Only when the caps fit
May 31, 2011
Former Wales international Gareth Thomas claimed more than 100 caps for his country © Getty Images
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of writing books of rugby history has been meeting and interviewing old players. Almost all have been welcoming, thoughtful and generous with their memories.
And they have generally been open-minded about both the vices and virtues of the modern game, as willing to concede where it has improved as to condemn where it has gone wrong.
Two things, though, have bugged them consistently. One is the way, revealed by television microphones, that referees talk to players and in particular warn them where they are about to commit an offence. To generations whose referees often communicated not to warn, but to penalise, it all sounds too much like coaching.
The other is the way in which modern players pile up what, by historical standards, are immense totals of international caps. It was summed up when that great former Wales prop Stoker Williams told me "If Bleddyn Williams had played nowadays he'd have had 80 caps, not 22". Stoker was undoubtedly right and may even, given that Bleddyn also lost five years to the war, have been understating his case.
And I can understand why older generations of player see this as a cheapening. But I'd also part company with them (as I would to some degree on the refereeing issue).
It surely is not unreasonable to award caps for matches for which we once withheld them - opponents of the quality of Argentina, Romania and Fiji and even, for some bizarre reason, the full-strength All Black team who beat what was billed as a Wales XV in a midweek meeting in November 1974. One has to wonder how long it would have taken the WRU to think of a reason for upgrading the fixture had Wales won.
Certainly there are more matches now, and also up to 22 caps awarded per fixture rather than a maximum of 15. So players inevitably win more caps more rapidly. But this is not a measure of quality. Nobody in their right mind is going to argue that Gareth Thomas is a better player than Bleddyn Williams or Mike Phillips superior to Haydn Tanner simply because they have more caps.
What their totals index is the number of occasions they have been among the players Wales has chosen to represent it against another rugby-playing country, no less and no more. That, after all, is what the world 'international' means - between nations. The currency may have been devalued a little, but it remains perfectly valid.
Which is more than can be said of the Wales v Barbarians match at the Millennium Stadium next Saturday. To pretend that this is a proper international and to award caps is not merely devaluation, but counterfeiting.
To play the Baa Baas is a perfectly valid exercise. It is a decent chance to try out fringe World Cup candidates against reasonable opposition on a big ground and in front of the TV cameras - exactly as England did last Sunday.
Welsh fans will want to see how good Toby Faletau really is, will wonder whether Sam Warburton might be a long-term captaincy candidate and of are curious whether whatshisname with the funny hairdo at centre still looks anything like a top-class rugby player.
The Barbarians are a rightly cherished rugby institution. They have some great names - George Smith, Martyn Williams, Ruan Pienaar to name but three - in their line-up. But none of this makes it a full international, however hard the WRU tries to persuade us with a vigorous publicity barrage.
This has included rolling out Neil Jenkins to argue that it was a worthy international match. Neil was a terrific player, and he's an admirable human being, but he's also a WRU employee so hardly, to put it mildly, an independent witness.
And before anyone starts making claims for the strength of the Baabaas line-up it is worth remembering that the chief thing most have in common is not being wanted by national regional teams. If they were, they would not be available.
The most striking example of this is the selection of Williams for the Baa Baas. He's a great player who has done wonders for Wales over the years, but is available precisely because Warren Gatland has discarded him. It will be a great test for Warburton to have to play against him. It will probably put something on the gate. But how can it be a proper international match when the team facing Wales includes a man who has played nearly 100 times for Wales?
It is, of course, possible to cite precedent. Wales has awarded caps for matches against the Barbarians before. But precedents only work when they make sense. This one was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Nor does it appear, if reports about ticket sales are correct, that the Welsh rugby public are convinced.
All of this brings Wales's extra international in early June into more than a little disrepute. Given that it adds a week to an already overlong season, it needs to be something special to be worthwhile. So far it has been anything but.
Last year strenuous attempts were made to persuade us that a match with a rather under-strength Springbok XV was given added credibility by that monument to crass deference, the Prince William Cup. Yeah, right, as they say in New Zealand.
This time we are being offered a faux-international against an invitation team. Contrary to occasional appearances neither the people who run the WRU nor those who handle its publicity are in the least stupid. But it is about time they stopped treating the Welsh rugby public as though they are.
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