Thursday, March 24, 2005

Column, March 22, 2005

THERE was a point in Saturday’s match when you could tell Welsh rugby was back.
In recent weeks the Welsh team’s success had been written off by those who had predicted they would come fourth this year as a fluke.
A flash in the pan, and Henson with his gelled hair was nothing more than a show pony.
Now, already, English papers geared up for an English win, or at worst, a French, are damning us with the faint praise that this was not a ‘vintage’ Six Nations.
Former Lions coach Dick Best even said it was a team built on sand.
The point at which his words must have turned to ashes in his mouth came in the second half, when Wales were ahead, but under siege on their own line by the Irish.
Wales won a turnover, the ball came out and in any other match you would have seen it hoofed into touch to win a breathing space.
But no, Henson looked to his left, and thought ‘There might be something on here’ – passed it out across his goal and we attacked – from our own try line.
Cocky? Certainly. Arrogant? Well, maybe. But it was something else as well – beautiful to watch.
Here was a Welsh team forged from the ferocious Southern Hemisphere fitness regimes of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
Added to that was relentless, attacking, open rugby of Mike Ruddock and the result was a team that were runaway winners of the Grand Slam.
Run it out from your try line? Well, why not, if it’s Shane Williams running with it, anything is possible.
Teams built on sand do not field props like Gethin Jenkins who charge down a kick, play football with it and then beat the Irish defence to score a try.
And Henson, a show pony? Some show when you drop a goal and then slot a 53-metre penalty like it was a training ground kick. Ask Brian O’Driscoll who was folded as efficiently in a monstrous Henson tackle on Saturday as England’s Matthew Tait was when Wales opened this campaign.
There is one thing that will always, always strike terror into the heart of a rugby team and that is pace, and the Welsh are now playing at a speed which simply bewitches them.
No sooner was one red shirt tackled than another appeared carrying the ball. Built on sand? The Irish must have felt like they were trying to hold onto sand as wave after wave of Welsh attacks came their way.
Whereas in the past we bemoaned one dropped pass or one missed kick that meant the difference between victory and defeat, now an attack which comes to nought is shrugged off, safe in the knowledge that there will be another one along soon.
And what attacks they are. Shane Williams and Dwayne Peel must live on a diet of nectar. Swift as hummingbirds, they are a blur on the pitch, in the time it takes an opponent to realise they are there, they’re off twisting, turning in another direction, leaving tacklers to grasp at the air turbulence in their wake.
But what does the win mean for Wales? This was a question addressed by the BBC in the run-up to Saturday by Wyre Davies in a report from a feverish Cardiff. But to put things in perspective he took his cameras to Pontypool where unemployment is still high and the goalposts rust on a rugby ground that has seen better days.
All well and good to put things in perspective, but when England returned with the World Cup I don’t remember such navel gazing.
Sometimes it does you good to lose all perspective and believe in yourselves. Who would have thought after last year’s performance we would have won the Grand Slam.
Who would have had the confidence, with Wales at 40-1 against to do it, to risk the housekeeping money down the bookies (not me, and if you did, I don’t want to know)?
But to be fair to the Beeb, their build-up to the match was beautifully done, especially the sequence about the Welsh side-step.
“You can teach someone how to sidestep,” said Ieuan Evans, as footage rolled by of him dancing around flailing defenders, “But you can’t teach them when.”
But Gerald Davies must have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who has played rugby at any level when he said: “The sidestep is the small man’s act of retribution. In a game of big men this is one moment of revenge. There is a way, a Welsh way, a special way to play rugby football.”
In this Six Nations Wales could not have been truer to his vision. In the 90s you would have been forgiven for thinking that rugby had become a game only for big men. Large, grinding forwards who could batter down a defence and force a penalty for Jonny Wilkinson to kick – time, after time, after time.
You might have enjoyed watching it if you were wearing a white shirt, but only for the result, there was precious little spectacle to behold. The England team’s performance having lost just a few key players shows just which one was built on sand.
Wales did more than just win the Grand Slam on Saturday, they won back rugby. Over the course of this Six Nations they reminded us all of what a truly sublime game it can be and we fell in love with it all over again.
It was a game that was enthralling to watch, full of possibilities and most of all, fun. Wales had not abandoned the ethos that made them a legendary force in international rugby. This was not victory at all costs; this was not victory brought with New Zealanders grandfathered into the side. This was a Welsh team playing wonderful, truly Welsh, rugby.
Whether this was indeed a vintage Six Nations history will decide, but remember the average age of those playing was just 26 years – there’s a lot of rugby left in them before these ‘show ponies’ are put out to grass.
Those who believe this is a team built on sand might also be interested in another result from the weekend – Wales 32, Ireland 5.
That was the result from the Under-21s match, where Wales also won the Grand Slam.
As Henson said after the match: “This is just the beginning.”

