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Dave Snowden; Life, work, rugby (June 2011)

(June 01, 2011)

Being but men, we walked into the trees

(Dylan Thomas, Being but Men)

 

I still remember the first time I ever watched a game of rugby. It was the Barbarians against Penarth on a Good Friday, back in the 60s. So it's fitting, somehow, that my last match in this most disappointing of years for Welsh Rugby was the BaBas match. These days, it's an international fixture, and Penarth is just a feeder club for Cardiff Blues. For me it was part of a three day solo trip that included the HowTheLightGetsIn festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye and a two night stay at the delightfully hospitable Penrhadw Farm in Pontsticill, which marks a border between the industrial landscape of the Valleys and the delights of the Brecon Beacons. The Male Voice Choir, which completed the festival on Sunday, had also been part of the massed choirs assembled under Glanmor’s Gap in the Millennium Stadium the previous day.

 

Snowded June 1 (2)

Massed choirs at the Millennium Stadium's Glanmor’s Gap

 

The fact that rugby has been a working class sport in Wales - in contrast to the other home nations where historically it was upper/middle class - has made it a distinctive part of our culture and national identity. However, this is changing; both in issues of cost and also in the way we treat the players. To understand this we only have to look at the Henson saga, or 'the story of Our Gav.' It's almost a Cinderella story. The son of a slater demonstrates a prodigious talent, the only Welshman to be awarded IRB Young Player of the Year. An outstanding fly half who should have been, had there been any justice in the world, a leading member of the squad in the Australian World Cup. Mind you, Shane Williams was only added to that as an after-thought, as it didn’t fit the over-coached stereotype of those days. My son's first international was the match against Ireland at Landsdowne Road, which got Graham Henry the boot. Fortunately, his first full set of internationals was the first Grand Slam of this century, so he recovered; remember Henson Hill in Cardiff on the day of the final match?[Sure do. That's where I watched it, Ed] Henson then publishes a book which offends the middle class establishment and Saint Brian (O’Driscoll) in particular. Many things are done on the pitch, but gentlemen don’t talk about them. Engagement to a star, and the whole media circus then pick up an ordinary bloke in a whirlwind of rumour, innuendo and drama which may have destroyed a career. At the heart of it we have a rugby player whose great gift is to create space for people around him, to speak as he finds and in many ways is an innocent abroad in an all too cynical age. Years ago he would have been looked after, had a secure job found for his retirement and any indiscretions overlooked, in a less media focused world. I know I am getting old when I start to romanticise about the past, but we have lost a focus on rugby in favour of the cult of the individual.

 

Snowded June 4

 

 

Of course, the self-destructive aspect of Welsh rugby has been more than evident this year. We only ever raise them to the heights these days, so their fall can be more spectacular. All of this was typified in the BaBas match referenced above. Conceding two tries in the last seven minutes on 4th June; to lose a match that should have been won easily sums up the season. The excuses are all there - the number of substitutions and first caps in evidence for the final twenty minutes for one, but it's just not good enough. It was the season where no Welsh club reached the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup; Cardiff Blues stepped backwards for the first time under Dai Young; the Ospreys seem these days more focused on playing people out of position and losing talent than on winning; Llanelli were rebuilding (again); and the Dragons were never even in contention. Both the Ospreys and Blues seem set on a strategy of de-industrialization of the famous half back factory. The former choosing Biggar (who can’t even make the Welsh squad), in preference to one more lost talent, in James Hook. Cardiff, for the second year running, imported a foreign player; who lacked any ability to release a back line that had proved its potency in previous years and suffered in consequence. Sweeny, whose sharpness won us the Amlin Cup, was only used on days when Parks sat on the substitutes bench for Scotland. The Welsh team, having failed to win a game they should have won against England, proceeded to indifferent survival, rather than entertainment or endeavor. And on the last day, when Ireland gave us the chance to win the championship, they simply failed to turn up.

