Sunday 18th March
Back in September 2011, the Welsh Rugby Union released some tickets for the 2012 six-nations match between Wales and France, little knowing what a momentous occasion it would prove to be. As the championship progressed our excitement grew – first Wales won the Triple Crown then the Welsh nation held its breath in the hope of another resounding Grand Slam. We hoped that history would repeat itself – we were there back in 2008 when Wales beat France to win our last Grand Slam…
I won’t give you a pass-by-pass commentary – you can read them in the newspapers or come round and we’ll play you the recording of the BBC coverage, no really, it’s no trouble, any time…..
Instead I’ll tell you about Cardiff immediately before the match. The magnificent Millenium Stadium is unique amongst the six-nations stadia in that it is right in the heart of the city. The stadium itself has a capacity of around 75,000 people, but many thousands more throng into the city’s pubs and restaurants to watch the match on big screens and soak up the atmosphere. The men certainly come to town, as do the women – wives, mothers, grandmothers and the infamous valley girls – but more on them later. Families bring their children to the match – the point being that the city feels safe. I’ve been in rugby crowds many times and have never felt any sense of menace or violence; very few lawmen are required to police the event, we saw a total of 4. So the city has a carnival air and the bar owners’ trousers are falling down for the weight of money in their pockets (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett). Flocks of young men innocently gathered in the city centre, their defences soon to be eroded by beer. In the meantime packs of scantily-clad and mountain-heeled valley girls watched them with a sharp eyed interest, like sheepdogs that have developed a taste for mutton….
Around 2 hours before the match, the police close the roads near the station and the slow exodus to the stadium starts. We arrived just in time and passed through the genial security at the gates. I enjoyed the rough charm of the gate-men – I don’t mind if they call me “love”, ask me how I am and wish me a good match – it’s part of the country’s homeliness. We weren’t too sure where our seats were, but when we emerged from the ‘tunnel’ onto the stand we were astounded – second tier, two rows back, almost right behind the posts – fantastic. We’ve sat in just about every stand/tier in the Millennium Stadium and I swear that there isn’t a bad seat in the place – they all give a different perspective on the game. However, behind the posts is one of my favourite spots!
We got to our seats in time for the last of the pre-match entertainment and then the teams emerged from the tunnel to uproarious cheering and the dry roar of the flames from the gas jets, their incandescent heat reaching even the furthest seats. I never know how the players stay upright in the face of the physical force of the noise – they are not just sportsmen but performers, on arguably the most demanding stage in Wales.
While the atmosphere is totally benign, attending a rugby match in Cardiff on Grand Slam day is surely the most visceral tribal experience outside of Africa. My favourite moment was when the crowd joined with the on-pitch choir sing the Welsh national anthem; though I do find the French anthem very stirring and had to stop myself from joining in with that as well! You might think that the French supporters would be overwhelmed by tide of Welsh nationalism, but their rhythmic chant of “Allez les bleus” is a powerful thing and surprisingly hard to counter. A French supporter in the row below us joined the chant with his fine bass voice; we failed to silence him with our song, so the Welsh lady sitting next to him bumped him companionably on the head with her inflatable daffodil until he stopped!
As the match started, the inchoate roaring of the crowd translated into a specific and personal commentary – most of the Welsh supporters knew the players by their first names, they know which school they went to, they’ve spoken to their mums….. small wonder then that when the French players closely marked our latest star player, Leigh Halfpenny, my neighbour yelled angrily “stop picking on our Leigh, he’s just a lovely boy from Gorseinon”. If you even listen to the rugby Welsh commentary on S4C (Welsh language channel 4) then the commentators will give you potted biographies so that you can work out
whether how you’re related to your favourite players!
Of course, as well as knowing the lineage of the players back to the days of Merlin, the fans are also knowledgeable about the rules of the game. If the players are under pressure, I’m surprised that the referee didn’t wither in the gale of opinions being voiced from the stands. The 75,000 touch judges in their seats were not able to reach a consensus about every technical infringement of the rules, but they were all agreed that the referee was rubbish!
As I’ve mentioned, our seats were tremendous – the highlight was seeing Cuthbert’s magnificent try – grounded in full view just under our noses! The ladies in the stand were also treated to Ryan Jones (who was on the subs bench) warming up, giving us a fine view of his perfectly formed buns – nice!
It wasn’t a classic match but it was a nail-biter – with Wales just about in the lead at half time, many people in our terrace wished that the game could finish there so that we didn’t have to endure the tension of the second half! With around 9 minutes to go, Wales scored a penalty which put them 7 points (a converted try) ahead of France. The subsequent 8 minutes were surely the longest of the century but finally the clock ticked down, Wales got a penalty, the ball was booted off the field and the celebrations started. I was wrong about the noise of the crowd – during the match they’d obviously been whispering – the roar when the team won was at an ear-destroying level. When I walked out of the ground I wasn’t sure which was more sore – my throat from singing or my ears from the relentless decibels!
We stayed for the presentation and lap of honour – it took a long time to organise but it was worth it to see Ryan Jones, no longer the captain, hold the championship cup aloft while he paraded past our stand, as he had so proudly back in 2008.
The stadium emptied onto the streets and the serious celebrations began. We walked through the amiable crowds to find a table at our favourite tapas bar. We were surrounded by despondent French men wailing “j’ai désolé”, but help was at hand as the more ambitious valley girls rushed in to offer consolation. Other valley girls preyed on the welsh lads – the post-match euphoria dissolving the last of their resistance….
We didn’t stay out late – we’d had a long week, a long drive down and a longer working week ahead of us so we headed back to our hotel. It was still light – sunset is around 20 minutes later this far West and it felt like Spring….
Note on the hounds:
Although we had planned to take the hounds with us, we were worried that Ty would not cope with the commotion in Cardiff on a Grand Slam weekend, so we made plans to leave him at Nanny Renia’s. Richard’s mum has really perked up recently so she was actually happy to look after all four hounds. She really enjoys their company – the greyhounds are gentle and affectionate – especially Poppy and Ollie who are having a serious charm offensive…..