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Column, March 15, 2005

I WONDER what reception the Presbyterians of North Wales will receive when they arrive at the Pearly Gates?
This is, of course, rather assuming that you all believe in the Pearly Gates, but it’s a fairly safe bet the Presbyterians do, although they may believe in gates a mite less ostentatious than pearly.
St Peter might ask them what they have done to deserve entry to Heaven and they will tell him proudly that they stopped a craft market being held on a Sunday.
Wrote in and complained they did, to the council, stopped them selling their trinkets on a Sunday and thus Beelzebub and all his little demons were thwarted by the Godly in Pwllheli.
OK, it’s hardly the parting of the Red Sea of the feeding of the 5,000. I suspect that if they are still making stained glass windows ‘The Miracle of the Sunday Market’ will not be featuring among them any time soon.
It would seem that far from making itself more relevant to potential worshippers, some of the churches around Pwllheli are determined to show they are mired in the 19th century, never mind the 20th or 21st.
The source of their discontent is the idea of a Sunday market to be held in the town for 13 weeks this summer.
This suggestion has run into the stout opposition of the Llyn and Eifionydd Presbytery, Pwllheli Church Council and the Association of Presbyterian Churches in the Pwllheli area. Which is a lot of church associations for a little corner of Wales.
Powerful though, for they’ve given the council pause for thought as they have inexplicably deferred the application for more information.
Quite what more information they need I’m not sure – it’s a market, it’s on a Sunday, what more do you need to know?
But the God-fearing folk who are quite happy to traipse along to Tesco, or their newsagents on a Sunday are apparently of the view that to allow the market would be to give in to the forces of Evil and thus the Devil would get a foothold in the Llyn.
So your average shopper can buy an entire week’s groceries, enough booze to bathe in, a computer to indulge his internet porn fantasies and a video camera to capture it all and post it on the web for all to see – but he can’t buy some homemade jam from a craft stall.
Well that’s a relief, because without the Presbyterians of the Llyn we’d all be going to hell in a handcart. We’re so lucky to have them on watch saying “thus far but no further, get thee behind me Satan and take your wickerwork garden trugs with you.”
The Llyn is safe from the heresy of pokerwork, tapestry and little bags of lavender – if they’d opposed it on the grounds that most of these markets sell tasteless tat I’d be right behind them, but they’re all for the market, just not on a Sunday.
Of course I risk some Presbyterian form of excommunication saying all this having been christened by a Presbyterian minister (I don’t think they actually call it a christening, but I was too young to recall what they did call it)
He was on the sick the day he did it, but sneaked me in by doing it at a house, not the chapel. So while you can’t labour on the Sabbath, it’s ok to diddle the DSS
Which does make me wonder whether I’ve been officially baptised, and if not, is a special fire in Hell being stoked for me. I might not ask the Presbyterians for their opinion on that.

