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Opinion

Wales’ 16th man (who wasn’t there)

06 Nov 2022 5 minute read
Wales players at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. PA images Joe Giddens

Richard Martin

One of the reasons that so much beer was drunk in Cardiff on Saturday is that watching Wales play New Zealand is a sobering experience. To begin the game intoxicated is to give yourself the best chance of ending it even remotely close to merry.

The matchday experience at the Millennium Stadium, irrespective of the play on the pitch, is so devoid of genuine excitement or fan culture that it signals the demise of our national reputation as (take your pick) the land of song, 10,000 instant Christians, or best rugby atmosphere in the world.

The result was predictably tough for a plucky but outclassed Wales side. Whereas in the past you could have considered the crowd as a 16th man boosting the players to find that extra 10% from somewhere, the result was subtractive, reducing the playing capacity to 14.

Playing under the direct gaze of 140,000 eyeballs but barely a sound from 70,000 mouths is of no use to players up against the best in the world.

As former international John Devereux has noted, “No atmosphere at the Principality stadium… Wales need that lift at the moment so flat”.

Maverick troubadour

What fan culture remains at rugby internationals? Barely a sixth-generation photocopy of the legendary chapel-infused choirbook lives on. Hymns and arias are no longer hymns nor arias, just a thin memory of a rugby standard that it, itself, is now known only to a minority.

There is no maverick troubadour in popular culture that can lead the crowd from without and within in the way Max Boyce did for decades.

Many a jealous glance will be thrown, no doubt, from WRU towers as Dafydd Iwan leads the Cymru team to global recognition at the FIFA World Cup this month, his music rediscovered by a new generation of fans energised by success on the pitch and the positive mindset of the ‘Independent Football Nation’.

While the contributions of the Ynysowen Male Voice Choir and Ysgol Melin Griffith Choir represent those authentic connections in social history and education, they felt very much like the fan culture equivalent of paid advertising in Festival Park – the Zombie Shopping Centre of Britain.

The cupboard of Welsh rugby fan culture is bare and the WRU doesn’t help itself much.

While eventually there were glimpses of Feeder and Candelas later interspersed into the game, from the end of a touching tribute to greats Eddie Butler and Phil Bennet (RIP), the build-up was pure American generica.

What connection does Guns’n’Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” have to Wales or its fans? Why is it the perfect choice to launch a game between two great storied rugby nations from opposite poles of the planet?

Sporting hoodoo

From kick-off, the crowd fell silent. Whether in anticipation, tension or fright at what was to come, the extraordinary quiet was unsettling. You could hear someone cough from 20,000 people away.

There were some trying to “Ogi Ogi” or “Wales, Wa-ales!” away the crowd’s torpor but all was doomed to fail, and once the All Blacks took the lead the crowd had only few moments of magic on the pitch to raise them to their feet.

Ultimately the result was fair and Wales shipped over 50 points to New Zealand at home for the second year in a row.

Many in the crowd started leaving early and some younger supporters will be starting to wonder if even in their lifetimes Wales will ever shake off this sporting hoodoo.

The question is ultimately, what can be done to change things for the better?

The optimists among us might, again, suggest a glance at the extraordinary revivification of the Football Association of Wales over the last decade. Those of us with long memories and sporting scars to prove it will remember desperate attendances of under 10,000 in the National Stadium in the mid-90s.

At the time, the remote and distant FAW had still yet to shed its blazers and appeared to have as little interest in professionalising its governance as it did its attitude to promoting the men’s and women’s game in Wales.

Suffice to say, things have changed since, thanks to some inspired leadership on and off the pitch.

Self-inflicted wounds

Can the WRU do something similar? It could, but it needs to recognise that the old ways need to go and tough choices need to be made on and of the pitch.

The genius of the rise and rise of Welsh football is that the success has come from the alignment of the governing body, the players, and the fans buying into a shared vision of the future.

Rugby union in Wales has no such harmony and the club/regional friction continues to be one of the worst self-inflicted wounds in Welsh sporting history and is holding back progress on almost all fronts.

Is it even time to think the unthinkable and take Welsh national games to the regional stadiums of Wales to bring the game back to communities?

I can’t be the only one thinking about whether it’s worth paying the Principality Stadium premium to watch Cymru get smashed by the All Blacks again next time.


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Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
23 days ago

Puzzled by this growing and divisive – not to say lazy – narrative that seems intent upon rubbishing the wales rugby team while presenting the recent (and brilliant) achievements of the football team as the only success the Welsh nation has ever enjoyed on the sports field. I dont recall people trashing the Wales football team in similar vein a decade ago after Wales’ rugby side had just won another grand slam and reached the world cup semi final while the Wales football team hadnt qualified for anything for decades and were ranked outside the top 100 in the world.… Read more »

Arthur Owen
Arthur Owen
23 days ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Clywch,clywch!

CapM
CapM
23 days ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

The article doesn’t read as rubbishing the team but criticising the WRU for mismanaging the off field atmosphere. With rare exceptions they’ve being doing that mismanaging since and including the 1999 world cup.

Perhaps a significant proportion of those who are able to pay nearly £100 per ticket think that they have done their bit for Welsh rugby and can spend the game drinking, eating or busying themselves online or doing some other non-rugby activity when play commences.

Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
23 days ago
Reply to  CapM

I didnt see anyone eating or ‘busying themselves online’…

CapM
CapM
23 days ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

Well done for doing the right thing and concentrating on watching the game.

