Mr Bennet, that most pressed-upon father asks, ‘What do we live for but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’ Standing at the hard left hand edge of 2021 it is no huge leap to evolve that question to base it firmly in the esoteric, what do we do rugby for and what exactly is the neighbours role?
Rugby in Wales is a complicated beast, many lay claim to a part, many insist it is theirs by rights hitherto undefined whilst clinging to a refusal to acknowledge a present reality. It is only right to recognise as an absolute minimum, a need to scrutinise the present and assess against what has come before. This is as coherent as future proofing and should be welcomed by the protagonist and antagonist. To answer the question of rugby, obviously only in part, its role in Wales must be located. Here we find its many guises, from vehicle of unabashed patriotism, right the way through to an afternoon of diversion with a few post-match beers with friends. On that spectrum we find Cardiff rugby .... well it is a CF10 blog!
The interplay between Cardiff Rugby and Welsh Rugby is fascinating, frustrating, endearing, enveloping. Cardiff has always played the willing role of villain, with degrees of admirable relish, rarely liked yet feet-shufflingly respected, a target to both reach and kick, a club which attracts labels like fashion conscious teenagers in the St Davids Centre ... ‘Worlds Greatest Club’, ‘Chequebook Charlies’ and other words beginning with ‘c’ and yet, and yet she stands, unapologetically - like a lightbulb or fly catcher to which many willing to label are seemingly unable to avoid.
From its genesis Cardiff rugby has always stood for more than both Cardiff and rugby. In recent, relative, history it fought with Swansea RFC against Union whim in a rebel season, it was the first Welsh team to win a European cup, it will hopefully be the first Welsh professional club to volte face toward its own history and heritage. It isn’t the fact they turned away in search of something elusive but rather they may turn back in search of the tangible and in doing so may display an economic bravery not ordinarily associated with professional rugby in Wales.
Turning the mind’s eye back to that rebel season, probably the purest vision of that most damning of modern phrases, the sunlit uplands. Without wishing to dismiss the sterling efforts of players and coaches but professionalism demands the opposition is the opposition and the preparation is the preparation so to an extent the competition those games take place in is far more important to the business and dare to suggest, the supporters. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest games which mean most usually earn most! That financial circle should be unarguable.
The 1998/99 season stands like a lighthouse in the tumultuous sea of professional rugby, not just because of the relative success, fairly standard kick off times and sizeable crowds, but because we as supporters bought into the rivalry – yes we rode that vehicle of unabashed patriotism but perhaps more importantly the likes Gloucester, Bath, Harlequins and Leicester represented a natural fixture list, evocative, rich and meaningful. Fixtures against these and fellow Welsh teams are appealing in a way games against Ulster, Bulls, Edinburgh and Zebre unfortunately cannot be. This is not to dismiss their obvious qualities, but rather point to the obvious fact that, if history and heritage are important, it is only correct to recognise those who assisted in the making of that story. Previous blogs have reflected on that most Cardiff of mind-sets, not bound by its geographical place; it strove to expand the horizon, it sought competition beyond that common sky to where it would be at its most frenzied and exciting. In a Welsh context Cardiff was a target, in an Anglo Welsh context Cardiff is a contemporary, still a scalp, still a fixture – and it is correct to suggest Llanelli, Swansea and yes, maybe, probably Newport (!) join us. Whisper it but there is a symmetry somewhere there.
In retrospect, the long-term decline of Cardiff rugby, despite all too glorious if all too fleeting success, could be plotted from the moment it came back into the Unionised fold, post rebel yell if you will. It was at that moment it felt the club moved from being imperious knights to pawns on the chessboard, hemmed in mentally and physically by a monolithic neighbour, seemingly dissuaded from fully stretching. From the outside it felt as if Peter Thomas and his support was a security blanket for the club yet Kryptonite for the Union. Maybe this is an unfair assessment, as wide of the mark as DJ Spoony delivering a set from the upper stands of the Principality Stadium during a game but it is hard to escape the notion of a controlling Union smarting from two of the bigger players willing to expel themselves in search of a better tomorrow felt it had little option other than to tame. By playing the collegiate card and offering voice, power and influence to junior clubs, who in turn found themselves wholly unready to exercise its new -found authority, the spiral was only headed one way.
Against this backdrop of falling standards with Welsh rugby playing the role of pub bore highlighting its heyday, proffering advice to all within earshot, the Hobsons choice of 2003 was given. Enough gumption thankfully prevailed to protect the Cardiff name but nothing displays an almost complete resignation to Union demands than a sewn over badge and eventual all too predictable loss of Black. Add a pathway being dropped from on high and like aspirin in a glass as yet to dissolve, confusion of what is on show is present. Add debates between those who know the water will settle and those who confuse right and choice, only goes to show how Cardiff rugby maintains its ability to raise passion, suspicion, dismay and hope.
Today, Cardiff rugby finds itself in a multi-national, multi-broadcast, financially imbalanced league which struggles for a coherent identity as much as it does a standard kick off time. A league suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous self-induced fortune. For many brooding Cardiff supporters the Pro 14-soon-to-be-16 is unloved, untrusted and stifling. Whilst it is true league success may be naturally welcomed and would undoubtedly strip away a layer or two of apathy toward it, the overriding emotion mirrors the feelings of another equally proud Austen character inasmuch as far as the present is concerned, once a good opinion is lost, it is lost forever.
How to tackle the challenge is a question for the ages, it is clear meaningful change is not coming anytime soon but that doesn't mean the dreaming must stop nor the demand for coherent assistance quietened or fair recompense lessens in importance. Blue and Black will keep the massed ranks of CAP warm in this seemingly endless winter and a few wins will soon get those virtual boards banging. Returning to Austen, she opined when the pain is over the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure. What price for the Cardiff supporter to one day stand on the terrace before a Saturday afternoon game against Bath and reflect with a half smile, half shudder "Do you remember when we used to play Leinster?" in the same way some ask about the Barbarians?