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Dave Snowden; Life, work, rugby (March 2014)

(March 06, 2014)

Dave Snowden; Life, work, rugby

Cardiff v Sale pre-match

It has been nine months since my last column; a mixture of high work load and the need to focus on my health (of which more later) reduced the time for writing. When I last wrote, I was still revelling in that glorious 30-3 victory against the English. I am writing this after the redemption of a similar victory over the French and in anticipation of a weekend in which the championship will go to the wire. On that day I am due to be walking between Hay-on-Wye and Pandy as part of the first section of a major walk for my 60th birthday year, which will see me start with a north-south transition of Offa’s Dyke, followed by a clockwise circuit of the Wales Coast Path and finishing with a walk to the source of the Dee. When I booked the first 12 day section (from Prestatyn to Chepstow) after the Irish débâcle, I thought the best place to be would be on the hills. Now I am working out if I can get away early enough to reach a pub in Pandy in time to watch … and pray.

Wales v England 2013Wales 30 v 3 England
Six Nations Champions 2013: Wales

Since then, a year has seen Welsh rugby alternate between the sublime and the ridiculous, with a frequency that approaches the farcical. If I look back on the year following that glorious day in Cardiff, we have seen the Lions tour achieve, with a largely Welsh team, what Wales was not able to achieve in the Autumn Internationals: namely a victory against Australia. We have seen the relationship between the WRU and regions implode with threats of legal action, the possible loss of the Heineken Cup and the worst ever year in the history of Cardiff Blues, which has finally resulted in the coach resigning … too late to recover the season, too late to quality for whatever European competition is finally put in place. Now, my place here is not to provide a detailed commentary of the matches, but to reflect on culture and I want to look at that through three lenses; money; tribalism; and character.

Character, for me, was epitomised by an incident at the end of the Scottish match last year ,when the Welsh players did a lap of honour. I was up in the stand. But I still remember Halfpenny moving into the lower enclosure to my right, to meet and greet relatives and friends. Welsh rugby, for the moment, remains situated in the community from which the players come. You wonder how long this will continue, as the best and brightest become a part of the international circuit, with French and English money. But for now, our international players are a part of their community, not separated from it. Unlike England, Scotland and Ireland, rugby in Wales remains routed in working class communities, not middle class schools. That is changing. The majority of players in the current England team the now come from state, rather than public (fee-paying) schools; in contrast to only ten year ago. But it has long been an aspect of Welsh rugby, where the stereotype of forwards from the coalfields and steel works, and backs from the medical schools (and the boys whose mams did not let them to go down the pit), was never too far from the truth.Scottish trip, MurrayfieldScotland 18 v 28 Wales
Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 2013

Which leads naturally to the question of money. Working class communities have to make hard decisions during a recession, and increasingly highly priced tickets are problematic. The Irish teams have been more successful in marketing than the Welsh regions. But they start from a middle class base, which has the money, not only for home matches, but to travel en masse to away games of significance. That said, the Welsh regions have been incompetent in promotion and marketing. There are token, but often pathetic, attempts at pre-match entertainment. Tickets are not marketed to families. And there is little, or no, recognition of the travelling base. I’m pretty sure I am not the only one who drives over the Severn Bridge to watch Cardiff play, and there would probably be more if there was a targeted campaign for exiles - with car pooling, grouped season ticket places and the like. Too many jobs for the old boys and not enough professional marketing. When push comes to shove in the debate between the WRU and the Regions, the WRU has got its financial and promotional act together. It is professional. The Regions, on the other hand, have falling audiences, failure in all competitions and exhibit (in the main) ungifted amateurism. I am starting to think it might well be better if the WRU really took on marketing for Welsh rugby at the senior level, regions and national rugby, but also age-grade and other competitions. The first WRU National Sevens tournament was a good example, and the artificial pitch at the Arm’s Park the perfect venue. The naiveté of the Welsh regions in believing that the English clubs will do anything other than use them as a pawn in a wider game is depressing.

