Keeping the nerves in check
September 10, 2009
The Championship is set to be fiercely contested this season © Getty Images
I have not been as nervous about the start of a new season since I stopped playing 30 years ago. I was actually more nervous - when you are playing you forget your nerves and you feel partially in control; when you are a spectator and a stakeholder you feel absolutely helpless but you still live every moment.
I became a journalist as soon as I stopped playing and, knowing I had to be objective whatever my allegiances, was scrupulously dispassionate even when I was watching Wales. In fact I was so fair I was sometimes accused of being a traitor by a few Welshmen who only saw red.
There were, of course, occasions when I was partisan. When you are a part of the British press gang on a Lions tour or at a World Cup you have a licence to support the team from the home nations but you still remain just that little bit detached - you have to be objective.
Last Sunday at Bristol I was the opposite. As a part of the revolution at my old club London Welsh I was just desperate for a winning start to the season.
It has been a desperately difficult summer for London Welsh and at one stage it appeared as if we might have to forgo our place in the new Championship and revert to being an amateur team playing what is now known as 'community rugby' in the lower divisions of the Middlesex Leagues.
That was unthinkable for those of us who played in the early 70s when we were considered by many to be the best club side in the world. In 1971, when the Lions beat New Zealand in a series for the only time in history, London Welsh supplied seven players and five of us, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Mervyn Davies, myself and the captain, John Dawes, played in all four Tests - one third of the British and Irish team from one club.
Fortunately, Red Dragon Rugby, a consortium led by an Englishman, Neil Hollinshead, bailed us out and asked me to take a more hands-on role. The last month has been mad but rewarding - until last Sunday.
The Championship is now the only tier of professional rugby supported by the RFU below the Premiership. It was formed out of the old National Division One but the number of teams has been reduced from 16 to 12. They play each other home and away during the normal season and the top eight play-off (two pools of four then semis and a final) for promotion whilst the bottom four do the same to decide who is relegated.
The upside is that each club receives substantially more from the RFU compared to last season, Sky will televise a number of matches and the 12 clubs and the clubs also participate in the new British and Irish Cup.
The payback is that nearly all the clubs have felt it necessary to become fully professional, which was one of the aims of the RFU because it is now a proper nursery for young players who might feature in their elite player squads at a later date.
As most Premiership clubs are running at a loss imagine the problems in running a fully professional club in the second division. The wage bill is not nearly as daunting but the crowds probably average about 1500 and the opportunities for sponsorship, hospitality etc. reduce accordingly.
Which is why success and not just avoiding relegation is crucial; which in turn made last Sunday so important. We think we have a pretty exciting squad. We've invested heavily to keep quality players such as Aled Thomas, who scored the winning try for Wales when they won the Rugby World Cup Sevens and to bring in ex-Scotland international, Gordon Ross, but playing Bristol, the team relegated from the Premiership last season, in our first game was the acid test.
It was agony. We looked good for the first few minutes and then were caught with a sucker punch - an inch perfect punt pass to the wing, 7-0. We pressed again and clawed our way back with two Thomas penalties then, bliss, his third gave us a 9-7 lead with just a couple of minutes before half-time.
Sadly, it lasted only a couple of minutes. Having mounted a couple of attacks in overtime, disaster. We kicked the ball straight back to them instead of making touch and they ran it back to score in the 44th minute. 14-9 at the interval.
An early second half penalty extended that to 17-9 but then our first Championship try. A lovely step inside from left wing Errie Claassens, a shrewd buy from Rotherham, brought it back to 17-16 followed unbelievably by another try, a little fortunate but who cares, from Paul Mackey and we were dreaming of a glorious start to the new campaign.
Sadly, it was back down to earth with a bump. Two penalties brought it back to 23-23 and then, incredibly, neither the referee nor his two assistants spotted the two knock-ons that preceded Lee Robinson's winning try.
I wanted to cry but somehow composed myself, thanked everybody - even the ref - and despite feeling sick tried to take away the positives. We had, after all, shown we could compete with one of the best teams in the league. We could even have won. I just hope watching as a supporter gets easier.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com