Monday, 19 March 2012

Wales - Grand Slam Country

Life is becoming ever more hectic as the fortnightly void in this blog will testify but there's no better way to put that right than with a comment on Wales' wonderful Grand Slam winning achievement of the past weekend.

What an achievement it was. Reading the Sunday papers yesterday was a joy, reading as I did the comments from respected commentators from the world over on what is widely seen as being not the completion of a journey, but in fact, only the beginning of one.

A Childhood in the Welsh Rugby Sporting Wilderness
This is Wales' 3rd Grand Slam in 8 seasons - a proud record that matches the feat of those legends of the 1970s. Gerald, Gareth, Barry, JPR, JJ, Phil Bennett and of course Mervyn Davies led Wales to the Red Dragons' 6th, 7th and 8th Grand Slams in 1971, 1976 and 1978. That halycon era, that decade of Welsh sporting decadence has acted as both a hallmark for future success but has also acted as a great burden on the shoulders of the next generation of Welsh rugby playing athletes.

I began following Welsh rugby as a child in the 1990s. Such was the constancy of Wales' under-achievement, I must've blocked it all out as a continuation of a miserable theme. It was a bleak period for Welsh rugby but my abiding memories were of those moments, those rare shafts of light, when the Red Dragon roared back into life. When Ieuan Evans scored that memorable try against the then double-Grand Slam champions England in a 10-9 win in Cardiff in 1993. When Nigel Walker ran down the wing on the same Arms Park pitch a year later in 1994 against the French to help seal a rare Championship victory. When Scott Gibbs scored that wonder try and Neil Jenkins scored that nail-biting conversion deep into stoppage-time against England at Wembley in 1999 to deprive them of a Grand Slam and give the final 5 Nations Championship to Scotland.

My University years between 2000-2003 saw no clear sign of improvement apart from a surprisingly ferocious record in Paris. Indeed, I travelled to Dublin with Pantycelyn friends in 2002 and watched in the bars as Wales' 'Great Redeemer'  Graham Henry signed off with a humiliating 10-54 reverse. A year later on the same Pantycelyn trip, I made my only visit to date to Murrayfield where we witnessed more heartache as a 22-30 defeat formed a part of a devastating whitewash with Wales winning the Wooden Spoon.

Grand Slam Glory
When 2005 came along, after the improvements suddenly made in the 2003 World Cup under Steve Hansen's leadership, Wales burst into incredible technicolour and did the incredible, the inconceivable, the astonishing - they won their first Grand Slam in a generation.

Remember, for those of my generation and even a few years older, this was unchartered waters. After the barren years, those of us who had no recollection of those golden years in the 1970s often wondered whether we would ever see a Grand Slam in our lifetimes. Just one, that is all we asked for - just one Grand Slam. Little could we believe that in such a short space of time we would be celebrating a level of Welsh success that has matched that of our famous forefathers.

Grand Slam I - 2005
Personally, nothing will replace those glorious moments of ecstasy of 2005.

The English match was watched in Yr Hen Llew Du in Aberystwyth in the old 'Cwtch' in the back by the entrance to the kitchen. Wales had played well in the World Cup of 2003 and in the 2004 autumn internationals but had failed to claim a major scalp. The ability and the potential was there but it needed to be seen through 80 minutes. Gavin Henson's iconic winning kick gave us that breakthrough 11-9 win and a first against England in Cardiff since that 1993 success and sent us into raptures. But this was merely the 'Hors d'oeuvre'.

Next up was Italy and I watched it in Aberystwyth's Academy. That 38-8 win in Rome gave us the momentum needed into what would be a monumental clash against the French in Paris. I watched that match in the Snooker Club on Aberystwyth's Pier. The first half was a French materclass but the second half Welsh performance won Wales the Grand Slam in a mere 40 minutes. An absolutely stunning performance completed an incredible 24-18 victory and we and the population of Wales erupted into delerious expectation. Suddenly, 'it' was on.

Scotland was seen as an annoying obstacle that had to be overcome. But the previous time we had played them at Murrayfield was that same match that I had seen with my own eyes - this would be no walk-over. But, from my vantage point at the Eli Jenkins in Cardiff Bay, I watched a commanding 46-22 victory. Now it was Ireland in Cardiff for the Grand Slam. Typically, Wales' record at home against the Irish was awful and so, in a state of great excitement and anxiety, I watched with friends from the front of that same Yr Hen Llew Du that kicked off the tournament, as Wales wrote a first glorious Grand Slam chapter for my generation. My abiding memory will of course always be the kick-through opening try scored by of all people, Gethin Jenkins! It sent us absolutely barmy! When Kevin Morgan went over for the second Welsh try to calm our nerves, we went barmy once more! When the final whistle went and we in Wales celebrated our first Grand Slam in 26 years, it's fair to say that I, and others could be seen dancing on the tables of the Llew Du! It was a glorious, surreal moment of euphoria, of disbelief, of absolute joy unconfined.

