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On being a rugby supporting poet in Wales

10 Feb 2024 11 minute read
Rugby fan and poet, Leigh Manley

Leigh Manley

‘While Driving Over the Second Severn Crossing’

My wife says I’m Welsh rugby mad,

but for the record: she’s been had!

 

As I’m just not sure it’s entirely true:

rucks of flankers think like I do.

 

Do you know what I mean? Is it me? Is it you?

Is it we? Is it us? Are you with me too?

 

I mean, what do you conceive

as you drive straight

 

off your feet

over the Second Severn Crossing?

 

Penalty? Obstruction?

 

Thank you referee. I quite agree.

We’ll take the points, opt for three.

 

I mean, like me, you’ve noticed it, right?

Pylons the shape of rugby posts,

high winds singing with cloth-capped ghosts?

 

And what do you feel?

What do you do?

 

You feel the estuary running beneath your wheels,

don’t you?

 

You go with the flow:

slam your studs on the accelerator,

drive over for the winning try.

 

Maybe overtake Ford on the outside,

daydream your last-ditch dive tackle?

 

Either way you’re the hero

of this mud-slip hour,

 

hoisted high on cables

as old line-out forwards

suspended in time and air.

 

But I know, I know.

You can’t quite believe the title bestowed

on this scrum of steel and road.

 

I’m with you. I mean, talk about crossing the line,

overstepping the mark. We shall speak of it no more.

 

Except, what about Carwyn’s Crossing?

Butler’s Bridge?

 

Whisper it quietly: Wales to win.

 

A Dream Weekend Representing Wales

It’s a damp and misty Sunday morning, somewhere on a stretch of A470 between Dolgellau and Llanidloes. The poetry of the landscape surrounds me. I inhale its rugged beauty; craggy slopes, rushing streams. It fills my lungs with rapture.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, a little over fifteen hours ago, Kiwi official Ben O’Keeffe has blown his whistle to signify success for Scotland over Warren Gatland’s young charges; the visitors first victory in the Welsh capital since 2002. I’m blissfully unaware of the outcome.

It’s the first time in as long as I can remember that I’ve missed a Six Nations Championship fixture involving heroes in red. The last time would have been an era before Rugby World Cups, a time when a blue-eyed boy from the Llynfi Valley could still dream of one day running out at the Arms Park to represent Wales.

Intensive care

Mind you, I cut it fine in 2020. The end of January and gravely ill on the intensive care unit at Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital, only one more shock of my defibrillator away from an induced coma. The potent anti-arrhythmia drug amiodarone my saviour on this occasion. Discharge arriving just twenty-four hours ahead of the opening fixture of Wayne Pivac’s muddled tenure.

But I’ve missed this one, pursuing new ambitions, and I’ve made a conscious decision: I’ll avoid the result until I arrive back home to watch the recording.

Back on the A470, a wild pheasant flushes across the windscreen in juxtaposition with a wake of Red Kites circling roadkill. I’m in conversation with three colleagues from the third cohort of ‘Representing Wales’ (Literature Wales’ development programme); they’ve swapped the potential disruption of the train in anticipation of a swifter and more convenient route back to Cardiff following our final masterclass at Tŷ Newydd.

As we twist through the heart of rural Wales on four wheels, we are on a high. The positivity from our programme reflected in growing self-confidence, blossoming friendships, a palpable enthusiasm. We muse on the prospect of potential future collaborations, how to ensure this is not the end, but the beginning. I wonder about the concept of awarding caps when one represents their country, determine it’s the memories that matter.

And then, somewhere amongst the fermenting froth of fragments distilling the last ten months of exposure to the literary scene in Wales and beyond, a question from yesterday’s session on delivering workshops in schools punctuates my mind,

‘What is your USP?’

The hang time on this question is tremendous, like a Dan Biggar up-and-under I’ll soon discover Wales will sorely miss during this start of this latest transition period.

Before I know it, my companions are struggling to get a word in edgeways.

Ironic, as I thought I’d left behind acronyms, when almost two years to the day, I decided, after twenty-two years, to exit the corporate arena in search of a vocation more personally meaningful. But it appears, unique selling points are as difficult to shake off as a bunch of young kids staring down the barrel of potential humiliation on home turf.

And now, I’m in full flow: an internal rumination giving way to external monologue.

‘I turned to poetry for therapeutic purposes.’

I know they’ve heard this before, but it’s necessary to start somewhere.

‘Write what you know. But not everyone wants to hear about trauma.’

I ponder my difficult childhood relationship with rugby. Keep to myself recurring dislocations of both left and right patella, the all-pervading fear of injury mauling through my young mind every time I ran onto the field, pretending it was for pleasure in a futile attempt to be accepted as one of the boys. How the inevitable retirement from the game in my early teens pushed a scholarly but impressionable valley boy firmly to outside centre.

Passionate spectator

Instead, I fix my focus on a sport I genuinely adore from a comfortable distance in the stands. A sport that saw me adopt the role of passionate spectator, while channelling athletic endeavours towards the meditation of long-distance running, until a showstopping diagnosis of arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy. A sport that, although I can no longer participate in anything more strenuous than a game of snooker, darts, golf, still draws me to its theatre, its poetry in a way no other can match.

Imagine my disappointment, when, attempting to fill the hole left by an inability to exercise, I head to the spoken word scene at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre, to overhear a confident declaration that went something like,

‘We are poets. We are not interested in sport. We drink and share words.’ And it was greeted with resounding approval.

