Backing the good little ‘uns

As the Rugby World Cup hots up Gaw considers why Wales backs youth and admires craftiness.

This Saturday Wales play Ireland in one of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals and look an exciting prospect. The credit for how they’re playing is going to a talented group of young players:

Teenage wing George North, fly-half Rhys Priestland, centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies and back-rowers Sam Warburton [the youngest captain in World Cup history], Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate are all tipped to start against Ireland in Wellington and all are under 24.

It’s not unusual (as they bellow in Ponty) for Wales to give youth its head. They have a habit of giving debuts to teenagers, as previous examples across the ages demonstrate: Norman Biggs (18), Willie Davies (18), Haydn Tanner (18), Keith Jarrett (18), Gareth Edwards (19), Dai Young (19), Scott Gibbs (19), Leigh Halfpenny (19).

Then the season before last Tom Prydie played on the wing against Italy – despite having only played a total of seven minutes for his region when selected for the squad – becoming the youngest ever player to be capped by Wales at a little less than 18 years and one month. There are plenty more examples.

I believe Wales is unusual in this. The only country that I can think of that has a similar track record is Australia (at least according to my entirely non-statistical, sort-of-just-what-it-seems-like analysis). It’s certainly a different path to that taken by England, where on the rare occasion a youngster is picked, he’s usually dropped soon after rather than backed to learn and improve (Danny Cipriani (20), most recently and egregiously, and before that Matthew Tait (17)).

I suspect there’s something of a cultural reason for this willingness to back youth. Wales is a small nation with a big and powerful neighbour and it’s had to rely on cunning and cheek to keep its end up. In such a culture, crafty – not to say cocky – little buggers are highly valued (“bugger” is an affectionate Welsh term and is not to confused with the similarly spelt swear word).

Think of Jack’s character in Jack and the Beanstalk (top, in Welsh jersey and cap) – he’s a plucky and rather irresponsible lad who lives with his Mam but he still manages to outwit and outrun the Ogre, who in my story book looked the spitting image of Donncha O’ Callaghan (he also claimed to smell the blood of an Englishman, but never mind about that). Mind you, I’d probably back George North – whose 19 years have only just outstripped his 17-and-a-half stones – in a head-on collision with an Ogre.

This phenomenon also explains why the Welsh place such emphasis on the fly-half position, often filled by one of the smallest but most influential players on the pitch. The Welsh talk of the classic fly-halfs as being ‘wizards’ or refer to their ‘magic’. I suspect this is some sort of cultural relic left over from the legends of Myrddin (Merlin). Magic is a type of craftiness and is also to be relied upon when challenging a more powerful enemy.

The Welsh have turned something of a necessity into a prized virtue. They love expressive and crafty play. For good reason – it’s often been very effective. At the bottom is some footage from another Celtic encounter, the classic 1971 Scotland vs Wales match that I particularly enjoy because it contains some wonderful breaks by the legendary Gareth Edwards and the magical Barry John, who “flits like a little phantom” in the commentary, a reminder of the homely eloquence of the late Bill McLaren.

Unfortunately, we’re very unlikely to hear such great commentary this Saturday. But otherwise it has the potential to be an intriguing classic: half of the similarly on-form Irish squad are 30 or older.

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28 thoughts on “Backing the good little ‘uns

    October 6, 2011 at 09:59

    Heart or Head, it’s a tough call for me on Saturday. Mother from the valleys, (absent) Irish father, youthful Welsh against mature (aging) Micks. Got to go with youth.

    • Gaw
      October 6, 2011 at 15:26

      And you’ve surely got to stick with Mam.

    October 6, 2011 at 10:55

    Yes hoping for a great match. Last hurrah for the bigger names on the Ireland team who are in their 30s. If Wales were playing someone else I would support them. Fond memories of watching Edwards / Bennett / JPR & co with my father in the 70s on Rugby Special. Ireland have some young guns in the front row and at scrum half, the mix of experience & youth might get us through. After seeing off Australia we are feeling confident … this is usually our undoing, better off being underdogs.

    • Gaw
      October 6, 2011 at 15:25

      Impossible to call this one. Shame they’re playing so early as I’d like to see Ireland go to the final – just not via a victory over Wales!

        October 6, 2011 at 17:16

        May the best team win.. if we do get to the final I’m not sure I could watch sitting down. If NZ don’t win the trophy I could imagine the whole country sinking into the Pacific. Amazing the grip sport can have on some of us.

  3. Brit
    October 6, 2011 at 13:25

    Listening to the wonderful McLaren there made me realise how important commentary is to rugby union.

    Watching it live without commentary is an odd experience for the non-fanatic. Mostly a big scrabble, the ball only occasionally visible, and the match decided by an unfolding series of mysteries – aka penalties. More than any other sport, rugby needs an interpreter (of the game and of the referee) – and today’s are all sadly prosaic compared to McLaren.

