On Saturday, I watched a match at The Stadium Formerly Known As Cardiff Arms Park (TSFKACAP) for the first time in a long time.
My absence was partly about life just jogging along – moving (a longish way) away from Cardiff, kids, work and all that. The practicalities of getting to Cardiff. Or sometimes being able to get to Cardiff for a match, but none of my Cardiff-resident mates having tickets so preferring to catch up with them and watch the game in the pub. And the basic, nobody-tells-you-how-extortionate cost of raising kids.
But it was partly about falling out of love with the whole experience.
As a kid, getting a ticket to “the international” was the rarest of treats. I remember being taken by my dad to meet the bloke in charge of tickets at Waunarlwydd RFC in early 1985. We had to go to his house to collect them, and I had to “dress tidy” and give a good impression, as I would be representing the club in Cardiff, and the ticket sec might decide he didn’t want us being the face of the club if we couldn’t behave and/or dress appropriately.
The game was Jonathan Davies’ (the one from Trimsaran) debut, and Terry Holmes’ last game for Wales before going north later that same year. I was 10. It was a magical experience, sitting in the (then) brand new South Stand, watching Wales beat England. Of course Wales beat England. Wales always beat England in Cardiff. We hadn’t lost at home to them since 1963, and the draw two years earlier had been greeted like a death in the family.
The excitement when I first went without a relative – with the school to see Wales beat England, again, as per, in the Robert Jones-Bob Norster-Ieuan Evans up-and-under-fest in 1989 – was off the scale. As it was when I first caught the train up from Swansea, later that year – managing a fry-up and a surreptitious under-age pint on Caroline Street – to see Wales get obliterated by Wayne Shelford’s All Blacks.
With two, sometimes three big matches each year, and ticket prices pitched at a level necessary to support an amateur game, the same people could go to every match. Getting a ticket was a challenge. The only ways of being fairly sure were either to be stinking rich or a member of your local rugby club. Or, preferably, both. And even then, there was no guarantee.
I’d occasionally get to borrow my dad’s original 1967 debenture in the North Stand. As I got older, I realised that the people I’d sat with those first few seasons weren’t coming along so much anymore. I remember being a bit confused about how little interest some of these new people were showing in the game, often facing away from the action to engage in long chats about nothing much in particular.
The opening of the latest iteration of TSFKACAP in 1999 and the steady improvement of the national team saw some of the old guard return. One of my happiest Wales-watching memories is of sitting in that same (slightly repositioned) debenture seat at the 2005 England and Ireland games. The old boys were out for one last hurrah, watching a first Grand Slam in 27 years. They talked of old adventures, of great games they’d watched together, but only during breaks in play. As soon as the game recommenced, they were enraptured.
From that point, the WRU’s model for funding the game regressed to playing Australia 240,000,000 times every year, and taking away the professional clubs’ players for as long as possible. With six, sometimes as many as eight home games every season at prices heading towards £100, it became impossible for most people to attend every match.
Oh, and beer. Beer and rugby have always gone together, obviously. But drinking in your seat at any version of TSFKACAP wasn’t on offer pre-1999. In fact, before that, reaching your own pockets, or even putting both feet on the floor at the same time, was often an impossibility in the enclosures and on the East Terrace. Post-1999, missing large chunks of the game thanks to the incessant flow of people going back and forth to the bar became a bit wearing.
Oh, also the militarism and monarchism, on display yet again on Saturday.
So I got a ticket on the morning of the Grand Slam match in 2008. Then I travelled to Murrayfield in 2009. And that was it.
I’d grown tired of the lack of atmosphere, the lack of interest, the utter pie-eyedness of sections of the crowd, “the singing” – if by singing you mean a chorus of Cwm Rhondda (with the wrong words) and the chorus of Hymns and Arias and…well….that was it. I’d enjoy a pint or several before the game, several after, maybe, even, if I was really letting my hair down, a pint during the game. But I was there to watch the play. So I did. And wondered why I often seemed to be the only one in my section who hadn’t spent half the game walking up and down the aisles to the bar.
Yes, I’m a miserable old bastard. Also a great laugh at parties.
Trips thereafter were to watch club games. Instead of the same old cities, we got to go to Cork and Galway and Glasgow and Leicester and Belfast and Paris (but to watch Racing-Scarlets) and Dublin (but to watch the Scarlets), Barcelona (to watch the Top 14 final in 2016) and Toulouse. And, um, Stockport.
Then, on Friday, four cheapish tickets came up and I thought it would be a treat for the kids to experience the…er…experience.
So we did a day trip from Darkest Gogonia. A nine hour round trip.
Pre-match was great. The buzz of walking through Westgate Street, going through the turnstiles and seeing the kids’ faces as they walked into the bowl itself. The band playing, the choir hammering out the old hymns (and that non-hymn about domestic abuse, but, you know…). A quick nod to contemporary music with a bit of SFA’s Bing Bong over the PA, an impressive video to whip the crowd up just before the players walked out. Then the roar as the teams appeared, the fireworks and the anthems.
