Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Great Day to be Welsh (in sporting terms)

Champions Wales 2012
Yesterday, being St Patrick's Day was a great day to celebrate being Irish. Or if Nottingham was anything to go by, an opportunity for hundreds of people with no Irish connection at all to don silly Guinness shaped hats; pretend to have an Irish accent, and get drunk.

I missed the St Patrick's Day parade; actually I avoided it. I haven't been to a parade since Belfast in the early 1970's, which put me off them totally, though I have no desire to prevent others from experiencing this strange form of enjoyment.

I do like my sport though, and with apologies to the Irish, and English, and Scottish, and Italian, and French, yesterday was a great day to be Welsh. Wales won the Six Nations Rugby championship by beating the five other nations over the last few weeks. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, they beat France 16 - 9, and so achieved the Grand Slam. This is the 3rd time in 8 years, and the 2nd time in the last 5 years that they have achieved this, which had Jonathan Davies talking about them in terms of the great sides of the 1970's. I'm not so sure that they're at that level yet, but they're still quite a young side, so who knows. They have however matched the achievement of 34 years ago by winning three Grand Slams in eight years. I remember Welsh Rugby in the 1970's, and the video below gives a glimpse of the magic of those days.

This was the golden era of 1969 - 1979 when Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns, with players whose names still trip off the tongue: Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, J.P.R. Williams, J.J. Williams, John Taylor, Mervyn Davies, (known as Merv the Swerve, and who sadly died just 3 days ago), Gerald Davies, and the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner.

Some people (mostly from outside of Wales it has to be said) are begrudgingly giving praise to Wales, but saying that the real test of how good they are is when they play teams from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia and New Zealand. Oh come off it. People don't say that when England win. Let's just acknowledge that as far as the Six Nations is concerned, Wales are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, and that as far as Rugby is concerned, it's a great time to be Welsh.

But it's not just rugby. Yesterday, for the first time this season I watched Match of the Day. There were only two Premiership matches played, so there were some decent highlights shown.

First on was Fulham verses Swansea from Craven Cottage, with the result, Fulham 0, Swansea 3. This lifted Swansea to 8th position in the league, which is a remarkable achievement for a team who have just come up from the Championship.

But it wasn't just the score that impressed me, as good as that was against a very decent Fulham side. It was the manner in which Swansea played the game. I've read a lot of the plaudits that they have received for their style of football, and I was looking forward to seeing this for myself.

In the analysis of the game afterwards, they showed a marvellous clip which they had speeded up. It was a sequence of 30 - 40 passes lasting nearly 1:40 seconds, and it was a great example of possession football. And all of it was played on the grass, which reminded me of the great quote from Brian Clough, "If God meant us to play in the clouds he would have put grass there". Gary Linecar felt that Swansea were almost "Barcelonaesque" in the way that they played football. This is the kind of hyperbole that I would have been proud of. There are no "stars" in the team, just players who are comfortable on the ball, and know how to use it well. They are a credit to football, and another reason why yesterday was a great day to be Welsh.

But enough of this Welsh love-in. Yesterday also showed that football and rugby are just games, and other things in life are much more important. This was brought home by the collapse of Fabrice Muamba from a suspected heart attack while playing in the FA Cup for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba is a former England under 21's player, and is young, fit and wealthy, but this didn't stop his heart from giving out, and at the time of writing this on Sunday evening, he remains in a critical condition. There really are no guarantees in life are there. I do hope that he pulls through OK.

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