    • Gaw
      October 6, 2011 at 15:17

      Good point. The only one I really rate nowadays is Eddie Butler. But his is usually marred by that vicious muppet Brian Moore.

    john halliwell
    October 6, 2011 at 14:11

    The antics of the English in NZ has tested my loyalty to the extent that I’m on the verge of switching support to the Welsh; the problem I have is loyalty to the memory of my dear old Dad, who recounted to me, on more than one occasion, his fear of Welsh women after one threatened him with a knife in Old Colwyn. Soon after escaping intact, he read that Welsh women had a reputation for poisoning their men. He returned to England.

    I first came across the term ‘Welsh Wizard’ in boyhood when I discovered that a mustachioed ex- Manchester City winger named Billy Meredith had been a wizard. I asked my old man: “How come a wizard played for Manchester City?”. He explained that the incomparable Billy was as Welsh as Owen Glendower, and therefore truly a wizard, unlike the women who were poisoners.

    I wish the Welsh well on Saturday and will support them because of their commitment to ungrizzled, golden youth, whose emergence in National teams is often a cause for celebration.

    • Gaw
      October 6, 2011 at 15:24

      The Welsh football wizard of my boyhood was Mickey Thomas, who was a magician in all sorts of ways… In my mind’s eye, he’s merged into the actor Hugh Griffith as he looked in the Tom Jones film (i.e. the Fielding one with Albert Finney).

      October 6, 2011 at 16:24

      John when you talk of your disappointment at the England player’s ‘antics’ are you referring to their on or off pitch antics?

        John Halliwell
        October 6, 2011 at 17:02

        Their off-field antics, Worm. But the on-field stuff has been pretty awful. I wish Johnson would release them from the ‘batter the buggers down’ philosophy and get the ball moving quickly; the rapier rather than the bludgeon. OK, there will be occasional interceptions and tries conceded as a result, but the spectacle, the thrill, when the game is played in that way, at the highest level, is wonderful. I’m sure it’s too late for that – you can’t change a mindset in a couple of weeks, can you? This takes me back to the Welsh – Gareth Edwards, Barry John, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Mervyn Davies. Ooops, sorry, wrong decade. Sadly, wizards like those emerge together once every 40 years.

          October 6, 2011 at 17:33

          Yes they were magical – JPR played on through the high tackles, must have been protected by his whiskers

            John Halliwell
            October 6, 2011 at 19:17

            The most magical of all rugby moments, roryoc, and earlier I managed to forget Phil Bennett. What a player.

        • Gaw
          October 6, 2011 at 18:53

          But their antics are no worse – indeed, much, much better – than those of just about every touring rugby team ever. It’s a shame that in the professional era rugby players aren’t allowed to be drunken oafs. Having said that, it’s all got up by the press. I reckon most rugby followers are much more understanding.

        • Gaw
          October 6, 2011 at 19:08

          Yes, John I fear we’re talking about more than ‘a couple of weeks’ to change a negative mindset.

          I remember hearing as a boy how the ’70s English back David (“Dai”) Duckham – despite being one of the best wings in the world at the time and actually one of the most exciting ever – never got a pass. As his nickname suggests he was adopted by the Welsh, who thought the world of him.

          Some more clips from Rory’s magical match, all featuring beautifully mesmerising runs by DD:

            John Halliwell
            October 6, 2011 at 19:31

            Thanks Gaw. I watched the broadcast on the day and the clips brought back great memories. DD was a marvelous player; it must have been a rare and wonderful treat for him to play alongside those exceptional Welshmen

    October 6, 2011 at 19:07

    One of my sisters lives in Mount Eden, hard by the stadium. She hates sport as much as I do, and here’s her report:-

    Rugby World Cup – we live in the zone of saturation… flags on every house, road cones in the streets, access to our street on match days only if you have a purple car sticker etc.

    On Saturday evening we heard the French national at from our house and the choir and haka etc. great atmosphere.

    The other sister is a rugby fan, and here’s her report of attending the Tongan/France match:-

    The Tongans have been the most vocal and well supported team and the most fun. There were a lot of costumes, including Musketeers, quite a few Napoleons, and a Marie Antoinette in front of us (who seemed to get rather drunk). It was the best atmosphere of any game I’ve been to – maybe because the Tongans beat the French, a top tier nation, the biggest upset of the tournament, so were in full voice.

    We joined a big group of rather subdued French supporters at the bar afterwards to watch the England/Scotland game. Then along came a young chap in his English supporters jersey, loud, obnoxious, who stomped a French flag into the ground and generally made an idiot of himself. The French just rolled their eyes and ignored him. The security guy was about to throw him out when he left.

    It’s the only aggro I’ve seen over the last 4 weeks – everyone has been great. The locals have been dressing up and supporting the minnow teams with great gusto.

    On the way back to the car park, we took the short cut through the James Cook hotel where the Tongan team were staying. It was hilarious – as though someone had just randomly flung Tongans around the foyer and they just crashed where they landed – people in their red jerseys sprawled out on the stairs, on the floor, up against the reception desk. I think there had been some hard partying and this lot had just crashed. Those that were still standing were dancing and singing.

    When the Australian media recently said that Aussie fans were being abused by Kiwis, a TV crew went out to find the abused fans, but had a hard job to do so, – however they held a “hug an Aussie” day last Friday and by all accounts Australian fans, by the end of the day, were pretty much terrified of being hugged yet again by burly blokes in All Blacks supporters jerseys. It got to the point where everyone was hugging them, from any nation – so I think any hurt feelings were definitely appeased.

