In this column I try to keep off politics, including rugby politics, which are even more tedious than the Westminster variety. But occasionally something happens that enables us to take a sideways look at our national characteristics. One such happening is the Heineken European Cup.
Last Friday evening I was pleasantly surprised to discover that British Eurosport was showing the whole of the Newport v Toulouse match. As the proceedings began at a quarter to 10, I had assumed that only highlights would be on display. I was even more surprised by the zeal of the commentators on behalf of Newport.
One of them, admittedly, was Rupert Moon, an Englishman who had played scrum-half for Llanelli for many years and won some caps for Wales. One might have expected the old prejudice of the West Wales clubs against those of the East to manifest itself in some way.
Not a bit of it. All good men (and no doubt women too) should, we were given to understand, be cheering on the East Wales side against the French invaders. Naturally, it was a long shot. Newport were the outsiders. There was no doubt about that. All the more reason, then, to get behind the lads. For whole chunks of the first half, it looked as if they might pull it off. But no. Skill, pace and, it must be said, youth all told in the end. What a pity it was.
I am, I hope, as patriotic a Welshman as you could hope to find. I will do anything for my native land except live there. But I felt quite unable to join in the fervour generated by the Eurosport commentators.
One reason, no doubt, was that which I have given already: the bias of the West against the East. Another was that I had spent many happy weeks in Toulouse but not a single day, happy or otherwise, in Newport. There we are.
On the Saturday afternoon the BBC commentators were less obviously banging the drum. Perhaps they thought an understrength and hastily rearranged Bristol had no chance whatever of defeating a Montferrand team that including such luminaries of French rugby as Tony Marsh, David Bory, Gerald Merceron and Olivier Magne. Indeed, both Jonathan Davies and the half-time expert, Jeremy Guscott, left no doubt in the viewers' minds that they thought that, in the end, class would tell; just as it had on the previous evening with Toulouse. As things turned out, Bristol tackled everything that moved; Montferrand dropped the ball or passed it towards either the touchline or the ground; and on the day Felipe Contepomi showed himself to be a more accomplished outside-half and kicker than Merceron.
I missed Biarritz v Northampton and Béziers v Neath (the latter because it was not being shown on any of the channels that I can receive). Both the visiting sides, by all accounts, put up a convincing show and could have won their matches with a bit of luck on their side.
Together with the French clubs, the successes of the competition so far have been the Irish provincial sides. But we – commentators on television, correspondents in the press and supporters on the touchline or in the stand – regard them quite differently.
Nor do we draw a distinction between, on the one hand, Ulster from the United Kingdom and, on the other, Munster and Leinster from the Republic of Ireland. We do not look on them as foreigners as we do the French. If the final, to be held in Dublin, turns out to be between, say – this is not a prediction but an example – Leinster and Toulouse, there is little doubt about where we shall be expected to direct our support. I shall remain neutral, with a sneaking sympathy for Toulouse. Having watched Leinster's annihilation of Swansea on Saturday, I think they may still be a reasonable bet. But I still do not know whether they put up 50 points because they were very good or because Swansea were very bad. You would never have thought that, in bygone days, they had beaten both Australia and New Zealand. At half-time a vaguely familiar face, announced as Swansea's director of rugby and addressed as "Richard'' appeared on our screens. It was Richard Moriarty. I shall say no more.
Altogether the Welsh clubs have been having a dreadful time. While Neath and Llanelli have been unlucky the other three clubs have been unable to do anything right. There is one tiny morsel of hope. In recent Heineken competitions, the Welsh clubs such as Cardiff and Swansea have performed promisingly in the early stages, only to fall away badly towards the end, leaving only Llanelli to carry on the fight. They are still in with a chance, and so are Neath. But I would not put any money on either of them.
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