From Richard Burton to Land of My Fathers, rugby is the voice of Wales

The Hollywood legend would have been proud to see his home country’s success

The Wales rugby squad takes part in a training session at the International Stadium Yokohama on Friday, ahead of their World Cup semi-final match against South Africa on Sunday. Photograph:  Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

The Wales rugby squad takes part in a training session at the International Stadium Yokohama on Friday, ahead of their World Cup semi-final match against South Africa on Sunday. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

 

When he was still just Richard Jenkins, still just the unknown, watchful son of a Pontrhydyfen father who worked in the mines and a mother who worked as a barmaid, Wales’s most glamorous 20th-century son claimed that one of the local entertainments was to watch a woman from Taibach “who before a home match at Aberavon would drop goals from around 40 yards with either foot to entertain the crowd.”

Mining and rugby stardom were the only currencies worth trading in south Wales of the 1950s, and the future Richard Burton was as daffy about rugby as the rest of them. He managed to continue playing the game even after most of the world had swooned over that face and that voice – “the deep, dark answer from the Valleys to everybody,” as he described it to Dick Cavett in a television interview that proves beyond argument that movie stars, in the traditional sense, simply don’t exist anymore.

Yes, the Haka has its polished menace and it’s always a thrill to be in a stadium when the French belt out La Marseillaise as if warmed by sunshine and brandy. But there’s a very strong argument to be made that if you wish to capture the essence of rugby, then just bottle that moment when the Wales crew is about to reach a crescendo during Land of My Fathers on those days when they create not so much a sound as an affirmation of existence.

Days, in other words, like Sunday, when the Red Dragon comes into the reckoning, driven by Warren Gatland’s unfussy smarts and willingness to be lucky, and by the Welsh talent for somehow shaking off the limitations of their domestic rugby scene to tap into the bloodlines whenever they pull on that red jersey. A mere five countries have contested all of the Rugby World Cup finals since 1987, and who knows when Wales will ever have a better chance of joining that elite club.

Leap away

It is easy to forget that the professional era of rugby is still very young, and the jury is arguably still out on the wisdom of making that leap away from amateurism. The reverberations have been clear throughout the six-week extravaganza in Japan. Rugby is still finding its feet. And so the vigilance towards head-high tackling has been one of the characteristics of the World Cup. And the hope that a new team – Japan, Ireland, anyone – could shatter the glass ceiling of World Cup progression has burned away like a sacred candle in the background. Enter Wales.

The past week has brought about a bitter and at-times embittered bout of soul-searching for the Irish rugby community. The nature of the defeat to New Zealand and, more disturbingly, the response to that defeat, has revealed a kind of uncertainty of identity and a jolting recognition that maybe the professional model from which Irish rugby has enjoyed so much provincial and international success can only go take the game so far here.

In Wales, there has never been any anxiety or questioning about where rugby stands in the national consciousness. It is simply the game. It’s their voice in motion. The contradictory thing about Wales is that they are just 80 frightening, challenging minutes from away from a World Cup final despite moving further and further away from the vision of the land as espoused by Burton in his hypnotic turns in talk shows that still rattle about the vaults of YouTube.

Burton played his last game at 28, while starring as Hamlet in the Old Vic, wearing a scrum cap to hide his identity

There was always the sense about Burton that he felt he had somehow failed in life by becoming a revered stage and screen star rather than following his father down the mines. Of course, he was partly speaking from the lofty advantage of limitless wealth and fame and adoration. It’s easy to romanticise about 10-hour shifts in the filthy collieries when you are jetting back to Los Angeles and getting bombed with Liz Taylor. But for all that, it’s obvious that he never fully got over it; never could shake off his pride at coming from that stock: the toughness, the capacity for work, the rhythms of shift work and the intense local adoration – what he called “the arrogant strut of the lords of the coalface”.

Reluctant

Rugby was the pastime of the mining valley towns and Burton was so reluctant to leave the game that eventually the studio bosses had a clause in his contract forbidding him from flying his own plane, skiing and playing rugby football. He played his last game at 28, while starring as Hamlet in the Old Vic, and absurdly hoping that a scrum cap would disguise his identity.

He was rumbled before kick-off and the other team spent an hour visiting all kinds of physical abuse on him, but were then too shy to speak to him afterwards in the pub. He drove away in a Jaguar feeling wretched and was still fretting about his performance – on the field, not the theatre – for decades afterwards.

And of all the great Welsh rugby stories, there is something lingering about the influence of Carwyn James, the visionary outhalf from Cefneithin, a mining village of 800 people that also produced Barry John. James played for Wales just twice, his international potential eclipsed by his friend Cliff Morgan, who would admit that he was chosen simply “because I was stronger”.

Welsh rugby union player Carwyn James in February 1958. Photograph: Getty Images
Welsh rugby union player Carwyn James in February 1958. Photograph: Getty Images
Warren Gatland acknowledged that the regionalisation of Welsh rugby hasn’t fired as it has done in Ireland

But James’s true brilliance lay in his coaching, masterminding the historic Lions win against New Zealand in 1971. James had a clear political vision and an interest in the arts and was brilliant with the players. He may also, it seems clear now, have been the one thing you were not permitted to be in a masculine traditional society: gay. After it became clear he would never get to coach Wales, he left the country. Forty smokes a day and heavy drinking brought about an early death at the age of 53.

Nostalgia

But when he ran for the Welsh national party, James had this to say about his country in 1968: “The spirit of Wales is born in the mountain farmhouse, in the cottage by the brook and the coalminer’s home. And if it be not fostered the Welsh nation will become merely derivative and second-rate.” You could dismiss that as nostalgia except that it presaged what would happen to the mining economy and, subsequently, the rugby clubs in Wales by a full 20 years.

As recently as January, Warren Gatland acknowledged that the regionalisation of Welsh rugby hasn’t fired as it has done in Ireland. And when you look at the decline of Neath, the oldest rugby club in Wales and once the jewel in the crown of the thriving club scene, now flickering on the edge of existence, you have to wonder about what rugby has lost over the past 30 years. What was the game ever for if not the local communities?

Wales are slightly lucky to be here, or course, and will always thank that wild elbow thrown by Sébastien Vahaamahina of France, thus altering the trajectory of the competition. There are many excuses for Wales not to have made it this far. But it’s Sunday morning and here they are and, well . . . listen to that.

“The Welsh are all actors,” Burton famously said. “It’s only the bad ones who become professional.”

What he’d give.

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