    • Gaw
      October 6, 2011 at 19:59

      Thank you to our indirect New Zealand Rugby World Cup correspondent. Any chance of some more, Rosie?

      I think La Marseillaise followed by the haka is one of the more stirring sights in sport. The matches are often pretty spectacular too.

    October 7, 2011 at 13:10

    The only thing I’ve read recently that’s as good as this post is the comments on it. I have to agree with John about England: boorishness is just so offputting. I lost Scotland, too, before the England game: all those tedious comments about how putting England out of the tournament as well as beating them would be a bonus. Yawn… and not, in my experience, all that typical of Scots save a vocal narcissistic minority who demand to be pandered to in that childish way.

    1970s Welsh rugby was an astonishingly lovely thing – it does make me wonder if the game isn’t actually better both in skill and spectacle terms when its best players are amateurs or shamateurs. The over-muscled players of the English team, Wilkinson aside, look like refugees from an early EA Sports PC soccer simulation.

    And commentary – so important. One of my favourite sporting memories is listening to the NZ-France World Cup game of ?2003?, ?1999?, when the French staged an astonishing, narrowly unsuccessful fightback. I couldn’t see any of the game, but so thrilling was the commentary that it gave me one of those brief moments in life when you feel truly, wonderfully alive.

  7. Gaw
    October 7, 2011 at 13:52

    Thanks James.

    There was a lot more space on the pitch in the ’70s. One reason was that players didn’t get around the field as much. The first time I saw a fly-half following the ball after he’d passed it was when Mark Ella did it as a matter of course when playing for the 1984 Australian tourists to Great Britain. That was probably the first time we’d seen rugby played by a team entirely composed of athletes.

    I think the game you might be thinking of was the meeting between the teams in the 1999 World Cup when France made an astonishing come-back to win – one of the best World Cup games ever.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:42

      Gaw – yes, that’s the one! Thanks for the correction – I’ve now been able to find and watch some clips, 12 years later… tremendous match.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:34

    I’m not a Rugby Union fan but a few months ago I chanced upon South Africa playing New Zealand on the tv. I was quite honestly enraptured (and not a Welsh Wizard in sight).
    I wondered why I’d never noticed the appeal of the sport before until, a while later I did my usual patriotic duty and watched an England match and realised it was my home team that had turned me off the sport for so many years.
    Do me for treason if you like but I was quite relieved to see France despatch the Rosbif’s this morning, no more having to watch the grim, grinding motions of overmuscled hoorays…at least until the 6 Nations.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:50

      Stephen: hear, hear.

      One consequence of England’s disgraceful World Cup might be, and let us live in hope, the end of the absurd “Johnno” era. It’s been a product of the English’s determination that intelligence has nothing to do with sporting success, and an interpretation of the 2003 World Cup win that sees it, not as the result of innovative coaching and a storm of new thinking from Sir Clive Woodward, but the result of “Johnno inspiring the lads”. I’ve nothing against Martin Johnson personally: he’s done everything in his power, and I don’t think he could have opted to turn down the job when offered. But what with one thing and another, the lead Woodward gave England in world rugby has now been utterly squandered. I doubt it will ever be recovered, and quite frankly, after the display in NZ, who could possibly care?

      • Gaw
        October 8, 2011 at 13:48

        Hmmm. Not so sure about that James. Whilst Woodward did the strategy (often very eccentrically), I have a hunch that Johnno was an excellent on-field tactician and the difference between success and failure for that team.

        One of England’s major problems today was a lack of on-field leadership. At times they were close to being a rabble. Regarding John’s point above, you could say they suffered from the same lack off the field!

        Tactical naivety has been the English achilles heel for big part of recent decades. If I were picking England I’d probably look for a wily captain before anyone.

    October 8, 2011 at 18:15

    All very interesting posts. Some of you may be interested in this book by a friend of mine, James Corsan: “For Poulton and England – The Life and Times of an Edwardian Rugby Hero” ––by-James-Corsan.html

    Only those of you who remember Bill McLaren will ‘get’ one of my favourite true stories: a friend of a friend of mine called his house “Slattery Palms”!

    • Gaw
      October 9, 2011 at 09:42

      Thanks for the recommendation, Hugh. The subject reminds me of the story of the unbeaten London Scottish team of the 1913-14 season all of whom died in the trenches.

    john halliwell
    October 8, 2011 at 18:45

    You do wonder just how many Englishmen will feature when the Lions line up at Brisbane in June 2013? Based on recent performances, probably very few. How many of today’s team would get in the 2003 England team? I can’t think of one. The decline since that glorious high point seems to have been steady if not quite relentless, bearing in mind the appearance in the WC Final in 2007, but that was such an unconvincing achievement – it felt as though they’d fluked it. Would a Warren Gatland have made a difference to these England players, both on and off the field? I suspect Stuart Barnes might say he would, having said on Sky News that Johnson, in three years, has taken England backwards.

    • Gaw
      October 9, 2011 at 09:49

      That point about the English Lions does bring home their decline.

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