"The World's Only Literate Prop Forward"
These are rugby articles by Ian Peter Diddams of Devizes RFC, Devizes, UK. I stumbled into this fellow (virtually speaking, that is) on an over-40 Old Boys' website. With Didds' permission I have reproduced his articles here. Warning! When I write I normally avoid using four letter words and sexual content, but Didds does not. (He is a prop, after all.) If you're offended, well, I told you so. - Wes
Playing Prop: A Props Guide.
By Didds - an aged and grizzled prop. (Normally left grizzling into his beer anyway)
Prop forwards are the cornerstone of a rugby team. Let there be no misunderstanding; whilst the move is towards faster play, and hence more mobile and swifter players, you cannot play rugby union as it stands today without props. However, that is in a perfect world. Or at least the case in international rugby, where coaches have in theory at least, the choice of hundreds of props down through the hierarchy of rugby clubs, and where players are very unlikely to turn down the chance of playing and getting a posh dinner thrown in for free, let alone the possibility of visiting some exotic foreign city in which to play. Or Cardiff.
On the other hand, not everyone lives in a perfect world. For many third and fourth teams in clubs throughout the land (whose 1st team themselves are languishing in something like the Rutland 3rd division alongside St. Dunstan's Blind School, the local girl's grammar school team, and the outpatients department of the local hospital. And are bottom) the situation is quite different. Some weeks they are awash with props, and so end up with a front-row consisting of three props, a fourth in the second row, and a fifth horribly drowning on the wing. Other weeks they have only one prop available, and make do with the hooker propping for only the third time in his life, or a spare centre making up the position. On these occasions a long and heated debate will take place whether the inexperienced player should play loose or tight.
Someone in the team always knows someone who knew a back that volunteered to play prop once and now spends his days mumbling into his soup and watching the birds on the lawn. The player will have a horrendous experience as by Murphy's Law his opponent will be a former international prop acting as coach to the opponents who fancied a game this week. He will consequently become disenchanted with rugby and fade out after a few more weeks and take up gardening or golf, and suffer nightmares weekly for the rest of his life.
Props are not supposed to score tries. Those that do have either cheated or fallen over in the wrong place. My brother is also a prop, but while on tour to Holland several years ago, was put on the wing and scored a hat-trick. Since that day no other prop in his club has spoken to him, and I only discourse with him about our mother's birthday present. He has been forced into exile to Australia, where for some strange reason they accept try-scoring props. Must be something to do with all those convicts and kangaroos. If by some incredible fluke of luck a prop scores, he will spend the rest of his life describing in great detail the feat. Most props telling this tale will, however, not let on that when they scored their try it was worth three points.
That is, with the exception of myself. I may well be the first Englishman to have scored a five point try - I was playing in NZ in 1992, and the day that the rules changed (and the value of a try became 5 points) we had a noon kick-off; I scored about half way through the second-half, when a maul on the oppo's line collapsed; I was holding the ball when I fell on the ground, in goal. Given that NZ is virtually the first country in the world to wake up, and that we had an early kick off, and that there won't have been that many Englishmen in NZ anyway, I claim the mantle of first Englishman to have scored a five point try. So there.
Props must be the butt of everyone's jokes. They must also have at least a bit of a beer belly. They must be the slowest runners on the pitch (with possible the exception of the referee if playing third team rugby). Everyone will take the piss out the props at every conceivable occasion. Equally, everyone will look to their props to sort out any argy-bargy, and call upon them to lead the singing. All props must be able to drink 20 pints, including three of them in quick succession, all three drunk in less than 2.46 seconds (Olympic qualifying time).
Props are born, not made. That is why the only props that are left twenty years after they finished playing are those that played their entire life in the murky underworld of front-row play. All those upstarts from the 2nd-row and back-row who got too fat and slow in old age fade away after prolonging their careers for a couple of years by the insidious ploy of taking up propping. They are the sort of people who support Liverpool because they win, and live in Torquay anyway. They are also the sort of person who started following rugby at the age of 22 back in 1989 because England started to win in less of an ad-hoc fashion.
Finally, props are wonderful people, and should be nurtured. If you are a prop, be proud in the knowledge that your trade is a hard, unsung one, where success is worn inside, in the heart, unlike these flashy back-row and fly-half types. If you are not a prop, gaze upon them henceforth with awe, for these men and women are the salt of the earth. And buy them a pint.
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. And are probably wrong anyway.
By Ian Diddams
(A prop, who has played scrum half twice and ended up in hospital once because of it.)
The scrum half is in essence the lynch pin of a rugby team. It is his or her function to link the awesome power of the pack with the lithe, silky skills of the three-quarters (via a poncy character known as a fly-half, but that's another guide for another day). Unless you are playing in New Zealand and Australia, where he is the only half back, and links the awesome power of the pack with a couple of math graduates that think they are slightly better than him, but not as good as the players outside themselves.
All very confusing. Which sums up scrum-half play in a nutshell. Should he pass? Should he kick? Should he run? And whichever tactic is chosen, he's guaranteed to upset at least two-thirds of his team as they would have done something completely different. (Especially the second rows, who never run anywhere anyway, can't pass for toffee, and wouldn't know how to kick if you asked them.) This is not helped by the schizophrenic nature of the scrum-half's position: is he a ninth forward, or an eighth back? Or perhaps a second ball (as often happens when playing behind a soundly-beaten pack)?
Scrum halves are always Napoleonic in stature. That is, short little bastards always causing strife, occasionally one-handed. They are very stroppy characters, always looking for a fight, and when having found one drags the nearest prop in to sort it out for him. They must have an A-level in niggling, treading on their opponents' feet and kicking loose-head props in the shins when the ref isn't looking.
Every scrum half is a frustrated No. 8. However, nature was cruel and only gave the player five foot two inches of height to use. This never stops scrum halves from playing like No. 8s when given the chance - i.e. running away from support on looping runs, and attempting to tackle the biggest player on the opposite side head on at pace.
The most important part of a scrum half is his mouth. This is so he can spend eighty minutes a week telling other players what they should be doing, especially the incredibly heroic props that arrive late to each ruck and maul because they have single-handedly just gotten up last from the previous one. A non-stop stream of advice can be heard from a scrum-half advising players of which opponent to tackle, where the ball is, where he wants it, which way to go, which arm to bite, etc. Great consternation and abuse will follow if these instructions are not followed instantaneously and fully. However, advice given to a scrum half, such as "pass right, three man overlap" will be studiously ignored, such as box-kicking, as the scrum half has a better vision of the game whilst being surrounded by large forwards than some silly nonce of a centre with nothing near him for twenty yards except an undefended goal line. The kick will be defended with the retort "I could see that their full back was out of position and I wanted to bury him to put him off his game."
Scrum halves are often described as terriers. This is because they are short little yappy things that leave their owners in the shit half the time, and smell.
Scrum halves must have a distinguishing feature. Welsh scrum halves must have large and ridiculous moustaches and sideburns. Scottish scrum halves must have hairy knees (not difficult being Scottish). Irish scrum halves must have foreign sounding names; they can never be called O'Reardon, or O'Reilly, or anything vaguely Irish. Like Paddy Guinness. English scrum halves must have a disabling limp (usually caused by an errant New Zealand flanker), or a stupid name. "Nigel" is a good start, and some have improved upon this with ridiculous double-barreled names like Wibblington-Skrunge, Twattingly-Bottom or Wankington-Toenails
Finally, your average scrum-half is a source, off the pitch, of constant amusement. He can be relied upon to get drunk before everyone else due to his small size, will be the first to lead the singing, and have a very handy party trick involving a balloon and his penis. He will also be the one member of a touring party that will have an embarrassing and totally hilarious encounter with a prostitute and a policeman.
Hope this is of some help.
But probably not...
A Guide to Playing Open Side Flanker
By Didds. (A prop who has secretly yearned for years to play on the flank.)
Open side flanker is arguably the greatest position to play.
Or so said my mate Backie to me one afternoon as we sat on the bus to the club. "Where else" he mused," can one find oneself delving into the depths of a maul one minute, then speeding through a gap, ball in hand heading for the line the next?" And in that one sublime sentence, Backie summed up possibly the most rewarding position on the playing field of rugby union football. Quite why Backie held this opinion I'm not really sure, as he was (is) a major Rugby League supporter, coming from Whitehaven (well someone has to) and as far as I know has never actually ever seen a game of rugby union, let alone played it. We were going to the cricket club at the time.
I wasn't going to argue with him though. Backie had very large hands, and a lot of brothers.
But he wasn't far wrong. Open side flanker. Just those words conjure up visions... of Rives, Winterbottom, Dallaglio. Well, maybe not Dallaglio. But what are the skills that are required of a man (or woman) that fills this most glorious of positions?
An open side flanker is really all things to all men; a hard nosed forward, and a silken, swerving back. And there's the rub. He is by definition, crap at both. Neither hard enough to take the real brutal up-front work on, nor quick or skilled enough to tear opposition defenses to shreds in the three-quarters. Enough pace to keep away from the real men, but not enough to join the girls. In one word - a failure. Like all players, way back in the mists of time, the OSF (as I shall refer to the position henceforth) began at an early age being selected by school masters, or club coaches (actually someone else's dad that had some noble concept of putting something back into the game that had given him so many years of pleasure in his own younger years. Well, it had for a fleeting couple of years between school and marriage before that big git of a Welshman had jumped on his ribs in Abertillery one Easter weekend and finished his playing days for ever. And coaching was better than doing the gardening with the missus looking over his shoulder) to play a position that afternoon/morning. It would always be the same. The big, slow kids would be sidelined as forwards; the skinny, quick kids would be cast into the backs. And he would be left standing their all on his own.
"Hmmmmm..." would murmur the adult. "Lets see... seven backs... seven forwards... Open side flanker for you Bloggins Minor." And this scenario would be repeated every week, until eventually masters/coaches no longer told people where to play, everybody had sorted it out. Except for Bloggins Minor that desperately wanted to be a full-back, or a prop, but got hammered by all and sundry if he ever did manage to cajole his way into playing there.
So much for how OSFs ended up as OSFs. What should they do when they are there?
Coaching manuals will probably tritely churn out something like "support, challenge, secure" - they always tritely suggest three pompous descriptions. They might as well say "drink, fart, sleep" because, of course, as described above, the OSF is actually useless as a meaningful player, so he may as well attempt something that is humanly attainable by everyone (except the queen of course. The queen never sleeps. Her crown sticks in her head and keeps her awake). But let's investigate each of these requirements:
Support - in theory, the OSF should be there in support of the ball carrier, ever aware to the opportunity of a quick inside pop-pass to break the defense as the ball-carrier has drawn the tackler. In practice, what really happens is the fly-half thinks, "Shit. That bloody great big number eight is about to nail me something rotten. I know, where's that useless sod of an OSF? He can have it and get smacked into oblivion." The ball then gets popped inside just as the opposition number eight arrives like a runaway juggernaut and hits the OSF with a tackle measured on the Richter scale. Support is consequently what is worn on elbows, knees and less visible places having suffered too many of such mini-Armageddons.
Challenge - in theory, the OSF should be ever present to knock down opposition ball carriers with a ferocious tackle that causes the ball to spill favourably for his own team. In practise, what really happens is that the opposition ball carrier thinks, "Shit. Those backs have an excellent defensive alignment. No way to go outside, so I'll cut back inside. There'll only be some plodding old OSF there, and I can make the ball available again." The player thus tears back inside, lines up the OSF that has foolishly drifted into the gap between the pack and his own fly-half, and hits him with a neatly turned shoulder somewhere near the OSF's mouth. The only challenge realistically attainable is the ability to get up again after the oppo pack have used the OSF as a mat as they have rucked clean over the top.
Secure - in theory, the OSF should be the first to the loose ball, in order to secure it for his own team to make dynamic and telling use of. In practise, what really happens is the ball goes loose, and depending how much time is available, the OSF will either dive on the ball to set up a ruck, or pick it up to form a maul. The end result is always the same however. His own team are so far behind play that he ends up being used as a bathmat as the opposition win hard rucked ball, or as a rag-doll as his hair, balls and fingers are all pulled, squeezed and broken in a (successful) attempt to relieve him of the ball. The only thing worth really securing is some decent medical insurance.
But there are other, less trumpeted facets, to the OSF's position. The emphasis today is increasingly upon open flowing play, where the skills mentioned above come into play, but what of the nitty-gritty of rugby? We should not forget that the OSF is after all, principally a forward. OK, as we have seen, a pretty lightweight and crappy one, but a forward nonetheless. So.... scrummaging. At a scrum, the OSF's job is to keep his prop in, keep the opposition away from his own scrum-half, and/or be lighteningly away to snuff out the opposition attack. Huh!! What he will really do is lean weakly on whilst supporting himself with his free hand on his prop's knee thus disrupting his own prop's balance and ability to strike if the ball is bobbling about in the tunnel. Far from hindering the other scrumhalf by binding at an angle, he will crouch in place allowing all and sundry to waltz around his pathetically dangling leg... or he'll be inspecting his fingernails as the opposition back row perform a blitzkrieg on his fly-half.
What about line-outs? Surely the place for such a star to shine? Leaping like a salmon at the back of the line, ripping the ball after the front catch, or peeling blind from a middle tap and hurtling up the tramlines with wingers and hookers flailing in his wake. Not a bit of it. Front ball takes will be left too late such that the number two jumper is enveloped by the octopus that every opposition team always has hidden somewhere especially for lineouts. Middle ball taps are either knocked accidentally backwards behind the scrumhalf so the team loses twenty yards of territory, the ball, and most of it's winger's limbs trying to retrieve the situation, or the OSF gets stood up in the tackle by their hooker and then has the ignominy of being dumped into touch by the nine stone winger. As for back of the line ball, it will either end up being caught at number five by the opposition, or knocked on into the arms of the other side's scrum-half who has his number eight all ready to take the ball on and batter your fly-half to death. (Serve him right really for using his own OSF as cannon fodder earlier. See above.)
Rucks? Mauls? Less said the better really. Too weak to rip the ball; too puny to hold onto it if caught in possession. Too small to knock a ruck forward, too slight to anchor a shove. Bloody useless in the loose-tight to be honest.
But let us not disregard the OSF's place in broken field play. His secondary role as link man and support is never more perfect in open play with defences torn to ribbons. Ever there to take the scoring pass, or to beat the last man, draw the cover then send a winger or centre away for the try. In his dreams that is. Let us not forget that the OSF is in the forwards because he can't make the grade as a back So he has neither the hands to catch the scoring pass, not the pace or guile put others in perfect positions, or even deliver the ball to them. Knock-ons with the line beckoning.. over-running his ball-carrier... getting caught with the ball in his wrong hand by the cover... or hurling a "pass" yards behind his support, or over his head into touch.
Things don't improve much once the game is over. The OSF will be the man flitting between two huddles - the backs don't want him because he smells of ralgex and linament like all forwards, while the forwards don't want him due his lack of manly strength and inability to drink fourteen pints. It is no wonder then, that so many OSFs retire early and take up reffing... and ironically it is the perfect place for them. After all those years of not being good enough for a proper position, now the OSF has the perfect position. Quick enough to be near play, but not quick enough to be right in the way. Tough enough to stare people down, but not so tough as to not be able to share a joke with the crowd. Indeed... the perfect job for a man that can't run fast, and can't tackle. And no-one's liked him throughout his career anyway, but now at least he has some respect from everyone else.
So that's the open side flanker. The next time you see some poor sap having a nightmare of a game at open side, don't stand there and castigate him. He's doing the best he can.
After all... he's just crap at the game
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. And are probably wrong anyway.
Playing Wing : A Guide.
By Didds - who has never played wing, and is never likely to either. (For which we can all be extremely grateful).
Wingers are the forgotten men of rugby. There they stand, miles from the play; onlookers to the fun and games that elude them week in and week out. Voyeurs to the rolling, sweating masses. Bystanders in a murky world of grips, and binds, and jockstraps. And this is just in the changing room.
Out on the pitch little changes. While the ball tantalizingly appears somewhere near a steaming mass in the vicinity of Bolivia, the winger is left literally out in the cold - fingers blue and knees knocking as his core temperature plummets and hypothermia sets in once again. It has even been known for teams to be changed, showered and in the bar before someone (usually the subs collector who has only one name left on the team sheet unticked) asks "Where's Rick?". The front row will look confused and ask "Who's Rick?". Everyone will shuffle their feet, then look questioningly at the outside-centre. Jeremy (all outside-centres have poncy names like Tarquin, Jeremy or Guido) will think hard then reply "I think I saw him at half time when he took the oranges off." Rick the winger will be subsequently found near a corner flag, peering desperately into the gloom, frozen and muttering to himself "Not much action down this side for a while....".
