Orly Airport, Paris, January 1975. The winter afternoon is ripped open by repeated bursts from machine pistols. Travelers hurl themselves to cover as Black September terrorists spray the departures building. Then, in the first moment of silence, comes a passionate appeal in a high-pitched Celtic singsong. "Boys, boys," it pleads, "it was only a game, remember?"
The attack happened to coincide with the departure of a number of charter flights carrying thousands of Welsh rugby fans home after a game at Pare des Princes Stadium in which France had been defeated 25-10, and that heartfelt cry revealed much about the nature of the game as played and appreciated in Wales. First, note the arrogance. Whatever appalling troubles racked the world, it did not occur to the fan that there could have been any other cause for the outrage than French chagrin at losing the international game. Next, only the most dire and immediate peril could have wrung from a Welshman such an admission, and no doubt he retracted it as soon as the danger was past. In Wales, rugby is not a game; it is an expression of denied nationhood and a religion with a grasp on the country far stronger now than that of its declining Baptist and Presbyterian chapels.
In religious terms, 1976 has brought Wales to the Promised Land, with the successive annihilation of teams from Australia (28-3), England (21-9), Scotland (28-6) and Ireland (34-9), and a final, narrower 19-13 win over France to take the international championship and the Grand Slam—not for the first time, but never so comprehensively and with so many points scored, a world record. As in medieval Europe, holy relics are available to the righteous. In March, after the final game, the bloodstained shirt of John Williams, arguably the hardest defenseman in world rugby, was put up for auction. Williams has not yet quite achieved the kind of canonization that caused Barry John, probably the finest player of this century, to retire from the game in 1972 at the age of 27. Not only were Welshwomen curtsying to Barry John in public, but mothers were bringing children to touch his sleeve. King John the papers used to call him, but it was more like Saint John in the end, and he couldn't take it.
Welsh rugby has always been strong, but it is impossible to match the present revival, which began in 1971 when a team called the British Lions, composed of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh players, went to New Zealand and won a series against the national team. Until then, the New Zealanders had been regarded as the world champions. Significantly, two thirds of the "British" team was Welsh. In 1974 the other great power in world rugby, South Africa, was visited by the Lions, again a Wales-dominated team. The South Africans lost 21 games out of 22, managing to tie the last.
There are some curious theories to account for the fact that Wales produces fine rugby players out of all proportion to its tiny population of two million. In rugby terms, the populace is about half that, since the game is mostly played along a coastal strip less than 60 miles long, corresponding roughly to the South Wales coalfield. And one of these theories concerns the coalfield itself.
By evolutionary process, the theory runs, three centuries of hacking out coal in cramped galleries underground have produced a physique perfectly adapted to the two key halfback positions on a rugby team: a broad, muscular torso and short, strong legs. The halfbacks make a link between the eight forwards and the center backs and wingmen. The important skills of the halfbacks are twofold. The inside half, in particular, has to throw a very fast, low-trajectory pass to his outhalf the second the ball is delivered to him by his sweating, mauling forwards. To gain momentum, he will often hurl himself with the ball and will be parallel to the ground before releasing it. And for this the miner's low center of gravity is perfect, as it is for the second basic skill—the jinking run that is an alternative to the pass and also the most formidable attribute of the outside half.
Devout Welshmen believe that no other nation can possibly produce halfbacks to match the Welsh, though they will concede that the French occasionally come close. The English, presumably because of original sin, never can. To tease them, Max Boyce, a Welsh subculture hero and ex-miner who sings country-style songs, invented the Outside-Half Mine, which, he claims, is run under maximum security in a remote West Wales valley:
It's built beneath the mountain,
Beneath the coal and clay.
It's where we make the outside halves
Who'll play for Wales one day.
No naked lights or matches where the raw material's found In that four-foot seam of outside halves
Two miles below the ground....*
Boyce, who appears on stage in the de rigueur uniform of a Welsh rugby fan—long knitted red-and-white scarf, woolly cap to match and an outsize leek, the national symbol, pinned to his coat—came by an honor recently that genuinely meant more to him than any success in the theater. Spontaneously, during the Ireland game at Cardiff's Arms Park in 1975, as Wales inexorably built the score up to more than 30 points, the crowd began to sing his Hymns and Arias, a song celebrating a win over England some years back.