YOU know that somehow the world has changed when you find yourself seriously contemplating buying a new hat.
Not just any hat mind, a sequin-encrusted Welsh dragon cowboy hat.
It’s on the WRU website and a snip at £3 I’m sure you’ll agree.
But only those seriously anticipating a glorious outcome this Saturday could contemplate such a purchase. This is not the sort of hat to be caught wearing unless in the throes of headless delight having won the Gra…….. but no, even now, even after Scotland it’s too early to utter the words.
First word beginning with G, means a thousand pounds, second word begins with S, what you do to a door.
Dare we dream that 27 years of slim pickings are coming to an end?
I was 13 the last time this happened, I can hardly remember it. There are children being born this year who will have the name Gavin inflicted upon them, and anyone want to place a bet on a baby girl being christened Gavina in Henson’s honour?
The WRU shop is a delight, selling all manner of inflatable Welsh paraphernalia, though, hopefully the DVDs showing the glories of the 1970s will have to be updated after Saturday.
Of course there was the small matter of the team treating it like a cricket match and declaring once they were 38-3 up, allowing the Scots to run two tries in in the second half.
Ireland will be up for salvaging a championship from the ruins of what could have been their Grand Slam (I can mention it in relation to them, it’s just bad luck to apply it to us just yet)
But that first half against the Scots was just bliss. It’s rugby like they used to play it – fluid, breathtakingly fast, more passes than a Cardiff nightclub on a tanked-up Saturday night, and, at last, tries galore.
If Wales in reinventing their game have ended the dull percentage game where ground was won for kicker to slot forced penalties then they’ve done the whole Northern hemisphere game a big favour.
Because in relying on kickers, teams are built on one man, and you only have to look at Jonny Wilkinson being stretchered off again on Saturday to see how dangerous that can be.
I did want to write this whole column in anticipation of what joy might happen on Saturday, but to do so would have tempted fate.
But be warned, if the G***d S**m happens on Saturday, it’ll be pig in clover time.

NEW research shows that sheep can fall in love.
I know, don’t ask me why they came up with this line of research but they did. They showed the ewes pictures of rams and recorded brain activity.
From this they deduced that ewes enjoy sex, but forget their partners quicker than women. Why they felt the need to compare the two is quite beyond me.
Apparently the research has implications for the rearing and care of livestock, which is all well and good.
But did they have to do the research on a flock of sheep on a Welsh farm?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Column, March 8, 2005

FOR those not content to wear their hearts on their sleeves there is always the option of wearing a wristband.
It is no longer enough simply to support a cause by dropping your loose change in a charity box, or quietly making a donation by direct debit.
Oh no, now you’ve got to really show your support for a cause, if you’re not wearing the wristband, you don’t really care.
Which is a bit of a presumption really isn’t it. Because I’m not wearing a yellow plastic band on my arm, does that mean I’m in favour of cancer?
If you are incapable of articulating your opposition to something, or support or, heaven help us, ‘solidarity’ with some oppressed, deprived or outcast group, then it’s a sad state of affairs if you have to resort to a wristband to do your talking for you.
They are a continuation of the ribbons that started off with a good idea – red ribbons for AIDS awareness – which then multiplied so rapidly and so colourfully that they soon lost all meaning and there were no longer enough days in the year to wear all the ribbons that were out there.
So I’m right behind Denbigh High School’s ban of theses fatuous wristbands. The school says they’re not in keeping with uniform and they’re a health and safety risk. I just think they’re an affront to the intellect and are just another fad to be foisted upon our youth.
But you need to know your enemy, after all, if your sullen teenager comes home with a lump of plastic attached to his wrist you might want to know just what he is ‘against’ this week. This will avoid dinnertime arguments, after all it’s only too easy to go and put your foot in it by saying you’re all in favour of bullying and that, on reflection, prostate cancer isn’t an entirely bad thing.
If junior is wearing a blue wristband (anti-bullying, anti-prostate cancer) then an unseemly row can be avoided.
Likewise, pink means he’s against breast cancer, whereas red means he’s against tobacco, not at all keen on HIV, he’s got a downer on heart disease, but he wants George Bush to get elected.
If he’s adorned with a green armband then he’s for the environment, but against leukaemia, and he might be an organ donor.
If it’s yellow, he’s ‘living strong’ whatever that platitude may mean, or he’s supporting our troops, which must come as a great comfort to them as they dodge bullets in Iraq.
If he’s got a white one then he’s sure Jesus loves him, or else he believes in the right to life. Black and white and he’s against racism in football – black and white, geddit?
If it’s black then he’s raising awareness of melanoma, or else he’s in mourning.
As well as the above there are also wristbands in purple, orange, grey and gold and I won’t burden you with the simplistic statements they make about various diseases, afflictions or those afflicted by them.
As you can see, should you choose to support all of these causes – and who wouldn’t, it’s like asking who wants to show solidarity with Santa Claus – then you would need extendable arms to cope with the rainbow of plastic hanging from them.
And let’s not even start on all the ribbons that you can wear to show that you are aware of all sorts of things that everyone else if perfectly well aware of without getting dressed up like a demented Morris dancer.
And what of the kids sensible enough not to wear these things, what happens to them? I have visions of the one boy in school not wearing a blue band (anti-bullying, anti-prostate cancer) being pursued around the schoolyard by a gang of kids all wearing their, bullying him because he’s not wearing his anti-bully wristband.
But of course if you deprive these children of the right to wear their wristbands then they become yet another victim group don’t they?
Isn’t it time we showed solidarity with the poor oppressed wee lambs? And what better way to do that than by wearing a wristband? Any suggestions as to which colour?

