union, Owen Sheers walks the length of the Millennium Stadium pitch and feels "as if I've traversed Wales itself". Such stirring imagery provides the poetic pulse of a book which considers Welsh rugby's cultural significance alongside the emergence of a national team that has thrilled and delighted fans in recent seasons.
Calon, which means "heart" in Welsh, documents the build-up to the crucial Six Nations match that Wales played against France last March. As Cardiff swells with supporters, Sheers takes the reader inside the stadium where the veteran kit man is preparing the changing rooms and an elderly groundsman mows the pitch, before heading home feeling "a deep fucking sadness". His angst is typical of the sense of letting go that haunts Welsh ranks even as they pursue a Grand Slam. The head coach Warren Gatland reminds his players that "they're only borrowing the red shirt", a motivational banner asks "How Do You Want To Be Remembered?", and Sheers heightens the spectre of passing time by quoting T S Eliot: "In my beginning is my end."
The match day is punctuated by accounts of the players' histories. As Sheers charts Leigh Halfpenny's "thousands of hours" of kicking practice, Sam Warburton's determination to bulk up, and the injury that almost ended Dan Lydiate's career, the reader develops an affinity with the team. When they belt out "Land of My Fathers" before kick-off, the Welsh squad represent the families and communities who have nurtured them. Some players have emerged from less supportive backgrounds but Calon focuses on accounts of parents installing multi-gyms in their garages, shelling out for growth supplements and ferrying boys around the country. Similarly, every WRU official appears well-rounded and the depiction of the chief executive, Roger Lewis, as "a winner who thrives on the hit of success" smacks of potted hagiography. "Wales, like all nations, is an idea," and Calon sometimes feels deliberately shorn of elements which might challenge any cosy picture of a close-knit country.
Admirers of Sheers's poetry and fiction, in which he's written about his native Wales, will relish his lyrical celebrations of the sport he loves. A penalty kicker steps back "like a sculptor getting distance from their work"; international matches are rituals of "cultural excavation". And Sheers's passion helps readers to invest emotionally in the team. Even though we already know the outcome, it's thrilling to read him describe Wales beating France to claim their third Grand Slam in eight years.
The closing chapter, which follows Wales on a turbulent summer tour of Australia, balances Calon between the fleeting euphoria of victory and the "slow enduring bruise of loss". Fans will hope that defeats Down Under have had a galvanising effect on the squad when it opens the defence of the Six Nations title against Ireland in Cardiff next Saturday. After finishing this riveting hymn to the comradeship and claustrophobia of the Welsh team ethic, even English readers could catch themselves cheering on the Dragon.
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