But don't get me wrong. Wingers are Very Important Players; imperative for the success of a game. They are perfectly positioned to carry the oranges on and off at half-time, and are handy for climbing over barbed-wire fences to retrieve the ball. In relation to this important facet of their skills, it is mistakenly believed in many circles that wingers are selected for their speed in attack, for running past the defense. The truth is, I am afraid, rather more mundane. Having scaled the barbed wire fence to retrieve the ball, a winger often needs his innate pace to evade the rampaging bull that is on the other side. Nor should we forget their use in handing the ball to the hooker to throw in. Saves the hooker having to bend down.
The public perception (as hinted at above) of the winger is of a gazelle like creature, blessed with speed and guile, but as most things in rugby, this creature is only really seen at the very, very highest levels of the game. In reality, there are four different types of winger:
The gazelle: international wingers have the speed, side-steps and swerves expected, combined with hands like glue and a boot like a siege gun. When released in space they have the ability to make the heart soar and the blood rush; crowds roar as their feet glide across the turf, eating up the ground as they tear the last vestiges of a defense to shreds. They usually drive MG's, drink orange juice and have to fight blondes off with a shitty stick. Bastards. Example - John Kirwan.
The wall: good club wingers; they may not have great pace, nor great hands or kick. But they have a huge defense. Nothing ever passes them. Usually ex-blind-side flankers that had to give up the hard stuff under doctors orders after breaking their neck in three places and suffering 72 hours concussion after tackling an Argentinian flying wedge head on, they settled for the easy life on the wing rather than run the line. These men eschew the "girls" in the bar, and are usually seen carousing with the forwards (when allowed into their forum. Usually after four pints). Drive old Ford Granadas, and occasionally shags the blond birds that couldn't get off with the above. Example - Ian Hunter.
The stick: Archetypal junior club winger. Stands five feet eight inches tall, weighs 9 stone four pounds, soaking wet with all his kit on. Is shit scared someone might get delusions of grandeur having watched a hugely entertaining Southern Hemisphere match on TV the week before (which was won by the Polynesian All-Stars 146-139 against the Rainbow Campallmouths in a scintillating display of 80 minutes of continual running play with no stoppages at all... and no referee whatsoever to get in the way of having fun) and actually get the ball anywhere near him. Hates defending at goal line lineouts as he has a recurring nightmare of some hairy-arsed prop forward (always named Barry) hurtling around the front of the lineout carrying the ball, with only his own puny frame between the prop and a lifetime of glory retelling the story of how he crushed a winger whilst scoring his first try for twenty years. Is normally aged 17, or 47. The former is there because he is crap at every other sport, and hates his parents so needs an excuse to get out. Can't drive yet having failed his test three times to date. He also fancies the blond bird down the chip shop and hopes boasting that he plays rugby for Old Twattbaggians 6th XV will cause her to fling her knickers off and shag him senseless. The latter is there because he has always preferred the company of men, and doesn't really want to stay at home with the wife, and can't get a place on the committee. Once had a fumble with a blond Mancunian bird (who hasn't ?) whilst on tour in Blackpool in 1978, in a bus shelter, and got beaten up by her boyfriend (who played for Warrington RL). Drives an Austin Allegro. Example - Tony Underwood.
The Polynesian: defies all normal definitions of winger. Is seven feet tall, weighs 19 stones, and can do the 100 metres in 9.87 seconds (unassisted). In any other part of the world would be playing back or second row for some junior club and the occasional county game. Will be named after a Biblical character, or a Cheeseburger. Doesn't care who he shags as long as its not on a Sunday as he is a devout Christian. Example - Grant Batty.
Wingers really come into their own after the game however. Not having done anything all afternoon they will be happy to be acknowledged by their captain, even if its only to be asked to collect the flags and post protectors. Being the only member of the side with a clean shirt (not to mention clean shorts, socks and boots) they will be sent off to collect the valuables bag. By the time he has completed these duties, all the hot water for the showers will have been used up, and the bath will resemble something last seen as soup or coffee in a school canteen. This won't matter as 1) nobody else cares, and 2) he won't be sweaty or dirty as he has done nothing all afternoon anyway. In the bar, assuming he can get anyone to talk to him, as no-one will recognize him, the winger is a source of team amusement. Due to his normal abstemious position/slight physique/religious beliefs, it will take little alcohol to get him roaring drunk with the normal hilarious consequences. The exception to this is "The Wall" (see above), but due to his previous history in the forwards, he will know seventeen filthy songs, and after fifteen pints will roger a passing blond from behind, standing on the bar, egged on by his team mates. Wingers are also useful at internationals, where they can be easily divested of their clothing by their "mates" and hurled over the crowd barrier, whereby they can provide superb entertainment attempting to evade the stewards and police officers in their haste to get off the pitch before the cameras catch their antics and their mum sees them.
Finally, wingers never actually retire. They merely disappear in mid-season, never to be seen again. The reasons for this are several fold, but normally because : 1) they froze to death on the touchline one February afternoon 2) they got forgotten at a service station on the A1 returning from a match 3) they got crushed by a huge hairy-arsed prop forward (named Barry) that appeared around the front of a lineout, carrying the ball, hell bent on scoring his first try for twenty years 4) they got beaten up by the front row after spilling one of their pints 5) the blond bird down the chip shop named them as the father to her child 5) their Robin Reliant broke down.
Hope this is of no help whatsoever!! :-)
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. And are probably wrong anyway.
What rugby means to me
"Rugby Union, a 15-a-side football game, which can also be played 7-a-side" says Microsoft (r) Encarta (r). But what does Bill Gates know about the finest game known to man? Stuff all, that's what.
This is what Encarta also says about Rugby Union: "Its name is an original attribution from the name of the school at Rugby, Warwickshire, England; and later in absolute use to denote the handling version of football" followed by "Points are scored in the following ways: (1) a try-scored by a player grounding the ball in his opponents' in-goal area (worth 5 points); (2) a goal-achieved by kicking the ball (by a place kick or drop kick) over the crossbar and between the uprights." and then later "There is also the drop goal, when the ball is kicked on the half volley in open play (worth 3 points)."
As I said, what does Bill Gates know about Rugby Union? Obviously not a lot - Rugby Union is far more than that... and less than that. As every true Englishman knows, half of what Bill has written above is tripe - what's all this "handling," and "a try"... and how come ".. the drop goal" is an also-ran?? As we Englishmen know only too well, it's the finest way to score points. Especially in injury time against Australia. But I digress.
So that's what Bill Gates says about Rugby Union. He also expands a little further on the topic, but I suggest you get Encarta if you want to more, 'cos I think Bill might sue me if I copy Encarta en bloc. And there's a nice picture of Iuean Evans. Not to mention Rory Underwood tackling some silly Australian. I'll bet the photographer had a wait a long time for that photo. (Rory Underwood tackling I mean, not a silly Australian).
So much for what Bill Gates has to say about Rugby. But who cares about Bill Gates? (Apart from Mrs. Gates, and Mr. Apple Mac?) Not many people, that's my guess. So, we'll forget all about him, and concentrate on me.
That's Mr. Diddams to you if you owe me money and need a favour, but there aren't too many people that fit that bill (approx. zero at last count), so we'll keep it at Didds. And this is what I think of Rugby Union (clears throat, settles into armchair, and gazes into middle distance...)
Is there a finer game, than Rugby Union? As I care to think Micky Steele-Bodger will say one day to Prince Obelenski, on that celestial playing field in the sky that is forever a deep, lush, green carpet of the finest grass ever grown in the cosmos, kept ever cut to a perfect length of one inch three-quarters, whilst discussing the complexities of double reverse scissors cut out pass moves... "Not chuffing lightly!"
Could there ever be a time to come when the finest hour a man could spend would not be spent queueing for a large Beaumont-Burger with Starmer-Smith Fries before taking his seat in the Duckham stand to witness another magnificent display of goal-kicking by the maestros of English outside-half play? Or alternatively, spent tying up one's sheep to the Toohey's rail outside of the Sydney Football Stadium, before winking at a pretty Sheila and downing fourteen cans of Foster's and throwing up at half-time during a Bledisloe Cup show-down? Or again, slapping the leathered thigh of a Gaucho whilst thrilling to the passionate tales of Hugo Porta and his Llamas?
I think not.
No, dear reader, Rugby Union has it all... the camaraderie, the machismo, the subtlety. Life encapsulated in an art form, and one so nobly demonstrated for example, by one no less esteemed than Colin "Old Spice" Smart. No other game raises one to such heights as can be achieved by a South African second-row in the rarified atmosphere of the high veldt during a lineout, or may plummet one to the deepest depths only understood, or maybe shared, by the like of the Pontypool Front Row, and Jamie Joseph. No other game allows a man the raptures and ecstasies of a Major Ronald Ferguson, or the depressions and troughs of a Tory Cabinet Minister. And no other game permits a chap eighty minutes of hard slog wheezing from one lineout to another, in order to get hopelessy and completely trashed on a mixture of "Old Contemptible's Bollock Smasher" (original gravity = infinity) and Kwik-Save Reserve Port (£2.85 - Do not open near naked flames).
But I am rambling. Please excuse the mutterings and thoughts of a mid-thirties, fat and useless prop-forward.
Rugby Union: The game that unites all classes, all creeds, all colours... just as long as you attended public school in England, played anywhere in Ulster, or grew up in South Africa. Or not. As the case may be. It's the game that offers a position and opportunity for those of all shapes, sizes and skills. Especially the overweight, lanky and downright useless that aren't able to play nancy games such as association football, tennis, or hang-gliding. And the game that offers such bonhomie, such genteelness, such grace. Who will forget that immortal, all-welcoming, hands-across-the-oceans, speaking-the-international-language-of-love, call by Willie John McBride of "99"? Or the delicate nature of Jonah Lomu leaving Mike Catt stranded? Or the gazelle like play of Wayde Dooley? None of us I am sure.
Which other game allows the spectator such intimate contact with its higher echelons? I would wager the average lager lout would stand as much chance of sharing a couple of lagers with Mr. Bert "FA" Millichip, as the average fourth team prop has of kicking a touch-line conversion. Not to mention the run-of-the-mill tennis fan in the street enjoying a quiet tete-a-tete and a bowl of strawberries and cream with John McEnroe. But in Rugby Union, this is all quite different. Ordinary supporters regularly jostle elbow to elbow with visiting committee men in the bar at Harlequins, or practise their drop-kicking skills around the streets of Edinburgh with John Jeffreys, or even have platonic relations with the England Captain. Or royalty. Or both. It is even known for ordinary, female supporters to pop over for a quick chat with the boys at half-time, and gee them up with a good look at their knockers.
Ah yes... the true leveler. No matter what background, what upbringing or what colour tie the Rugby Union supporter has, or has had, that supporter is one and the same under the all encompassing umbrella of Rugby Football Union. All are one, are united, a brotherhood as followers of Rugby Union around the world together. Equals in adversity, in triumph, in despair. All the same at, say, Twickenham on either the lowly occasion of London Counties "A" versus Morocco (West), or on the heady atmosphere of England versus Rest of the Universe (now including South Africa) - together sharing the momentous occasion with the gateman...."No cans. No bottles. What's in that bag, mate?"
And last but not least, the ability, via the auspices of Rugby Union, to make new friends and share experiences with other rugby supporters around the world. At some time or another I'm sure we have all enjoyed the laughs and friendship that supporting rugby can bring - meeting a Welshman who pissed in your pocket at the Arms Park, or kissing a French supporter on the cheek and suffering a nasty rash for a week. Not to mention welcoming that Kiwi backpacker you met at Wasps back home only for him to run off with your wife. And the Tongan fellows that ate your cat. Every one of them a top chap, everyone a complete and utter soulmate, sharing a love of the finest game man has ever devised, apart, maybe, from Blankety-Blank.
That's what Rugby Union is my friend. That's what it means to me.
And bugger Bill Gates.
Once upon a time, many moons ago, there was one game. And the game was Rugby Union. Those that played the game were known as Rugby players. And all was sweetness and light in the hallowed halls of the Rugby Football Union, as the rugby players played the game for the enjoyment and camaraderie of being beaten almost senseless in the pursuit of an odd shaped leather ball and more beer than you could shake a pointy stick at. No-one took money to play; no-one expected it, for in those exalted days of Victoria, the game was everything, and money was the root of all evil. Amateurism ruled the roost.
But dissension soon crept in. There were those that felt that a few shillings to offset the time they had taken from work, and thus were unpaid for, was little to ask from a game that was in its own way making a few shillings from them. The rumble soon became a roar, as clubs, especially those in the north, slowly accepted their players gripes, and joined their own voices to the clamour for broken time payments. But it was not to be - the game was to remain amateur; there were to be no payments for playing. Eventually however, clubs began to make those payments... and were suspended by the Rugby Football Union for sullying the spirit of the game with cash. And so the great rift happened in 1895, at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, twenty leading clubs in the north voted to break away from the Rugby Football Union and form the Northern Rugby Football Union.
Professionalism had begun in earnest.
That new union eventually developed into the Rugby Football League, of course, and to this day has continued its heinous crime - in the eyes of some - to pay its players. Interestingly enough, in recent years one of the more forthright critics to this professional approach has been the British Amateur Rugby League Association... but that's another story, for someone else, on another day.
For a further one hundred years, Rugby Union held out against payments for playing. Great scandals broke over players "going north." France was ejected from the Five Nations tournament in the 1930s for alleged payment of players. The decline of Welsh rugby after the glory years of the late seventies has been blamed on the loss of so many leading players at the peak of their playing careers changing codes. Rumours of "boot money" drifted around club rooms, question marks hanging over players heads. Questions remained unanswered as to why international ticket allocations disappeared into the hands of shady men in too-loud suits, but the profits of which never seemed to quite make it through the club accounts. Thin, wiry men wearing cloth caps and accompanied by whippets were politely, but firmly, asked to vacate playing fields during games and team practises. Players were dropped for even mentioning the words "Rugby" and "League" in the same sentence. Past players, with glorious careers were cast out into the cold because they wrote books about rugby union. It was a cold war. A very long, cold war.
And then after nearly a hundred years of attrition, of staring the enemy - money - over the parapets that were Twickenham's (amongst others') - walls, voices began to be raised again.
The game of Rugby Union Football had gone through a transformation in the eighties, and had become instead of a cosy club for a few well oiled ex-public schoolboys, and a handful of off-duty miners, rather something quite palatable to the great British public. Attendance at internationals rose geometrically; demand for tickets to those internationals rose exponentially. Players became household names. Players became more famous than royalty. Some players mixed with royalty. Royalty even became players. Suddenly the game became transformed - gone were the days of beer swilling rugger buggers dropping their trousers in public, and decorating curry houses with vomit. Suddenly, it was "in" to play or support rugby. Clubs embraced the family ethos, ran huge coaching sessions for kids on Sunday mornings, spruced up the club houses and sold Sunday lunches to mums and dads. The old days were numbered.
Successful Rugby World Cups brought the game into homes that before would never have dreamed of watching it; marketing men pushed the spin-offs, and the Unions embraced the concepts because it meant.... money. But still the players remained amateurs. No payments for playing was still the word... but the grip of the ideal was loosening. First, trust funds for book royalties. Then modeling, or advertising... big names started to make a bit of money from being household names, as long as they didn't do whatever they were doing in a rugby shirt, or holding a rugby ball. But that wasn't enough... everyone wanted a piece of the pie, and the players were being pushed more and more to provide the filling, the pastry and the cream. Something had to give.
Eventually, after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, it gave. Various international media men were offering players what they had dreamed of: fat wallets for playing Rugby Union. The game was almost in tatters; almost twenty years earlier the game of professional cricket was torn asunder in a similar way, and the International Rugby Union fraternity was staring the same fate down the barrel.
And so, it happened. Almost overnight it seemed, the hundred years of amateurism, over which so much metaphorical blood had been spilled, was over. The IRB declared the game of Rugby Football Union professional, and in true ham-fisted manner, left the nuances to individual unions. And the professional game began.