Stephen Howells
Stephen Howells
22 days ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

I, too am starting to wonder about this narrative. It provides a lot of attention but no real insight. It’s a 75,000-seater stadium so experiences will be different but for us we have no complaints last weekend. Atmosphere more often than not is created by winning. We haven’t won enough. Cymru won the 6 Nations in 2021 but behind closed Covid necessitated doors. That missed a lot of supporters, as did the win in South Africa in June. The key is to get the side winning.

Gareth
Gareth
23 days ago

The average rugby fan has been priced out of going to watch an international. It has become , not a game where club players went, had a pint and did some singing ,to a rugby equivalent of lady’s day at Ascot. A huge chunk of the crowd dont know the basic rules, let alone who are playing on the park, as they never watch a club game to find out who plays where, contributing to no atmosphere at the game.

CJPh
CJPh
23 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

Last time I went to the national stadium, the atmosphere was amazing. So too the soccer. Agree if you switch focus to the domestic game, though. It seems to have modelled their crowd-garthering practices on Premier league football. Corporatism is killing sporting culture.

George Thomas
George Thomas
22 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

To be fair though, the only money maker the WRU have is the internationals. Not nearly enough people going to support the regions with some still wanting things from the past and others not willing to back reforms to take us to the future.

Karl
Karl
23 days ago

Sadly the old faked view of being a rugby nation has finally show the truth. The Wru has done little to improve anything after the regions farce alienated many fans. The truth is rugby for a long time has not grown its fan base at club level and the internationals have become drinking dates on a calendar. Time to reconnect and create new fans who will cheer. Not chase the money and the awful experince going to the millennium brings. Its right to learn from football, the FAW are getting it right often. The WRU are greedy.

Gareth
Gareth
23 days ago
Reply to  Karl

I agree wirh you, rugby needs to get the younger fan through the door. At the CCS for Cymru games, there is a theme, flashing lights modern music, and engagement with the crowd, At a Wales rugby game, you have a soldier with a goat, and a male voice choir, pure 1950s, dumped long ago by the FAW, kids dont want it, oh, and at football the team wins, that does help. Note also the FAW want to be known as Cymru, not Wales, they have also realised there is a new mood in the country and are in step,… Read more »

George Thomas
George Thomas
22 days ago
Reply to  Karl

If the FAW are getting it right, are the gates at Cymru Premier games going up? Are Cardiff, Swansea, Newport selling out their stadiums each week?

The FAW recognise the issues the WRU have and are desperately trying to avoid them by strengthening our structure and performance of the clubs, but how many people still travelling to England to get their football fix or sticking a game on TV instead of going down?

George Atkinson
George Atkinson
23 days ago

The WRFU has turned Welsh rugby from a working class sport to a middle class/ poshboy sport through their ridiculous ticket pricing. I remember when both our football and rugby team were playing in Cardiff on the same day a few years ago and the age contrast between both sets of fans was extrememly eye opening. Lets just say the rugby crowd was 90% pensioners while the footy crowd was the complete opposite (The footy ticket price was a quarter of what the rugby expected fans to pay). The rugby is also a bootlicking britnat fest while the football celebrates… Read more »

Rhy5
Rhy5
18 days ago

I can’t agree with most of this and wonder about the validity of your opinion if you think rugby in Wales is run by the “WRFU”! As a boy, after playing for my school on a Saturday morning, I would go with my friends to watch Cardiff RFC in the afternoon and if they were playing away, we would often go to watch Cardiff City. I certainly don’t remember paying more to watch the rugby – quite the opposite in fact. Further, rugby in Wales has never been ‘class’ based, although if the modern day crowds at the Principality Stadium… Read more »

Iolo ap Llyr
Iolo ap Llyr
23 days ago

I used to attend both rugby and football Cymru internationals, but over the last few years I’ve stopped going to the rugby. It’s not just the price of a ticket – it just wasn’t fun any more as an experience. Regardless of the opposition or result, there’d be a huge tannoy and fireworks driven noise before kick off, then after the first whistle everyone would sit down and shut up. No passion, no noise. The article above isn’t rugby bashing, it’s pretty much spot on. At the heart of my continued estrangement from rugby internationals is the increased feeling that… Read more »

Iwan Williams
Iwan Williams
23 days ago

The opening line of this article refers to the stadium as the millennium Stadium. I didn’t read past that poor journalism. The stadium is the principality Stadium.

George Atkinson
George Atkinson
23 days ago
Reply to  Iwan Williams

It’s the Millennium.

Gareth
Gareth
23 days ago

I no longer go to WRU organised events, as I do not support ” team GB” I support Cymru. The recent ending of our 7’s team in order to field a GB team leaves me cold to Welsh rugby. I would rather not have a team at all, than be represented by ” team GB” the union Jack and “God save whoever it is” foisted on me.

Keith Darlington
Keith Darlington
23 days ago

The Welsh pundits, like Gwyn Jones and Graham Price, also need to reflect on their opinions. They constantly rip the Welsh team apart forgetting that they never achieved anything close to the success of the Welsh sides since 2005. Price was in 2 Grand Slam winning sides and never beat SA but AW Jones has won 4 Grand Slams and been in sides beating South Africa. Gwyn Jones never even played in a Gland Slam winning team. They need to keep their negativity in perspective a little more.

George Thomas
George Thomas
22 days ago

Long term issues which can’t be masked by specific genius of Warren Gatland etc. and players self-improving. We do have some really exciting young wingers (LRZ, Rio and Josh Adams) mind so potential for exciting rugby is there.

Long term issues with fan culture which means Millenium sometimes described as biggest Wetherspoons in Wales. The sport should come first and not drinking to excess.

Welsh rugby deserves some love as key part of our culture too.

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