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Sin bin beckons for fretful politicians.

Byline: Carolyn Hitt

NEIL Jenkins was quite right to tell Rhodri Morgan to rugger off. But in declaring it was time the game ditched its "win or lose, hit the booze" culture the First Minister was simply displaying his prowess at our real national sport: Armchair Rugby.

In terms of expertise from the settee, bar or office canteen, Wales reigns supreme.

World champions since the early '80s, when Armchair Rugby players first realised they knew what was best for the failing international team, the player base is vast. Numbers run into hundreds of thousands, with no retirement age. If anything, Armchair Rugby players improve with age as their Weary Cynicism levels start to peak at the same time as their Open Mindedness dips.

They are particularly vocal on the subject of fitness, but as they rub beer bellies in the club it soon becomes clear that the physical conditioning they demand of the Welsh team is in inverse proportion to their own bodily state. And views on booze culture damaging the professional game are usually expressed by the sixth pint.

They also pride themselves on their extensive tactical knowledge. Despite their own experience of a game plan being confined to three matches with the fifthform Second XV in the early '70s they are confident they have The Answer that has eluded successive Welsh coaches, and they certainly know more about the rules than Clive Norling.

The recent debate on the future structure of the game has propelled the Armchair Rugby players to new levels of performance. They really are on top of their game at the moment.

Even my mother has produced a blueprint for the future of Welsh rugby. It may be entitled Just Leave Ponty Alone, but at least it was submitted on time, which is more than can be said for the premiership clubs' efforts.

When an Armchair Rugby player is also a prominent politician, however, the sin bin beckons. Rhodri Morgan will never shut up about rugby because he is obsessed with the game. It even colours his syntax. Remember the line that floored Jeremy Paxman, "Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?" He got that from a Cardiff player who used it when asked was he pleased to get his first cap for Wales.

When Rhodri got his first cap, ie his maiden speech as First Minister, the rugby metaphors continued. His opening line was, "My first job in the Welsh jersey with the captain's armband..."

The trouble is that Rhodri the rugby fanatic and Rhodri the National Assembly leader are the same person, and when he speaks as the former he is heard as the latter.

His comments on booze culture incensed Neil Jenkins who retorted with a corking quote of the week, "I could hit back with some of the deviant things politicians get up to, but I won't." At a time when the players are under siege from the game's internal politics it's not helpful to be labelled as lazy dipsomaniacs by politicians from outside, especially as the booze-culture argument is out of date.

Rugby doesn't want to listen to the Assembly but the AMs could learn a lot from David Moffett, whose manipulation of the provinces versus superclubs debate has been a breathtaking object lesson in the art of political manoeuvre.

Yet there are some aspects of Welsh rugby that we'd all like to hear the Assembly pronounce on. Jenks may have told Rhodri to keep his nose out of Welsh fitness levels but he would have been all ears at the start of last season if the Assembly had announced a solution to the dire state of school rugby pitches.

In September 2001 his old school, Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive in Beddau, could not field a rugby team because the pitch was condemned as unsafe: pounds 70,000 was needed for essential drainage work.

It seemed the ultimate indictment of the state of grass-roots rugby when the field on which the world's leading test points scorer honed his skills was in jeopardy.

In the same week it was revealed the National Assembly was spending only one third of the sum necessary to bring school buildings up to scratch that year.

Funding for the upkeep of Wales's crumbling school facilities continues to be a problem, and sport is often the first casualty.

Politicians should stop fretting about the international team and start worrying about PE in schools. The Assembly's Armchair Rugby team could then ensure we're not producing a generation of young couch potatoes.

u Read Carolyn Hitt on sport in The Western Mail every Thursday.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 27, 2003
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