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Reviewed: Calon - a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby

Once were warriors.

Calon: a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby
Owen Sheers
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £14.99

Until I was well past 40, Wales always beat England in rugby union internationals. Well, not quite always but it seemed so: from 1949, when I first became aware of the game, English victories were so rare that I could play the whole lot of them back in my head. In most matches, “Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi” (“The land of my fathers, which is dear to me”) and “Bread of Heaven” rose triumphantly and provocatively from the terrace choirs around the 65th minute.

The two teams meet once each year, alternately home and away. English victories were unusual when I was a child but, between 1963 and 1980, England won just once and never in Wales between 1963 and 1991. When the Welsh team then went into decline, the sport seemed smaller, less intense, less heroic. Rugby union is unique among team sports for its sustained, collective, dynamic physicality (American football has no scrum and no rolling maul) and nothing better expresses national rivalries and resentments than its Six Nations tournament, originally just for the four “Home Nations” but joined by France in 1910 and Italy in 2000. An English coach once told his team, before a match against Wales: “Just remember, they’re not defending their try line; they’re defending their border.” The same could be said of the Scots, whose unexpected victory over England in Edinburgh in 1990 represented (according to some) a blow against the alien creed of Thatcherism.

In Wales, class feeling is added to national pride. In the other home nations, rugby union was historically a middle-class game, nurtured in posh schools. In Wales, particularly among the forwards, it was a working-class game, its strengths forged in mines and steelworks. In 1977, Phil Bennett, the captain, told his team before they played England: “Look what those bastards have done . . . They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year . . . We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English.”

In this book, Owen Sheers, a poet and novelist, evokes the passions that underpin Welsh rugby. The title word, “calon”, meaning “heart”, was among those stitched into the national team’s shirt collars. Others included “hiraeth” (“a longing for something lost”), “dal dy dir” (“hold your ground”) and, since 2011, “cymeriad” (“character”). Sheers spent 2012 as the team’s writer-in-residence. The previous October, in Auckland, New Zealand, Wales had lost a World Cup semifinal to France, a match they could have won with the last kick despite their captain being sent off. Sheers includes flashbacks to the World Cup and to other matches in 2012 but his main focus is 17 March, when Wales had a chance for revenge, once more meeting France, this time in Cardiff in the final match of the Six Nations.

Most readers will know who won. If they can put that out of their minds, the suspense is gripping. If Wales beat France, they will not only win the Six Nations but also reach the special pinnacle of a Grand Slam, which has been achieved only 36 times in 89 seasons. Wales have ten Grand Slams, England 12. Wales can now win an 11th and a third in the 21st century, confirming their recent revival.

As Sheers illustrates, modern rugby involves more than stirring men’s blood against ancient wrongs. Wales, like other teams in the post-1995 professional era, have armies of coaches plus advisers on diet, fitness and sleeping postures. Players wear GPS packs between shoulder blades to measure speed, distance covered, momentum and angle of tackles. Modern rugby also involves high impact collisions equivalent, in scrums, to being in a 30-miles-per-hour car crash. Players are “bulked up”, putting joints under intolerable strain and making the swerves and sidesteps that once distinguished Welsh back play almost extinct. No coach ever picks the team he wants; between a quarter and a third are sidelined by shattered bones and traumatised ligaments.

For all the science, therefore, coaches must still call upon primitive warrior passions to persuade players to ignore personal safety. Steers recalls how the VC citation for Sir Tasker Watkins – miner’s son, Cardiff fly half, deputy lord chief justice, ex-president of the Welsh Rugby Union, whose statue looms over the approach to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – was sometimes pinned to the changing room wall. On 16 August 1944, under “murderous machine-gun fire” in Normandy, Watkins “led a bayonet charge with his 30 remaining men against 50 enemy infantry, practically wiping them out” and “personally charged and silenced an enemy machine-gun post”.

And on 17 March 2012, Wales beat France 16-9, winning their 11th Grand Slam.


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on