Cardiff v SaleCardiff v Sale, at the Arms Park

Then the bane of the nation, tribalism. It is a depressing fact that more Welshmen fought on the side of invading English forces, than for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Ein Llyw Olaf). The English conquered India by exploiting local differences, but they learnt the technique in Wales. In south Wales over the last two centuries, we refined the management of committees to a fine art. I remember my mother, a good south Wales politician exiled to the North, telling me very clearly that I should always get elected Secretary, never Chairman, as “that way you write the minutes”. The destructive ability of our nation to tear itself apart with ego-driven splits is depressing. The Irish manage central contracts and have a thriving club scene. O.K., regional rugby was something that was a part of their history, but it was not beyond us. I sometimes wonder (and this shows how bad things are) if the way forward is not to create four genuine regions, namely, the Valleys (a distinct entity), West and East coastal plain and North Wales, with the players managed centrally and professional marketing, might not be the best way forward. Let Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli and the like continue their small-minded politics at a local level where the passion might improve performance. The incompetence of Cardiff management epitomises the problem. The best coach available was Lyn Jones who is now doing wonders with inferior material at Newport. But he had spoken truth unto power (Uncle Peter), so instead we got a twice failed, now trice failed alternative. If you want to pay less, then go for young and gifted but unproven. I console myself with the resignation, but it should have been immediately after the Exeter débâcle in the opening round of the Heineken Cup. I cannot blame Halfpenny for leaving. I have seen his face (and that of Cuthbert) when they are starved of possession, unable to exhibit their natural talent. Cardiff were once held to be one of the greatest European clubs. Now we are an afterthought, who can’t even secure a win against an Exeter second fifteen to secure a place in the second-ranked European competition. It is time for a change.

Keep on the grassThere is a bright side: we have a team that will be a serious contender for the next World Cup (and it would be oh-so-good to see the English not make the quarter final). Cardiff Arms Park has a wonderful new pitch (please God, let the Millennium Stadium get one). Then there is ‘Our Nigel’ who, after refereeing the All Blacks against South Africa and Ireland, is now firmly established as one of the (if not the) top referees in the world. He is about to referee his 50th international match and is a worthy inheritor of the Derek Bevan tradition in Welsh rugby - referees who know the law, but want to see a game flow.

Finally I mentioned at the start personal issues relating to health. Last May I received an email from the doctor advising me that I had type 2 diabetes. I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the time, which rather put it into perspective - with the double irony of visiting there between performances of Die Walküre and Siegfried in Berlin. Now, as it happens, I had been working in the areas for Diabetes prevention for some time, so I had the right contacts to know about the Newcastle research. They noticed that obese people whose stomachs were stapled often reversed diabetes, so they replicated the experiments. When I contacted them they suggested that restricting my diet to 750 calories a day (which I was prepared to do) was not necessary. Dropping a thousand calories a day from the recommended level would be a sufficient level of starvation to get the pancreas working again. Knowing that it was possible to reverse it, but that there was a limited time window, was a powerful motivation. The other was watching the BBC documentary on the Ray Gravell story. That scared the living daylights out of me, as he was told exactly what I was told on first diagnosis and, before too much longer, had lost a limb and then his life.

Either way, to cut a long story short, I lost some 27 kilos (4 stone 3½ pounds) - 9 kilos (1½ stone) to go - over six months and increased my exercise to longer walks every weekend. A combination of the two meant that my first blood tests after diagnosis showed normal levels, and just after Christmas confirmed reversal. I also had the pleasure of climbing mountains again, sometimes passing younger males (always a good incentive to the alpha male) on the approaches. Now diabetes is an epidemic, and south Wales and the rugby fraternity are inflicted by obesity. I have never noticed it more than when I realised I could no longer eat anything on offer at the Arms Park or the Millennium Stadium. These days, players are eating healthily, so why don’t we have a food outlet where you can eat what the players are eating? Better for adults, brilliant for children and more about embedding rugby attendance in the context of family health. By the time you read this I will be half way down Offa’s Dyke - in part, celebration of restored health, in part, memorial to my parents, who passed away within ten days of each other ten years ago. Wales, as Wynford Vaughan-Thomas famously said, is small enough to be known in one lifetime. I plan to glean that knowledge by walking around it, remembering as I go. It will take a year, mixing weekend walks with concentrated periods of 10-15 days. For those interested, each day will be blogged.

Dave Snowden, 6 March 2014
Founder & Chief Scientific Officer
Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd

If you liked this, you'll also enjoy these by Dave Snowden:
     Life, work, rugby; June 2013

     Life, work, rugby; March 2013

     Life, work, rugby; December 2012

     Life, work, rugby; September 2012
    
Life, work, rugby; December 2011
     Life, work, rugby; September 2011
     Life, work, rugby; June 2011
     A sense of belonging: Wales and rugby; August 2010
     Dave Snowden's blog at Cognitive Edge

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