Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Column, March 18, 2008

IT was a tough decision – feed the kids or watch the rugby.
Mrs B was away and I was in charge.
I thought the boys might understand. The four-year-old shouts for Wales whenever they’re on (born in Newcastle , living in Yorkshire and thanks to his dad’s allegiances, now guaranteed a school-life of being chased around the yard by an angry mob.) The 18-month-old is a stout little chap, Celtic build like his dad. Surely I could hold off meal-time for 80 minutes?
But there they were, half an hour before the start, asking what’s for their tea. All they needed was a bowl in their hands and they’d be a pair of little latter-day Olivers.
For a moment I hesitated, thenI pictured the scene at court as the prosecution explained to the English judge: “Yes, your honour, the defendant, charged with neglect and cruelty of a most odious nature, is a Welsh rugby fan. His children were found begging for food as he danced round his lounge singing, somewhat sadistically, you might think, Sospan Fach, a Welsh song about, ahem, a little saucepan, your honour. Sadly, the only saucepans to be found in the Banks household that day were in songs and not on the cooker. We ask for an immediate, and lengthy, custodial sentence.”
No problem, I thought, set the video, feed the kids, bath, book and off to bed with them and then settle down to watch the match having studiously avoided all news channels, text messages and e-mail.
Job done, boys asleep, and I’m ready for the big, delayed, match.
Press rewind, the video whirrs. For a very…short…time.
Seven minutes, that’s all I got. Seven minutes.
While all of Wales was shedding tears of joy in one corner of North Yorkshire I was just shedding tears.
But a glimmer of hope, wasn’t the BBC banging on about making the unmissable, unmissable with some free internet wizardry.
And so it was six hours later, plugged into my laptop and on the BBC iPlayer site, I I watched as Wales put France to the sword. Late it might have been but, sweeter still for nearly having been missed, and thank you, oh thank you, BBC.
What a match, what a team. What a Grand Slam.
For me the defining plays of the game belonged to Gavin Henson who showed what defensive rugby was all about.
Time after time I thought he must be offside, but no, every time the French tried to run the ball Henson was up in their faces on the blitz.
He’s a good-looking lad, you can’t help but notice the teeth, the hair, the tan. That don’t look so lovely when it’s coming at you full pace, you’ve just taken the ball and you’ve got about a millisecond to do something clever before 14st 11lbs of Gavin folds you in half.
I’m surprised that when he got sin-binned the French didn’t ask for him to stay on, the one thing they didn’t need was Henson back on after a ten-minute breather.
If there are sports teachers out there wanting to teach young rugby players the art of being a centre, just let your young charges watch Henson’s performance.
The truly incredible thing about Saturday’s game was the devastating, unrelenting pace at which it was played. Right until the end Wales , and France to their credit, were at it full tilt. In the past the game would have died as fatigue took over and the ball stayed in the ruck while everyone gasped and prayed for the clock to go faster.
The thing the southern hemisphere sides have always had on us was the ability to play for 80 minutes at that pace but at last we seem to have produced a team that can match that effort.
The only thing that saddens me, and it was a comment by Brian Moore after the game, that the Welsh victory was all the more incredible because the players do not come from all over Wales , they are drawn from a narrow corridor down South.
And he’s right. But much better we could be if the pool of talent that we could draw upon included young players from the North.
Surely it’s not beyond the wit of our schools to use this victory as an inspiration and to get more children in North Wales playing rugby in the hope of emulating the side we saw on Saturday?
But that is for the future. And now we go to South Africa to test ourselves against the World Champions in summer.
For the moment though let’s dwell on a Grand Slam that began all those weeks ago when England decided that having got the lead it was nap-nap time and then watched as Wales showed the pace with which they would win the championship.
Let’s enjoy the memory of the Irish and French dismissals of our threat. Nothing to be frightened of, not New Zealand , after all. No, not new Zealand, but faster and stronger than Ireland and France .
Let’s wonder at just how fast Shane Williams can be; and how strong a pack must be to win a scrum against the head (and when was the last time you saw that at international level?) when France were camped under our posts; and how grateful we are that Martyn Williams decided retirement was over-rated.
Let’s look forward to what comes next, because everyone has said that this is a Wales side that can only get better, as if they have not given us enough already.
Let’s give a grateful prayer of thanks to Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley who engineered all this and let us also pray the WRU tie them to Welsh rugby with golden handcuffs – diamond-studded if need be.
And let’s remember that in winning they played the sort of rugby we recognise as Welsh – fast, creative, a joy to watch and none of the percentage kicking game that has threatened to kill the northern hemisphere game as a spectacle in recent years.
There is a school of thought that says we should not as a nation let ourselves be defined by the stereotypes of rugby-playing and singing. But to hear the national anthem all but lift the roof of the Millennium Stadium and then watch a Welsh side play the way they did, sweeps all doubt aside.
If you are going to be defined as rugby-playing choristers, then let’s always play like that, let’s always sing like that.

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