THE decision of some teachers to tuck into fish and chips while their pupils endured rice and water to raise cash for tsunami victims will have taught the youngsters a valuable lesson.
Far from being shameful that the teachers at Lyndon prep school in Colwyn Bay were guzzling while the kids were fasting, in fact it will have taught them much about the way of the world.
While the rich developed nations grow fatter by plundering natural resources (cod stocks, dwindling already and now three less thanks to the teachers who tucked in) the poorer nations have to make do on starvation rations.
As a lesson in inequality and the misery caused by world poverty, it couldn’t have been better planned.

SO Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson are the Welsh answer to Posh ‘n’ Becks are they?
Sweeping aside the, frankly quite cruel, inquiry as to which is the posh one, I wonder if this is entirely wise?
Beckham is a footballer, an altogether less demanding game then rugby, and so he can afford to indulge his wife in the hedonistic lifestyle they pursue. Attending fashion shows, movie premieres and then getting your hair cut in yet another ridiculous style does not take its toll when you earn a living from the occasional free kick.
Rugby is different and Mr Henson should remember the dire warning of so many a rugby coach to his team as matchday approached – women weaken legs.
I’m not sure we want to go into the mechanics of it in a family newspaper, and it’s probably a myth perpetuated by grizzled old rugby coaches jealous of their young players’ female fans.
But with an historic Grand Slam so tantalisingly close, can we afford to take chances? I would suggest not.
There’s plenty of time afterwards, Gavin, to let her persuade you to wear a skirt, get tattooed top to toe and have fashion makeovers to Charlotte’s heart’s content. But let’s give it a fortnight or so eh?
Ms Church, perversely, is held high in the affections of large sections of the Welsh public, but should any shenanigans with Gavin give rise to a poor performance on the pitch, then the wrath of Wales will descend upon her.
So an appeal, just in case there were any thoughts in that direction Charlotte – don’t do it for Wales.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Column, March 1, 2005

