Wales’ 16th man (who wasn’t there)
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”.
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?
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.
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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