The singularity of the honor lies in the fact that it is very rare indeed for anything like that to be sung at Arms Park during a game. In the boozy, happy streets of Cardiff, in the pubs before the game, you can sing anything you please, many favoring barbershop renditions of well-matured pop songs like Delilah, or witty parodies like You're 15, You're the Scarlets and You're Mine (a rugby side numbers 15 and Wales wears red jerseys). Or even songs of a more serious nature, like Englishmen Are All Illegitimate. If you are inclined (and many young followers of the game are), you can scramble up onto a bar and do a slow striptease to a clapping, stomping accompaniment until the bartender calls the police. But inside the stadium you sing hymns, as is appropriate in a place of worship.
The hymns are few in number and mainly in Welsh, and they come from the time of the great 19th-century Methodist revival meetings. As the ground fills before the game, they gain in volume until it is time for the national anthem, Land of My Fathers. Only a visiting English side, perhaps, could truly convey the impact of this powerful song sung emotionally, close to hysterically, by 50,000 voices. It is commonly held to be worth at least two touchdowns to Wales. From then on, somewhere in the ground, sometimes from everywhere in the stadium, there is music. And there is a kind of convention that rules what selections are appropriate in differing circumstances.
After a touchdown, you sing Cwm Rhondda—Bread of Heaven in English—with its satisfied, long-drawn-out chorus of "Feed Me Till I Want No More." When the Triple Crown—the winning of all three games against England, Scotland and Ireland—is in prospect, you sing All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name, again with a fitting chorus—"And Crown Him Lord of All." In moments of peril, rare enough these days, it is fitting to sing Calon Lan (Only the Pure Heart Can Sing). The last time it was seriously heard at Cardiff was in the game against New Zealand in 1971, when Wales was trailing in the second half. Very slowly, not reprovingly but very sadly, the crowd started on Calon Lan. It visibly moved the Welsh players. They raised their game, scored, and if the referee, clearly affected by brain damage, had not disallowed a second touchdown, they would have won. Normally such therapy is not needed. By the last quarter of the game, the Arms Park crowd is indulging itself in a ceremony called "Singing Them Home." This was the point at which Max Boyce won his moment of glory.
Religious observance over, there commences the saturnalia. On a Saturday night after an international game, Cardiff is awash with beer and loud with singing. But, although there is more than a sprinkling of fistfights and the cops have to call out the reserve, the unacceptable face of soccer partisanship—the cold violence, the knifings and the beatings-up—is absent from rugby. About the worst thing that can happen to you is to have a pint of bitter spilled down your suit across a crowded bar.
It is hard to know just why this is so, but it could be connected with the fact that Rugby Union is an amateur game and that in Wales the players are not remote demigods and certainly not rich ones. They are steelworkers, teachers, salesmen, telephone linemen, miners. They live in the same kind of houses as their fans. They drink in the same pubs. You talk about them familiarly as Gareth or Mervyn or Ray. Meet one of them in the street a couple of days before a game and you'll say, "Don't take prisoners, John," or some such pleasantry, and he'll grin back at you. In the small world of South Wales he is probably your cousin anyway. There are some signs that this is beginning to change. "The fans used to be happy years ago if Wales walked away from an international game having won by a single point," says the Welsh captain, Mervyn Davies. "They're spoilt now. They come up to you and say, 'Why didn't you win by more?' It has begun to get to the players. After the England game we came off the field as if we'd lost. We'd won by a record number of points on English soil, but we sat in the changing room as if we'd lost, because we'd only scored 21 points instead of 30 or more. It's crazy."
