ROBIN DAVEY'S FINAL COLUMN: History is repeating itself in Welsh rugby
11:50am Tuesday 20th December 2011 in Sport
I SO wanted my final column to be optimistic about the future for Wales and Newport Gwent Dragons, and a while ago this looked a distinct possibility, but now...
The euphoria generated by Wales’ best World Cup since the inaugural one back in 1987 is melting away fast.
As I leave the scene with a heavy heart after all these years it seems reminiscent of the time when I started back in the late sixties. By that I mean Wales suffering from a big player drain.
Then the threat was from rugby league with the prospect of big money luring away our top players as they sought to secure their futures.
A giant in union (in ability if not in size) had gone with the departure of David Watkins to Salford. John Mantle went and others followed like Maurice Richards and John Bevan, while in later years Scott Quinnell and Alllan Bateman also went north.
There was a feeling of anger towards the league clubs for claiming some of our best players, though their decision was understandable as they attempted to secure their futures while they earned money from the game (union was, of course, amateur).
Fast forward more than 40 years and now it’s France which is the big lure for many of Wales’ top players. Money is the main attraction now as it was decades ago, though there are other reasons like a change of lifestyle and climate.
But unlike in those days the game is now professional and there are so many other countries who have made rapid advances.
Then, there weren’t so many rivals, the game didn’t mean as much in a global sense and club rugby in Wales was always vibrant.
Now it’s regions not clubs, television has taken over, there are so many other options and rugby is finding it hard out there in difficult economic times.
Sure, the nation rejoiced in the comparative success of the World Cup, but that is proving so temporary while the player-drain back in the sixties heralded the arrival of one of the greatest decades in Welsh rugby history.
I made my start back in 1969, visiting Stade Colombes, then France’s national ground, since replaced twice, and also Murrayfield which bears no resemblance now to what it was then.
In 1975 it housed a world record crowd of 105,000 for the Wales game. There were, can you believe, no tickets required for entry and the fans climbed up the far bank and into the arena in their tens of thousands, many even falling back down the other side again, such was the crush.
Murrayfield issued tickets after that, and no wonder. The Safety of Grounds Act had never been heard of then. Some years later stands were built all round and the old ground was no longer recognisable.
And back home to what was then called Cardiff Arms Park they packed into the north stand in their tens of thousands, too, often way before the game to sing traditional Welsh hymns conducted by a bandmaster.
That was all ruined when ‘elf and safety’ took over, the corporate industry got going and the Arms Park became the Millennium Stadium, iconic ground though that now is.
But at least I felt privileged to watch those great games of the seventies when Wales ruled the roost and won Triple Crowns and Grand Slams year on year.
To witness the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett JPR Williams & Co in their pomp, not forgetting the Pontypool front row and Mervyn Davies, among others, was a rare treat.
And the few media present then even got to travel on the same flight as the team, sometimes sitting next to these fantastic players. Imagine that now!
To be present at arguably the greatest game ever played between the Barbarians and the All Blacks in 1973, to be able to attend a reception at 10 Downing Street given by then prime minister James Callaghan after Wales won the triple Triple Crown were other wonderful highlights.
And to think my first major working visit Down Under was to New Zealand with the 1977 Lions and my last, just a couple of months ago, was back to that same country. How fitting!
World Cups in South Africa and Australia and a host of visits abroad with Wales, Newport, Ebbw Vale and the Dragons were sandwiched in between as rugby went global.
Not only that but all the politics off the field, the in-fighting, the clashes, the ups and the downs, they all made Welsh rugby the hotbed it is and no less interesting than events on the pitch.
And that is where the game is developing a worrying trend – that player drain again. James Hook, Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips have all gone to France, Luke Charteris is following and there is talk of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins departing as well.
Where will it all end and what will become of Welsh rugby? The crowds are dwindling at regional level and the joy of the World Cup has been replaced already by a lot of uncertainty and negativity. What can be done about it? If I had the answer to that I might be chief executive of the WRU instead of going out to pasture.
But an answer will be found. While it’s no use just sitting on backsides and waiting for something to happen, it will all the same, for it always does.
The lean years of the sixties were followed by the glory of the seventies, the depths of the nineties were followed by two Grand Slams this century and a good World Cup. So despite the current doom and gloom, I wouldn’t write Welsh rugby off. The game will respond to the times, we’ve been through great days and bad ones and the game has continued to flourish. It will again, I’m sure.
And while the Dragons are struggling they’re still there fighting, they’ve got some major new facilities, they possess the one true rugby ground of the four regions and they are getting players into the Welsh team.
They are lucky to have had Tony Brown as a backer and they are lucky to have Martyn Hazell, too. For without them and their financial input the Dragons would not be here at all, make no mistake about that.
So in writing my own last words, Welsh rugby may be looking grim right now, but as sure as night follows day it will rise again.