Hard Lines.

The last game of rugby I played was just over a year ago.  It still hurts.  I have a corked finger and a back that creaks and groans whenever it is asked to do the things backs get asked to do.  Over the past few weeks rugby players, at the top of their game, have been asked to perform, recuperate and perform again – at the top of their game – with the hopes of nations hanging off them.  Imagine the pressure.  The game I played in was just charity run-about.  It lasted four times ten minute periods.  I was gasping for air way before the first ten minute period was up and, by the time the first break arrived, I was drinking air in in gulps and desperately trying to think in a coherent fashion.  Heaven alone only knows how I would have felt if I’d had to keep going for a full eighty… Heaven alone only knows how I would have reacted if the result actually meant something.

How is this going to go…?

Dad always said “hard lines” when you’d lost.  It really hurts.  I remember – with quite astonishing clarity – the toss for the first test of the Ashes in 2002.  Nasser Hussain won the toss and put Aussie into bat.  We’d lost.  The crushing sense of distraught that swirled around the room I was in…late at night in company of fervent fans, all swept up in the resurgence of English (and Welsh) cricket…and oh my lord what then happened to Simon Jones…I’m actually feeling nauseous typing this…

It is a feeling I cannot describe.

Wales versus Australia in the 1999 world cup… at our place… I could not speak after that one.  Not for an age.  Wales versus England in 2003…3 tries to 1. Doing to us what we’d done to them in 1999 at Wembley!  Oh, that hurt.  Hard lines…

But, you know, there has to be a level of pragmatism you reach as a Welsh rugby fan.  The 70s were an age that will never come again.  Nor the earlier golden ages of Welsh rugby…hang on just one minute… I was in a second hand book shop recently.  In this shop they had Andy Haden’s Autobiography – say no more?  He admits cheating.  He admits planning the cheating move.  Pitiful.  They still turn to him for comment every now and again…The cheat…  – anyway, the point is that the time of Welsh dominance in this sport has gone.  Why?  Well, because it is professional.  Only in New Zealand is this sport an actual National Sport.  In Wales it is nominally the national sport but football always encroaches.  Further, since the inception of professionalism in rugby, Wales have been behind the eight, the nine and the ten ball.  Fewer numbers, too much provincialism, too much harking back to the past.  And now we suffer.

We suffer, not because we are rubbish at the game – far from it.  We suffer because we are so close to being at the top of the pile once again.  During this world cup, Wales have been placed as the second best rugby team in the sport.  That, actually, is laughable.  We didn’t win the 6 Nations, we failed to beat a proper Southern Hemisphere team – the 12-6 against SAfrica, lovely as it was and, naturally adding to that other win over a second string SAfrican team in 1999, (1999… beat SAfrica…beat England… beat France in Paris…if only there was a party song to go with the year 1999 we could be on to something there!) was a win over a tired and second string SAfrican team.  We suffer, I believe, because all that was great about the Welsh game in the 70s is now missing.

Hard lines.  It is what we run.  We pummel.  It wins us more games than not.  It gets us 6 Nations Championships.  It gets us to within five minutes of a significant win.  It won’t get us any further.

This morning I got up and saw we had lost.  I’m not being a fair weather or anything, circumstances mean that this year I do not have Sky.  It means that I haven’t seen any of the Wales games in the world cup.  The English game was fun…sitting in one room watching the game reveal itself via the BBC website whilst my partner sat at the other end of the house doing the same… all in silence… the tension growing… Anyway.  I got up this morning and saw we had lost.  Unusually, I actually had a heartfelt commiseration from a Kiwi mate of mine…  Then I saw how close we had got.  OK.  My mind leapt to Gareth Cooper kicking the ball away against Australia… and James Hook kicking and chasing against Aussie only for the ball to bounce in to touch… or Dusty Hare kicking penalties… Anyway… Liam Williams tackling like JPR and not getting away with it… Anyway… We were minutes away.  My brother reckoned we had been Barnsed.  I wasn’t so sure looking at the reports but then another Kiwi mate came on and told me we were playing 16.  – new joke – An Englishman walks into a bar…turns to the 23 other Englishmen sat there looking forlornly into their pints and says, “Oi, this is what you need to knock the Welsh out of the World Cup – it’s called a whistle.” – Whatever…again we had come up short.  We had come up short the week before against Aussie – funny that.  Why? (I saw a repeat of the game at the pub…A few decisions that made me swear…but then if you score your tries, you take the ref out of the game..)

Warren Gatland has done such a tremendous job.  He has turned this Welsh team into serious contenders on the world stage.  No longer are we a whipping boy.  No longer are we a rollercoaster ride or a one off-so long as we beat the English.  Now we are a consistent challenger for being the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.  Why can’t that translate into wins against SANZAR teams and finals footie at the world cup?  Because we run hard lines.

This world cup may have been a blessing in disguise.  The injuries that beset the Welsh backline have meant Gatland’s net has been cast far to bring in some relief.  Players like Hallam Amos, Tyler Morgan, Gareth Anscombe and Liam Williams are providing the depth that means we can move beyond the Jamie Roberts’ Warrenball tactic and throw some doubt into the minds of the opposition.  Throw into the mix Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams and suddenly we have a backline that can play the way Gatland wants but also has the nous to be able to play want’s in front of them and adapt and adopt – also allowing Gatland to develop as a coach because he has the personnel to now play a more subtle game.  Jamie Roberts has been a terrific servant to Wales.  He may well see these players on his horizon and develop his own game to include a passing game – increasing the resources Gatland can choose from.  The future, on this most lamentable of days, looks rosy.

We have a pack that can compete with any in the game.  When the backline fires, we have a game that can beat any side in the game.  What we don’t have is a brains’ trust that can think themselves and play themselves through any situation in the game.  I believe we’re closer to that now than we have been in a while.  I think we’ll end up looking back on this world cup as a critical step in Welsh rugby’s development.  In the professional age, we will never compete with England for resources and numbers, nor France, nor South Africa.  But, we will compete with them because Wales is rugby and we will always develop world class rugby players.  It is in our hearts.  With the nurturing of the talent we have at the moment, we will have a world beating side.  From there, the sky is the limit…well, with some financial limitations…

It hurts, losing today.  It hurts tremendously.  2011 is a year I’ll always look back on with sadness – if we’d got to the final then we’d’ve won.  This year was a year when the rest of the world knew how to play against us, 2011 was not.  2019…it’s all to play for.  Hard lines, boys, hard lines.

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