For a Welshman, this meant the world, and the suddeness of it all that year just made it all the more remarkable and difficult to comprehend!

Grand Slam II - 2008
Nothing will ever beat those memories of 2005.

In 2008 it didn't help that for the opener against England, I was in Thailand and didn't know the result until a full 24 hours later! When I did, it was in a phone call to my mother from a bamboo hut on the banks of the River Kwai! Honestly, I couldn't make it up! Wales had just come off the back of an embarassing 2007 World Cup defeat to Fiji and I certainly held no hope of Wales beating England at HQ for the first time since 1988 and in Warren Gatland's first game in charge. That 26-19 win was followed up by a 30-15 win over Scotland. I must be honest and admit that I can't remember where I was watching that match. The same can be said for Wales' 47-8 routing of Italy. 2005 for me was iconic - every match remembered in wonderful detail but 2008 has already lost its mark. I do however recall watching the Irish Triple Crown decider back in the cwtch of Yr Hen Llew Du with that close 16-12 win at Croke Park. The Grand Slam decider against France in Cardiff was a quiet affair as I watched and went out of mind once more whilst babysitting my then 10 and 8 year old nephews - I don't think they'd seen their Uncle Mark so animated before! But that 29-12 victory deserved all the animation that I could muster! I recall telling my 10 year old nephew Trystan at the time that he was fortunate to live in an era where Wales had won 2 Grand Slams in 4 seasons. I told him how I had lived through an era when the only comfort afforded to us more often than not came from Neil Jenkins' boot!

Grand Slam III - 2012
This year, after a successful World Cup, things changed. Things were different.

For the first time, there was an expectation that Wales should do well. But it was only after that nail-biting last minute kick by Leigh Halfpenny won the match against Ireland 23-21 did we truly realise that it could be 'on' once more. I watched it, with some English friends of mine, back in my old stomping ground in Yr Hen Llew Du (notice a trend here?!) as I'd decided that it was a particularly lucky pub for me when it came to Irish games winning as we had against them with me in the pub there in 2005 and 2008.

The Scotland match was viewed in the peace and quiet of my own home here in Cardigan and after a stubborn Scottish first half performance, Wales cantered away to a 27-12 win in the second. I returned to Aberystwyth's Snooker Club on the Pier for the big Triple Crown showdown with England and alongside the same English friends who came with me for the season opener against the Irish, I shouted and screamed as Scott Williams flew over the whitwash for that stunning late try when it looked as if the game might fizzle out into a 12-12 draw. That 19-12 win was and is the only time that I have watched Wales win a game of rugby at Twickenham - quite an incredible concept for one who nears his 30th birthday! I watched Wales' workmanlike 24-3 win against Italy in of all places, Llanboidy's Sports and Social Club with my future father-in-law, Alyson's father John! It's the first time we've been out alone for a few drinks and at a members discount of £2 a pint, we enjoyed what was a hard fought but ultimately comfortable win.

So it was that we faced France in Cardiff for a Grand Slam as we did in 2008. But of course, this was also the case back in the 1970s and it's incredible to note that of Wales' 11 Grand Slams, 7 have been completed against the French. With the sad news of Merv(yn) 'the Swerve' Davies' passing just two days earlier, it set up for a raw and emotional day for all involved. The 1976 Welsh Grand Slam winning captain would've been proud of his proteges as they emulated his team's achievements in that same crucial, final fixture, 36 years on. They dug in deep and battled out a deserved 16-9 win. Where was I? For once, not in Aberystwyth. For once, not in a bar. Instead, I watched it with the same group of old University friends who celebrated with me at the climax of that opening Grand Slam campaign back in 2005 in the comfort of one of their Swansea homes. There was fist-thumping, fist-pumping actions from myself as ever but this time, it wasn't to celebrate an unexpected but joyous deliverance. Instead, it was to celebrate what we knew should be ours and in the final analysis, deserved to be ours.

This was a different Grand Slam level of delight. It wasn't the shock of a first win in our collective lifetimes or of the pleasant surprise of repeating the feat a few years later. No, this was the quiet (ok loud!) satisfaction of knowing that our boys had proven that even when not playing to their full potential, they had learned how to grind out victories and close teams down in the final minutes. This is a confident Wales that can handle the tag of being the favourite. Never in my memory have I been able to say that of a Welsh rugby team, let alone one from the 1990s. Now however, it really does feel as if the rugby world is at our feet.

Wales have come a long, long way from those dark, barren days of my childhood. I'm rather enjoying this light of glorious success and I want to continue to do so for years to come. I remember the years of darkness and I'm thankful that I lived through them because it's made me appreciate these sunny uplands all the more.

Here are some of those Welsh tries mentioned above, and many more.

Mervyn Davies will be very proud of Wales after Saturday's performance and so indeed, is an antire nation.

Cymru am Byth! Wales Forever!

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