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Dave Snowden; Life, work, rugby (September 2012)

(September 01, 2012)

Reflections on the 2012 Grand Slam and the future for regional rugby

Eden Park, AucklandNew Zealand v Australia, Eden Park, Auckland, August 2012

 

By sheer luck, or through the intervention of the Gods of Rugby, a business trip to Auckland coincided with the second test between New Zealand and Australia, although the logistics of making the match looked risky. So, undaunted, I bought tickets on-line, printed them at home (great idea by the way, none of that queuing to collect, with the match kicking off in background) and prayed that my plane would not be delayed. It was scheduled to land at 17:30; kick off was two hours later. It all worked out well. We picked up a hire car at the airport and I drove to the nearest accessible point to Eden Park then sent my colleague on with car and bags to check in at the hotel.

Now, the new Eden Park is spectacular (see above). The first time I watched a match there, around a decade ago, you sat on wooden benches at one end of the ground. A few years later I got lost and ended up with a group of Hawkes Bay supporters arguing about past matches until the early hours. I woke to find them all sleeping on the floor of my hotel room - one of those memorable nights, unique to Rugby. So the ground was not a disappointment, but the game and the crowd were. I hope both Australia and New Zealand play as badly as that when they come over for the Autumn Internationals. Nigel Owens did his level best to keep the game flowing, but it was a lost cause. the game lacked a score for too long, and the error count was too high.

Eden Park - HakaThe New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka
before playing Australia at Eden Park, August
2012

 

The real disappointment however was the crowd. When I landed the flags were at half mast following the death of five soldiers in Afghanistan and we were asked for a minute silence before the match started. Regrettably a succession of mindless idiots decided it would be fun to test the echo effect of shouting into silence. We had the same thing at the Millennium during the Six Nations as well. The unwillingness to show respect is, to my mind, a disgrace and I hope we start to look at banning people from the ground who lack this basic human decency. We also had a complete lack of respect of the players, with successive attempts at Mexican Waves during play. This is becoming a habit everywhere and damages the atmosphere as well as showing an unfeeling indifference to the needs of the players and those of us who are there to watch the match.

Being at Eden Park was of course poignant. I had been in Singapore for the World Cup semi-final and was expecting to arrange a last minute trip ... until we had 'that Red Card', but prophetically suggested that "The thought of North and Cuthbert running at them at pace must have defense coaches quaking in advance of the Six Nations" and, as I suspected (but then, I do support the Blues), that Cuthbert would provide the more potent threat. Mind you, that one try against Ireland and the almost-try in the first minute against England, stand well in support of North's claims. That said, if they don't make a movie of the various 'last game's of Shane Williams it's a lost opportunity. From the fairytale try against the Australians in the last move of the game, to the winning try for the Ospreys in the Pro 12 final he demonstrated not only a script writers understanding of the need for high drama, but also the value of having one fast moving back who can squirm (I can think of no better word) through even the most prepared of defences.

Myself & daughter

The last twelve months have been a roller coaster of emotions and changes. Of course we won the Grand Slam again, and I am wearing the T-shirt as I write. The difference this time is that there were three very tight games, but the team had that air of confidence that I have not seen since the 70s; namely a pragmatic and professional belief that they could win even when behind. Funnily enough, I was not as elated as on previous occasions, but there we are. I suppose the previous two came unexpectedly, this time it was ours to loose and even during the difficult times in the Ireland and England games I never really thought we could loose them. The real test was to come in Australia were we should have won two, and could have won all three.  Gatland's interesting play on George Formby's when I'm cleaning windows did not help, but you wonder where the end-of-match decision making, so evident in the six nations, had gone. One great feature of the final match against France was the high definition camera that captured the whole crowd.  Given copyright considerations I can't show the actual picture, but have substituted a self portrait (with my daughter) taken with the iPhone on the day (right).  My son who had chosen a University Trampolining trip before checking dates was furious. It's normally his seat, but he may now see competition for it.  An interesting side effect was that I now know the names of several people I have talked with for years (these are debenture seats) thanks to the ability to go on line and add a name to a face.

Unfortunately, national success is not translating into regional success. Cardiff made it to the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup but failed to deal with Edinburgh away, or to recognise the need for that final bonus point against the Parisians. The Ospreys and Llanelli failed to even get there, although I wonder how things would have been if the the former had brought Tandy on board earlier. He seems in the tradition of the current Llanelli and Dragons coaches, local, pragmatic and able to do things. As a nation are now lagging with Scotland and Italy in the 'never won it, never look likely to' stakes. That failed Martyn Williams kick (or the more important, earlier failure by Tom James) in our semi-final v Leicester remains the best chance of recent years. OK, the Ospreys beat Leicester three times to complete a whitewash, and the second away win won the Pro 12, but we need someone to gain European success - and soon. Mind you, all those matches showed that while a strong scrum will not win you a match, a weak one will lose it.

