The Six Nations build up has started. Super ‘slow-mo’ montages, hammed up narration over a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, fierce debate over which player will hold the tackle bag the longest and of course the ubiquitous spate of injuries all add to the rainbow cocktail that is the world’s oldest competition initiated this millennium. Questions, as ever abound, who will win? Who has the most legitimate claim to be underdog? Who will claim the title of kidology king? And of course, which player will ‘light up the tournament’?
It is not needed but for clarification, I hope Wales win the Six Nations, I hope Wales win the Grand Slam, I hope Wales play with a style of rugby that takes our breath away and leaves memories as fresh as a cut lawn on a spring morn. I hope Wales succeed. I hope Wales realise that they are not just a wave but an entire ocean!
For all the reinvigoration of this annual sporting Welsh-ness, it is hard to escape a few truisms. The Six Nations is a most hideously placed championship, awkward, it is an unapologetic splodge of beige on the landscape, it is the ultimate momentum killer, it is a monster and is all a bit tedious. Was it always like this? Is it maturity catching up with an adolescent desire for a pint of SA at 10am? What is clear is that a ‘Wales game’ no longer creates those butterflies, no longer inspires a million thoughts on likely outcome and no longer dictates post defeat newspapers and sports bulletins avoided for fear of re-opening the freshly healed wound. It is a strange feeling.
This is not to disparage those who will flock to a Six Nations game over the coming weeks, with a thousand motivations and desires; it would be churlish not to wish only enjoyment for them. Here though a nagging question, ‘When was the last time a Wales game reached me?’ By this I mean, reaching into the pit of my stomach, vigorously shaking but leaving me wanting more? When indeed. As a child, teenager, even young adult, Wales games were a riot of colour and a way of suspending reality for a day – hence the need for a 10am pint! A Wales game was always a crucible for white hot debate – even when players not directly in competition were the subject of selection. I remember debating with a very good friend about Terry Holmes vs Robert Jones. It was our version of Ali vs Tyson! A Wales game, all five of them in a good year, was the pinnacle for the chosen, invited, few lucky enough to suit up. As Vince Lombardi once remarked, ‘the man on top of the mountain did not fall there’
I remember going to the National Stadium in 1987 to watch Wales v England, the game with broken jaws, cheekbones, a typical Wales try from the 1980s and general skulduggery that if written into a Game of Thrones plot, people would cry foul at its sheer poetic licence. As a 14 year old I was fortunate to be there, contacts of friend’s secured two terrace tickets. One clear memory is the fatherly advice whilst walking into the theatre telling me to hold on tight to the ticket – ‘like gold dust, boy’ and ‘don’t boo the kicker … even if it will win the game for them’ and later when challenged, ‘Do as I say not as I do’. Another vivid memory was the brilliant red and white jerseys, lasting a full two minutes before the pitch went full mud-pie. I recall being excited, being nervous, being in awe of the stadium of concrete and plastic, being humbled by the noise and almost bursting my lungs singing the national anthem. Even now, writing this, I remember the feeling and I can smell the waft of cigar smoke. It meant so much, even more when Wales won, more still when sitting next to fellow supporters on the train back to my uncle’s house in Penarth, when I woke up on Sunday eager to read the match report it really was a kind of Christmas Eve. Oh for a time machine. Maybe.
It is not stretching any truth to acknowledge that back then a Cardiff vs Llanelli game would be a trial game, as would countless others through a season. Given the relative rarity of an international game, it offered vibrancy, meaning and a prize for players. It ensured intelligent (and at times feral) debate on squads, starting XV’s and added spice should a favourite player be dropped. Whilst reflecting back we can look forward too, is it the same now for Cardiff vs Ospreys or Dragons vs Scarlets? Of course it is but in these days of professional sport, the four teams are businesses and surely deserve every chance to maximise their incomes. The relationship has changed, it had to and it must change further. The teams below the national side simply existing to solely populate the invitational, elite national side should be scrutinised. Any rational assessment, accepting realities over the easy half-spun truth would surely conclude that this is hamstringing and narrow. In these straightened times economics plays out as much as emotional. £60 for a replica jersey, which one to buy, Wales or Ospreys? Two tickets for Wales at home to New Zealand or a weekend in the south of France watching a European game. In rugby like life, choice is a looming shadow. By assessing any lack of enthusiasm for the international game, it is here we find a decent starting point.
These days it is hard to escape a growing feeling, as a youngster a Wales game didn’t mean more than today but it possessed a greater value, in these days of pathway and pyramid it is ironic that times past offer a truer vision of this idea. In the absence of 24 hour news cycles and the need to sell news rather than report it a Wales game offered far greater escapism. When players could force their way into the Wales team with a good performance in the week before an international, when opposition could target players in form. I recall a certain competitive Llanelli scrum half in 1989, after scoring a few tries one Saturday before a game in Edinburgh being promptly ragged by worldly wise Scotland back row the week after (in varying degrees of legality my biased mind tells me). It was proper video analysis via Rugby Special. These days it’s all too clinical, too pure. Access to players now deemed a right rather than a privilege. The Wales squad more akin to an oil tanker churning its way through the rugby ocean. It is not a ground breaking assertion to suggest that Wales World Cup squad for 2019 could be accurately predicted today – save maybe one or two places. Is this what we need or want from the international game? This seems heavy handed, stifling and more than a little disappointing.
Of course even in these heady days of professionalism the Wales team still acts as the pinnacle but now takes on a more explicit role of piggybank for the levels below. Hence nigh-on double figure international games and certain nations playing each other at 12 month intervals, at least. Despite the very best intentions, the Wales vs Scotland game in November feels misplaced and contrived, it is hard to escape a depressed feeling that we are witnessing a rather drab future that lays bare the limitations of the International driven game. Too few teams to play and those that do are at differing stages of development. Games rarely provide a real edge but may offer a spark when fringe squad members are given ‘a run out’.
Given the apparent need to play so many international games to secure a financial tomorrow it seems that the powers that be and broadcast media are stumbling around a maze wearing blindfolds, convinced more means everything and the way out will present itself by bombarding each wall. It may well do but long gone is the idea that a buoyancy below would provide a sense of security and future proofing to the level above. It is hard to escape the image that like an errant teenager the International game expects to be provided with what it needs and refuses to clear up any ensuing mess. It is undoubtedly a different world in 2018 than 1987 – in 30-plus years the game has changed immeasurably and despite the lament for days gone by they cannot return to the days of cotton jerseys, simultaneous kick offs, referees in their home union colours and black and brown Adidas balls in Paris - the latter is naturally a keenly felt sadness.
To end, on the eve of the 2018 Six Nations Wales remains, Wales stands and Wales will play on. The Wales squad remain the only vehicle for representation in Welsh rugby, it will be a channel for the hopes and dreams of a thousand youngsters of all ages, for those wishing to win, to those wishing for an early beer, for those who believe, dream and think of little else to those who wish it were not so all-consuming. There is room on the bus for all. The team in red are still are our team and when they win, we win. Wales is too small for any meaningful sporting division. There is an elation in victory and a disappointment in defeat but where once these feelings would last a few hours, they now maybe last a few minutes. Is this time’s lesson? Not that things have changed only things are different.