Almost amazingly to rugby supporters in the UK, the game of rugby union was declared professional half way through the 1995/96 season; too late for much immediate effect. Even more amazing to supporters in England, the RFU which had stood against professionalism so vehemently for those hundred years, not only embraced the concept, but declared the entire game in England was to be open. Every club had the right to pay any player. Possibly the only thing that was more amazing than the RFU's decision, was the French Rugby Federation's declaration that the game in France was to remain officially amateur. Incroyable!!
The late months of the 95/96 season began to see changes immediately. Clubs found sugar daddies with bottomless wallets, and players with lifelong ties to unfashionable clubs disappeared overnight to the new paymasters. The summer passed with increasing news of players resigning their careers to become full time professional rugby players, player transfers, and meaningless cross-code matches to titillate the new or easily-entertained supporter.
Then this new season arrived with a bang. Big money, big games, big changes. Rugby matches being played in soccer stadiums, big name signings.. and a welcome back into the fold of those men ostracized for so long; the rugby league players.
And so to the present. As I write the professional game in Britain is nearing the end of its first year. How has the game in Britain changed in this first year? Or has it changed at all?
This first year of professionalism in British rugby has coincided, not accidentally, with the full participation of new competitions at club level. The European Cup, its baby brother, the Conference, and the Anglo-Welsh competition. Side by side with the existing national leagues, and the international season, continually burgeoning. What a cornucopia of delights; what a sumptuous banquet of rugby for us all to enjoy.
At last players have been able to concentrate on their games, improve skills and fitness levels without the strain of having to earn a living simultaneously elsewhere, and the worry of potential long term injury wrecking that livelihood. The club rosters have been swelled by large names from abroad, and rumours have been rife as to the next major signings. Laws have altered - in mid season also - to accommodate the requirements of a faster, more exciting and expansive game for these stars to display their talents. Accompanying those international stars have been the Rugby League boys - some out and out RL players, some Union converts returning to the game that nurtured them. Crowds have risen, and the competitions taken on new meaning. The English first division had been a two horse race for years, with the Cup close behind it, but this season has seen a equaling of clubs' abilities and thrilling encounters are played every week, with shocks and surprises at every round.
The game would appear to be healthier than it ever was. What could possibly be wrong with this new garden of Eden?
Unfortunately, we don't have to look to hard to see the cracks appearing in this new veneer of professionalism. The entire season in England has been overshadowed by the continuing and (n)on-going saga of RFU vs. EPRUC; the struggle for control of the game at the top level, for the destiny of the players involved at that top level - and the money that goes with it. Players were threatening not to represent their nation; players did not represent their divisions generally, and embarrassingly, against touring opposition. This dispute lingers on.
The early season was overshadowed by the RFU vs.Celts TV disputes; following the RFU's unilateral sale of television rights to England home games to a satellite TV company and ignoring the accepted practise of multi-laterally reaching such arrangements with the other home nations, England were threatened with expulsion from the Five Nations tournament, maybe this year, maybe the following. This storm in a teacup was finally laid to rest by some diplomacy by Wales' Vernon Pugh, we are led to believe, but it is difficult not to cynically wonder if the underlying motives for the dispute were not just plain money again, rather than the posturing associated with principle that was so evident.
On the playing side, all would seem fine... top stars, close games... all the fun of the fair. But have clubs sold their soul?? Newcastle, once mighty and proud "Gosforth," now basically run a single professional outfit. Those that built the club and were possibly part of its heyday in the 1970s now find themselves virtually persona non grata in the new Newcastle Falcons RFC. Gosforth, such as it is now, is a struggling club playing on rented pitches with no club house. The top League names "came south" to show the Union crowds how their skills and professionalism could destroy the opposition. But with the exception of only a couple of players such as Connolly and to a lesser degree Jason Robinson, most were left at times floundering in a new world of rucks, mauls and releasing the ball in the tackle, deprived of the face saving take-the-tackle. Supporters have been left wondering if the inflated wages paid to some of these stars have been worth paying, while those that have maybe earned their thirty pieces of silver have now left, returning to their Rugby League homes plenty richer, and leaving their clubs having to replace them with second-stringers short of first team exposure.
As for the Rugby League boys that have come home, one - Tuigamala, a former Rugby Union man anyway - has now definitely returned to League, despite Wasps' desperate attempt to keep hold of him. Of the permanent returnees, some it could be argued did it for the impending end of their careers and another juicy transfer fee. Others have possibly felt an inflated estimation of their worth, egged on maybe by the now omnipresent Mr. 10%, and have returned to the bosom of their national squads not because of pride in a jersey, or representation of a home nation, but because a soft-hearted and large-walleted supporter has baled them out. For others, the return has been less than they may have hoped for - Alan Tait still awaits the call for his nation despite consistent club performances since his return, whilst others again, like John Gallagher may ironically be breathing a small sigh of relief that professionalism has offered a return to a code where they once were great but made the mistake of giving it all up for a game in which they arguably never coped.
Player loyalties have been split also in this new world; the England players have been mentioned already, but what of the Scots and Irish players in English clubs that have been unable to represent their divisions or provinces as they would have formerly done, because they are now playing in the same European competition and one party already holds the strings? Not to mention the player depletion within less affluent nations to England in particular, making it even harder to create a national strategy for already weaker national teams, not aided by clubs' resistance to players' absences for national team training camps.
Meanwhile while the clubs at the top go from strength to strength, those below are beginning to show the strains of trying to compete in a world where success is measured in £ signs and not tradition. Gloucester struggle year to year to remain in the frame, and it looks as if once mighty and feared Bristol are to finally succumb to the ignominy of relegation from the top flight. These clubs continue to see their top players tempted elsewhere, and their rising stars snaffled early. It is easy to see parallels between the Manchester Uniteds and the Mansfield Towns of this brave new Rugby world.
The men that have created this new dawn of rugby are different now also. Chief to the RFU vs. EPRUC row are the new chairmen - often ruthless businessmen that see rugby clubs at best as toys, and at worst as business opportunities. Do they have their clubs best interests at heart? Or their players? Or their club's supporters? Or merely their egos and (expected) bank accounts?
So much for the past, and the present. What for the future in this new professional era?
Undoubtably, the game at the very top level will continue to grow, and raise levels to new unprecedented heights. But not far below are the clubs that will maybe never return to that top drawer, or may even go under due to lack of funds or even players. Already some clubs are unable to meet their wage bills. Added to that, any young talent they have is very likely to leave before making any real impact, and as likely, being transferred for less than a large sum. Even those clubs at the top may be unlikely to keep up the high wages that are bandied around - the possible foolishness of inflated salaries for super stars that haven't performed, or are only available half of the season may eventually dawn upon those that hold the purse strings. Connected to this is the lack of positions brought in stars leave for rising talent. Clubs are already finding that important positions are having to be filled with players that have played only two first team friendlies this season, and now have to play Bath or Saracens in a week. In the entire English First Division there are only a few eligible English players playing at fly-half, a key position. Where will the international players of the future come from, while we are watching a host of South African, French and Antipodean stars on our playing fields every week?
And while those stars are playing every week, what of the length of their playing careers? Professionalism may mean the chance to devote their lives to the game, but they are surely finding the game is becoming a job. Congested fixture lists resulting in forty top level matches a year is no way to keep players at the top for a dozen years or more - twenty league matches, a dozen European Cup matches, ten Anglo-Welsh appearances, Pilkington Cup run, internationals, divisional matches. Too much? Maybe.
Further down the ladder the junior clubs soldier on as they ever did; down there the pressure is as high as ever to compete, especially as to maybe climb the ladder may lead to commercial success. Rumours abound at this level... Teams are paying their players £50 a game.... clubs are offering free beer to the 1st XV (I kid you not!!) .... some players are getting free cars/rent/mortgage... inevitably these rumours pan out to be exactly that. The club whose players were getting £50 a game actually provide a complete set of kit for 15 players plus subs every week. And take it back at the end of the game. The free beer was a one off paid for by an ex player that won some money. The free car/rent/mortgage never exists and never will. A clubmate of mine admitted that five years ago he was getting £50 a game for a club now in English national division four. Today, legally, it is unlikely that is any higher, if even that high - I know of a player and friend that was getting £25 a game at the start of this season for another national division four club, but that has probably dried up now due to a poor year on the field. The money simply isn't there. Or more to the point, it's all in a few places.
So, what of professionalism then? Its easy to be negative, and to pick out the problems. Some of those problems may have existed anyway, despite professionalism - the expanding fixture list almost definitely for a start, and possibly even the concentration of players to a handful of clubs. Professionalism had to happen anyway; the days of hypocrisy are now over, along with the agonizing soul searching that accompanied league offers, and the crass banishment of those that accepted filthy lucre. There is no doubt that the game now stands on the edge of a bright future, with the lessons of other sports already learnt.
But will rugby heed those lessons? Will rugby fail to make the mistakes others have made before them?
Only time will tell...
The 1997 British Lions vs. South Africa Match
(Preview and Postview)
With just a few days until the first test between South Africa and the British Lions at Cape Town, it is time to maybe take a breather from the hurly burly and assess the chances of the Lions in the upcoming tests - the first series between these two sides for seventeen years.
The Lions have had on paper a successful start to their tour to date, with seven wins out of eight. The side has played some dazzling rugby at times, and notably the South African press has been full of praise for the way the Lions have embraced the more fluid and open style of southern hemisphere rugby. The squad generally have all acquitted themselves extremely well, leaving the selectors in the enviable position of having the majority of positions open to a choice of in form players, and the recent superlative win against Natal, Currie Cup champions and top four finishers in the Super Twelve for the last two years would auger well for the side.
The successful impact of the so-called "Rugby League" players on tour has been of interest - every one of them to a man could be likely to play a part in the test series, and Quinnell was obviously being groomed as the test number eight before his untimely injury. Their abilities have been outstanding on tour, and their commitment to the regime of training and being part of a squad unwavering. No doubt their experiences of being professional rugby players for far longer will be a large factor here, and obviously they must have been good players to have been asked to play league, but other qualities are surfacing. The defensive qualities of all four rugby league boys left are second to none, whilst their strength in attack has been displayed in their ability to either stay on their feet in contact, or go forward in the tackle. Bentley's try against Gauteng was an object lesson in beating defenders and finishing despite not being the quickest of wingers, almost repeated a week later against the Emerging Springboks when his storming run set up Nick Beal. Whilst not overplaying the role of rugby league - after all, all these men played rugby union for a long time before becoming professional rugby league players - their experiences in league have undoubtably helped them become better players, and these are benefits that the Lions are now reaping.
However, reality over the past few weeks is hidden by the gloss of the preceding remarks. Even leaving aside the untypical conditions endured at East London, the squad has rarely fired on all cylinders, and more importantly, the pack has looked extremely shaky at set piece, and uncompetitive in the loose at times. This problem reached a peak in the poor performance whilst losing against Northern Transvaal - the first ever Lions loss to a South African province for almost thirty years - and was doubly worrisome because if anything it was the perceived test pack, comprising mainly the much vaunted English pack, that came under the cosh. To add to the Lions problems leading up to the first test have been the loss to the tour of Paul Grayson with injury, Doddie Weir, cynically fouled by Marius Bosman against Mpumalanga, Scott Quinnell with groin strain, and Rob Howley with a dislocated shoulder. All four losses will have upset potential planning - Grayson's loss severely reduced the options at fly-half at a time when the tour was beginning to build momentum, Weir was playing so well as to push for a test spot, while Quinnell was being groomed for the test team number eight. Rob Howley's loss will be the one that affects the team the most however... the loss of the British Isles' top scrumhalf by a long chalk will be a body blow.
However, all that is now behind them... the scrummaging problems seem to have been overcome, and Howley aside, the tour replacements have slotted in well. So who will play?
Certainly there are many players in contention - possibly no previous Lions' tour has had such a genuine competition for test places. Possibly only three men could feel confident of playing all three tests, and Martin Johnson as captain aside none of the remaining two could be viewed as 100% definite given the strength of the competition - even Neil Jenkins as brilliant a kicker as he is cannot be assured of three test jerseys while Jeremy Guscott has so much competition from the other centres, not one of whom has put a foot wrong, that even his silken skills are assured a hat-trick of starts.
It may be easier to review those players that are unlikely to be selected, harsh though that may seem. Rowntree has failed to shine on tour, especially in comparison with Tom Smith who has taken his opportunities with both hands; Regan has been completely overshadowed by his Celtic counterparts Wood and Williams; Ollie Redman whilst by no means being a passenger and still giving his absolute all is probably the most surprised (and delighted!) member of the squad to be there, and Tim Rodber has not looked at all up to his usual standard - his injuries and stomach complaint seem to have taken their toll. Tony Underwood has not done anything wrong on tour at all, but doesn't seem to be in the selectors' eye, and certainly lacks any physical penetration. These players - none of them poor players at all - aside, even the potential also-rans are outside contenders; Healey who has shown to be lacking in experience for this level is still in the frame even if principally due to Howley's injury, whilst Bracken, if not for the first test, still has the possibility of forcing the selectors to consider him ahead of Dawson if he performs well in a midweek performance.
Everybody else has done more than enough to indicate that they could stake a claim to a Lions spot over the past four weeks - even the much maligned Mike Catt displayed against the Emerging Springboks that relieved of goal kicking duties, he can release a back line, and on his day can be as destructive a runner as Townsend, while Stimpson showed against the Emerging Springboks that not much is wrong with his game once he learns to counter-attack! Certainly his boots on the two occassions he has kicked the goals have not been lacking in accuracy.
Certainly the selectors have an unenviable duty to perform when sitting to select the first test; given their performances on tour, especially as the tour has developed, who can truly select between Back & Hill? Wood & Williams? Davidson & Shaw? Any of the centres on tour?
Even Tony Diprose, with only one appearance to date after joining the tour so late, has put in a performance so strong as to be surely discussed as a genuine contender for the number eight berth.
Some players will be in stronger positions certainly when it comes to selection for the first test, but such is the strength and form of this Lions squad that many permutations are available. The final choices are as likely to be made on balance than anything else so maybe Gibbs has a better chance of selection over Bateman, if it is believed that Guscott with his incredible pace and defense splitting ability has to play. Or if not balance, experience - Evans over Nick Beal simply because of his phenomenal finishing ability based on years of experience. Leonard over Wallace purely because all those test caps may possibly give him the edge in a tight situation; certainly after Leonard's performance against Emerging Springboks there is nothing to choose between the two.
One thing is almost certain however - it is unlikely the Lions will go through the three tests using only fifteen players! If nothing else, the bench will be as difficult to select as the starting fifteens; certain players are hallmarked as bench replacements because of their multi-positional abilities and experience, such as Catt and Healey. Jason Leonard should be assured of his position in a test squad because of his ability to play either side but should he start, this skill also permits the selectors to pick a bench prop for purely tactical reasons.
Whoever doesn't get selected for the initial test squad should certainly not feel downheartened either, as an injury here, a loss of form there, and they could well be straight back into contention, although it will still be a long shot with only two midweek games available to stake those claims. Bracken for one will be very keen to get a Tuesday game, as otherwise it's been a long way to come as a spectator!
Which leaves trying to predict a series result.... South Africa have just beaten Tonga by a large margin in uncompromising fashion, and their top players have just completed Super Twelve. They will be a very large, very powerful, and highly tuned team, worthy of their current mantle of World Champions. That said, Tonga was always going to be an easy victory for the world champions and won't have stretched them in anyway, and after the distressing Markgraaf episode, they have a new coach who has yet to prove his selections and ideas will work. The South African provinces didn't really perform that well in the Super Twelve, with only Natal making the final four, and the Lions have had no problems seeing them off along with Gauteng, fifth in the Super Twelve. Even in losing to Northern Transvaal it was evident that a pack that had won any decent ball would have ensured a comfortable victory, and the Lions pack is looking back to top form. The Lions have also the benefit of being together for over a month come the first test, while South Africa will have had about two weeks, and in which time they will only have played one actual match, and have really gelled in the last week. The bookies still stack the odds heavily in the Springboks favour, but I feel (and hope!) the reality will be closer.
However, although my heart says Lions to win, home advantage if absolutely nothing else should shade it for the home team. Two to One to South Africa come July 5th... but I for one will be hoping that I am totally wrong.
Roll on Saturday! Roll on the series!
Bring on the Springboks!
Well, well, well. Who'd have thought it? Maybe 35 players, and a handful of management; maybe a few crazed loons as they howled at the moon... but the majority of the Lions supporting fraternity, and probably every single man jack in the rest of the universe never gave them a chance. Perhaps many of them would never have had the Lions down for a single test win; a hardened few would have had the Lions down for a total debacle and tour whitewash. Six weeks, many pints of Wadsworth's 6X, and a bruised liver & wallet later it's all over, done, and dusted. The 1997 British and Irish Lions have written themselves into the record books as series victors, to place themselves alongside such immortal teams as the 1971 & 1974 squads.