Then it all kind of went a bit off.
Our seats were in the front row of the Lower South Stand. The view isn’t great from the lower stands, but as spots in that deck go, it was perfect. Four of the five tries were at our end. Bouthier crossed for the first try right in front of us. The Teddy Thomas-AWJ footrace too. And Wainwright ignoring that three-man overlap 10 metres out. Both Welsh tries were only slightly across from us. Perfect.
Unless you wanted to watch the game, that is.
Three minutes into the game, we all had to get up to let in a young lad who’d just arrived. Three minutes after that, we were on our feet to let him out again. Another three minutes later, he returned once more, this time with four pints. The pattern continued – not just him – at approximately two-minute intervals for the rest of the game.
The bloke next to me made, according to my kids, four trips to the bar during play (bringing himself and his wife two pints each on every occasion). They also made a further furtive departure together for about 10 second-half minutes, straight after a spell of prolonged snogging, for reasons which I don’t really want to contemplate. In fairness, he spotted that Dillon Lewis had scored Wales’ first try within about ten seconds of it actually happening. He slapped me on the back and yelled “I f****** love rugby, see” at me, to celebrate.
Which was nice.
A woman behind us discovered that she was sitting next to some French fans. They spoke very good English. She was impressed. So impressed she was barely coherent. “Oh, I think it’s great you speak English so well. It’s so important. I think everybody should speak every language. I hate it when people don’t make the effort”. The French fans thanked her, and asked where she was from. “Oh, I’m from England, but I’ve lived in Wales for years, and my kids are Welsh, and I’m half Irish”. “Oh”, said her new friend “so you speak English and Welsh and Irish?”. “No!!!”, she yelled, incredulous. “Just English”. “French”? “No”. “Your children”. “No, just English”.
She then bonded with the snogging couple next to us. She spoke incessantly, about everything except what she’d paid to sit in front of. I’m pretty sure she didn’t see a single minute of the game.
Next to her were two lads in their 30s who moaned throughout, mainly about Wales, often the referee. “Nothing wrong with that” they grumbled as we watched replays of Willemse’s slap down of Owens’ scoring pass to Adams. “You’re supposed to use your hands, ffs, it’s rugby”…
George North got a mouthful for play-acting while unconscious, too.
On the hour, a gaggle of stewards appeared right in front of us, blocking our view, looking over our heads. A scuffle had broken out among a group of Wales fans a few rows behind us. The stewards were watching their colleagues sort it out. That took a while, probably more than five minutes, during which we couldn’t see much of the game.
Just as Wales put together the move which led to Dan Biggar’s late try, a woman appeared right in front of us. She stopped, because my neighbour was getting it on with his significant other again and blocking her path. I nudged him in the back a few times, to try to get his attention. The woman blocking our view said “oh, it’s ok, I don’t want to disturb them”. Well, no, but, you know, by standing there you’re preventing the four of us from watching a Wales attack metres from the French line.
And throughout it all was the endless piped music. At one stage, the DJ played “More Life in a Tramp’s Vest” as Dan Biggar put over a first-half penalty, which I thought was a bit harsh. But not as bad as the indignity of hearing a Max Boyce song piped through the PA in a desperate attempt to get the crowd to join in.
At least the French fans were good value. There were several large groups dotted around the stadium who spent most of the game bouncing up and down, singing and chanting whenever France attacked and generally having the best time.
Time moves on. Of course the singing isn’t what it was. Fifty and more years ago, most of the crowd was packed together on the terraces, trapped there for a good hour before kick-off, damp-legged, with no way of moving and nothing to do except sing. Many if not most people had grown up going to chapel and knew the words to all of Rachie and Blaenwern and Cwm Rhondda, maybe even Sanctus, with a fair proportion knowing the harmonies too. People don’t go to chapel and don’t sing in choirs in large numbers anymore, so of course the singing won’t be what it was.
And, yes, I know the arguments. The professional game in a country as poor as Wales needs the money. The money generated by the big games at TSFKACAP goes into the pot which contributes towards the costs of running the professional and community games too. The money paid by the “event goers” of the RMWP (Rugby Mad Welsh Public) who don’t necessarily watch much if any other rugby all season, is as good as anybody else’s, and they’re perfectly entitled to behave as they wish. Selling lots of beer increases the value of the food and drink franchises and brings in more income. The stadium is usually full – at least for Six Nations games, even at £100 and more a ticket – so the experience still clearly appeals to a lot of people. And my kids enjoyed themselves, which I suppose is the main thing.
So, apologies. Yes, I am a miserable old git. Yes, nothing is as good as it used to be. And yes, this is a spectacular rose-tinted-specs nostalgia fest. It was probably never as great as I remember it. And at least the only thing spilled on my daughter’s new daps in the modern TSFKACAP was some beer and the blackcurrant dash in Mrs Snogger’s pint.
I’m fairly sure it was a damn sight better than this, though.