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, but now living in a country where rugby is so emblematic.
For those born in Wales, it’s easy. 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. 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? I was swept up in the current. From my first visit to the Grogg Shop in Ponty, with its porcelain caricatures of Welsh legends, to witnessing a whole pub singing Land of my Fathers 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 the passion above all that drew me in. I became 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 along with everyone. I didn’t see it coming though. It was a complete surprise and it actually 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, fitting some games in around study (or possibly the exact opposite). And then Wales played Australia.
And they lost. It wasn’t the performance that was the problem, I 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 simply that I’d been swept up in that maelstrom, a tumultuous sea of red in the pub 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 – it was then I knew that it had got to me.
I was walking back to my house and I felt truly dejected and deflated. I’d been used to that feeling as a fan of England and Southampton football teams (far too used to it in fact). So I thought I could shake it off straight away, but it was too late – I’d caught the bug. The love of the sport, but more than that, the passion of a nation, was and is infectious.
So, whether it’s home or away, the Welsh support in the ground, at home and beyond will be overtly, noisily passionate, as will be the team on the pitch. No mumbled anthems, just puffed out chests, giving it everything. After the game, you’ll hear hoarse voices ringing through the streets, whether Wales win or lose. In particular, singing after a loss sums it up for me – that indomitable spirit.
That is why I fell in love. Not so much due to the game itself, though I do enjoy it, but because of the passion that rugby inspires and channels each time the Six Nations comes around. It is a passion and fire that I first witnessed twenty years ago, and is still very much alive today.