The game will never be the same again - will it?
For years the northern hemisphere nations have suffered criticism in comparison with the southern hemisphere nations; their game was stodgy and lacked flair; it was dominated by individuals that had perfected negative tactics; its players lacked skills and heart. In truth, the hemispherical descriptions have belied the real messages - for northern hemisphere read "England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales" and for southern hemisphere read "New Zealand and South Africa." As such a Lions tour has encapsulated that hemispherical concept perfectly; the best the useless northern hemisphere has pitted against one of the cream of southern hemisphere nations. Only twice in modern times has the accepted world order been questioned but now in 1997 a third "upset" can be added.
In achieving this unheralded win, the Lions have shown that northern hemisphere players can encompass the more open and expansive game demanded by newer laws and expectations, and also compete mentally with a ferocious spirit and confidence rarely credited to their ilk. Southern hemisphere players have been shown to be human after all; indecisive, ill-disciplined and naive. So, what of the future? Will this New World Order sweep all before it and overturn the status quo? Shall it be northern hemisphere supporters that in years to come bray and crow over their southern rivals, taunting them with cries of "rubbish", "boring" and "useless?"
Unfortunately for the northern hemisphere, probably not... or at least, not yet. For despite the magnificent achievements, the gains made, and the fundamental improvements, the Lions successes will take some time still to filter down through all four home nations. The fact remains that these were the cream of British and Irish rugby, and so plenty exist below them in the national teams that must still learn these lessons and expand their own games.
Secondly the management on the Lions tour is not those individual nations' management although Scotland is better served in this respect. And thirdly, some nations' entire playing strengths and philosophy have been shown during the tour to be flawed.
England excels in the Five Nations with its immense pack... but their tight five players in the Lions squad, originally touted as the Lions likely tight five, were eventually represented only by Johnson, who had he not been captain may well have lost his spot to another - Weir was looking much the better choice until injured. These English monoliths were shown not to have the mobility of South Africans, nor the ball-handling skills required to take on the expanded tasks required of them as loose play runners and distributors. The traditional Irish passion and boots-and-all approach soon became sidelined as the Lions strove - and found - a very disciplined approach that requires cool heads and objectivity in its execution. Aside from this the Welsh contingent as a whole played little part although this was maybe more circumstances - Quinell and Evans via injury, Williams and Bateman through selectorial preference. The bigger worry for Wales will be that they provided only three forwards to the entire squad, of which only Quinell at the end of the day ever looked like being selected for a test team, albeit Williams was unlucky not to play in the third test. Scotland provided some excellent individuals, but frankly had no one player that really shone on tour - unless you count Wainwright's penalty count.
But I should not be too negative; the home nations still individually have a long way to go to seriously contend with the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, but the signs are there that northern hemisphere players can - and want to - adjust to new demands; hopefully the lessons learnt/displayed by the Lions management can be picked up by the nations' own administrations... and possibly we northern hemisphere supporters have had enough taste of glorious success over southern hemisphere opponents to demand that our nations compete equally as well.
One of the heartening successes of the Lions tour was undoubtably the acceptance and influence of the Rugby League players - their own integration and input to the team especially we hear in terms of organising defences and communication can surely only be a plus point in the development of the British and Irish game; perhaps this is an indication that after a century of stand-off it is time that rugby union clubs and unions seek a closer tie with their League counterparts if only to share common knowledge and techniques, hopefully to benefit both codes. The introduction last year of league players to club rugby may hopefully be the start of a symbiosis - a coaching and management trade could well be the catalyst that British and Irish rugby requires to take it into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, back here in Devizes, things are much the same as ever... except that Wadsworth's brewery is about to declare record quarterly profits, the landlord of my local is taking a holiday to the Bahamas on his new yacht... and I'm booked into the Betty Ford clinic.
Here's to the future of British & Irish rugby.
And here's to the 1997 British & Irish Lions.
Wadsworth's shareholders love you all...
The British Lions in South Africa
The first accredited British Lions tour to South Africa occurred in 1924, just over one hundred years from the invention of the game of Rugby Football. There had, however, been two previous tours of British players to South Africa. The first was in 1891, prompted by the successful cricket tour by England there some two years previously. (And possibly the last successful English cricket tour!) The rugby tour was equally successful, with the tourists winning all three test matches, and indeed all nineteen matches played on tour, indicating where the strength in world rugby lay at that time.
A second tour occurred in 1910, and this tour is accredited as being the first really representative tour, receiving as it did the blessing of all four home unions. The power axis of world rugby may have already begun to shift, as the South Africans won the series by two tests to one, and trumpeted the future history of this encounter with all but one reversal in 1974.
Early indications of an English-Celtic rift are evident from these early tours, when the Welsh, Scots and Irish players complained that the team should not maybe be called the English team, but the British team... and by 1924 they became known as the Lions, a nickname invented by the pressmen. To this day that name has stuck with all British Isles & Ireland teams that have toured around the world. Those 1924 Lions failed to win a single test of four, although they did draw one. In 1938, they improved their margin by once again losing a series by two tests to one, and then in 1955 shared the four test series with two test wins each.
The next two tours, in 1962 and 1968, were to prove humiliating, as the Springboks took three tests in each with a draw in each series the Lions' best result, but all was to change in 1974.
Following the successful tour of New Zealand in 1971, Willie John McBride inherited arguably the greatest rugby side the world has ever seen when he captained the Lions in 1974. The All Black "Invincibles" in 1921 would lay a strong claim to that mantle, but the Springboks were a formidable side to tour against. McBride lay down his law early on, before the tour departed, and invited any that were not prepared to forget any gentlemanly feelings to leave the party. None did, and McBride forged a squad that were not prepared to lay down and take the flack as previous British Lions sides had been accused of.
Beginning with the infamous '99' call, and finishing with the destruction of a hotel suite, McBride's Lions kicked, punched, stamped... and ran, and ran, and ran, and beat their Springbok opposition by three tests to none, with the last test drawn. It is difficult not to accept that the Lions did not actually win the fourth test, with a dying minutes try, but the story goes that the referee - a local South African of course in those days - feared for his life had he given it. In retrospect the tour contained much that would be castigated, and quite rightly so, today... the blatant thuggishness, and open vandalism would quite possibly land those players in court today, but the camaraderie and team spirit forged a belief and a brotherhood that was virtually invincible, and shocked the home side's supporters. Even Phil Bennett allegedly hit someone. Once. When no one was looking.
International politics then took a hold. International boycotts around the world heralded the end (almost) of sporting tours to South Africa, just as the country began to show true world domination in almost all sports... in the early seventies, its cricket team decimated Australia, but was not to play an official test match for some twenty years thereafter. The writing had been on the wall during the 1974 series - already the SA cricket team hadn't played test cricket for well over two years - but by the time the 1980 tour left, the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing. It is even possible that a different government in Britain at the time - the Conservative party had won a general election in only 1979 - might have seen the tour canceled, but eventually it went ahead under the auspices of Bill Beaumont, who had just led England to a Grand Slam.
There was to be no fairy tale this time however... the paucity of British rugby, and probably the first real indication of Welsh rugby's decline, was no match for the Springboks, desperate to show that whilst isolated they remained a top rugby force, on top of the game, and on top of their domestic situation, despite the black population of South Africa supporting the Lions vociferously throughout the series.
The South Africans won three tests, whilst the Lions raised themselves for a solitary consolation win. The party returned home, virtually shunned by half of British society, and hardly lauded by the wounded pride of the other half. No further British Lions tours were to be planned to South Africa for another seventeen years; the experience was so bad, in fact, the Lions did not tour for almost another decade.
And so to 1997. In another three months, it too will be history. But in the meantime, this Lions tour re-opens a sporting rivalry that has spanned over one hundred years, and one that somehow embodies the spirit of the British Isles and Ireland touring teams more than any other.
For where better than a Lion to roam, than Africa?
For what seems an eternity to me, at the tender age of thirty four and having played and followed rugby in excess of twenty years, everyone and his dog has been talking about rugby in Europe. The Five Nations obviously, but I specifically mean, club rugby. Players, tea ladies, journalists, that old duffer who sits in the corner every Saturday after the game and who nobody ever speaks to. Yes, that's him - the ref. Everybody has been muttering about how wonderful it would be for clubs in Europe to play each other.. whether Racing Club de Paris were classier than Llanelli, or if Garryowen were as daunting as Gloucester or Gosforth.
Of course, those two particular questions would have been asked a long time ago, when continental travel required boat trains that left Waterloo or Victoria at God-forsaken hours of the morning, and involved two changes before Dover, a ninety minute wait at the docks, and a painfully slow progression across France in what appeared to be a converted cattle truck. And that was traveling first class! Travel to Ireland was doubly fraught, involving as it did epic journeys being herded around by British Rail (sadly no more with us, and who would ever have thought we'd have said that twenty years ago?) as if we were lepers, then a perilous crossing on the ark that Noah rejected before repeating the self same trip in reverse but this time facing the prospect of a strip search and internal cavity inspection by Her Majesty's distrusting security forces as soon as you stepped foot back in the U.K. This daunting prospect was even more likely for those that were unfortunate enough to have a surname beginning with an "O", such as O'Reilly. Or Ostlethwaite.
It is no wonder therefore that European rugby was little more than a whisper on peoples' lips after a few pints of Guinness, or glasses of Pernod. Chaps just wouldn't seriously consider a trip outside Blighty to play rugby once they were sober, and aside from that the food was always smelly and the beer came in silly little glasses, and cost the earth. Apart from Ireland where touring teams went down with beri-beri and scurvy due to the huge amount of potatoes they were fed everywhere and little else, and where the Guinness while at least coming in pints sealed a chap up for a week tighter than a gnat's chuff. Allied to this of course was the sure knowledge that Rugby outside the mainland was played by large hairy Paddies that kicked the bejeezus out of you, or effeminate Frogs that broke your nose when the ref wasn't looking. (No change there then.)
No, no, no... a rugger bugger was much better off staying at home in England where he knew he could tour against fellow gentlemen, and find a delicious foaming pint of ale served up by a curvaceous large breasted publican. And that was just the loose head prop having slipped behind the bar. If any foreign rugby was required then there was always the prospect of popping over to deepest Wales to play someone like Newport, or better still Chepstow, especially once the Severn Bridge and the M4 was built. That way you could be back in Bristol or Gloucester in time for opening as the beer was always awful in Wales. (No change there then, either.) Presumably before the Severn bridge was built, teams occasionally visited Welsh strongholds like Monmouth or Hay-on-Wye, which was even better because although it is in Wales everyone speaks with an English accent. Sort of. Of course, if one's club was buried in the far north, visits to Berwick or Gretna could be made in similar vein, and thus the desire to play internationally was sated for another few years; and there was always Cornwall for a kind of Celtic experience if the prospect of leaving England was too much.
The RFU were apparently happy with this scenario, as the one exception to the general rule that talk of European rugby was on everybody's lips was of course anyone with a blazer. Such men were far busier dealing with crushing rugby league, boot money and avoiding doing anything too much before the end of the season when they could all have a rest. The collective flatulence was unlikely to ever consider anything outside of the home counties let alone the motherland - it was bad enough that bumpkins in the west country and upstarts from the north insisted on being good, without having to contemplate any foreign johnnies.
However, the incessant march of technology brought foreign climes ever closer. British Visitors' Passports, valid for one year and resembling a dog-chewed piece of bathroom mat, and available at very Post Office in the land (the purchase of which usually brought the entire queuing system to a grinding halt and led to several OAPs dying of malnutrition whilst waiting to collect their pensions) soon had the average Englishman pouring onto the Continent in search of sun, sand and Watney's Draught Red Barrel. Poor Europeans. For centuries they had fought wars to keep the English out of Europe (except strangely enough the Portuguese, but I guess the English have never been that fond of sardines or green wine), and now because of the EEC they had to welcome them with open arms, throw open their resorts to them, and clean their vomit off the pavements. With this mass exodus to pastures continental soon followed the rugby players. Individuals swapped a bedsit in Dagenham for a villa in the south of France for a year in the pursuit of a different rugby environment, vast quantities of cheap red wine, and as many French birds they could shag in a season. I have often wondered if the reciprocal situation was ever true - some poor French lad, brought up in rich, beautiful countryside, surrounded by the bounties of nature and blessed with the joie de vivre of flowing Gallic rugby having to spend what must have seemed a lifetime in purgatory freezing on the wing somewhere in the West Midlands with only the prospect of warm, flat beer and a fat bird with bad breath after the game. I don't see it somehow.
And in the wake of the individuals came the clubs. Gone were the traditional Easter tours to Somerset or Suffolk; now clubs started planning Easter tours the previous May, setting up saving clubs for potential tourists so that the treasurer could run off with the dosh the following March. Tours flourished to Spain, Portugal (whose residents soon wished they also had been at war with the bloody English for centuries, and got their own back on the touring teams by feeding them sardines and filling them full of green wine) and France. Soon tales of broken legs in skiing accidents in the Alps played second fiddle at dinner parties to stories of broken jaws on tour to Pau. Even Wales and Ireland benefitted from this export of rugby; however, whereas before they had welcomed the likes of Waterloo or Blackheath, now they hosted all those clubs whose treasurer had run off with the tour kitty and who couldn't afford to tour anywhere else (I've toured to Newcastle Emelyn at Easter. "Where?", I hear you ask. Quite. The irony here is that I had only left Aberystwyth, thirty miles up the bloody road, the previous summer!).
But still the RFU kept its collective head in the sand. European rugby was something clubs did to let off steam at Easter. No future in it. Too bloody far. Absolutely impractical. Huh. If you couldn't get to the ground by train, then it wasn't worth doing.
Then some bastard went and built a bloody great tunnel, defacing half of Kent and Flanders in the process, and the RFU-scuppered. European rugby was a reality after all those years of half drunken debate. At last, we could find out if Racing Club de Paris was classier than Llanelli, or if Garryowen was mightier than Gosport (no one had told the Irish that the tunnel only connected England and France, but it didn't stop them wanting to join in); well, we might possibly be interested in the answers to those questions if those teams weren't crap now, but we undoubtably had the enthralling prospect of seeing the unstoppable Toulouse take on the unbeatable Bath.
Remember those blazers? The ones that were too busy before trying to sniff out ferret handlers and black pudding salesmen south of Doncaster? The ones who previously thought Dax was a toilet cleaner, and Hawick a noise you made when you had too much phlegm on your chest? Despite the fact a sponsor was ready and willing to pump a vast amount of its fizzy overpriced product's profits into making a European club competition work, Karlingz 57 sat on their bums and kept English clubs away from the party. "Too soon," they said. "Far too unplanned. It will need a twenty-seven member sub-committee reporting to an IRB supremo at twice yearly intervals for the next decade to ensure that any such competition is properly organised with a view to home/away, relegation/promotion and organisational structure, and especially important, which wine is served with the fish course. And you can't have a European Cup competition without us English chappies because that would be silly."
Then some bastard said "Stuff the RFU" (or words to that effect) and in twenty-three nanoseconds had organised the first European Club Cup competition, encompassing clubs from Celtic nations, France, Italy, Romania and Liechtenstein (only Liechtenstein had to pull out when they realised they didn't have fifteen players). And no English clubs. "Pah!" said someone in the RFU. "Stupid idea". And naturally it was brilliant success - in fact so successful, Heineken poured all its gassy lager into the same competition the next year and wouldn't give the Welsh any. The first final was a glorious game won by Toulouse over Cardiff, and at last the RFU accepted that maybe it was a good idea. "Well done you European chappies" they said "next season is when we would have suggested the competition could start, so we'll join in then OK?"
The rest is history. History is also bunk, according to Henry Ford, but what did he know about Rugby? This year has seen the magnificent debut of the inaugural European Cup (last year's doesn't count according to the RFU), where some despicable French team from Gdansk (or something) beat the magnificent and wholly English chaps from Leicester by cheating and running too fast and jumping higher. But let us not forget the European Cup's baby brother, the Conference. Actually, on second thoughts, let's forget all about it as it ended up being a completely French affair after about two matches. But I'm sure it'll be better next year when some English teams win something in it. Maybe. Or at least some team whose name we can all pronounce (except for Welsh teams with no vowels and seven "l"s in their name) gets further than carrying the oranges.
