The slaying of our dreams…

I was thinking of compiling a list of the players who have ‘deserted’ Wales in the last two years; I stopped – too depressing. I may be wrong but this doesn’t feel like a case where the devil is in the detail. I’m not going to check who was first or last to go – although I know Osprey’s Ian Evans (… but that could soon change) was the most recent to enrol in French-for-Incoming-Giants classes. Before him that near-complete exponent of the midfield arts Mr Jonathan Davies muttered a shy bon
d’accords, tragically, for Scarlets fans. Details are for the Regional clubs and the WRU to grapple with. Fans meanwhile are just hurting.

We/they squirm and tut and alternate, I think between the volatile poles of stomach-churning disappointment and anger. Anger in the abstract, most often, unfocussed but nonetheless real and spleeny and deep. Rugby is the national game of Wales. Something essentially Welsh is expressed through the playing of this game, week after week, generation after generation. The notion that playing rugby for Wales is the absolute peak of life’s possibilities courses through every vein, every stream, every street. No wonder then there is the sense some dislocating robbery is underway. What with pathologically red-blooded icons of the sort of Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins amongst those who have departed – temporarily, admittedly, in their case. How on earth… why on earth…why can’t somebody do something? Stop it! STOP IT!!

I’m hearing volleys fired off against the WRU and the regions more than the players. The chief complaint being that there appears to be no sign at all that action is being taken by the alleged rugby authorities to fight the exodus. Traumatised hands are been thrown up in the air month after month across the nation as star player after star player leaves. Then somebody else does – another total hero for dads who should know better or for young Dafydd or Ffion who just can’t understand… why it’s still happening.

I’m pretty clear that both clubs and the WRU must be frantically working on plans from the immediate and spookily seat-of-pants variety to the long-term and deeply considered category to get the thing sorted. If not we must disembowel them immediately. But these fuzzily impotent pen-pushers – that’s surely how they’re seen/not seen by the majority? – can’t get it done. Because they are simply fighting against overwhelmingly sexier (and bigger) piles of moolah. If ever there was a time for men from the Grey Committees to break out of their anti-dynamic mould now is surely it?

Certain French – and English – clubs have private jet kind of money rather than the private bar (in-the-chavvie-nightclub) kind wielded by the Welsh Regions. It’s no contest. If players – like Hook, perhaps? – feel somewhat unwanted by Wales and they can quadruple their money… it’s the proverbial no-brainer. Even if some players then struggle to ‘adapt’ (Jenkins? Phillips?) the compulsion will surely be to go try it for a bit and bank the euros. I have it on good authority that Jonathan Davies is a lovely but quietish lad, something of a home-bird but given that he has quite rightly played his way into that very elite group of world-renowned players – and given that his club Scarlets are chronically strapped for cash and under-supported in terms of numbers – why wouldn’t he feel it’s both a healthy challenge and a financial godsend to flit to Clermont? I don’t blame him and neither I think do many Welsh fans. He may be playing with Wesley Fofana every week, fer gawd’s sakes. But… we are gutted.

Most supporters here endure the double frustration of us being powerless (obviously) and the rugby authorities appearing frustratingly un-able too. (Meaning somewhat worse than powerless, if you get my drift.) We hope for some gathering in of resources that might deny the attractions – or at least the financial attractions – of a cross-channel switch. But we can’t see it coming. There appears little prospect of either monumental support being air-freighted in to the Regions or from or to the WRU. No sign of a spondoolie-rich central contract system that players would be happy to bind themselves into. No sign of anything much. Could the Welsh Assembly intervene and cover itself in glory by funding a dramatic reversal of the currently Toulon-friendly status quo? Such a moment of inspiration seems unlikely; it would after all be arguably undemocratic and irresponsible – yet great ballot-box? Regrettably, the chief nail in that particular coffin would appear to be that it might require a significant dollop of imagination… meaning little chance then.

So the trauma continues. It may not be strictly accurate to say that most ‘top top’ players have already either left or have a pen twitching over some proposed mega-euro deal but that is how it seems. We await bad news on Warburton/Hibbard/Halfpenny. Perhaps Mike Phillips next club might be a Welsh club, who knows? But don’t go banking on it. In his case (‘scuse the pun) once the legal wrangling over his alleged boozing is sorted, expect to find him holding out the shirt of some other European Giant – be that English/French/Irish? (Weirdly, I slightly favour Leinster/Munster but… discuss?) Even in the twilight of his career, I’m not thinking the bristling scrumhalf will be settling for West Wales and home. Hope I’m wrong. And if either Warburton or Halfpenny do flit… the phrase ‘Nation in Mourning’ might justifiably be daubed across the Severn Crossings.

The pain is on that scale. We need something to turn, something to change. Might there be hope in the developing fable that is the Mike Phillips Story? Could the Bayonne estrangement be the catalyst for a soaring of hearts in the homeland? Hmmm.

