If you are a Welsh rugby fan and want the memory of adrenaline-charged moments to flood through you then this is the book for you. Richard Morgan, ITV Wales’ affable and knowledgeable rugby reporter has concertinaed the Welsh campaign in Japan into a sprightly aide de memoire. It reminds readers of the highs, such as winger Josh Adams’ record number of tries and of the lows, the unquestionable nadir being losing to the Springboks in the semi-final and that by the narrowest and perhaps the most morale-dismantling of margins.
To reach this game Wales had had to play Georgia, a game they won comfortably 43-14 and square up to the running power of the Fijians who, once again, showed that free-flow rugby seems to be a genetic disposition among South Sea Islanders. There had been the game against Uruguay which the punditry predicted to be a pushover, yet the proud, able but mainly amateur players walked away from the game in Kumamoto with their heads held high, despite losing 13-35. And there was the frantic, frenetic game against Australia in which Wales showed their tenacity, mettle and class, edging it 29 points to 25.
Wales won all of their pool games, albeit sometimes scrappily, building up confidence in a team which is usually happy to play the underdog, but which had, during the summer briefly held the number one slot in the world rugby rankings. Although beset by so many injuries that the Welsh the team sheet looked like an appointments list at a day clinic there was a genuine belief that the talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones might be able to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for the very first time.
Gatland summed up the Ospreys’ titan in a TV interview suggesting that ‘Since he’s been the captain, we don’t have as many fights at training because he used to start most of them! That’s how competitive he is. He doesn’t say a lot, just leads from the front at training and sets a great example for the players. We’re very lucky to have him captaining the side.’
This was, of course Warren Gatland’s last campaign at the helm, after coaching the national team to three Grand Slams and two World Cup semis. The experienced centre Jonathan Davies suggested that Gatland had developed ‘A winning mentality. Before that, Welsh rugby didn’t have the confidence to say “We expect to win,” but now we go into games with confidence because we’ve done the work and we know what’s needed from us.’
It’s a confidence often tested to the max and a shadow was cast over the team’s World Cup campaign early on when Rob Howley was sent home after breaking rules over betting. But everyone rallied round and Stephen Jones came in as a replacement forwards’ coach, anticipating his permanent role under Wayne Pivac.
It was also a campaign in a country where the game of rugby hadn’t traditionally been that prominent, but sterling work by a WRU advance guard resulted in what was to be one of Richard Morgan’s most treasured memories of the competition, the sight of thousands of new Japanese fans singing a word-perfect rendition of ‘Calon Lân’ and ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’ during a training session. This most resembled a full-on Six Nations encounter, before a capacity crowd, even though Wales were basically playing against themselves.
More generally, the shop window for rugby in Japan seemed to win many, many new adherents, such as the 60 million people who tuned in to the TV to watch the home team, the ‘Brave Blossoms’ send Scotland home early, turning in one of the Japanese team’s most spirited and electrifying performances.
Japan is, of course also a subject in this book. Morgan notices that the number four is missing from the buttons for floors in a lift because of a superstitious fear of the number itself, pronounced exactly the same as the word for death. He shoots around the Japanese islands on the bullet trains, a high speed declaration of Japanese efficiency. Morgan visits a bar run by an octogenarian Japanese country singer Charlie Nagatani and elsewhere goes to do a live link in the wee small hours from the top floor of a building which is only marginally shorter than Pen y Fan. His hosts had lit up the whole thing red for the occasion. These felicitous details add much to the enjoyment of ‘Gatland’s Last Bow.’
The book is written in a crisp style, taking you along at a lick and sharing some fascinating statistics along the way, such as the fact that 99.3% of seats were filled over the 45 matches while a record 1.3 million people flocked to the fanzones. The inheritance is already guaranteed, with an estimated 1.8 million youngsters playing rugby in Asia as a consequence of the World Cup. More stats. There were a record eight red cards in the tournament, a sign of stricter tackling rules to ensure player safety. We also find out that Bryan Habana, the lightning-footed Springboks winger, once raced a cheetah. And lost. Meanwhile, Rhys Patchell admitted to needing the skin of a rhinoceros when he dons the number 10 shirt, an opportunity denied him too many times in 2019 because of injuries:
“There’s a feel for the game at outside half, and it’s very difficult when you keep spending time on the touchline to regain that rhythm again very quickly. I’ve learned over the years that rugby moves very quickly, and the longer you stick around a barber shop, the more chance you’ve got of getting a haircut. And here I am, and what a fortunate position I’m in.”
‘Wring the sponge’
Welsh rugby success always comes despite the odds, succinctly expressed by Richard Morgan when he compares the number of registered players in different countries. In Wales it’s a little over 80,000, or one player for every 36 people, which sounds like a lot. But then, in net terms, the scale of the problem is revealed. In England there are almost 400,000, or more than the population of the whole of Cardiff. In France they have over half a million.
If rugby is a numbers’ game then Wales always has the odds stacked against it. Warren Gatland puts it like this: ‘For such a small playing nation, we have to really push ourselves hard because we don’t have the same number of players and depth of players. You’ve just got to wring the sponge as dry as you possibly can…’
As Richard Morgan says “Sayonara” to Japan in the closing chapter he refers to a Japanese concept known as mono-no aware, about the pathos of things, the sense that nothing lasts forever. ‘Things may slip away,’ he says, ‘but at least you were there to witness them in the first place.’
If you weren’t lucky enough to witness the games at first hand in Japan, this book is the next best thing.
Gatland’s Last Bow: Wales in Japan 2019 is written by Richard Morgan, published by Y Lolfa, costs £9.99 and can be bought here.