European rugby has gripped the imagination of the European rugby fraternity, the media, and most of Pau's opposition's genitals. The competition created an international interest arguably outweighing the totally nationalistic basis of the Five Nations; as the competition developed, national allegiances moved with the clubs that remained... Parisians barracked for Toulouse, Swansea men shouted for Cardiff, Gloucester supporters cheered for Bath (well, maybe not ...). And the standard of rugby has arguably risen as a result. Next year's cup is eagerly anticipated already.
And what of next year? And the following years? Well, European Club Rugby is here to stay it would appear. Who can say if the format will remain the same... maybe it will become a top level league. There are suggestions already of a divisional competition to equal the Super Twelve, which itself has taken several years under differing formats to flourish, and then only with the huge injection of cash from satellite/cable television. Whatever, there is one thing that is for certain... we won't be sitting around our club rooms any longer pontificating over who is better between Ponty and Treviso.
But... no... its daft... but... do you reckon Brive would beat Natal?
Didds and Baseball
Wherein an English rugby prop discovers the Grand Old American Pastime.
As related in an e-mail to a Yank friend.
Got home late from work last night around midnight due to a pile of junk my latest client laughingly refers to as his "High Availability" I.T. solution and that I cynically refer to it as "the skip waiting to happen." (Dunno what you call 'em over there but a "skip" is an open topped metal container that you can pile waste into - you see 'em on building sites a lot. Maybe you call 'em dumpsters?)
Anyhow, although it was late and I'm tired I still have that "just left work" buzz, so I grabbed a beer (or four) from the fridge and channel hopped looking for something banal to wash over me for a while, while not totally leaving me brain dead or seemingly approaching the status of closet pervert. Late night TV here has hit upon these various sad programs that are basically extremely soft porn but dressed up to look like genuine investigative documentaries... stuff like "Strippers and their Clients - the relationship" or "Working Girls Lives" which drone on about the psychology of female sex workers and the male punter, etc. while using every opportunity to show women stripping, lap dancing and generally acting in variously erotic ways, some more successfully than others.
Not that I ever watch these programs, of course.
Anyway, I flicked past a totally shite US made-for-TV movie on BBC1 about a heroin addict's reaction to life with AIDs having been made bankrupt following the collapse of the family business due to a horrific tragedy that killed off his entire family except him in a bizarre accident involving a nuclear submarine, a fridge and a can of Dr. Pepper, to find BBC2 had some studio chat thing going on about the dichotomy between the established church and gay bishophood (it’s all the rage each side of the Atlantic, of course) and David Beckham's move to Real Madrid... or something. ITV was just crap because it is ITV ... I only watch it for the adverts these days... Channel 4 looked promising but the program ended as soon as I started to watch it and was followed by a Croatian film dubbed into Korean with French subtitles about a fly. Finally I tried Channel 5.
Now, Channel 5, I have to explain, is the last refuge of the desperate. When it was launched they had the great foresight of showing an England Rugby International when England were playing in Argentina. “Excellent start,” thinks I. But they used a football (i.e. soccer) pundit to introduce it and give the half time comment, which all began with him saying he didn't know the first thing about rugby and continued in a vein that displayed his immense ignorance perfectly while adding nothing to the experience. They had tried to find somebody vaguely knowledgeable about the game, but obviously weren't offering enough cash because all they could find was Victor Obugu, who, reasonable prop that he was, will never win any awards for intelligent thinking and whose speech and delivery makes Stallone appear Olivier like in his acting. Their early inroads into sport having failed, they now tend to rely on soft porn films shown on Friday nights after the pubs have chucked out to attract any viewers. So you can see that I was truly stuck to venture this far; the TV remote still has that satisfying click when you depress "5" while all the others sort of slush into their facia holes and mostly don't work through overuse.
You can imagine my delight, therefore, when I espied not some bimbo explaining to a traffic cop why she was lost while her blouse fell off or some Sardinian commentating in extremely broken English on a Korfball match, but a full blooded, totally kosher Yankees vs. Texas (Rangers?) baseball match courtesy of "ESPN Wednesday Night Baseball". Ed Wotsisname was commentating - the bloke who looks a hundred and eight years old and was once traded for a pitcher (?) 'cos the pitcher's team's boss was a TV station owner whose baseball commentator was ill and Ed's boss was a fan of another team that needed a pitcher. Or something like that. In fact he reminded me of an Australian Cricket commentator called Alan McGilvray that used to commentate for the BBC on the radio when the Aussies were touring in England. He looked about 108, too, although I don't think he ever got traded for a fast bowler. Australia have got hundreds of them.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 innings I sat through until fatigue got the better of me. The Yankees had some huge fat left-armer pitching that wore 33 in honour of Babe Ruth ('cos the no. 3 has been retired, of course) although, frankly, my bet is Babe would probably still pitch better than this bloke. His main pitch seemed to be the one that breaks the batter's toes and flies off at 90 degrees so the runner on first base can steal to second while the catcher tries to find the ball, because the umpire hadn't noticed that the batter hopping around on one leg in agony might have been an indication that it was a dead pitch/ball and not a fumble - and that runner went on to score the Yankees’ first run. Great stuff - and I was delighted to realise that while even cricket and rugby have succumbed to the TV umpire/referee, that baseball has shunned this obvious piece of technology to resolve such simple disputes.
This truly is a game of tradition and hang the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Much was made of the fact that this was the very mound that Babe Ruth once pitched from and hit pitches that came from it... aside from the fact that in the millennia since Babe Ruth retired the in-field must have been relaid so many times that the earth that Babe's mound was made of is probably been long tipped into the foundation of I-95 or whatever runs through/past Manhattan.
Paul McCartney seemed to be enjoying himself, though.
The Yankees also had some Japanese bloke playing for them that looked totally inscrutable as well as also looking totally like Fu Manchu as played by Christopher Lee back in the 60s/70s. Totally inscrutable, that is, until he made a huge error in left field that let in the tie run.
As for Texas, their pitcher looked about 12 years old. I don’t remember much about them except I went for another beer, was away for all of 30 seconds and missed their home run. Bugger.
But, of course, the thing that made it all was the commentary team, who seemed to be shown as often as the players. Ed wotsis-face the living corpse sandwiched between a big fat bugger that never talked about the game in progress but everything that happened in 1936, and bloke with a black blazer and tie that didn't seem to have much to say at all - or maybe he just couldn't get much of a word in edgeways between fat-history-man and Ed.
Whatever. It was great. Really brought back memories of watching the Orioles on the TV in DC, and, more often, listening to the commentaries on whatever radio station it was. Definitely a game I enjoy, even if the nuances mean nothing. Any commentary team that is more interested in Willie May's mother's dog's previous owner's postman's ERA in the minor leagues than the game that is groaning along in front of them is fine by me - in fact it was very reminiscent of some of the more extreme commentary pieces from the BBC's esteemed "Test Match Special" cricket commentary team.
It also ties in with a conversation I had last week with some rugger chums. We were discussing longevity in sportsmen and mentioning the likes of Steve Redgrave with five Olympic Golds (from five Olympic games)... and I told 'em all about Cal Ripken, Junior who not only holds the ironman record for consecutive baseball matches but that he did it mostly at shortstop - the most intense position on the field.
I could tell they didn't have a clue what I was on about.
Meanwhile, here in the UK we are having scorching weather - the bookies have stopped taking bets on a 100 degree day - and the UK has never recorded such a temperature. And the railways have ground to a halt because the tracks are buckling due to the wrong kind of heat.
The weather may change but the British railway system doesn't.
Here's to Ed-The-Dead, a long hot summer, and fat pitchers. Time standing still.
So what’s the crack with rugby?
by Gail Foster, Devizes, UK
for Ian Diddams, and my Dad
So what’s the crack with rugby?
My father used to play
He’d come home with an injury
Every other day
My mother used to worry
He was quite deaf to her fears
Her futile protestations fell
On cauliflower ears
Oh so many broken bones
As trophies he would wear
Those would be the only times
I heard my mother swear
My father didn’t drink much
He didn’t do the pub
But he’d sink some with the other lads
In the rugby club
He had a book of rugby songs
Some of them were crude
Dinah, Dinah, show us yer leg
And other ones more rude
A weird way to learn about
Sex and funny stuff
Sex ed in the seventies
Was really pretty rough
Now I watch a rugby game
And find the blokes quite hot
Got to love a massive thigh
And firmly muscled bott
Oh how they thunder up the pitch
And grunt and sweat and shout
Got to love testosterone
It’s what it’s all about
Never mind the odd shaped ball
Shape doesn’t make me frown
It’s how they chuck the thing that counts
And how they smack it down
The scrum’s a thing to marvel at
A tad homo erotic
What if someone breaks their neck
Not sport for the neurotic
And then there is the line dancing
And shouting things in code
Like massive noisy warriors
With faces streaked with woad
Not partial to the gumshields
I suppose they save the grief
Of ruining a toothpaste smile
And choking on the teeth
The thing I don’t quite understand
Is how they pass the ball
What’s the crack with backwards?
I don’t get that at all
I’m a girl who loves a tryer
It’s hardly a perversion
It just don’t get more exciting
Than a finely placed conversion
Snorting mist like horses
Hot blokes running free
Imagine the baths afterwards
Oh it’s all too much for me
I have memories of autumn
Fields all churned up with mud
My Dad and Son played rugby
There’s some rugby in my blood
So, here’s my final word on this
Rugby’s hot, but makes me sad
For when I think of rugby
It reminds me of my Dad
* Love you, Dad
A Rugby Carol (or, How Green were my Tactics??)
By Didds. With apologies to... well, just about everyone.
Preamble : The following (and subsequent chapters) were born of an afternoon with little to do, a few too many beers, and the shenanigans in Wales at the time. This story in no way is meant to imply any disrespect for Wales, the Welsh, or Welsh culture. Or referees :-)
Neither can I guarantee that I haven't made some glaring factual error.
This is above all, a work of fiction. Or should that be ... faction???
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans scowled into the meager embers spluttering in the hearth of his Llantrwnty bedsit's fire, and pulled his WRU bedcover (made in Taiwan) tighter around his slight frame. The bowl of cawl he had warmed earlier on the same fire lay only half eaten on the floor beside him, accompanied only by a disdainfully rejected half-stale piece of bread, and a small piece of Caerphilly. A glass of Allbright bitter stood untouched on the mantelpiece. Dai had lost his appetite, on this pre-Christmas weekend, 1996. Outside, the wind whistled in the darkness, and somewhere a radio played Elvis Presley singing "Are you lonesome tonight?". Dai curled his lip. "The King", Dai muttered; he spat the words out, towards the fire. "There has only ever been one 'King' and he is Welsh". Dai's nostrils flared as he bitterly muttered his words. His heart swelled with pride as his mind's eye filled with recollections of "The King"... that number ten shirt rippling as He ran... as He passed... as He kicked... those were the days, thought Dai. Those were the days when every Welshman stood tall, when those English bastards groveled at the feet of the men they had no right to share a rugby field with, when Rugby Union was run by Wales, from Wales... for Wales...
Dai sniffed and snapped himself upright. Surprised, he realized a small tear had formed in the corner of each eye. One escaped the adhesion of his eyelid, and began to roll down his left cheek. Dai angrily wiped both eyes, and shouted at the fire, "Bastards". In the street, through the grimy windows splattered with slush and filthy rain Dai watched several young men passing, fresh with youth, full with lager, dressed in Swansea City FC shirts, chanting in their alcohol induced camaraderie "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole....".
"AND YOU'RE NO BLOODY BETTER", Dai yelled at the window, bitter anger exploding, followed immediately by fear that the young men might have heard his outburst... but they passed, his own voice drowned by their moronic chanting and the unplaced radio station playing the "Spicer Girls" new Christmas number one hit.
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans was a miserable and twisted man. Born in the late thirties, as warclouds gathered over Europe, he had grown up in the valleys of South Wales - his Da worked in the colliery, his Ma sweated at home with his two elder brothers, Geraint and Alun, and their sister, Sian. He was told when young they were lucky... men returning from the war in the mid to late forties struggled to find work, especially in the cities. Industry was sluggish to return to full production - resources were still low, and much was still rationed; the inability to supply combined with the enforced lack of demand meant little requirement for labour. But Da had returned from his four years of fighting in North Africa and Italy, and went straight back to the pit.
Coal was the lifeblood of an economy. Coal supplied heat. Coal provided power. Coal even supplied gas, for light and cooking if you were on the mains. But up here, in the valleys, Coal was more than that. Coal was life itself. The pit provided everything for the village - employment, heat, power. And Coal provided the community; the hub for those men to return to a normal life. It meant that people cared. It meant that families had all the basic requirements of life - a cottage, food, clothing, warmth.... love. The new Labour government now also provided the community with the infrastructure of a healthier and less ignorant life. And on Saturdays, when the noon hooter sounded, and the miners poured home from their work, Coal meant ... RUGBY!!
Below the pit, and its slag heap, was "The Club". Llantrwnty Rugby Football Club, that is, but everyone knew it as "The Club". His Da played on the wing, his uncle Dai in the centre, and his (much) older cousin Bill played open side wing-forward. Llantrwnty wasn't a great valley club, but it wasn't the worst... they had their moments, and they won more than they lost, and they were renowned as a hard, but fair lot that took no stick, but played to win by playing Rugby. And after the games, Dai would stand with his brothers and sister, and hear his Da, and Uncle Dai, and Bill, and the other players sing long, complicated songs, some of them in a language that he never understood, but stirred him deep down inside and sometimes made him want to cry for no reason.
Life had been good then... but slowly it had all gone wrong. He was always a weak child, unlike his brothers and sister, and neither was he overly blessed with brains. He failed to shine at school, and later was not deemed fit to work in the pit, so struggled along with a string of clerk's jobs. His Da became crippled physically by the years of coal dust on his lungs and died. His Ma had a stroke, and lived her days out in a home that stank of stale piss. One brother, Geraint, lost a leg in a mining accident, the other, Alun, moved to London amidst rumours of his sexuality, and his sister married a drunken sod that beat her. Dai hadn't heard from his brothers or sister for a long time now... somehow, it didn't seem so important these days. He himself had never married; he had courted Megan Phillips for a long time when they were both young, but her family had emigrated to New Zealand in the sixties and he'd never found anyone else.
But one thing had stayed with him throughout his life, and now had become his life. Rugby Union. He remembered aged around fifteen, listening to Wales beating the All Blacks; the village seemed drunk for days. His Da even kissed his Ma in front of them all when he got back from pub on Sunday lunchtime! Then he got a break, whilst visiting Cardiff one weekend, and ended up working as a clerk at the WRFU! In time, he rose slowly up the ladder until he had reached a minor position of power within the WRFU's "civil service" - the back room boys that keep the wheels of Welsh rugby turning whilst the big names come and go during signings, sackings, resignations, stand-offs and run-ins. He was pleased with his position within the "Match Officials, Laws and Related Issues Standing Committee", but over the years had become increasingly disenchanted with his fellow man, and life in general.
Rugby, and more importantly, Welsh rugby, had helped him keep his head above the mire for a long, long time, but recently even this had gone all wrong. These days he brooded long and darkly, and bitterly spat his thoughts to anyone that asked. And this Christmas it had all come to a head.
Bloody Referees. Bloody Professionalism. Bloody Money.
It was bad enough the players wanting bloody payment - payment for a game that he loved, payment for the game he would have given anything to have played - to have been able to stand in "The Club" with his Da, and Uncle Dai, and Bill and sing with them, having also sweated and won with them. Payment for a game that for a hundred bloody years no-one had needed money for; that players played for the love of the oval ball and the grease and the liniment. Rugby League had been the Devil then, but one that until very recently had been a long way away. Rumours abounded about the better players getting "boot money" but Dai didn't believe them. Rumours like that were made up by the bloody English, to cover up the obvious payments going on in English rugby, which he held in the greatest contempt at all times. Welsh rugby was pure, he was sure. Adamant even. How could a boy grow up in Chapel, to become a man that would accept money to play rugby??
And now the bloody refs wanted the bloody money too!! Bloody hell! Refer-bloody- rees!! "They'll be paying bloody tea-ladies next", he'd shouted at the committee; "When will this madness stop??". The committee had had to announce to the referees that the committee had failed unanimously to approve payments to match officials, and as such the status quo would remain. What they didn't tell the referees was that only one voice had dissented. Dai's voice. And the referees were less than pleased.