Both Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies were raised close to where I live in the Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire borders – Scarlets/Ospreys territory. The possibility that the older geezer might return might make sense if money and recognition and that miserably modern concept awareness of profile meant nothing. But profile, in the age of agents and mega-dosh, is big, right? I can barely imagine that sentiment or loyalties of a local or national nature will trump the irresistible allure of big(ger) crowds and big money for Phillips, even now – maybe especially now, in his playing dotage. And whilst Scarlets and Ospreys are proper PROPER rugby football clubs, they are currently a shade second-tier in the European context.

Meanwhile Scarlets fans more or less ‘devastated’ by the Davies move will trudge a little more wearily to the Parc. Let’s hope that few of them actually stop going because their Foxy genius – a central attraction surely, at the club? – has ‘gone over’. Crowds are small enough in Llanelli as it is. So losing players of this calibre is … in the land of the bard and the windbag… like the slaying of our dreams.

Could it really be gone?

Welsh rugby. How could it be such a pale shadow so alarmingly quickly? After that wonderful World Cup; after that seemingly world-wide groundswell of lurv was drawn to it, by the nature of what they did, in New Zealand. (If you didn’t see, or can’t remember, they lifted the whole tournament, breathing a genuinely friendly fire into its pallid rounds.) They charged and offloaded our expectations, our understandings of what ‘winning rugby’ might be. They – in their fanatically/fascistically brutal/beautiful condition – recaptured something preciously liberated… and hearty… and filled with Gareth Edward’s dive-passes. And in offering it to us, they denied cynicism; they attacked; they welcomed something back. And my god how quickly it’s gone.

The nation is in quiet mourning these dewy mornings. Since Argentina; since Samoa. Since those doubts ate up that freedom. In a land where rugby IS king, there is bound to be ‘discussion’.

I am mildly fascinated in the as yet relatively unaired suspicion that the awesome Polish beastings may yet be packaged up within some argument for the Great Welsh Distraction. As though all that hardcore physical inevitably contributed to a retreat into Gym Bunny Blinkerhood – and failure. Certainly the unfeasible intensity of all that preparation grates with some, who fear some link between cryotherapy (for extending the level of punishment a man might take?) and the inability to naturally play what’s in front of you. Expressivity or power? Is it insightful or just plain daft to imagine the men from the Land of My Fathers make better poets than cyborgs?

Conversations tend not to be as sci-fi marginal as that, but conversations aboundeth. Everywhere I go they talk of team selection (the copper, in the playground)… and Gatland’s absence… and half-backs gone missing. It’s a much talked about unspoken clammed up dagger-to-the-heart secret everyone knows. The team’s gone backwards or sideways, the team’s not the same – the world’s Just Not The Same. It’s dead, or at least the hwyl is – our most precious bit is. And we who feel it, in this screeching valley of quiet, we are suddenly hopeless. We can’t run straight; any of us! We can’t get momentum or we can’t manage the game. All cruelly felt, in the post office or the pub. We who could jink and dance and juggle coal or sheep or yards of Felinfoel, or sing the starlings out the dingletrees cannot, apparently run. Our poetry is lost. This is the blackest, blackest thing.

Injuries. Wales lose two or three (Joneses? Byrne? Lydiate? Davies?) and the pool is exposed. Priestland dips and the relative ordinariness of Priestlandhood, the non-PhilBennetflyhalfness of Priestland becomes vulnerable. And with it, the whole of Wales. Phillips struts too much and darts too little and the principality shrinks before us. Or worse – before everyone. That whole punching-above-our-weight-thing deflates itself. It’s a fine line. Ryan Jones in and out. Warburton leader or no? Fine.

After the sound beating by the Pumas, the National Mood booked in for a once-over at the trusty local surgery. After Samoa it flung itself wheezing onto the slab. Can Dr Gatland restore? With a full complement of Edwards/Howley vaccine drawn down again from the shelf? Hard to say. Certainly when the patient is this crippled by unbelief the prognosis really may not be good. It really may not be good. And the particular pressure means that experiments – the necessary blooding of A or B – become a real danger to the integrity of the project. Or so it is felt.

If there is a consensus it may be around this notion that a Full Team Out – or something very close – means everything to Wales. Despite hopes a year ago for a splendidly inviolable SQUAD SCENARIO it now seems clear that numbers matter – unless you happen to be (back) in New Zealand. Wales don’t have the strength in depth to maintain some idealised period of domination. Not anymore, when the game is so ruthlessly dynamic and physical and unforgiving of weakness. So if some curly haired geezer disappears from the front row – or perhaps two Lions do? – then trouble. If the half-backs do splutter, or reveal some unWelsh one-dimensionality – then trouble. Because there is a train coming. Pretty much every match. And if there is a flicker in that inviolable, Brothers-in-Redness conviction that Gatland undeniably instilled… ouch. Look out.