Jonathan Davies: Wales' glory night – and not a rugby man in sight

Sunday 19 January 2003 01:00

If we needed any more evidence of how far Welsh rugby has fallen from grace it came last week at the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year awards. The Welsh football team took the Moment of the Year award, the Team of the Year trophy and their manager, Mark Hughes, won the Sports Personality of the Year.

Mind you, they did beat Italy 2-1 in the Euro 2004 qualifiers and threw in a 1-0 win over Germany for good measure, so it should have been no surprise that they collared all the prizes. But what made the message sink home was that not one rugby man made the shortlist of eight for the top award.

That lack of achievement in our own backyard would have been unthinkable in any other year. It just shows how urgent are the talks about reforming the domestic structure and, I trust, it will help spur those still dithering on the brink of much-needed change.

Not that I have any complaints about Wales' football glory. In many ways, their success will take the pressure off rugby while the game attempts to put itself right over the next year or so.

This is where I think Wales are lucky. People think we have a one-track mind when it comes to sport, but that is certainly not the case. There may be rivalry between the two codes, and we certainly compete for the attention of youngsters, but generally we respond to both games. I do not know a top rugby player who doesn't follow football keenly and vice versa.

When the All Blacks had a bad time two or three years ago – I think they lost four games in a row – all New Zealand went into mourning. You normally cannot move without bumping into someone wearing a replica All Black jersey but people started leaving them in the wardrobe. When Italy lost to South Korea in the football World Cup, national morale slumped alarmingly. Wales did not help to lift it, either.

We are more fortunate than them because we have another team to rescue our pride. The night that Wales beat Italy produced the best atmosphere I've known in the Millennium Stadium. It was on a par with the Munster-Leicester Heineken Cup final, which was another superb occasion.

The point is that we have all become so worried about the result when the Welsh rugby team play. Our anxiety gets the better of our enthusiasm. They have lost the ability to inspire us like the football boys.

There have always been arguments about which is the bigger game in Wales. When it comes to the numbers playing it, I suppose football has the edge but that doesn't matter as long as one or the other does well because there's hardly a country who get so much feelgood factor from sporting success.

What's going to happen if Wales qualify for the Euro2004 finals in Portugal, as I'm sure they will? Mark Hughes will be winning the award for years. They'll stage the programme in his lounge.

Sport in Wales is all the more enjoyable because we're small enough for everyone to know and support each other. It was great to have a couple of drinks afterwards with Joe Calzaghe and Mark Williams. They were both a little disappointed not to have featured higher in the awards but that doesn't make them churlish. It shows how passionate they are about Wales. Even being world champions does not stop them wanting to please their countrymen.

Phil Price, who helped to win the Ryder Cup, finished third with the Common-wealth Games gold medal cyclist, Nicola Cooke, in second place.

How long before there is a rugby man back up there? The situation has become so complicated it is difficult to guess the outcome of the reorganisation talks but I'm convinced that we do not have the players for more than four top teams and that we would be better served with super clubs than provinces.

I would choose Llanelli, Newport, Pontypridd and Cardiff and the rest would take their places in a first division that could reach a far higher standard than many think. Whatever teams are chosen, the best players will go to them and I would fancy them to do well in next season's European Cup.

When we have created that platform, the standard of the Welsh team is bound to rise quickly. How quickly the Welsh footballers can be nudged off that podium will make interesting watching.

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