"Bugger them." Dai said. "Bugger the bloody lot of them. Mercenary bastards".
The last coal in the hearth fizzled and died. The radio somewhere had been turned off for some time now. The drunken youths outside had stopped partying on car roofs, and had left the street.
Dai pulled his scrawny frame from his chair, and slumped into bed.
"Bastards" he muttered again as he switched off his bedside lamp. "They'll do nothing anyway. Never have, never will. No balls on the pitch, and none off it either".
Outside it began to freeze on the night of Friday 20th December 1996.
Inside, Dai snored. A sad and lonely man.
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans tossed and turned in his bed. The events of the previous afternoon's committee meeting stirred mercilessly in his mind; the wheedling, whining voices pathetically groveling for referees payments. Then the pompous, Cardiff types going on and on about how it was a professional game now, and referees needed to also be treated professionally. But Dai would have none of it. Oh no. Not over his dead body - Rugby Union was the ONE unspoilt thing in his life, despite the new bloody professionalism, and paying referees was the last straw... they might as well give up and go and play Rugby- Bloody-League, he'd shouted. That had stopped them. That had made them think about what they were saying.
Of course, it wasn't that at all. What had of course really occurred that this last statement had made them finally all realise what they were dealing with.
A dinosaur. A Welsh dinosaur, true, but a dinosaur. Rugby League was no threat now, they all understood that; if anything Rugby Union was a threat to Rugby League. Surely the swiftness of League's top players to either return to the fold of Union (at the ages of 34 or thereabouts......) or to at least "come South" and embrace the Union code (for large sums of money over a few short months....) heralded this triumphant victory over the "North"?? And professionalism was bound to happen; the hypocrisy of money in envelopes and jobs-that- aren't was tidied away now, and the clean slate of payment for playing open to all to see. But they could see that Dai would never acquiesce. So they stood down. Or rather accepted that a unanimous decision would not be arranged. After all they were only referees, and would do what they were told; just as the players had done... we are the WRFU, they argued. We ARE the game.
Dai awoke with a start. What was that noise?? Bloody cats again, he mused... he'd have a go at Mrs. Patel tomorrow. Always throwing the fish scraps out the back of her takeaway shop, and the entire neighbourhood's feline population would descend on it at night. Bloody health hazard I shouldn't wonder" Dai opined, to no-one but himself.
"Probably But!", the voice said.
"Huuuu!", exclaimed Dai, "who said that??". And snapped on his bedside light.
"Me, boyo", giggled a boyish voice, "by here."
Dai swivelled his gaze from his WRFU bedcover (made in Taiwan) to his table. The pots from last night, remained unwashed there. Somebody was wiping up Cawl from them with the slightly stale bread also on the table - somebody he had never seen before, but somehow seemed ... familiar.
"Not bad cawl, bach" smiled the man. "Got any cheese to go with my bread? Or any beer? I see you've got that awful Allbright muck in the fridge, but I'm more of a Felinfoel man myself. Being from Llanelli like."
Dai leapt from his bed, unwashed sheets falling to the floor.
"Who the hell are you??". His voice quavered. There'd been something on the news last week about an old lady that had been murdered in her bed for her pension. "Oh, please, not me", thought Dai, and then illogically, "I've got tickets for Wales v. England".
The man grinned. "Don't worry, boyo. Sit down by here. Have some cawl... oh, I seem to have eaten it all. Sorry, but. Bit partial to a spot of cawl myself you see."
Dai slid into the chair beside the man. For a murderer he didn't seem very.. well... murderous. He wore a long jacket like a donkey jacket, but with red lining... a Crombie, remembered Dai. "Blimey", he thought, "I haven't seen one of those for years...". Beneath the coat the man wore jeans, and a plain red shirt with white collar. The three feathers could be seen glinting, gold, in the light from the bedside lamp when the man moved. His sideburns came three-quarters way down his cheeks, his nose looked as if it might have a been broken at sometime, and he had a front tooth missing.
"Don't go frettin' about me, mun", chortled the man, "I'm sort of a friend, see you! I'm the ghost of rugby past. I've been sent here to help you sort out your little dilemma. Come with me..."
And before he could argue Dai felt himself lifted out of his bedsit, high into the sky.... where he could see the cats munching happily on discarded fish entrails and heads.
It all went black... and Dai could feel the air rushing past... but it wasn't cold. Oh no. It was somehow... warm... and comforting... his belly felt a warm glow he hadn't felt for a long time... his heart felt large... he wanted to sing out loud those words his Da, and his uncle Dai, and Bill used to sing.... below he could see pitheads wheeling, men on bicycles carrying lamps descending the mountainsides... and in a swirl of midst and a slight thump he found himself sitting in Arms Park with the man. "Ah, cracker" laughed the man, "we missed the kick off, but haven't missed much!".
Dai didn't understand. This was the middle of the night, but the Arms Park was full to capacity. The West stand was roaring out "Bread of Heaven". Welsh faces surrounded him; large men with donkey jackets with the initials "NCB" stencilled across their shoulders good naturedly jostled in their seats; large moustaches bristled over mouths that bellowed "WALES! WALES!". Small boys with red-and-white striped bobble hats that their mothers had knitted them milled at the front of the seats, smiling, excited. Old jokes abounded about grandmother's funerals, and attendance, and bosses not knowing.
The man nudged him. "Good innit?? See, we'll stuff the buggers again!!"
Dai looked at him. "Stuff who?" ... then he looked at the pitch.
Madness. Sheer, unadulterated madness. What the **** was bloody Phil Bennet doing out there? And JPR? And JJ... hold on! Gerald Davies?? Alan Martin? Bobby, and Geoff and... "What's happening??!!" Dai screamed. "I'm scared!"
"Oh, no need to be scared, but!", the ghost of rugby past gently chided him, "leave the fear to the English!".
Dai looked again... it couldn't be true could it?? Out on the pitch were fifteen men in red. And white. And nothing else. Except... the feathers. Opposite them were fifteen men in all white. No logos. No walking billboards. No bloody white Nike/Adidas boots. And the scoreboard read "Wales 0 England 3".
"Oh no", groaned Dai, "I'm confused and the bastards are still gonna beat us".
The ghost chuckled. "Just you wait and see bach. The English had the wind all first half and only kicked a penalty. Now lets see what our boys can do...."
Dai looked at the ghost. "wh... wh... what's the time?" he queried.
The ghost smiled. "1977 boy. That's all you need to know..."
Dai sat transfixed for the next forty minutes. It was 1977. Red shirts flickered to and fro in frenzied attack, mesmerising in its brilliance. White shirts floundered in desperation as their pathetic defensive efforts faltered. Gareth fed Phil... Phil kicked long.... JJ chased... Alan caught.... Gareth passed... Phil popped... and JPR scored. Dai was so happy. Oh, the greatness of those years...
All too soon, the final whistle blew. The victorious Welsh players congratulated each other, whilst their pathetic English counterparts licked their wounds. Dai found himself weeping. "That was beautiful", he sobbed "thank you, thank you ghost of rugby past. To see the silken skills of those wondrous players of yesteryear again running those wonderful backline moves... and JPR... oh... thank you!"
The ghost of rugby past patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, don't thank me, mun. Thank the most important man on the field."
"Oh, JPR... or Gareth, you mean?". Dai sniffed, chuckling through his happy tears.
The ghost's counternance clouded briefly. "No, you prat!". He thumped Dai on the shoulder. "The bloody referee of course!!" Who do you think played advantage for JPRs try? Who do you think stopped those English bastards from killing the ball and cheating in the lineouts?? The refer-bloody-ree!! We Welsh don't cheat.. I know that, and so do you, but these cheating English bastards do it all the time. It's endemic in them.. they can't stop themselves. So you need a bloody referee to stop them. See?"
Dai nodded, without thinking... "oh.. ok..." ... but things were starting to get all swirly again, and Dai felt the warm feeling in his stomach dissolve away, as his vocal chords once again dried up and his heart fell to its normal sorry state.
The ghost of rugby past had gone, and Dai found himself once again in his bed. It was all too confusing. But the dream had been a nice one... too many nightmares recently he thought to himself. Fifteen out his last sixteen dreams had been less than pleasant... he counted nowadays, he found. But his dreams would improve, he knew. The dream portion of his brain was... rebuilding itself, he mused. Yes, that was it. All would be better soon. But how he longed that he could re-dream those dreams of yesteryear again..... and Dai dropped off into sleep.
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans wasn't sleeping well. Mrs Patel's fishheads and entrails had been long eaten by the neighbourhoods cats, but across the valley came the thump- thump- thump of an illegal rave. Occasionally the shrill blast of a whistle cut through his troubled sleep... once such a blast would have signaled yet another Bennett long range bang at goal... but today in the valleys it heralded some sweaty youth high on ecstasy getting higher and higher away from reality. Dai wondered if maybe the youth wasn't as daft as maybe he'd always thought such people were.
Dai didn't like drugs. Dai also didn't know the first thing about drugs, but it didn't stop him from getting on his soap box and discoursing at length about the evils that drugs brought. No, he would say, I have never needed drugs, and neither did my Da, and his family. Oh no, all they wanted was a few pints and some baccy. No bloody drugs for them. Me, I'll have a touch of whisky now and then, but no bloody drugs for me. True, his sister's husband beat her senseless when he'd the beer inside him, but that was because he was English, wasn't it? And his uncle Dai had died of lung cancer, but it was probably that bloody crappy old diesel van he used to drive. And half a bottle of whisky a day wasn't a lot for a man of Dai's age, was it?
"Where's the bloody light, you bastard?" a voice near his left ear complained loudly.
"Arrr!!" shouted Dai. "Who's that?".
"Don't be such a bloody Jessie, and put the light on man" insisted the voice.
Dai complied, wondering if this was the murderer.... and jumped when he saw the form slumped in the chair beside his bed. It was shabbily dressed; scuffed trouser bottoms, and an old suit jacket wearing at the elbows and sleeve-ends. The form coughed noisily, and spat onto the floor.
"F*cking lungs", it explained. "Too much f*cking coal dust, too much f*cking damp". It dug awell creased roll-up from its pocket, and fumbled for a light. "F*ck it!" snarled the form. "Where's your f*cking matches?"
Dai slid out of bed, keeping a distance from the man. This must be the murderer, he decided. Looks like one too, Dai thought. He brought the man some matches, who snatched them from his grasp. "'Bout f*cking time" snapped the man ungraciously, took a deep pull on his cigarette, and hacked ferociously for a minute or so as the nicotine and smoke curled its way around his lungs. "Took your f*cking time waking up you f*cking c*nt".
Dai didn't like this man; he was scared of him. The man reminded him of too many people he met these days; rude, inconsiderate and uncouth. The collapse of community life in South Wales following the collapse of the coal and steel industries had left many like this man devoid of self-worth, but full of self-loathing that they felt could only be assuaged by disrespect of all. Especially wankers with jobs, and missus' with bright nail polish and kids with clean shoes. And worst of all were old gits that harked about the old days all the time. Tossers.
Dai nervously watched the man finish his cigarette and crush the remnants into his threadbare carpet. He saw the glowing end flare slightly as it touched the carpet's weave before the man's scuffed shoes ground the butt-end out.
"Come on then, twat" barked the horrible man to Dai. "You're coming with me. Now!".
Dai complied, wondering what awful end he was to come to. He felt powerless to help himself. "Err... could I ask if..."
"Shattup! You've done enough f*cking talking today". The man glared at Dai, loathing in his eyes.. in his whole frame. "Put your f*cking coat on, chuff!"
Dai dressed hurriedly, never taking his eyes off the man. He'd originally thought the man was in his later forties, but he now saw that the man was at least ten years younger than that. His body was stronger too than Dai had originally thought, and when he stood, was a good six foot plus. Tall for a Welshman, thought Dai.
"I'm the ghost of rugby present" explained the man, a little more understanding and a little less hate in his voice than before. He sounded more weary than angry, Dai thought. "I've been sent to show you the error of your judgement, and what you have done for the likes of me. Come on".
The ghost of Rugby present shuffled outside the door, and into the street. Dai followed. It was cold. Very cold. Dai pulled his coat around him, and tightened his Cymru scarf. He didn't particularly like his Cymru scarf; it was red and green, with a couple of white splashes in it, and a sponsors logo splashed right across the middle of it. Dragon's adorned each end. It was all a bit tacky, Dai thought, a bit like modern television - all front and no depth. No tradition. All very... *now*. His ma used to knit him lovely scarves - long, and red and white stripes... or all red with WALES in large white letters down it. They were lovely scarves; no one else owned one like it; there were unique, and made with love. Every time he wore it, it made him think of his Ma, and of watching Wales winning. He thought about the lovely dream he'd had earlier. These modern scarves were too short, and made of nylon like stuff.... not very warm actually. And everybody had exactly the same scarf, and no-one bothered to knit them any more 'cos it takes too long, and they're only a tenner anyway....
Dai felt the pull of his heart as thought these things, and how his village had changed during his life. The ghost of rugby present trudged through the icy night silently, Dai following in his footsteps. Past the end of Dai's street, the terraces of miners, cottages like rows of books lined up the mountain sides, street lamps glowing orange in the windows. Some of the windows included some cheery, tiny plastic Christmas trees, adorned with plastic baubles and little plastic Santas, topped with a plastic star, all lit up with plastic, flashing, coloured lights. Other windows stared gauntly into the night, like eye sockets in a skull. These windows contained no trees, no baubles, no Santas, no lights. These windows were devoid of even curtains. These windows were part of cottages that were abandoned; families died out, or moved on, or thrown out as the recession of the 1980s had bit, then bit harder as pits closed and South Welsh life changed for ever. At the end of the next street, as Dai and the ghost passed it, stood a house, half raised to the ground after squatters had accidentally set fire to it. It stood there still, "Dangerous - Do Not Enter" signs on the door. The house next door was empty, so the council let the house stand. Easier and cheaper than knocking it down. Nobody cared about this village any more anyway.
On trudged the ghost. On trudged Dai. Past the pit, the huge pithead wheel glinting slightly in the moonlight, standing proud against the night sky. It had stopped turning several years ago now. No longer did men pour out of its gates when the hooter sounded. No more scrubbing Da's back in front of the fire. No more ingrained coal dust in the creases of the neck, ears, wrists, ankles. No more clanking and whirring as the great wheel would turn and turn and turn, bringing the coal to the surface, and sending the men down to the seams.
No more jobs. No more money. No more pride.
The ghost stopped. "Over here", he commanded, and swung his leg over a five bar gate. Dai wobbled on top for a moment and the ghost grabbed at his arm to steady him. "C'mon boy, don't leave me now".
Then Dai felt that swirly feeling again... but this time there was no lifting of the heart, no vocal chords straining to sing, no warm feeling in his tummy. Instead it was daylight. And it was silent.
"What's going on?" trembled Dai. "What is this?".
"This is "The Club," answered the ghost.
"Yes, I know, but why are we here?" Dai replied, "and why is it so quiet?"
"It's Saturday afternoon now" the ghost informed him. "You fell off the f*cking gate early this morning, and I've had to wait for you to come around. Funny enough, its better timing this way".
"I don't understand", said Dai. "If this is Saturday afternoon, where is everybody? Where are the players, the committee, the tea ladies, the ball boys?? Why aren't the flags out, and the post protectors up? And the first aid boys would have been here by now - they could have helped me with my concussion".
"First things first" retorted the ghost of rugby present, and spat onto the floor. "I was originally gonna bring you here to show you what an empty ground looks like, but this is now perfect." He spat again, and lit another crumpled cigarette. Dai noticed there was a small pile of discarded dog-ends at the ghost's feet. Maybe he had been there for a few hours. "Huh. Strange definition of the word 'perfect' though" muttered the ghost. "Last night, as you were making cawl and brooding about the committee meeting, another f*cking meeting was going on. A meeting of the Welsh referees. And they decided that they'd f*cking had enough. So... no payments, no referees. And all thanks to you".
The ghost's disdainful look had returned. "Thanks to you, today there is *NO* f*cking league rugby in Wales. Not one f*cking game. The most important f*cking rugby weekend in the Welsh leagues and YOU" - the ghost of rugby present was wild eyed now, spittle flecking at his lips - "YOU are the one that caused it. YOU BASTARD!!".