This was more than a slight headache for someone who, intent on forging a fresh identity out of the misfortune of life-threatening illness, had set up social media handles as the self-proclaimed ‘Rugby Poet.’ If I wasn’t already self-conscious about my writing, I was now, especially the core subject matter I’d hoped would set me on my way.

I assert this to my carshare crew of talented writers, share with them my inclination to scrutinise the suggested paradox inherent in rugby and poet combining as a launchpad for reinvention.

In defence of the voice overheard that day at Chapter, I’ve gone on to discover a fair proportion of poets for whom rugby holds no interest whatsoever, matched only by a significant number of rugby fans not much fussed on poetry. But deep inside, there remained this sense, a conviction, this may not necessarily prove a universal truth.

And in that moment of explaining my search for that place where sport and poetry intersect, it dawns on me that I already know the answer. I turn to Hammad, sat in the front passenger seat, and say, ‘It’s already with us, it happens every year!’

Six Nations

It’s revealed every first month of the year in clarion calls national broadcasters make for the country to get behind their side a couple of weeks ahead of a new Six Nations campaign. And it’s particularly prevalent in this old land of poets, singers, and scribes.

Whether it’s this year’s assertion from fans draped in red jerseys that each one of us is the heartbeat of Wales. Or whether it’s the late Eddie Butler using his wonderful lyricism to describe the emotional rollercoaster of Siân’s and Dai’s on matchdays in ‘a country roughly the size of Wales.’ This is poetry in disguise, poetry by stealth. If it’s stirring the emotions, it’s poetry. Yes, there may be accompaniment; dramatic soundtracks, showreels reliving iconic moments out on the pitch. Call it poetry by multimedia, poetry for a digital world. Call it what you want. But if it gets the blood pumping and hairs stand up on the back of your neck, then accept that it’s poetry. And every January and February, it transcends a nation’s consciousness, whether one is aware of it or not.

This revelation steers my thoughts back to last summer: ‘Voices on the Bridge’, a spoken word event at Clwb y Bont in Pontypridd. Sharing my work on the same stage as Pete Akinwunmi, whose poem ‘A Nation Holds its Breath Again’ enraptured supporters back in 2016. I reflect on how we’ve both recently published work as part of ‘Yer Ower Voices’, an anthology of dialect poems in English and Welsh. My Gatland poem, ‘Warren Eader’, sitting comfortably alongside his ‘The Rugby Will Be Broadcast on the Television Shortly.’ Not forgetting Siôn Tomos Owen’s contribution, a poet whose work I’ve seen performed before on Scrum V Live.

There’s a further epiphany: ‘I’m far from on my own.’

Thirty dirty ruffians

Suddenly, I’m remembering rugby titles beyond autobiography. Owen Sheers’ poetic ‘Calon’, complete with his assertion that a ‘country’s gaze and speech tightens in one direction…moments when many, through the few, become one’. The image of Harri Webb’s ‘thirty dirty ruffians brawling in the mud,’ rears its head: a reminder there’s great tradition here. And though it does not reference rugby, I’m conjuring words adapted from Brian Harris’ 1967 poem, ‘In Passing’:

‘To be born Welsh is to be born privileged…’

Why? Not only because I’ve seen them popularised on postcards and decorative homeware shaped from oak and slate. Not only because I’ve seen them hung in halls, and kitchens, and living rooms from Maesteg to Machynlleth, Cardiff to Criccieth. But because, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve heard these words chime from the mouths of many a passionate Welsh rugby fan on matchdays; huge pride in the assertion their heritage is inextricably stitched to a notion there’s music in their blood and poetry in their soul.

By the time we arrive in Rhayader for a pitstop of takeaway tea and a gentle stretch of the legs, I’m in even more buoyant mood than when we set off. The penny is dropping. We all have likes and dislikes, stereotypes are sweeping. I can’t confess I’ve totally worked out my USP, but recognising that I need to write the poems, or stories, or whatever, that I most want to write feels like a healthy place to start. I’ve been told this before, but now I’m beginning to listen.

When I arrive home in Cardiff there’s no awkward conversation about a request to watch the rugby, having been away for several days.

In fact, it’s a case of my wife and daughters asking eagerly whether I saw any of the game.

‘Do you know the score?’

‘No.’

‘Do you not know what happened?’

‘No.’

‘You’d better go and watch it then.’ No second invitation required.

I aim my remote control at the black box in the living room, press play on the recording, fast forward the end of BBC Wales Today. The opening credits roll to the sound of the BBC’s Six Nations theme tune. Here we go.

But wait. What’s this?

Snow-capped mountains. Classical music. Rugbywatch? Chris Packham?

This is not the egg-chasing enthusiast I was expecting. Maybe I’m too quick to judge?

The quiet hush of his voice kicks in:

‘It begins in winter and ends in spring…’

One could argue this is poetry you know.

‘The cycle starts anew.’

 

‘The Conversion’

Praying your strike,

the strike to come

 

will sail between uprights

is not what guides you home.

This is the moment

when incalculable hours

count for nothing

or everything

hinges on the outcome

of drowning the electricity

of what happened

in game’s dying breath;

streams of consciousness

you’ve devoted yourself

to executing,

imagining over,

and over, and over again.

It’s going over,

it’s going over.

And you sculpt

the monument of yourself

statue still,

straddle distances between

greatness and despair,

stride forward to strike

the final blow,

turn your back on bowing

heads, eyes raised

to the heavens,

because – dear god!

You’ve only gone

and bloody nailed it.

 

A version of the poem ‘While Driving Over the Second Severn Crossing’ first appeared in Red Poets, Issue 29.


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Ben Wildsmith
Ben Wildsmith
3 months ago

Lovely piece.

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