Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, October 2, 2007

“IT is important that we do not tear ourselves apart as a nation,” said Roger Lewis, chief executive of the WRU.
Too late Roger, too late, we were already ripping ourselves asunder when yet another Fijian crossed the try line.
But I suspect Lewis knows his words will fall on deaf ears, after all in almost the same breath he said: “ Rugby defines us as a nation and unites us as a nation.”
Being defined by something and then getting a good drubbing at it does not make for an easy life.
I should have seen it coming though. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I debated the merits of rugby at length with a football fan who believed it was not worth watching because it didn’t produce upsets.
Di I not hear the tramp, tramp, tramp of hostages to fortune on the march as I assured him that it jolly well did, and what’s more rugby was a joy to watch even when you lost?
When I thought of underdogs triumphing I was thinking of plucky little Samoa (population 214,000) or brave little Tonga (population 102,000), against England .
I wasn’t really thinking of Fiji (population 853,000) doing Wales (population 3 million) like a turkey.
I’m sure it wasn’t in the WRU script either, though given a record of 13 defeats in 20 games you could say we all saw it coming, we just hoped it could have been in the quarter finals.
Given what happened in France, a piece of work by Bangor academic Professor Duncan Tanner was about as perfectly timed as a Martyn Williams interception try (sorry, sorry).
He has looked at what he calls the ‘myth’ of rugby being Wales ’s favourite sport.
“On a typical Saturday afternoon in winter you’d find more Welshmen out walking, playing football, and even more playing golf than you’d find playing rugby,” he said in his academic paper entitled “Are the Welsh obsessed with rugby”.
Indeed Prof, indeed, and if DIY ever gets classified as a sport then the numbers of man traipsing down aisles in the hell of B&Q will outnumber all of the above many times over.
He pointed out that in New Zealand more than twice as many men play rugby than do in Wales . Fair point Professor, fair point. They also strongarm in every South Sea islander they can persuade to become New Zealandish, but then after our own rum record in grandfathering in players with dubious, well non-existent, Welsh ancestry, I guess we can’t cast too many aspersions.
But while Prof Tanner found attendance at club games was low compared to football, attitudes changed for the internationals.
In fact we pride ourselves on our rugby above language, music and culture.
Not after the weekend we don’t.
Professor Tanner, who obviously has a promising career ahead of him as a clairvoyant, should he ever choose to give up the day job said: “If we play the Welsh way and lose to one of the top teams, then stoical Welsh fans will have a few beers and look to the new season.”
“If we lose to a smaller nation…the media will be sharpening their knives.”
Only knives?
Still the WRU have blunted the attack with the sacking of Gareth Jenkins and now we’ll go through a period of navel-gazing misery as we try to pick a new coach and assess what we’re going to do to stop our misery being compounded in the six nations.
But Prof Tanner has hit upon something when he talks about the numbers of people actually playing rugby.
If you look at the way in which the South Sea islands produce such prodigious numbers of good players relative to their populations you can’t help but notice how many of them actually play the game.
If you have the majority of your population playing a game at some level then you will discover where the talent lies.
Wales has for too long rested on the laurels of its players in the South, fantastically gifted though many of them were.
The game has changed and if we are to consistently compete at international level we have to make the most of all three million of our population, not just the southern section.
And its no use looking at what the adult population do now, we’ve already lost that generation. We need to be promoting rugby in junior schools so that when kids have a kick-about, while most of the time it will be football, sometimes it will be rugby.
Compared to giant nations like England we punch above our weight, but we place too much emphasis on beating the English in the Six Nations and not enough on the World Cup.
Beating England might be supremely satisfying, but progress in the World Cup would rejuvenate the game and give the young players of tomorrow something to emulate.
Every New Zealand schoolboy dreams of being an All Black. What the WRU needs to do is make the red shirt the aspiration of every young person in Wales .

WITH the prophets of doom gathered around the housing market one section of society ought to be raising a grim smile.
The first-time buyers in Wales , that most endangered of species now has a chance to get on the housing ladder.
It’s predicted that house prices will actually fall next year which will come as a great relief, not least to those of us heartily fed-up with pub bores who tell you how much equity they’re got in their house (only now they’ll bore us about how much it’s fallen of course).
But what will be interesting will be whether, in a falling market, young people choose to stay in Wales .
My theory has always been that young people leave Wales for all manner of reasons, just one of which is house prices. Good jobs and the desire to live in a big city count for a lot more.
Those who argue that the sole reason people leave is house prices should be able to prove me wrong this time next year.

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