Every year, one match during the Six Nations – either in the heart of Cardiff or the depths of West London – sets the heart rate of Welsh rugby fans to dangerous levels. When Wales face England this weekend there is no doubt that millions west of Offa’s Dyke will be captivated by one of the oldest rivalries in sport.
England versus Wales is a battle steeped in rugby history. In modern times it has produced moments etched in Welsh rugby folklore: Scott Gibbs’ blistering try in 1999 that robbed England of a Grand Slam at Wembley; Gavin Henson’s long-range kick in Cardiff six years later, which raised the curtain for a new era of the sport in Wales; and a nail-biting win at Twickenham during the World Cup in 2015. Any notable recollections of English skill and flair is best to left for another column.
While England may enjoy playing their noisy neighbours, the Welsh raise their game to another level. Unbridled passion and nationalism bubble on the surface on match day. As scrum-half Danny Care recalled, the English team have been greeted in the Welsh capital by elderly ladies gesticulating along the streets, hostile crowds outside the stadium and even a supporter who head-butted their team bus. Croeso i Gymru.
Our obsession with trumping England at rugby is a phenomenon tied-up with the historical, cultural, and political baggage that lingers across Wales. Crudely put, rugby has been the only way to get one over on our larger and dominant neighbour since the two sides first met in 1881. Rugby is the people’s sport here: on par with male voice choirs, heavy industry, and the Welsh language as symbols of national heritage and identity.
At no period was that clearer than in the 1970s. Wales won the then-Five Nations on six occasions between 1969 and 1979. It was the days of the playmaker Barry ‘the King’ John, the aggressive attacking style of JPR Williams and Gerald Davies’ wizardry on the wing. And then there was the magic of Gareth Edwards. These men in red jerseys and long sideburns are remembered as quasi-mythological warriors. Growing up in Wales, you learn about them in your local rugby club or from your grandparents – they are part of an unwritten syllabus on Welsh history.
Rugby’s social impact in that decade is just as interesting. The sport facilitated a popular Welsh identity that united the public – no matter your language, geography, or class. That was unique to Wales and arguably still is. Whereas the English squad were plucked from the public school system, the Welsh team had their roots in community clubs and comprehensive schools. Historically Wales have seen playing England as a David against Goliath contest, arrogance compared to humility, privilege meeting poverty. For many it still is.
This partly explains the hold of the sport in the Welsh national psyche. As the historian Martin Johnes has pointed out, rugby in the 1970s brought together a largely disparate people who were in the shadow of England. And to rehash a quote from Hobsbawm, the imagined community of millions seems more tangible when you have a team of fifteen with three feathers on their chest.
Rugby players themselves bought into and harboured this nationalism over the years. ‘Look what these bastards have done to Wales’, Phil Bennett shouted to his teammates before facing England in 1977. He declared that Wales’s natural resources had been stolen and we’d been overwhelmed with holiday homes; in short, we had been ‘exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English’. By Bennett’s own admission, the Welsh went ‘frigging mental’ afterwards. Wales won 14-9 that afternoon.
Nowadays, players stay clear from political rallying cries – as far as we know, at least. Sam Warburton said a few years ago that the Welsh didn’t hate the English, just losing to them. Wales’s current captain Alun Wyn Jones put it perfectly a few years ago, when he noted that the occasion was like Wales facing up to the ‘big neighbour with the big garden and the big car…it’s red against white, daffodil against rose.’
But 80-minute nationalists still thrive in Wales. For some it is still a moment when 800 years of tumultuous history can be put right in 80 minutes of rugby. Wales now has a parliament and even a born-again independence movement. Yet for most of the public a rugby weekend is the most they will care for the nationalist cause – if current polling on independence is anything to go by.
Rugby remains a game which unites most if not all of the Welsh for 80 minutes. It has provided a useful vehicle for Celtic emotion to pour over when Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Hymns and Arias is blasted out across the Principality stadium.
Facing the English at rugby is when Wales is most alive. Welshness is there to see in its most naked form: in song and face paint, rallying against an Old Enemy in the field of battle. After the 80 minutes is over, we look forward to when the two sides meet again – and the whole circus begins once more.