 

Cardiff Arms Park - view from my new season ticket holder seatsCardiff Arms Park - view from my new season ticket holder seats

That latter point was borne home to me in the two away matches I attended in the Heineken Cup this year. The first to Edinburgh was the worst, I expected victory as I donned tribal costume in a bed and breakfast within walking distance of the ground, but we more or less threw the match away in the first half. It was bitterly cold and the stupidity of evening matches in Scotland in December was evident. But it was a game we should have ,won not scrabbled a bonus point. My second trip was to Dublin, the nadir of Cardiff’s season. All the news was of players leaving and the folly of not appointing a proper coach was evident. Two small huddles of Cardiff supporters were at the ground, maybe a hundred in all, and we were humiliated. I donned a coat at the end and slunk back to my hotel room, hiding the Cardiff colours in shame. Loss is one thing but lack of competition another. Individual players did their best, but this was not a team. The early part of the season has been sustained by the core professionals, but by this time even they were demoralised.

Now, I am not sure we have made the right choice, but we do have a coach again. More importantly, sense has finally come to the forefront and we are returning to the Arm’s Park. Ironically, our last game at the out of town retail park was against Edinburgh and we won it. The last at the Arms Park before the move was against the same team and we lost it, hopefully that is a harbinger for the new season. In the matches that were played there, the atmosphere was incredible. The first (one the editors of this magazine was with me) allowed a meeting in the club house, whose walls are a history of the great and good in the game, before moving into the South Stand. A sense of history is important, but also for regional rugby a stadium of around 15,000 capacity creates the right atmosphere. There is a sense of time and place, of community between players and spectators that could not be present out at Leckwith. A rugby ground needs to be part of a community, it should be possible for a family to visit the city centre and for some to move onto the match. Llanelli, to be fair, have really created a village atmosphere at their ground this year, but that never worked for Cardiff. I remember sitting at a table while a band tried to gain enthusiasm for some cheap and nasty goody bags before one match. Now, at last, I can have lunch in the city centre, go for a drink after, or stand a half-way decent chance of catching the last train to Swindon.


Last match at the Arms Park before the 'homeless' yearsLast match at the Arms Park before the 'homeless' years

 

That sense of community is important. I am now back where (or next door to) where by Grandfather and Mother stood to watch the team. My son sits (well some things move on) next to me, or, as his chemistry exams approach, a friend uses his season ticket. I can park in Sophia Gardens and walk along the Taff. If I am feeling sentimental, I park up by the Cathedral and take a longer walk recalling scenes from my childhood. If I catch the train I am less than five minutes from the Park and can collect a drink from Coffee One en route. Rugby is a part of Cardiff's identity, but it is an identity that has no home other than on the banks of the Taff.

 

Walking beside the Taff from Llandaff towards CardiffWalking beside the Taff, from Llandaff towards Cardiff

 

Now while I am happy, I felt, as an honour debt, the need to pledge support to the new Valleys Rugby / Rygbi'r Cymoedd initiative. The simple fact is that there is vast cultural divide between them and Cardiff. Historically we stole good players from them (Martin Williams and others) and they too frequently got their revenge in fierce local derbies. The House of Pain, that match in Brive and many other occasions testify to the values of those local clubs and fierce independence. I feel torn on this issue both for the Valleys but also for North Wales. I grew up in the North, although I was brought up to regard Cardiff as home and there is no rugby to watch in north Wales at a regional level. Playing under 21 games there is progress. But we need two development teams, not just for the sake of rugby, but also to develop a larger playing and supporter base. How can we claim that rugby is a national sport when, for a large part of the population, it's a major and expensive trip to watch any 'first division' match. OK, I can’t see any easy way to do this. The Irish provinces work because they have history; they are not imposed regions. Cardiff playing their LV Cup matches at Ponty is better than nothing, but it is a confirmation of 'second class' status.

Could there be are two other regions to add into the mix? London Welsh and the Cornish Pirates, both Celtic sides, contested for promotion in the English Leagues. London Welsh achieving the impossible and, via a brief sojourn through the courts, gaining promotion to play in the English Premiership for the first time in their history. Again if I go back to my early days in rugby, then Trelawny’s army were feared in the County Championship and London Welsh were more or less the core of the Welsh team. At that point we would have seven Brythonic teams competing to represent Wales at regional level. Rather like the New Zealand set up. Its a pipe dream, but the one thing I do know is that Rugby has to work. Its a community sport, not a spectator driven showtime like soccer. Identity is key, and identity requires history as well as place.


Dave Snowden, 1 September 2012
Founder & Chief Scientific Officer
Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd


If you liked this, you'll also enjoy:

     Life, work, rugby, by Dave Snowden (1 December 2011)
     Life, work, rugby, by Dave Snowden (1 September 2011)
     Life, work, rugby, by Dave Snowden (1 June 2011)
     A sense of belonging: Wales and rugby, by Dave Snowden (25 August 2010)
     Dave Snowden's blog at Cognitive Edge



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