It’s congratulations to the New Zealand rugby team then, a worthy winner of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final in Eden Park, Auckland, this weekend. But speaking as a Welshwoman, the only game of the tournament that mattered was just over a week ago, at the semifinals, when Wales played France.
Thousands of miles away at the Millennium Stadium in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, 65,000 people turned out to watch the game on a big screen (outnumbering those watching the game in Auckland by 5,000). It was only the second time Wales had reached the last four of a World Cup (the first was in 1987). The team were young, dynamic, valiant and ambitious, expectations were stratospheric. This was Wales’s moment.
Wales lost to France by one point. And those 65,000 at the stadium plus the many hundreds of thousands of Welsh people watching in living rooms and pubs, felt a collective stab to the heart.
To this small nation of three million, situated in the western section of the British mainland, rugby is much more than a mere sporting passion. If it weren’t for rugby, Wales would, arguably, be invisible.
The story goes back a long way. Ever since it was finally subdued and annexed by Henry VIII of England in 1542, its language banned from any official role and its legal system abolished, Wales has struggled to shrug off the epithet of “quaint but irrelevant”. When an EU reference book forgot to include Wales on its map of Europe in 2004, it felt much more symbolic than a mere bureaucratic error.
So why rugby? It’s all down to a demographic accident. Rugby became prevalent in Wales, and in the mining region of South Wales in particular, because in the late 19th century well-to-do young Welsh men went to certain public schools in western England that happened to play rugby, rather than football.
But the well-to-do set in South Wales in those days was a limited pool, so in order to thrive, the clubs had to recruit from the working class. And it turned out that those burly miners and steelworkers were rather good at it. Between 1900 and 1911 there were three Grand Slams and six triple crowns. The 50s was another golden era, and the 70s and 80s were lit up with redshirted heroes such as Barry John, Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards.
Those heady days, admittedly, are dim history and Wales has never fully managed to revisit those past glories. But in 2015, when the next World Cup takes place, in England, that heroic young team will be wiser, more experienced and at their physical peak. The dream could come true and people in the corners of the world that might never otherwise have heard of Wales, might, for a brief moment at least, wish that they were Welsh.