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How will our delicate Welsh rugby psyches respond?

Byline: By CAROLYN HITT Western Mail

You know the All Blacks are not going to have too many worries about winning when they leave the world's best flanker on the bench. Richie McCaw sat out Saturday's rout but was briefly awed by Wales. As the eardrum-bursting Gwlads threatened to lift the closed roof and send it spinning towards the Taff, McCaw was heard to let rip an incredulous expletive. 'F****** hell!' said the taken aback All Black. No wonder he was stunned. The cacophony was loud enough to raise the spirits of the 1905 players whose legendary response to the Haka was being recreated.

That was the last moment New Zealand allowed themselves to be impressed by Wales ...and play hadn't even started. We threw everything at them in the pre-match - double goats, two rotating choirs, a chorus of boos for Tana Umaga, Katherine Jenkins for the anthem and the now customary extra slice of Bread of Heaven.

Yet with six Lions missing the dragon's roar was never going to match the decibel level of the emotive build-up. Just as the giant Welsh flag got tangled up in the ceiling before being unceremoniously yanked out of sight, so Wales were mercilessly deprived of any chance to unfurl the flair that made them Grand Slam champions.

If the men in red had got the ball occasionally there may have been a few more sparks on Bonfire Night, but the All Blacks' disruption of the Welsh set-piece ensured only one side would set this match alight. Flashes of consolation were to be found in the heroic defensive performances of Stephen Jones and Duncan Jones. The former's bandaged temple revealed the intense heat of the battle while the latter had to endure a nether region challenge from Jerry Collins that gave a whole new meaning to the phrase 'painful tackle'. Brent Cockbain, meanwhile, was displaced from a ruck with an acrobatic ruthlessness not seen since Billy Smart's circus was in town.

And of course, there was the valour of Gareth Thomas, who would fling himself in front of an express train if he thought it would stop the opposition in their tracks. But as Alfie finally succumbed to his dead leg and limped off the field the spectators had to change their tactics to endure what was to come. My own displacement activity was to ponder the headline punning potential of Rico's hat-trick - Getting into Gear, Third Gear, Top Gear, etc, etc. Other fans soaked up the pain by switching to neutral. There comes a point in such encounters when the only survival strategy for a lover of the game is to become spellbound by All Black magic.

The question now is how will our delicate Welsh rugby psyches respond? There are no worries on that score as far as the team are concerned. Despite the emphatic nature of the defeat, Mike Ruddock and Gareth Thomas's unruffled demeanour in the post-match press conference suggests they knew exactly what went wrong, how to right it and how the absence of key players cost them. Yet for the type of fans who swing from delirium to devastation in the space of 80 minutes, this loss may underline that sneaking sensation that the Grand Slam triumph was down to luck.

But it would be ridiculous to subscribe to the Dick Best 'Welsh Success Built On Sand' theory on the strength of one trouncing. We still have concrete reasons to be entirely positive about Wales's rugby future - particularly when the 2007 World Cup is the primary aim for this young generation of players. The fact is New Zealand are simply several years ahead of anyone else at the moment. The champions of the southern hemisphere are taking the game into a new stratosphere. And the best thing the rest of the world can do is learn from them.

On the eve of the match, I shared a drink with Steve Hansen. As Welsh coach he was renowned for his sandpaper-dry wit. Shaking his hand as he left, I said, 'I hope we both have a good game tomorrow.' Quicker than a burst from Joe Rokocoko, he grinned that familiar sardonic smile and replied, 'I know we're going to have a good game.' Even in a country where understatement is practically on the school syllabus, that took some beating.

But not as much beating as the All Blacks will take.: Violence against men is not a laughing matter:In a cardiff department store, among those useless novelty gifts that get wheeled out as soon as Christmas looms on the retail horizon, stood a large pink inflatable with the outline of a man on it. It turned out to be the 'Smack Him Ex-Boyfriend Punching Bag'.

It was decorated with arrows highlighting the head, groin and shins as good assault targets, together with a warning that nails or high heels may cause a puncture. 'Release the tension, let it rip! Insert the relevant photo into the pocket of his face and kick, slap and whack away!' chirped the instructions.

Just imagine for one moment that this tacky 'gift' was the Smack Her Ex-Girlfriend Punching Bag. It would be far too offensive to have ever made the shelves of a mainstream shopping chain. The stories of the alleged assaults on Ross Kemp and his on-screen brother Steve McFadden have been met with widespread media hilarity.

This sort of humour highlights the wider perception of domestic violence against men as being trivial, laughable and embarrassing. It is, of course, far less common than violence against women but it does exist. And a major factor in men refusing to seek help is the humiliation of not being taken seriously. Sadly, men who suffer in this way continue to be as soft a target as that tasteless punch bag.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 7, 2005
Words:966
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