 

Now, the expense of this for the dedicated fan is becoming an issue. There were seven matches in the Millenium stadium and we only won one of those, courtesy of the try that was not a try. On the positive side, each of them we should have won, and all were close. On the negative side, each of them we should have won. I exercised my debenture option for all those matches, and went to the away matches against Scotland and Italy. So, that was nine internationals in a season - for myself and my son. Add in the season tickets for the Blues and travel, and the cost has been the best part of £2,000. Not only that, match times are all over the place, so its difficult to get into a routine; matches used to be 15:00 on Saturdays. A lot of people are having to choose between internationals and club matches, or between any matches and food. Given that the grounds of all, bar the Dragons, are hardly ever more than half full, you would think better marketing and more flexible pricing (especially for young people) would be to everyone’s advantage. The Irish and English clubs seem to attract large crowds and are far more astute at marketing than we are in Wales. Using the Arms Park, with the Millennium for major Heineken Cup matches, worked well for the Blues and while crowds are up with the new ground, its not the same atmosphere.

 

Snowded June 2

 

Despite all of this, I have already renewed my Blues season ticket and applied for next years Six Nations tickets. I have organised my travel to be near a television for all of our World Cup games, and will be but a short hop across the Tasman in the event of progress to the final of the World Cup where I confidently expect us to defeat the All Blacks. We haven’t done it in my life time, and I made both the matches there last year, but we will, we will. We may be a melancholy race, but we are always a hopeful one. What I do know is, that I could not have afforded this until recently, and that on the overseas tours the average age of the spectators has been high, and the lifestyle a long way from that which I witnessed in my early days of watching rugby on the terraces, or the case of my first ever game, the side of the road.

 

I can’t pin that first game down to an exact year but I guess I was about 12-14. We were in Cardiff for Easter, squashed into a three bedroomed semi-detached house in Pencisely Avenue, along with various cousins aunts and uncles, in a complex dance of shared beds and bedrooms that had to be lived to be understood. It was one of the annual trips to remind us that, despite living in the north, our tribe was that of the industrial south. We had either taken the train, or the bus or, possibly, had been driven by one the adjunct adult males to Penarth for a day on the beach and the pier. For me, a nascent paleontologist, this meant a day under the crumbling sea cliffs that join Penarth to Cardiff Bay hunting for fossils with a geological hammer and sample bags. A scientific endeavor only interrupted by sarsparilla, brought in our own bottles from the Morgan Arcade, and by Thayers ice cream from the stall at the pier head.

 

Snowded June 3

 

In those days the north was the domain of the round not the oval ball, and to a lesser extent it still is. My mother's attempt to bring culture to her rural cousins (buying a rugby ball for Bryn Coch Primary School) fell on inactive and disinterested feet. Mind you, the growing success of the Welsh national side as the sixties became the seventies, meant that we did have a Rugby Team by the time I was in the sixth form and I started my life-long preference for the arts of a loose head forward. So, by the time of that Easter Holiday I had never seen a rugby match, although I had heard them on the radio. My understanding of rugby at that time was almost religious in its nature; my mother had been taken to the Arms Park as a child by her father and in one memorable international had secured one of Haydn Tanner bootlaces at the end of a match. It didn’t quite have a reliquary, but it was close.

So, walking along the Lavernock Road to the pier that Good Friday, and lagging behind a motley crew of cousins, friends and hangers on being shepherded by three adults, I heard the sounds of a crowd and investigated. I was then swept in to an engagement as spectator that has survived to this day. Those were easier times, without barriers other than in the stand. It was an amateur era, which was less physically demanding and less controlled. Half time involved two trays of lemons being brought onto the pitch and no water carriers. I can’t even remember who won, although one try remains fixed in my mind, created by a BaBas centre and involving a move that took them the length of the field. Two hours later, I finally made it to the pier head seeking Thayers, to discover a frantic family about to call the police. They had assumed I had simply gone ahead and was ensconced with hammer in a happy hunt for trilobites. I, however, was in another world, and one from which I have no plans to escape.

 

If you liked this, you'll also enjoy:

A sense of belonging: Wales and rugby; 25 August 2010

Dave Snowden's blog at Cognitive Edge


 

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