Archive for February, 2020

From Cavaliers to Roundheads

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

I watched Wales playing France on Saturday, and was completely depressed by their performance. To be honest, I am not a great fan of modern rugby. It reminds me so much of rugby league which to me has always been a second cousin to rugby union. That is, when rugby union was played with flair and verve. I know rugby union went through a barren period during the sixties embodied by a match between Wales and Scotland. The Welsh captain on that day was Clive Rowlands. Playing at scrum half, he received the ball  from  the lineout for the umpteenth time, and proceeded to kick for touch approximately 96 times. It was a  diabolical spectacle. His gifted half back partner, David Watkins, never received a pass.

Rowlands’ performance led to a change in the laws. It was decreed that kicking directly into touch would only be permitted from within your own twenty five. Otherwise, the ensuing lineout would be taken back from where the kick was taken.

Fifty plus years on kicking from the hand still played a huge role in Saturday’s match. But this was much worse. Wales’s Biggar and Halfpenny continued to punt the ball aimlessly up the field invariably straight into the hands of their French opponents who to their credit showed far more imagination than their Welsh opponents. Why opt to kick and give possession of the ball to your opponents allowing them to counter attack?

I guess I romanticize over the golden era of Welsh Rugby in the seventies and eighties, but with justification. They claimed that Wales had an outside half (fly half) factory churning out the next super star. Believe me, the team revolved around the outside half until the great Gareth Edwards came along and stamped his own authority on a match from scrum half. But that’s another story. Let’s concentrate on the line of fly halves that adorned the Welsh jersey in the Golden era.

David Watkins started the ball (pardon the pun) rolling when freed from the shackles of Clive Rowlands. He was replaced by a legend  called “The King”, Barry John. He received the mantel “King” from New Zealand journalists following his exploits in New Zealand in 1971 when he guided the British Lions to their first and only series win over the All Blacks.

My dad and I had endless arguments about Barry John having the talent to play for Wales let alone being regarded as the best fly half of his generation. My dad was used to fly halves making side steps to elude opponents while John  would invariably swivel his hips and glide through the opposition. Unaccountably, John retired at the premature age of 27 when he was at the peak of his career. Fortunately, Phil Bennett was waiting in the wings to take his place.

Now Bennett played a pivotal role in one of the greatest games of rugby. In 1973, the All Blacks toured Britain and Ireland and finished undefeated until the last game against the Barbarians. The Barbarians were an invitational XV, but on this occasion it comprised the majority of the British Lions squad which was so successful in 1971. This match will explain the difference in rugby style between the golden age and the ponderous modern game. Running and passing the ball, beating an opponent with deft of movement, using magical skills of fleet of foot, and slick handling. It was poetry in motion.

Instead, Wales had a great opportunity to score a try to bring them back into contention just before half time, and France had been reduced to 14 men with one player sent to the sin bin. Time and time again they attempted to bludgeon their way over the try line which was only 5 yards away when the situation cried out for a pass to their backs lined up in anticipation. Needless to say, they failed miserably and France went on to win the match despite a couple of late tries by Wales. I was angry watching their abject failure to create any kind of magic. Worse still, I was saddened by the state of Welsh rugby, and the state of the modern game in general.

Before I sign off I must mention another fly half, Jonathan Davies, who  played with a swagger and managed to stamp his own personality and range of mercurial skills on the game. He was lost to the union game far too early when he decided to take the money and go north to play rugby league as did David Watkins. Both players were highly successful in Rugby League, which in the case of Jonathan Davies left a chasm in the Welsh team. Davies was probably the last of the artisans to wear the number 10 jersey for Wales which led to an inevitable decline in Welsh rugby.

Yes, Wales have won Grand Slams in the 21st Century, but the current attitude in the game was sadly summed up by the current captain, multi-capped Alan Wyn-Jones: “Test rugby is about winning matches and throwing the ball around can be very pretty, but it is not winning.” In response I would conclude by asking: why can’t we win with flair?