x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The power of that famous red shirt

What is it about the sight of the red shirt that makes every Welsh man, woman and child come over all misty-eyed?

Upon Cardiff they descended; from Aberystwyth and Abergwyngregyn, Ebbw Vale and Eisteddfa Gurig, Pontypool and Pengorffwysta. Bearing their leeks and daffodils before chilling English blood with the traditional rendition of Land of my Fathers that swelled and soared around the Millennium Stadium. What is it about the sight of the red shirt that makes every Welsh man, woman and child come over all misty-eyed?

Former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, a captivating talker on all matters rugby and a man who found time to serve London Welsh as coach, referee and vice-president in the midst of his political career at Westminster, explained it thus: "I think rugby is a combination of skill, dash and adventure. And I believe that matches up with some of the Welsh temperament. There have been endless essays and poems written about it.

"I once addressed exactly the same question to Gareth Edwards who was as poetic as you would expect. He spoke of boldness and liberty. If you can talk rugby with one of the five greatest post-war internationals and find him speaking in those terms - using the word 'liberty' in connection with a sport - then you're getting near the core of the real meaning. "There are phrases that are very commonplace which just sound different in a Welsh accent. I remember when we played Scotland in 1981. I travelled to Cardiff Arms Park expecting to see a Welsh exhibition. Instead, Jim Renwick ran us ragged. It was a miserable, miserable day.

"As I was leaving the stadium two fellows went past. And one said, 'Could've been worse, see. Could've been England.' Above all, we don't like losing to England "Now anybody, in any accent, could say that, but it had real meaning and deep gloom in it. He was talking for his nation. There are unhealthy aspects to crowd mania, but I think the fact there's a real connection between the hopes of the people on the terrace and the efforts of the players on the field is a very important part of Welsh rugby football."

If that is how it feels to support Wales, can mere words describe what it must have felt like for the Welsh XV to look down and see those three white feathers on their proud red chests? JPR Williams gained 55 caps for Wales, won three Grand Slams, four Triple Crowns, starred on two triumphant Lions' tours to New Zealand and South Africa, and is regarded by many as the greatest full-back in history.

JPR could go on about his kamikaze tackling, his adventurous charges or even the series-clinching dropped goal from the half-way line for the Lions in New Zealand in 1971. But his most cherished memory remains the day he was selected to represent Wales Under 15s against England in 1963. "No matter how much today's players are paid, money can never buy the thrill of pulling on the red shirt of Wales for the first time," he said.

"Oh, yes, there is something very special about playing for Wales at any level. In our days, it was never enough for us simply to win, we had to win with style, we had to entertain. The coach used to give us his last-minute team talk, then as soon as he'd left the dressing room, Gareth [Edwards], Phil [Bennett] or someone would say, 'Bollocks. Let's just go out there and enjoy ourselves'." It was Richard Burton who described the wonder of the golden age of Welsh rugby as a combination of "ballet, opera and sheer, bloody murder".

The 23-15 victory over England was part Swan Lake, part La Boheme and part The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... rphilip@thenational.ae