A friend of mine told me not so long ago that he thinks of his life span in terms of how many more soccer world cups he will live to see. He is 50 and with the tournament played every four years he is hopeful of a few more yet. He is unlucky in that if he were a few years older, as I am, he may have been old enough to watch England win their last world cup in 1966. I on the other hand think of my life span in terms of the performance cycle of the Welsh rugby union side. I have blogged on this before but this weekend was especially poignant.
One of the all time Welsh greats, Mervyn Davies, died at the age of 65. Merv the Swerve as he was affectionately known was one of my boyhood heroes. He played alongside the great names of Welsh rugby in the 60s and 70s. Everybody worshiped these guys – the Pontypool Front Row were a legend, Barry John and Phil Bennett, arguably the two greatest outside halves the world has ever seen, JPR Williams, the wonderous full-back, John Dawes, Gerald Davies, JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards (without any doubt the best scrum half ever to grace the game) and players like John Taylor and Derek Quinnell. Most of these would have been born in the 40s, maybe the very early 50s and I suppose I need to get used to the fact that my heroes will pass and I will follow them. Wales runs on beer, rugby and singing and not necessarily in that order. The hard men were forged in the coal mines and steel mills of South Wales and over time most of them closed. When my parents first drove us as children to visit our grandparents the home village still had its pit-head gear and slag heaps. This is all long gone. And the glory days went with them. For 2 decades Welsh rugby languished in the worst of states. A few individual heroes emerged but never a full XV and a decent XV never had the depth to sustain a few injuries. If the best team could not turn out we were in for a drubbing.
As you grow older you realize that most things turn in cycles and sport is no different. The English cricket team went through a similar lengthy barren patch. At one time the WIndies were invincible on the cricket field. Now they are eminently human. Only the English soccer team is still waiting the return of the glory days. And so it was that last night I settled down to watch the ‘new’ Welsh heroes take on France. A win would give them the Six Nations Championship and The Grand Slam to accompany the Triple Crown already tucked away. All the four matches have been hard-fought, firstly Ireland, then Scotland, England and Italy. All fell. At about half past midnight HK time last night the match was won, two days after Merv passed away. He would have loved to see the celebrations as the referee blew for no side. It is years since I heard the stadium echoing with the elated voices of the massed Welsh supporters, so loud and so long. Cwm Rhondda and Hymns and Arias, again and again. Luckily the roof was open or it would have been blown off. I knew Wales would win. I watched the boys singing the anthem. Alun Wyn Jones could have won on his own the way he sang. They knew it was their destiny. They play with a self-belief and level of fitness I have never seen before. A decade ago the prop Adam Jones would stumble off the field in an international after 50-60 minutes, puffing and blowing. Now he looks a different man. You have to want to win so much to make the sacrifices at this level and clearly Gatland has found a whole squad that wants it.
So as I go through my seasonal reflection on my own mortality, the question arises whether this Welsh team is in the same ‘immortal’ category as the greats of the 70s. The easy answer is that you can not compare teams across generations. Would Mike Tyson beat Muhammad Ali, was Bradman better than Tendulkar, is Beckham as good as Stanley Matthews? A recent article analyzed the physical differences between the rugby teams of the recent past. It concluded that “Someone who pulls on the white (England) shirt in 2012 is on average almost three stone heavier and three inches taller than their predecessors of 50 years ago.” If I have to answer the question today I have to say “not yet”. Despite the very different nature of the game today it is clear that the Welsh squad can not yet claim parity with let alone dominance over the Southern hemisphere teams. In 1972 a Welsh club side, Llanelli, defeated the All Blacks 9-3 at Stradey park. This was “the day the pubs ran dry” as Max Boyce wrote. The touring Lions sides of the day were dominated by the Welsh and they could hold their own with any team on their day. Until the Welsh can compete head to head with the antipodeans and win, not just emerge defeated but with honour, they can not enter the same pantheon as their predecessors. Yes, there are some modern-day greats. Shane Williams qualifies. So does Ieuan Evans. But a whole team? At best this team is Work In Progress. If the likes of George North, Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny are still turning on the style and winning ten years from now then I will be happy to see their names up there alongside those of JPR, Barry and Gareth. I hope I will be around to witness and applaud it.
Let none of this detract from the achievements of the Welsh team. They have been magnificent this season and brought me great pleasure. I just think a sense of perspective is required. Don’t put the team on a pedestal and then knock them off the moment they slip. It’s a long haul to immortality. I am sad to say goodbye to Merv the Swerve and I dread the day when Barry John shuffles off this mortal coil. But they are in the pantheon and today’s heroes are still in the anteroom. As we age so the metronome speeds up and the clocks tick faster. That is how it seems. I’d like to hang on a while yet to see how it turns out. And in the meantime the factory can continue producing the world’s most valuable commodity, Welsh outside halves.
Oh and for those interested the answers to the ‘across the generations comparisons’ are: no, yes and no.