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Authors: Owen Sheers

Calon

CALON

A Journey to the Heart of
Welsh Rugby

OWEN SHEERS

 

To Mr Jenkins, rugby coach
at KHS Comprehensive, Abergavenny,
and to all the other coaches
who keep the game alive.

 

 

‘It’s either the wedding game or the funeral game with us. Nothing in between.’

‘Thumper’ Phillips, Wales team manager

TIME

17 March 2012

George North, a nineteen-year-old rugby player from Ynys Môn in North Wales, is packing his kitbag in a
bedroom
at the Vale Resort in Pontyclun, twelve miles west of Cardiff. He puts in two pairs of boots, a gumshield, recovery skins, a long- and a short-sleeved training top and a set of long studs. He checks the contents, then takes them out again, laying them on his bed. Pausing a moment, he puts them all back into the bag. Then he empties them onto the bed again.

George repeats this process five times before finally closing the bag, shouldering it and leaving the room. He’s already written down his objectives for the match ahead on a piece of hotel notepaper. Having memorised this list of tactics and prompt words, he’s ripped it up and thrown it in the bin. Before he did that, George phoned Andy McCann, a former Scottish karate
international
and stroke survivor who now works as a sports psychologist. Andy spoke with George about the match, but also about life outside rugby, about the flat George hoped to buy in Cardiff. With less than two hours to kick-off, just hearing Andy’s voice is more important
to George than anything he has to say about the game itself.

At six foot four and sixteen and a half stone, George, when running at full speed, summons one tonne of impact. He’s an affable joker of a boy, effervescent with energy, quick to laugh or pull a face. Fluent in both Welsh and English, neither language seems capable of keeping up with the rapidity of his thoughts.

Since he was fifteen years old rugby has taken George away from his family. At first, living on his own was a struggle. He missed his parents and the island of Ynys Môn; washing his own clothes took time to master. But George wanted to play rugby at the highest level. So he moved south, into the heartland of Welsh rugby, where he trained and trained and played and played so that now, just four years later, here he is shouldering his kitbag and leaving his room at the Vale to board a coach with two red dragons painted down each of its sides.

Wales, like all nations, is an idea. A concoction of history, landscape, temperament and language. This afternoon George, and the twenty-one young men also boarding that dragon-painted coach, will become that idea. For eighty minutes, under the eyes of millions, they will become their country.

Y FAN

‘The new grass shall purge us in its flame.’

‘Song at the Year’s Turning’, R. S. Thomas

It is five minutes to midnight in Cardiff on New Year’s Eve 2011. Viewed from above, the streets of the Welsh capital are busy with light and movement. Taxis, cars, buses thread along Westgate Street and Cathedral Road. The crowds, impervious to a gauze of winter rain, thicken down St Mary’s and Caroline Street, spilling into the smoking areas of clubs and bars. Mobile phones cast pale cauls across the downturned faces of drinkers
sending
texts. The organisers of firework displays check their watches and prepare their tapers. The city is charged with the year’s turning, the birth and death of the annual
calendar
. A time for looking back, and for looking forward.

At the centre of all this activity, embedded in a
crosshatch
of headlights and a circuit board of street lights, one dimly lit oval is motionless. This is the Millennium Stadium, home to the Welsh rugby team. The
yellow-green
rectangle at its centre is the national pitch,
semi-illuminated
tonight by rows of growing lights suspended above the young grass.

From my position under the posts at the southern end of this pitch the intensity and number of these lights
resemble a huge theatrical rig dropped to within metres of the turf. The wheels of their structures look like the landing gear of aircraft, their rubber treads flecked with sand. The stands around me are dark. Only the exit signs hanging in each aisle remain lit, hundreds of white stick men running for their lives through the rows and rows of towering seats.

I am alone in an arena built for 75,000. Devoid of a crowd the stadium’s atmosphere is like that of an empty theatre, quietly weighted with dormant purpose. In contrast, the streets beyond it are febrile with drink, music, bravado and lust. Even the outer corridors of the stadium have been permeated with the night’s
celebrations
. As Gwyn, one of the stadium’s security guards, led me towards the pitch earlier he explained that Level One of the building was being used as a triage centre – ‘for the drinkers’. As we left his security lodge we’d passed through the chatter of personal radios angled at the shoulders of policemen and paramedics. Ambulance drivers in fluorescent jackets cradled mugs of tea beneath rows of framed and signed rugby shirts. A girl in a black mini-dress was slumped in a wheelchair, one of her
high-heeled
shoes missing, like a comatose Cinderella. A nurse pushing through a set of swing doors revealed a glimpse of the hospital beds beyond.

As I followed Gwyn down an echoing corridor, the noises of the triage centre faded behind us. We passed glass cabinets displaying boxing gloves, track shoes,
rugby balls, boots, corner flags, before coming to a huge silver dragon on the wall, its clawed foot raised. Taking a short flight of stairs up past this dragon we came to the double doors of the players’ tunnel. Pulling on one of these doors, Gwyn, like a New York porter welcoming a guest, gestured towards the massive interior–exterior that is the stadium’s bowl, his hand open in invitation. ‘The stadium, Mr Sheers,’ he said, with more than a hint of mischief, ‘is yours.’