Dai leapt backwards, away from the ghost. "NO!" wailed Dai. "No, its not me. It's the bloody English. It's their fault. They started professionalism. They started all the arguments about money. The bloody English stole all our top players... the English even have our players signed up with bloody English agents that stop our players from playing for Wales! Its not MY bloody fault. Blame the bloody English!! Its them, them, them.... Everything is the English, fault. Their bloody ex-captain was even shagging our bloody princess!! *OUR* princess!! Not their's.... She's even got *MY* bloody name!! And all I'm trying to do is keep the game here proper. We need proper rugby, not this new 1990s stuff where players are super fit, and can all pass and tackle, and prop forwards that can run. That's what Rugby League is for, not Rugby Union!! And the referees thing is only the tip of an iceberg... but we have to make a stand. Today - referees, tomorrow... the IRB. See... it's obvious".
The ghost of rugby present sat looking at Dai. His expression softened, and changed to one of..... pity?? wondered Dai.
"You poor bastard", whispered the ghost. "You just don't see it do you?". The ghost spat a piece of stray tobacco onto the sideline. "The game has changed" he remarked softly. "Maybe too quickly, granted, but it has changed. It won't change back. And we all have to live with that, and make it work best for us... for WALES" he hissed. "Today we are the laughing stock of the Rugby world; no f*cking rugby because the referees are on f*cking strike. And it's your fault."
Dai fought back the tears of righteousness. "But look, see" his voice wavered, "I'm right. A small period of foolishness from these silly referees then we're back on track".
"Don't be daft", snapped the ghost. "No rugby. The players miss out, the clubs miss out, the spectators miss out... and the kids miss out. They are the future, and they are missing out now. The likes of me look forward to their rugby every weekend - it's the highlight of their mundane life - life on the dole with no money, or stuck in a dead end factory job, being made redundant every six months, wondering how they're gonna feed the kids, keep a roof over their heads, keep their missus' from running off with some flash git with a wallet. We can come to the game on a Saturday and lose ourselves for an hour and a half. Regain some self-respect, some feeling of worth, especially if we're playing. But that's lost today - the most important weekend of the year".
"Anyhow, time I was history" said the ghost of rugby present, not realizing the potential humour in what he was saying. "Just think about what I was saying, chuff". And with that, the ghost of rugby present flicked his half-smoked cigarette at Dai, and walked off... through a hedge.
Dai shook his head. He wasn't feeling at all well. First that nice dream. And then that horrible rude man shouting at him. A Welshman at that. He could understand an Englishman shouting at him - they were coarse bullies with as much guts when the chips were down, Dai would often tell himself. And he knew that he was right. He was always right. He hated the English.. Always had done. Probably always would. Bastards.
He shuffled off down the hill, carefully negotiating the gate this time. Down past the pit, into the village, past the burnt out squat, into his street. Past the skulls eyes, and the pathetic modern plastic Christmas trees that he hated almost as much as the English, to his house. He fumbled with his keys in the lock.
"Hello Mr. Evans". A small voice called up to him from somewhere near his knees.
"Oh, hello... err... Timmy", replied Dai. Stupid English name, thought Dai. Why can't a Welsh lad have a good Welsh name like Gareth... or Dai. Too many bloody poncy English names around these days. Next thing you know we'll have somebody named bloody Rupert playing for Wales. How could you be called "Rupert" and play for Wales, he wondered. Still, Timmy was a good lad, seven years old, his neighbour's son. Not Mrs. Patel's son, mind - she and Mr. Patel had all daughters, five of them, and they spent all their time out the back of their takeaway shop cutting up fish and making funny smelling things. "Always polite, mind", Dai would say "but I don't have anything to do with them; they have funny ideas about things".
"There's no rugby on today Mr. Evans" sniffed Timmy, and Dai realised that Timmy was crying.
"What's the matter Timmy?", asked Dai. "Have you been fighting with that nasty English boy in the next street? Jack Dowell is it? His name I mean?"
Timmy wiped his arm on his sleeve. "No, Mr. Evans. It's because of no rugby. There's no rugby today because the referees want money for it, and Cardiff won't pay them."
Dai chuckled. "Don't worry, Timmy. I know there's no rugby today, butty, but don't worry, soon the referees will realise it's only the English making life difficult and it'll all be OK".
"Oh, I don't know Mr. Evans" snuffled Timmy. "But the worst thing is my Da's home from Aberdeen for the weekend, back from work; he has to work there 'cos he couldn't find any other work for his skills see. I haven't seen him for a month, and he promised he'd take me to the rugby match today and I could sit on his shoulders. Now there's no rugby, he can't take me, and him and Ma have had an argument over it, and Ma's crying now, and he's gone back to work in Aberdeen 'cos he said it's a waste of time here with no rugby when he could be earning before he gets laid off at Christmas." Timmy burst into tears, and hugged Dai's knees sobbing uncontrollably.
"There, there Timmy", soothed Dai. Dai was a bit soft on kids; he remembered how mighty his own Da was, and how proud he'd felt watching his Da play, or just being with him if Da was injured and couldn't play. A lump formed in his own throat. "Your Da and Ma will be ok, Timmy. Don't worry."
Timmy looked up at Dai. Large tears shimmered in the pools that were momentarily his eyes. "Mr. Evans" he pleaded, "You have something to do with the men in Cardiff. I know, I heard my Da say so. Could you get the referees paid?? So the rugby would be on again, and my Da would come home, and love my Ma again?? Please?? Please Mr. Evans??"
Dai coughed away the lump in his throat, and started to fumble with his keys again, not wanting Timmy to see his own tears welling up at this little boy's simple faith and trust.
"I'll see what I can do...", he found himself saying. "I... I... I'll see" he stammered lamely... and let himself in.
Inside, the bedsit was dark. The carpet had a burn mark in it, and the cawl pots were unwashed on the table. The bread lay stale on the floor beside the fire, and there were mouse droppings beside recently nibbled cheese. Dai felt sick - he must be coming down with something he told himself. Stupid dreams, strange people that swore at him, and Timmy crying had upset him. He crawled into bed, determined to sleep this bug through.
Probably something the bloody English put in the water supply he mooted as he drifted off into a slumber...
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans wasn't sleeping well. He tossed and turned in his bed, as the lump on his head throbbed and throbbed. Timmy's tearful face swam before him.... then the uncouth man that called himself the ghost of rugby present... then the friendly man - the ghost of rugby past - with his big sideburns and toothy grin.... and JPR, and big Mervyn, and Gareth, and the Pontypool front row... then the English flag.... and the letters he read in the paper from some bastard Englishman named Garage, always ridiculing Wales. In and out of his troubled sleep these images swam, interspersed with snatches of song... deep, rich baritones singing those song's Dai never understood.... then squawking, uncultured voices shouting Ole...
Dai did not sleep well. Eventually, he woke, and stirred. He didn't feel rested, just awake. But at least all those silly dreams had ended. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed. And stopped.
Not again. Surely not.
There, across the room, sat at the table that the ghost of rugby present had sat at, was another man. This was getting ridiculous thought Dai. Not another bloody dream.
"Now look here", commanded Dai, trying to sound stern. "This has gone quite far..."
"Hey, my main man!!" exclaimed the new man. "Yo alive at last!! I've been waiting ages for you to awaken, old boy!"
Dai stopped. This was all to horrible to contemplate. He had half crossed the room, and could now see the man fully. "Bizarre" was one word that sprang to Dai's mind. "Awful" was another. And there was his voice as well, and speech mannerisms - sound of American, but so English. "Bizarre, awful Englishman" also slipped across his mind.
The man was dressed head to foot in a green, shiny suit. Red images flashed through it, and white numbers.
"Yes indeedy, doody, dardy" beamed the newcomer to Dai's nightmare. "You are here, and so am I - that means it's time for the game!!"
"What game? Who are you? What are you doing here". Dai was too bemused to really take in any answer, but the man stopped, looked sideways, looked back at Dai, and answered. "Questions. Questions. Questions. Not, one, not two, but three. Yessirree.
Three questions.... in the question zone!! So here we go! Three questions gives us a starter for ten!!"
Dai's head swam All the other bad dreams were exactly that, but this really was a nightmare. Nothing made sense.
"Hey, so, question number one. What game?? Easy answer my friend - the Rugby World Cup Final, the year, 2107.
"Question number two. Who are you? I am the ghost of rugby future. Another easy answer.
"Question number three. What am I doing here? Well, another easy answer. To show what your decision has come to!!
And now... your virtual trip to the RWC 2107!!
Dai thought he was going to throw up. Something was definitely wrong. Where his bedsit wall used to be was a large pulsating convex perspex dome. Lights inside it were flashing on and off. "What's that?" he garbled.
"Hey relax chum tum fun!" Gurgled the ghost of rugby future. This IS rugby coverage in the year 2107. First your virtual trip to the game, then the game itself live from the Birmingham Super Bowl, between the Southern Hemisphere Super-Runners, and England!!"
"England!", squawked Dai. "England! They can't play rugby. England are useless. They have crap players, and import even crappier ones. How can they be in the final? What about Wales?"
The ghost of rugby future squirmed a little. "Ah... I was hoping you wouldn't ask that question. At least not yet." He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Could I answer that one later? I tell you what-a-roony, we'll take that virtual trip first. Hang on to your seat over there... here we go!!".
The huge convex dome began to expand and with horror Dai saw it was going to crush him against the wall.... then it moved past him, or through him. Which he didn't know, but he now saw that there was nothing beneath his feet, except a vastness of concrete, covered neatly in rows of what could have been cars.
"Help!" screamed Dai, "I'll fall."
"No need to panic" soothed the ghost of rugby present "this is virtual reality, and I'm its controller. You're perfectly safe all the time you are with me. Here we go." And off sped the ghost and Dai across the immense wasteland of parked... well... cars.
"What is this?" asked Dai.
"Ah..." mumbled the ghost of rugby future. Much harder than your first questions. You're a difficult competitor." All of which meant nothing to Dai. "This is ... ahhh.... Wales", the ghost of rugby future added quickly. "Isn't this a lovely day?".
"Wales?" queried Dai, weakly. "What do you mean this is Wales?". This really was getting too much.
"Errr... yes" the ghost replied guiltily. Well, actually, its South Wales. Mid-Wales is a training camp for the SAS, and North Wales is now owned by Liverpool Football Club as a soccer nursery."
"Well, you see, after the Tories had won their twentieth consecutive election victory in 2076, all the other parties disbanded due to lack of support, and the UK became a one party state. Well, England and Wales that is. Scotland and Ireland had become sovereign states after the Celtic Wars in 2070. After six years of bloody fighting, a truce was agreed and the other two nations went their own way. Wales however was left to the English by the other two. As a sign of their displeasure of their participation in the Celtic Wars, England sold off South and North Wales to private concerns, and kept mid-Wales to train soldiers against any further uprisings. South Wales has become a huge carpark to store all the cars in the UK. You see, the roads got so full, there was no room for the cars, so the government parked them all here, and people now travel by bus. Simple." The ghost flashed a quick smile at Dai, but it was less than convincing.
"But what has this got to do with me?" questioned Dai. Why am I here?
"Hmmmm.... another toughie... look, I'll tell you soon. Our virtual trip is nearly over, and we'll soon be at the ground."
Dai noticed that lights were approaching rapidly, and soon they were outside the ground. Dai was surprised. It was hardly any bigger than Ninian Park.
"Hey" said Dai. "This is Ninian Park".
"Err... yes" remarked the ghost of rugby future, "it is. The English kept it as a memento. It's now known as the Birmingham Super Bowl. Or Carlingsville. You see, Rugby's first Rugby Billionaire - some chap called Carling - bought the ground it now stands on to house all the royal princesses he'd err... met... or something....".
Dai was fuming. Bloody English. How dare they. How dare they desecrate his nation? Bastards.
They entered the ground. Dai was stunned. The ground was empty.
"Hold on" said Dai, "this is the world cup final. Where are the crowds?"
"Aha!" exclaimed the ghost of rugby present. There are no crowds. Everyone watches at home, as you and I are actually doing.... " and as he said it the dome slipped back past Dai and he was back in his bedsit with the ghost.
"Fun, what?" sneered the ghost, not a little nastily Dai thought.
"Not at all" chided Dai. "That's not real television. Real television has knobs and dials, and an aerial, and if it goes wrong you can hit it."
"Well, that's where you're wrong" smirked the ghost. "Then he added in a nasty voice "and it's all your doing!"
"My fault!" squawked Dai. "Rubbish!! You've told me it's all the English so far - it seems a typical bloody English plot. Sais scum!"
"That's where you're wrong again" interjected the ghost of rugby future. "Very wrong indeed. I suggest you listen carefully...
"You see, after you refused payments to referees, the referees went on strike. And stayed on strike. For years!! Consequently, rugby in Wales fell apart. All the players were FORCED to go to play in England... as a consequence of that Wales degenerated as a nation completely and fell into a bunch of bickering idiots until swamped by the English. The Celtic Wars were a direct result of this; Ireland and Scotland refused to have anything to do with you as a nation, and a terrorist, guerilla warfare began. England stepped into Wales as a "policing" maneuver, ... and started the Celtic Wars. You know already the outcome.
"As a result of Welsh players moving to England, they eventually became assimilated into the English system. The result was a rugby powerhouse - English brawn, Welsh silken skills. England have won the last ten Rugby World Cup finals. The Southern Hemisphere now simply plays as a single entity to attempt to compete, whilst the other nations just run a little side show to the main event. There are no qualifying matches, just a Southern Hemisphere v. England game every four years.
"Meanwhile, something very radical occurred. The English referees had finally struck in support of their Welsh counterparts to attempt to alter the tide. Rugby was threatened completely. But the RFU saw the writing on the wall and brought in their chief rugby advisor. Murdoch. Murdoch sold the IRB the idea that referees were irrelevant - take multi-angle cameras, connected to a supercomputer, and you have the perfect "referee." No human error, no mistakes... the perfect game. Of course, only Murdoch could supply such a solution quickly, before the rot set in in England as well. And so the running of the game was handed to his corporation. And who still run the game today. Of course, as media moguls they saw the potential that other sports had to offer, and the laws that interrupted the flow of the game for spectator appeal, and eventually evolved what is known today as 'American Rugby Rules'. Enjoy the game..."
Dai watched in horror as the game unveiled itself before him.... twenty two players on each team... huge crash helmets... each player individually miked up with helmet camera.... very tight shorts pulled high into the crotch.... the game played on a ground the size of a cricket oval.... no scrums.... no offside.... no kicking... no referees.... no goals..... just mayhem.... total mayhem...... and over the commentary the piped in sounds of the fans at home... chanting.... Ole Ole Ole Ole.......
Dai felt his world spinning.... surely it couldn't be... surely not... he staggered towards the perspex. "No..." cried the ghost of rugby present "it may be virtual but you are in it inside the perspex....".
A huge eight foot Maori moving at 70 mph appeared briefly on Dai's right and hit him like an express train. As he was flung aside like a flag doll, just as he passed out he was sure he heard the Maori cry "Another English Pizza!!".....
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans wasn't sleeping well. That is, he wasn't sleeping, and he wasn't well. He came round in a heap, in the corner of his bedsit. His body hurt.
Seriously. He felt as if he'd been beaten to a pulp, and he could feel a lump on his head throbbing. Slowly he opened his eyes.
The bedsit was as it had ever been. The pots were still on the table, unwashed. The cheese was a little more nibbled, and his sheets lay half on the bed and half on the floor. Everything was normal... except one chair was on its side, and he was crumpled in a corner. He tried to stand. His limbs complained as he stood and straightened, and he was cold... he must have been laying there for some considerable time.
The milkman passed by outside, whistling tunelessly, bottles clinking as he dropped off today's milk to the houses around.
Dai groaned inwardly. Another awful dream, he remembered. Tentatively he straightened his limbs; they complained as he tried. His left foot had gone to sleep, and he pushed off his shoe and massaged the leaden appendage as his confused mind reviewed the previous day's and night's happenings. Dreams? Or reality?
Dai didn't really know... they seemed so vivid... so real... but, so bizarre. Especially that last one. However, he couldn't doubt that he had come around at "The Club"; he couldn't deny that someone, or something had finished the cawl in the saucepan. Neither could he repudiate the messages his aching body was sending his befuddled brain. "It must be the 'flu" Dai told himself, "or a freak, bastard English bacteriological warfare germ escape" and he stood, circulation restored to his foot.
