Dramatic end to a dramatic decade
December 22, 2009
Shane Williams has been one of the stars of Welsh rugby over the past ten years © Getty Images
Icy weather leading to a Heineken match with 672 spectators and the first serious glitch (albeit in a football context) at Cardiff's new stadium. Two regions out of the Heineken, and neither of the survivors sure to progress - although it would be a shock if there was no Welsh representation in the last eight. And Alfie came out. There's nothing quite like a quiet weekend on the run-up to Christmas.
It all seems a logical conclusion to a decade like none before in the history of Welsh rugby. We are wont to classify decades according to the performances of the national team, and most have had a pretty clear message. There have been the vintage decades like the 1900s, 1970s and arguably the 1950s. Then there were the shockers - the 1920s and 1990s.
The 2000s, like no period before it, has had strong elements of both and little of what comes in between. If we take out results against Italy - not because they are unworthy opponents, but as a means of comparison with decades when there were five nations rather than six - a final tally of 17 wins from 40 championship matches classes it along with below-average decades like the 1980s. Yet there were also two Grand Slams, a record beaten only in the 1970s. Take those out and the record reads nine wins in 32 matches. The slams came on either side of a period that saw the shafting of a successful coach, a wooden spoon escaped only on points difference and an embarrassing World Cup exit topped off by the Welsh Rugby Union's shameful humiliation of yet another coach.
The decade began and ended with Wales in reasonable health under a New Zealand coach well regarded for their early achievements in the post. Warren Gatland will be forewarned by Graham Henry's later decline in fortunes.
In between came an improbable, gloriously unexpected peak under a Welsh coach. The second half in Paris in 2005 was probably the best 40 minutes of the decade, the subsequent clinching of the Grand Slam against Ireland in Cardiff the highest of the highs.
The subsequent ousting of Mike Ruddock, showing that the Welsh self-destruct gene remained in good working order, was the low - a managerial failure extraordinary even by the special standards set by the WRU over the previous two decades, for which full payment was extracted at the 2007 World Cup.
The 2008 Grand Slam was not quite as unexpected or as thrilling in manner, but no less an achievement. A year like 2009 which was neither quite one thing or the other - although with a decidedly nasty Australian sting in its tail - came almost as a relief after the roller-coster of the last few years.
The era certainly has had its heroes. Shane Williams' 50 international tries made him the leading scorer of the decade among the traditional rugby nations - Japan's Ohata scored 56 - and still more importantly epitomised a style, the little man outwitting larger and more cumbersome opponents by speed of thought and movement, that appeals to Welsh aesthetics and self-image.
Nigel Owens' decision to come out showed the moral courage needed by the very best referees, and it also seems reasonable to assume that his example helped Gareth Thomas. That his career has subsequently blossomed reflects not only a game that is more enlightened than we might have suspected, but the benefits of being happy with who you are and who the world thinks you are.
He now ranks among the best in the world, referee of the last two Heineken finals and an invariable candidate for the very biggest matches. The only reason to hope that he is not the referee for the 2011 World Cup final is that the one thing certain to rule him out would be Wales being one of the contestants. That may, with a draw that summons up most of the ghosts of humiliations past - Fiji and Samoa, for goodness sake - be getting a little ahead of ourselves but at least this time round it seems merely rather unlikely rather than the unmitigated fantasy it was before the 2003, 2007 and most earlier World Cups.
The game below international level offered still greater novelty, with the historic, once-envied (even by New Zealanders like Chris Laidlaw) club structure reformed by the imposition of regional franchises. They got off to a lousy start, with the closure of the Warriors a shocking betrayal of the people of Bridgend (who now also know what it is like to be let down by rugby league) and Pontypridd.
The Heineken record is frankly inconclusive. There have been signs of revival over the last couple of seasons, but there were also years - which never quite happened under the old club system - when all Welsh interest ended at the pool stages.
What has not changed is a propensity for cruel and unnatural defeats. Cardiff's loss in an unprecedented (and hopefully unique) kicking contest in last season's semi-final had echoes of earlier Scarlets departures, which encompassed what was in effect an own-goal and Tim Stimpson's long range penalty performing a high-wire act along the crossbar before dropping over it. At least Cardiff were at home - fortune previously denied by the draw to Welsh semi-finalists. Yet the said truth remains, as Gerald Davies pointed out in considerably more sorrow than anger after one of the Scarlets near-misses, that the Welsh teams have simply not been quite good enough.
They are certainly better accommodated - with three fine new modern stadiums between four regions. It is filling those seats that remains a problem. Big Heineken matches - although the poor attendance for Scarlets v Leinster was bitterly disappointing - and the Welsh derbies do OK, but there remains a problem with the Magners League. Yes, it now has a terrific Heineken record thanks to the Irish, and accounts for the vast majority of current British Lions. But it is too far subordinated to other priorities, giving some matches the feeling of opposed training sessions. It used to be England's problem that it could not persuade the people who packed its international matches to come in similar numbers to the club game. Now they do, and that problem has crossed the Severn Bridge. If you want the passion and packed crowds that once characterised the best of Welsh club rugby your best bet is now Northampton, Leicester or Gloucester.
Perhaps it will take a breakthrough in the Heineken to change that, and make the regions feel as though they have some purpose other than as feeders to the national team. Perhaps that will come in 2010 - as ever we do not know, and can only feel for possible answers.
And if there is a glass half-empty feel to these reflections, there is also the glass half-full of what seemed possible in 2000, but did not happen. The Welsh game did not become a colonialised outpost of the English Premiership, with the best talent invariably trickling across the border.
Wales have not become permanent inhabitants of the lower half of a two-division Six Nations. Gruesome hammerings by England ceased to be an annual event. And Welsh rugby players have again displayed - not all the time, but often enough for fears of extinction to be quietened - the wit, skill and imagination always necessary if a small nation is to compete with larger ones. The glass to be raised on New Year's Eve will be a little more than half-full, a broadly happy contrast to the much emptier vessels brandished on 31st December 1999.