What might be even more crazy is that players who can draw 100,000 spectators into a stadium, as at Scotland's Murray-field last year, and who attract a European television audience upward of 80 million viewers get paid no fee. But this is the case. Gifts up to the value of $40 may be accepted during a single season. But nothing else. Davies, naturally, is often on television programs. His fees are sent directly to the Welsh Rugby Union. "Then they write to me," he says, "stating that they are in receipt of my fee—and what would I like done with it? Would I like it to be paid into the W.R.U. charitable fund or into another charity of my choice? They point out that in the latter case I would be liable to income tax. But times are changing. When my father was picked to play for Wales in Scotland in 1946, he had to take the night sleeper from Swansea up to Edinburgh on Friday night, play the game on Saturday afternoon, then come back on the sleeper that night. Now we get hotel rooms."
The ultimate essence of amateurism, though, is probably to be found in Scotland. When the Scots met Australia this year, at the end of the game several Scots players swapped jerseys with the Aussies only to be told, sternly, that for the next international they would have to buy new ones from the Scottish R.U. At least in Wales the players get a jersey a game. In Rugby Union, "expenses" is a highly suspect word. The split between Rugby Union and Rugby League, the version of the game played in the North of England, came at the beginning of this century over the question of "broken time"—that is, whether or not a player should be compensated for time and salary lost from his everyday job. Until a couple of years ago, Rugby Union players on extended trips abroad were given a per diem pocket-money allowance of $1.00. Now it is $2.50. However, it is so prestigious, particularly in Wales, for a company to have an international player on its staff that leave of absence with full pay is granted even for tours of two months or more to New Zealand or South Africa.
In spite of this amateurism, or more probably because of it, competitiveness and commitment to the game are at least as strong as in professional sport. Since the wide exposure of rugby on European television, professional soccer has come in for much unfavorable comparison. The exaggerated groaning and writhing of felled soccer players, the hugs and kisses after a score, contrast strongly with the stoic acceptance of knocks in rugby and the cool lope back to the center line after a touchdown. One thinks of John Taylor faced with a critical kick from far out on the edge of the field in the last minute of the Wales-Scotland game of 1972. As the ball went over the crossbar, winning the game for Wales by a single point, the cameras zoomed in on Taylor. The only thing he failed to control as he ran back into position was a frantic clenching and unclenching of his fists.
Soccer, too, suffers from being at a point in its development in which defensive techniques have been so perfected that the game has become like the trench warfare of 1917. Rugby, however, is in precisely the opposite position. Eight years ago certain rules changes were made that kept the ball in play for far longer periods. Now Rugby Union is a fast, fluid game, one that many would argue is the world's finest spectator sport, well worthy of spreading everywhere, as the clients of Costello's bar on 43rd Street in New York City were startled to realize one evening last year.
A TV set had been flickering away in a corner, largely ignored. Then slowly the bar chatter died away. What was being shown, as part of a sports miscellany program, was a play in a game between the Barbarians, a representative British rugby side, and New Zealand at Cardiff. The ball had come loose to the Barbarians outside half, Phil Bennett of Wales, on his own line. Instead of kicking defensively as orthodox tactics demanded, he started to jink forward like a snipe ("If you had a gap in your teeth," a bemused New Zealand forward said later, "he'd be bloody well through it"), beginning a passing movement that went the whole length of the field and involved each of the 15 Barbarian players before Gareth Edwards, the Welsh inside half, touched down. The not unsophisticated habitués of Costello's roared with disappointment when they realized that this was all they were going to be permitted to see.
If the game ever gains ground in the U.S., it might conceivably exert the same fascination as it does in Wales. After all, the United States was the last nation to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport, back in 1924 at Paris.
Sadly, though, there will be no chance of seeing one of the greatest Welsh rugby players in action again. Mervyn Davies, playing for his club, Swansea, in the Welsh Cup competition in April, didn't get up from the ground after a forward maul, and he had stopped breathing when medical aid came. A brain hemorrhage. For a week, as surgeons fought for his life, the whole nation of Wales came almost to a halt, and the rejoicing when it was known he would recover was the best news in Swansea since V-E day. Without its captain, it is possible that Wales may not exert such dominance over world rugby next season. What is certain, though, is that the secret outside-half factory in the hills will be working overtime and the streets of Cardiff will be en f√™te again.
*By permission of Land of Song Music.