Standing up, a little unsteadily, he surveyed his bedsit. It was not a pretty sight. Dirty pans, dirty clothes, dirty floor. What would his Ma have said? She kept a spotlessly clean house, and spotlessly clean children... not to mention a spotlessly clean husband once scoured of the dust and grime from the pit, or mud from the pitch. "What was it all about" wondered Dai - why have I ended up here, alone, in a grotty bedsit in what used to be a pub until it was forced to close during the mid-eighties. The dreary, grey, December light filtered through his grimy window and did nothing to improve the view. Feeling a little sick, Dai began to tidy his room - clothes in a laundry basket, the discarded food in the hearth, the bedclothes remade into a semblance of order, with pillows plumped up.
He shuffled to the table, and began stacking the dirty saucepans, now coated in a thin layer of grease, or the small crumbs of food left caked on, dried out. The gas heater beside the sink spluttered on as he ran some less-than-hot water into the sink. The events of the past thirty-six hours now left him confused. Real or imaginary? He knew he was awake now - the throbbing in his head and body told him that. Where had those bruises come from he wondered? The scourer in his hand rubbed hard against the encrusted food on the saucepan, but Dai's mind was still elsewhere... "and what did those dreams mean?". Were they dreams? Or did those men - ghosts ?? - really visit him. Now he was drying, the sodden tea-towel (WRU, made in China) a blur as it flicked over the damp sides of the now clean pile of washing-up. Timmy he knew had happened - he could see the young boy's tears, feel his anguish over the events of yesterday.
Dai flopped into a chair, and leant on his table. It was all too confusing; and too surreal.
Something caught his eye; something on the floor, against the wall, that he'd missed earlier. Sighing, he pulled himself out of his chair, and slouched over to the offending matter. He picked it up, and flipped it over to see what it was.
If Dai had been in a film, at this juncture the director would have inserted screeching violins, a la Psycho. The screen would be filled with the article in Dai's hands, and a blood-curdling scream may well have been heard. Dai's eyes bulged - those violins were screeching in his head - his heart was thumping, and the blood roared in his ears. Wha.. why... how.... Incomprehension filled his brain.
The magazine Dai held fell to the floor as it slipped from his fingers. Its cover now lay upmost... "Rugby World Cup Final 2107" its title announced, "England v. Southern Hemisphere". A large picture adorned the front page - a huge superhuman figure replete with enormous helmet, wearing too tight shorts...
Dai sank to his knees. The horror was washing through him as he realised what this meant. Friday night, Saturday, the ghosts of Rugby Past, Present and Future, the Celtic Wars... England - bloody England - the dominant rugby force in the world. He began to sob. It would all come true. All of it. And his beloved Wales would be a bloody car park, army assault course and a bloody football school. His countrymen dissipated throughout the United Kingdom, or worse, mainly England, to cross-breed with those bastards; his heritage buried beneath tarmac. An image swam through his mind... Timmy, crying.... no Rugby... and then the ghost of Rugby Future, smiling nastily through his tears "... and it's all YOUR fault!"
"NO!!" cried out Dai, "No! It mustn't happen. I can see it's my fault... I didn't mean it... but it mustn't happen.... ". Dai's world collapsed. Everything he believed in was now shattered.... he'd only tried to do what was right for Welsh rugby, he was sure. But he had now seen that that would not work. He had to correct matters. His brain screamed at him to right the wrong... his conscience demanded it. His gut instincts told him he had been right... but Timmy's face once again cried up at him "... no rugby....", and then again "Mr. Evans.. You have something to do with the men in Cardiff. I know, I heard my Da say so. Could you get the referees paid?? So the rugby would be on again, and my Da would come home, and love my Ma again?? Please?? Please Mr. Evans??"
Before he fully comprehended his actions, Dai was scrambling for the phone. The number he knew so well rattled via his fingers into the phone. It rang once, twice.. three times.
"Hello? WRU. Can I help you?". The voice was stern, and worried all at once. It spoke of hours of angst and talking. The voice was tired, and hinted that it's owner was almost past caring. And it was the voice that Dai wanted to speak to; the voice of his boss, VP.
"VP, its me. Dai. Dai Evans".
"Oh. You! You've done enough damage already. What the hell do you want now?". The voice of VP was full of distaste.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking" began Dai..
"You've been doing a lot of thinking!!" raged VP, the emphasis on the first word. "So have I. So have the WRU committee boyo! And so has bloody Murdoch, apparently. I've just got off the phone from him, some cock and bull idea about computerised referees! You'd better make this quick 'cos I've got a call from that git Hallett coming through any minute. No doubt to bloody crow over us. Get on with it."
Dai took a deep breath. "I've changed my mind. I want the referees to be paid. I retract everything I said to the committee. And I'm sorry." There, he'd said it. He'd done everything he had to. He'd done what the ghosts had asked him. He'd done what Timmy had asked him. It hurt inside, but he knew it was the best for the future. He'd seen the future after all, and it was a damn sight worse than paying referees. Anything to stop the bloody English winning all the time...
VP was silent. Dai started "VP, I sai...".
The voice was calm. Collected. Dai somehow felt VP's brain ticking over. "Good. Good, Dai, good. That's very good. Thank you... thank you for changing your mind." A small pause. "Errr.... why have you changed your mind, incidentally?".
Dai almost grinned. "Some... friends... explained a few things to me" he replied, and felt a warming in his stomach. A feeling he hadn't had... since Friday night he suddenly realised, with a start, when he was with the ghost of Rugby Past. But before then.... oh... so long, long ago.
"Right, leave it to me" said VP brusquely down the phone. "This is what we are going to do. I'm going to tell Hallett and Murdoch to get stuffed. I'll enjoy that bit" VP laughed, "then I'll phone the referee's society. I know they'll be happy - they didn't want this stand-off in the first place I know. Then we'll issue a press release. And, yes, that's it! We'll say that you brokered the deal, Dai, and you will be the hero of the hour. A victory for the small man, the supporter, if you like. Much better than us glory boys taking all the credit, eh? What do you say Dai?"
"Yes,... yes... OK VP.... if you think that's best" choked Dai "whatever you say. And I'm sorry".
VP closed the line, and the phone in Dai's hand clicked dead. In Cardiff VP sighed a huge sigh of relief. "Thank God for that" he muttered, "and now, if it all goes wrong again, it will appear as if Dai Evans was to blame. If it works... well, fifteen minutes of fame, eh, gentlemen?" Around the table facing Pugh, faces smiled and laughed. Murdoch, Hallett, and referees. This bloke VP knows a thing or two, they smirked to themselves.
It was soon all over the news. The strike was off, and the referees were back in the fold; rugby would return after Christmas. South Wales was awash with happiness. Midday news bulletins carried Dai's picture, while the early editions of the Saturday Pinks screamed headlines "Dai Does it for Wales", and "Evans above - he's saved the Game!", and the next day's Sunday Shit sheets ran "Dai Evans in Gay Bishop, Fergie love triangle."
Dai was a hero. A man that could seemingly do no wrong. The committee from "The Club" awarded him honorary life membership, and a seat on that committee. Shortly afterwards, their lottery grant was approved and a gleaming new clubhouse was built, with a solid wooden bar serving draught Brains - the "Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans Bar" it was named. And an area to the side of the bar, a small, raised dais, was named "Da, Dai and Billy's Place"... and now Dai would stand there with the rest of the club and sing those long, complicated songs in a language none of them spoke any more (due to those bastard Englishman over a hundred years ago), and the pride would fill Dai's heart to bursting, as the photo's of his Da, and Uncle Dai and cousin Billy looked down from the wall.
But the thing that meant the most to Dai after all was said and done was not "The Club." Nor was it the kudos of being a national hero. Nor was it the knowledge that he had changed the future course of Welsh rugby. Not even knowing that England would not, after all, become the de facto rugby power in the world. It was when a small boy, aged around seven, came bounding up to him in the street, happiness shining in his eyes, and shouted
"Mr. Evans! Mr. Evans! Have you heard?? The rugby's on, and my Dad's coming home... he loves my mum, and he's going to take me to the rugby on Saturday!! Thank You Mr. Evans, thank you! I knew you wouldn't let me down!! I knew you were a kind man that could help. Thank you, thank you!!". Timmy's face was a picture of joy - of childlike innocence, and total trust.
And Dai knew that he had, after all, done the right thing.... for Wales... for Rugby.... for the future....
And bugger the English
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans was a happy man. Exceptionally happy. In the year that had passed since the great referees strike, he had gone from strength to strength. Maybe not at work - he was still a minor cog in the "Match Officials, Laws and Related Issues Sub- Committee" at the WRFU - but certainly in his home life. Not to mention that around him.
A large Japanese computer manufacturer, backed by a huge German electronics company, had announced plans to build a factory only ten miles away from Llantrwnty; soon, employment had picked up. The Pit was to be turned into a living, and working, museum - the huge wheel was due to start turning again in a few weeks now, only this time taking tourists down to a few seams, each displaying artefacts and information about coal mining in the area through the ages. True, it wouldn't be like the days of old, but it would be a link with the past and the village's identity as a community. And while it may not employ hundreds of men as it had in the past, it would provide useful employment for the young, elderly, and part-time workforce in the village whilst the main workers were hopefully working at the electronics plant, bussed in everyday by company transportation.
The council had been busy too and EU funds made available to help improve the area had been spent well; streets cleaned for the first time in years, and the whole place given a lick of paint. Grants were now available for house improvements, and Dai had been able to get one.... but that's all a little too quick....
Megan Phillips had returned from New Zealand the previous summer - her parents had died old and happy, and left her a sheep farm. She'd divorced her Kiwi husband before this - some story about bribes to bookies in England or other - and not fancying running a sheep farm on her own, had sold up and returned to her roots. The old flame still burnt... true, it had merely flickered for a few weeks after her return, and Dai had visited to welcome her back, but soon it had become a raging inferno, and the two had married in a simple service held, under the new laws in England & Wales, in the "Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans" bar, at "The Club". They had bought the two houses at the end of the next street, and with that council improvement grant had turned them into a homely four bedroomed house. Megan had also returned from New Zealand with a little other baggage - a twenty year old son from her previous marriage, but even Josh had accepted Dai as his father, called him "Da", and sang with him and the boys at "Da, Dai and Billy's Place" after the games, where he had slotted in nicely as openside flank forward ... just as had Dai's cousin Billy almost half a century before. Life was just grand, Dai said to himself... just grand.
The doorbell rang. Dai shook himself out of his daydream... he'd been reliving the previous Five Nations match, at Cardiff, between Wales and England where Wales had stuffed those Sais gits 34-26, abetted by some intriguing refereeing decisions by Brian Stirling. "S'funny" thought Dai; it was Wednesday afternoon, and he'd taken the day off for the hell of it. Megan was shopping, and Josh was at work in the electronics plant. Nobody knew he was at home, apart from them, and work.
He opened the door. Standing before him was a woman in her late forties, Dai guessed. Nothing spectacular about her, other than she wasn't from around these parts - Dai had never seen her before. "Hello, can I help you?" enquired Dai.
"Dai Evans?" she asked.
"Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans?"
"Yes, that's me" replied Dai.
"Of referees strike fame?"
Dai inwardly groaned. Another nutter, he thought, come to thank him and praise him for saving the game. Most of them had given up just a short while, and the vast majority had mostly written, or caught him in the street. None of them had actually come to his house before. And this one was definitely English - her awful East End vowels and lack of consonants came through most gratingly. He didn't get too many Englishmen thanking him for saving rugby. "Typical", he'd always thought, "bloody rude lot anyway, the lot of 'em".
"Yes. Guilty as charged" Dai smiled back. He'd long given up being short and rude with people - "Life's too short" he'd say.
"Oh, marvellous" sighed the woman. "I've been searching for you for over a month now!! My name's Mavis Bogglethwaite." And Mavis Bogglethwaite stuck out her hand.
"Pleased to meet you" automated Dai, and shook the woman's hand. "But, err... how can I help you?"
"Oh, it's me that can help you, Mr. Evans" beamed the woman.
"Oh no" thought Dai. "It's worse than I imagined. It's the bloody Jehovah's Witnesses".
"Or should I call you David?" chuckled Mavis Bogglethwaite.
"Ugh?" grunted Dai, momentarily surprised.
"David Larry Glen Evans, that is" continued Mavis. "You see, a few months ago I came across an old newspaper I'd wrapped some stuff up in for the jumble. And there was this picture of you shaking hands with a referee and the story said that you'd broken the strike that the referees had and that rugby was once again being played." Mavis took a breath. "Of course, its not as good as when that nice Eddie Waring used to do it on the telly" she added. Dai winced internally. What was this stupid English woman on about?
"Anyhow, when I read the rest, all about you, I began to wonder... I see I'm going too fast for you. During the war, my grandparents had their two very young children evacuated, a boy and a girl - the girl was my mum. However, my grandparents were killed in the blitz, and my mum and her brother got split up - things were very hectic of course. At the end of the war, mum was returned to London, to relatives, that brought her up. However, she never knew what happened to her brother, who never returned. However, after I found your newspaper cutting I began to dig deeper."
"Wait a minute" Dai interjected, "I really don't want to be rude, but what has all this to do with me?"
"Well" replied Mavis, a chance to take a breath having been forced upon her, "It's like this. Apparently, a couple in this village took my mum's brother, my uncle of course, in, but never returned him. I found out that at the end of the war, no-one could find his papers - everything was so confused in them days - so they didn't know what to do with him. The police and the council and everybody said that he would have to go into an orphanage, but the couple decided that having raised him for so long from such an early age that they would adopt him. His name was David Larry Glen Snatch. And after all this time I've been able to locate him... it's you!! Hello Uncle Dave!!" And the woman grabbed him, threw her arms around him, and kissed him on the cheek.
"Urh??? What??" stammered Dai. "Don't be daft! My Da and Ma are my Da and Ma... but they are dead now, see. You must have the wrong man".
"No...." smiled the woman. "You see, I tracked down one of your brothers, Alun, a hairdresser in London, and he verified that your mum and dad adopted you. They were all sworn never to tell you, and I guess no-one ever did, not even your mum and dad here. They changed your name, to fit in, to Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans... but you are David Larry Glen Snatch."
Dai felt giddy. He held onto the door for support. Adopted? Surely not... but it would explain why all his family were strong, while he was weak... they were stocky while he was slight... but how could this be true?.. this village was his life, his job his comfort, that business last year his crowning moment of glory for Welsh rugby....
"Oh my God" he suddenly exclaimed. "If I am who you say I am, and my real mother and father were both English, and I was adopted by my Da and Ma, that means...."
"Yes, that's right" gushed Mavis Bogglethwaite, "isn't it funny?? After all this time, you're really ENGLISH!!"
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans was a happy man. He was also an extremely sweaty and muddy man. He'd never felt so bloody tired in his life, he thought, as he slowly climbed the concrete steps that seemed to be going on for ever. A bead of sweat rolled into his right eye, and stung, until he brushed it aside with a red sleeve. The noise around him was incredible too - hurting his eardrums almost, as his head was pounding with the large black eye that was swelling ever more on the left side of his face. Unknown people were thumping him lightly on the back, his muscles wincing at each fresh slap, after all the punishment his body had taken. But this was a proud moment, he thought to himself; not just for himself, but for all of us. And if were here today, my Grand-Da would be the happiest man alive I'm sure, Dai told himself.
Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans. My Grand-Da. The man that led me to being here... not my real grand-father, Dai knew, but the man that had been his Grand-Da. The man that had shown him his own love of the game of Rugby, that had become his own love. From those chilly Sunday mornings at mini-rugby at "The Club", to Colts, to Llantrwnty 1st XV, to Cardiff... and then ... the choice. Standing at his Grand-Da's bed, the old man too weak to move now.
"What do I do Grand-Da?" he'd asked, "who do I choose? They both want me. Which is right?". The old man had smiled at him.
"Dai, my boy" he'd answered "only you can answer that question. The answer is in your heart. Your heart will tell you which to choose. And remember, whichever it is, I am so very proud of you. It doesn't matter to me which it is... I am at peace with myself".
And Dai had known when he'd searched his heart. And he knew it was right.
That had been three years ago. And this was today. Grand-Da wasn't here now.. but somehow Dai could feel him smiling down upon him.
Dai shook King William's hand, and nodded at whatever his monarch had said. It didn't matter any more. This was for Grand-Da. He turned and Cardiff Arms Park, resplendent in a sea of red and white, to a man rose to him and roared louder again as Dai Llewellyn Glendywer Evans, captain of Wales in the year 2027, raised the Rugby World Cup above his head.
All material copyright Ian Diddams