As an Englishman, I am not perhaps the most obvious candidate to be a Welsh rugby cheerleader, but here I am, sitting down to write about a sport I barely knew growing up, living in a country where rugby is so emblematic.
For those born in Wales, the sport is in your blood and pumps as vibrant red as the shirts on the team’s backs (and forwards). It’s simple for you though. You don’t need learn to love rugby, any more than you need to learn to love your own family. But it was different for me. When I arrived in Pontypridd in 1997, I’d rarely watched a game of rugby and barely knew the rules. And if I’d had a choice in the matter, it may have stayed that way. But that’s not how it works here, is it? From my first visit to the Grogg Shop in Ponty with its porcelain caricatures of Welsh legends, to witnessing a whole pub singing Calon Lan before, during and after a game, I realised I’d stepped into a world there rugby was the state religion and I was set for a baptism of fire and song.
And it’s this passion above all that got me hooked. Hooked on the drama. Hooked on the downs as well as the ups. At first I went along to watch the games to fit in, to be part of the crowd in a new country, but it wasn’t very long before I was cheering as loud as the rest. Not that I saw it coming though, no, it was a complete surprise and, it took a defeat to prove it.
It was the Quarter Final of the 1999 World Cup. I was at university up in Trefforest and had been really getting into the competition and fitting some games in around study (ok, so it was more like the exact opposite), and then Wales played Australia. It wasn’t the performance that was the problem, I still didn’t understand enough to judge it that well. Even the dodgy decisions that littered that game weren’t what had got me upset. It was really that I’d been swept up in the maelstrom of a tumultuous sea of red in the pub that day and, when a defeat hits, particularly in a knockout competition, the resulting fall is painful. So when the final whistle blew – and the result was confirmed – I realised. I was walking back to my house and I felt truly dejected, deflated and downcast. I thought I could shake it off straight away but I’d caught the bug. And that means feeling the lows as well as the highs.
And hopefully for Wales, their game against their nemesis England tomorrow will be another high. But I do know one thing. The Welsh support on Saturday, in Twickenham as well as throughout Wales and beyond, will be as fervently passionate and committed as the team will be on the pitch. And afterwards, hoarse voices will still be singing, whether Wales win or lose.
And that is why I fell in love. Not with the game, though I like it a lot, but with the passion that rugby inspires.