I WONDER if the men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in its three glorious centuries of history used the language deployed by Army top brass today?
I suspect that, had the men of the Royal Welch talked like the pencil-necked, paper-pushing desk jockeys that obviously hold sway at the Ministry of Defence, the regiment’s roll of honour would have been curtailed more than somewhat.
You only have to look at the mealy-mouthed way they have done away with the Royal Welch’s name to know that these are not the sort of soldiers you would want at your side when the bullets started to fly.
The Ministry of Defence said the new “Royal Welsh” regiment “would offer a strong brand image and an effective way of maintaining a distinct Welsh identity for the future within the British infantry.
The MoD added: “There is also real enthusiasm within the Army for pressing forward with all the changes, rather than looking back.”
So we get to keep a Welsh identity, but not a “Welch” identity. But imagine if you will the scene at Waterloo, as the French cavalry thundered toward the tiny British squares of red-coated infantry. Do you think the officers spoke like that as they sought to stiffen the resolve of their men against the onslaught that approached?
“Look men, I know there’s a lot of hairy Frenchmen approaching who want to cut you to ribbons, but do well today and it will do wonders for the brand image of the regiment.”
Likewise, when the Royal Welch raised 42 battalions to send to the trenches of World War I, do you think the rallying call as they stormed the Huns’ machine guns was: “Off we go chaps, I know you’re all very enthusiastic to press forward.”
If the MoD is really serious about brand image, then it might do something to stop soldiers in Iraq torturing prisoners. Torture that only came to light and was only subject to a court martial because one of the torturers was stupid enough to take the pictures to a photo shop to be developed.
The British Army’s ‘brand image’ was developed over centuries in which it built an empire the like of which the world has never seen. You might not approve of that, but it certainly did the job that was asked of it by its political masters.
Then it fought two world wars, the latter of which was to defeat probably the most evil regime ever spawned.
And wherever those battles raged you will find the Royal Welch were at the thick of it.
Not an entirely bad track record then and certainly not one to be tinkered about with in the name of developing ‘brand image.’
But then it’s not really about branding is it? This is about squeezing every last nit of cost out of the armed forces. And this bizarrely manifests itself as cutting back on the numbers of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ while spending £19billion on the Eurofighter – a plane which is going to have to have a lump of concrete fitted where its machine gun should have been because the vibration from the gun upsets its delicate computers.
And lets remember it was a fighter that was designed to tackle our erstwhile Cold War enemies – who no longer exist. Now the threat comes from nebulous terrorist cells, against which this £19 billion turkey is completely useless.
All that cash spent, remember, when soldiers were marching through the battlefields of Iraq in boots that melted, with guns that jammed, radios that were useless and without proper body armour.
Of course what is of use against terrorist cells is a battle group of British soldiers landing in whatever God-forsaken country they’re holing up in and making life very unpleasant for them. But then that’s exactly what we’re cutting back on.
It’s not for nothing that the Secretary of State for Defence is known among the ranks as “Buff” Hoon.
But what’s in a name, you may ask, particularly when its only one letter different.
Well, the British army’s regimental system has served the country well over hundreds of years and this Government should know that better than most.
It has been happy to send troops off to Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has been happy to use them to break the firefighters’ strike.
This Government is as trigger-happy as any in living memory, but perversely while throwing soldiers at a problem, its happy to see the number of recruits dwindle so that Gordon Brown can balance his books and give us a nice tax break in the Budget so those with short memories and thin wallets will vote them in again.
The loss of the “Royal Welch”name is just a symptom of a greater problem. Of course the new regiment will carry on the traditions of its predecessors, including serving their country with honour.
The British Army was once described as ‘lions led by donkeys’ – it’s as true now as it was then.

QUANTUM theory tells us that the very act of observing something affects its properties.
I think the same applies to Welsh rugby.
There I was on Saturday, glued to the screen and the French were running all over us. Wonderful to watch unless you wanted Wales to win.
So by the end of the first half, 15-6 down, various pressing DIY tasks summoned me elsewhere chez Banks, but I was still listening for the occasional roar from the TV set.
And then Wales go and score a try, I managed to catch the replay having downed tools and raced to the lounge.
So I decided to put the theory to the test and resumed hammering, drilling, sanding or whatever other job was required – and they go and score another try.
Then I watch for a while, and France go and score.
So if I sit there giving them my rapt attention, I’m like a jinx, if I pretend to be uninterested, they run riot.
So, if by Quantum rugby rules, I only watch them out of the corner of my eye for the next couple of weeks, the Grand Slam is ours – for the first time in 27 years.

NEEDLESS to say after Saturday most Welsh people have a great big cheesy grin on their faces.
And what a great gift for St David’s Day.
I hope you all have a very happy one.