With Gwyn closing the door behind me I walked down the shallow gradient of the tunnel, the pitch faintly lit at its end. With every step the stadium’s stands grew around me, rising together to frame a rectangle of night sky, mirroring the rectangle of turf beneath. Emerging from the tunnel I was met not by the sea-like roar of a capacity crowd greeting a player making his entrance, but by silence. A huge, open crucible of silence. The empty stadium was all I could see, at once imposing and comforting; a 75,000-seat embrace. And not one inch of it tonight, whatever Gwyn said, was mine.

And nor is it anyone else’s. Because if you are Welsh and a rugby fan, then you’ll know the Millennium Stadium is, by its very nature, ‘ours’, and that it’s from this plurality the building derives its significance. Without ‘us’ or ‘ours’, the stadium is a shell. As the late Ray Gravell, rugby player, druid, actor, once said: ‘Remember, the people make the place.’

The Welsh for those last two words, ‘the place’, is
‘y fan
’,
a translation that makes this stadium a rich meeting point for the two languages of Wales, coming together between these stands to depict, at one and the same time, the
people
and the place, the place and the people.

Standing under the posts at the southern end of the
stadium
I look out at the pitch as it glows eerily in the night. I know I’m meant to stay off the grass. But the temptation to walk, just once, the length of the national ground is overwhelming. I’ve only ever shared this space with
thousands
of other supporters. I feel a strange mix of privilege and trespass, as if I’ve stolen this moment and I’m
committing
a crime in being here. But as a lifelong supporter of the Welsh rugby team, as the man who still remembers the boy who first watched Wales play from the schoolboy enclosure of Cardiff Arms Park, the stadium’s previous incarnation, the temptation is too much. So I walk.

As I pass under the first growing lights their heat pulses across the top of my head. At the twenty-two-metre line I see a spider’s web strung between one of their tubular struts, its fine strands hung with rain. I walk on towards the last row of lights on the halfway line, then continue into a deepening darkness until, a hundred metres later, I’m standing under the posts at the other end of the stadium. Turning round, I look back down the pitch, bisected now by the dark trail of my own footsteps. Seeing them, I feel as if I haven’t just walked across the national ground, but across the national
ground
; as if I’ve traversed Wales itself.

In reality I’ve just walked across some of the 7,412 removable pallets that make up this pitch, each packed with soil, sand and Lytag, a lightweight aggregate made from pulverised fuel ash. Each pallet is topped with 40 mm of turf seeded with a mix of meadow and rye grass from Scunthorpe, not Wales. But like all stadia the Millennium Stadium is a transformative space. The majority of its existence is spent waiting for certain dates when matches will be played within its stands. When those matches happen, things change, and when they are Welsh matches, they change even more. Individuals become a crowd, but also a nationality; the players in the dressing rooms become a team, but also a country; and the turf on the pitch becomes territory, but also
tir
, the Welsh for ‘ground’.

Welsh players are reminded of this last transformation in a statement written above their changing stalls in the home dressing room. On one wall, in metre-high red writing over the heads of the props and the back rows, they’re asked to ‘RESPECT THE JERSEY’. On the other, above the heads of the centres and wingers, as they check their studs and their strappings, equally large letters spell out ‘
DAL DY DIR
’ – ‘Hold your ground’.

In Welsh, the double meaning of that last word is more potent than in English, denoting ‘land’ as much as ‘ground’. But as I look back down the pitch I find myself wondering if another word, ‘
pridd
’, meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’, isn’t better suited to the transformation this turf
undergoes when played on by Wales. The etymology of ‘
tir’
is Latinate, relating to ‘
terra firma
’, or the French ‘
terroir
’. ‘
Pridd
’, however, predates Latin. It’s a purely indigenous word and, as such, its greater depth, of both origin and meaning, is perhaps more evocative of the kind of cultural excavation experienced by a home crowd when they watch Wales play.

I am more than a little drunk. It is New Year’s Eve and I’ve been celebrating the fact for the last five hours. I know, however, that my thoughts aren’t fuelled by new-year alcohol alone, but also by years of association with the team who call this stadium home. This is the place where, over the last thirty years, I’ve felt myself most obviously Welsh. Where I’ve allowed myself to sink unashamedly into a nationalism I’d find unpalatable in any other area of my life. Where I’ve felt myself become more than myself, and where, in the opening minutes of a match, I’ve indulged in the kind of outrageous amnesia and hope of which perhaps only the devout sports fan is capable.

And, of course, I’m not alone. For almost as long as the game has existed, Wales has been synonymous with rugby. As early as 1891, just ten years after the formation of the Welsh Rugby Union, the
South Wales Daily
News
identified rugby as ‘the one great past time of the people’. Rugby is the foundation sport of Welsh culture. Each year the nation’s psychological well-being is held ransom to the fortunes of the national squad. In return,
the players and coaches of that squad are subjected to endless enquiry, expectation and obsessive support.

As I stand alone in the Millennium Stadium in the dying minutes of 2011, I know all of this to be true. And yet, as I look up at the struts of the posts tapering into the night above me, I also know it to be ridiculous. None of it, looked at coldly, makes any sense. Why should the Welsh, a predominately working-class nation, have chosen to identify themselves through the lens of rugby union, a predominately upper-class sport? What is it about the game that speaks so powerfully to the Welsh psyche? Why should a game of fifteen men trying to place an oval ball across their opponents’ line, which in the broad view of the world doesn’t matter at all, within Wales matter so much?

If you’re a Welsh rugby fan, you’ll
feel
the answers to these questions more than know them. You’ll sense
intuitively
there’s something in the game that makes it appear organically grown from the character of Wales. But it wasn’t.

Other than perhaps the medieval inter-parish contests of
cnappan
, in which thousands on foot and horseback
competed
for a wooden ball boiled in tallow, the rules of
modern
rugby union have no indigenous roots in Wales. The sport as played today evolved from a variety of competitive ball games encouraged by masters of nineteenth-century English public schools, partly as a way of marshalling an increasing tide of riotous behaviour. Between 1768 and
1832 there were twenty-one public-school rebellions in England. A riot at Rugby school provoked a reading of the Riot Act and the attendance of soldiers with drawn swords. Another saw mass expulsions in its wake. Organised sport, especially of a rigorous nature, was considered a useful outlet for such violent energies.

It was a professor of Hebrew who brought rugby to Wales. The Rev. Rowland Williams was a fellow and tutor at King’s College Cambridge when Albert Pell, an ex-Rugby pupil, introduced his school’s variety of
football
to the university. Williams, in turn, introduced the game to St David’s College, Lampeter, when he became Vice Principal there in 1850. Over the next twenty years this pattern was repeated across Wales, with returning teachers and headmasters introducing the game to
educational
establishments after exposure to ‘Rugby’s’ football at universities across England and Scotland. Llandovery College, Christ College Brecon, Cowbridge Grammar, Monmouth School: these were some of the first rugby clubs in Wales. When pupils left these schools, they formed the foundations of town clubs such as Chepstow, Llandaff and Cardigan. A sport which had its genesis on the playing fields of English public schools was spreading through Wales along similar educational lines.

The touchpaper of popular enthusiasm, however, like the traditional beacons of the Welsh hills, would be lit on higher ground than these lowland clubs. It wouldn’t be fuelled by the pupils and staff of schools, but by the
working men of factories, mines and ports. In the last third of the nineteenth century the South Wales valleys experienced industrialisation on a massive scale. In 1840 four and a half million tonnes of coal were mined in the area. By 1913 almost fifty-seven million tonnes were
produced
. Migrant workers poured into the valleys from rural Wales and across the English border. Over these years only the United States attracted immigrants at a higher rate. This growing population, adjusting to the new rhythms and regulation of industrialised work, were hungry for a sport that matched the physicality and
regimentation
of their new lives. The new game of rugby football fitted the bill and quickly became an integral part of Welsh working-class culture. Support for the game came from their bosses too, with captains of industry realising, perhaps like those English headmasters before them, that rugby could be a useful method of control for a potentially fractious workforce.

The new communities of the valleys were created without a bedrock of generations. They had to design the architecture of their own identities. As towns such as Blaina, Pontypridd and Tredegar grew through the last decades of the nineteenth century, so did their communal institutions, each a projection of that town’s personality. Brass bands, choral societies, darts clubs, miners’
institutes
, pigeon and greyhound racing all flourished, and, as the ultimate expression of communal loyalty, so too did rugby clubs. The same was true of the port towns fed by
the valleys’ industry: in Newport, Cardiff and Swansea rugby came to represent a powerful form of communal expression. As the industrial towns and populations grew ever closer to each other, the rugby field became the place where your efforts, hopes and allegiances could still be pledged to something more local, something that spoke of where you came from and who you were.

But it wasn’t just local identities that found expression through rugby. The rising popularity of the sport also tracked a parallel movement of increasing national
confidence
. With her new prosperity and dynamism, Wales in the late nineteenth century was emerging, after years of being overshadowed by her imperial neighbour, as a
distinct
modern entity. In 1872 the first University College of Wales was founded in Aberystwyth, with Cardiff and Bangor following suit. Campaigns for a national library and museum began in the 1870s. A new regiment, the South Wales Borderers, fought in the Zulu wars of 1879. The National Eisteddfod Society was founded in 1880, and in February 1881 the first Welsh rugby team lined up against England at Blackheath. Fielding something of a scratch side, with two players recruited from the crowd, Wales were soundly beaten by eight goals and six tries to nil. The following month, at the Castle Hotel in Neath, the Welsh Rugby Union was formed.

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