Writers, like rugby players, need a bit of luck to supplement their skill. Owen Sheers is a lucky writer. Not yet forty, Sheers’ back catalogue already bears testament to a fruitful career that not only encompasses self-generated poetry (The Blue Book and Skirrid Hill), fiction (Resistance), non-fiction (the sublime Dust Diaries) and drama (The Two Worlds of Charlie F) but also some of the best commissioned work Wales has seen in recent years. Sheers presented A Poet’s Guide to Britain for the BBC and edited the accompanying volume, wrote one of the first books in Seren’s ‘New Tales from the Mabinogion’ series, White Ravens, and, of course, there was The Passion, National Theatre Wales’ Port Talbot masterpiece starring Michael Sheen. Now Calon, the published result of Sheers’ year spent as the first-ever Welsh Rugby Union writer-in-residence.
It might seem green-eyed to describe Sheers’ invitation to such a role as fortuitous (to be fair, the writer has more than delivered on each of his high-profile commissions), but I must admit, first up, when the news broke that Sheers – himself a former scrum-half – had landed this dream job, my first thought was for my own despair; why hadn’t I been offered an equivalent post at Cardiff City? No matter, because there is no chance that jealousy will spoil my review. I enjoyed the book enormously and happily admit that Sheers has done it again, repaying the faith shown in him by the WRU’s Roger Lewis and ACW’s Dai Smith, who, on the occasion of his appointment, described Sheers as ‘a proper artist’.
Sheers manages to pull off a book that carefully treads such lines, like a winger timing his run to receive the ball at exactly the moment a space opens up in front of him.
A proper artist Sheers may be – his poetic credentials run through the book like the stitched seam of an old-fashioned rugby ball, quotes from Keats and Eliot and Yeats illuminating the more mundane descriptions of players work-out routines and off-the-pitch schedules – but this dream job actually presented the multi-talented writer with a difficult task. How should material from a whole year as artist-in-residence be structured? What should the outcome be? How to tackle the fact that we all know the story of Welsh rugby in 2012? And who should the target audience be? Welsh rugby fans? Rugby fans in general? Or people interested in the concept of how culture and nationhood can be played out in sport?
Sheers, as we might have expected, manages to pull off a book that carefully treads such lines, like a winger timing his run to receive the ball at exactly the moment a space opens up in front of him. Calon is a book that satisfies the hardcore rugby fan’s desire for intimate details of the backroom experience, the writer capitalising on the unprecedented level of behind-the-scenes access he was afforded for the project, but also satiates the general reader’s desire for a novelistic plotline, character development, a hero’s journey. The difference, of course, between Calon and a novel is that the hero is the team rather than any individual, and as Sheers also ably demonstrates, this particular team is the embodiment of an idea, a ‘fifteen-headed’ personification of a nation.
The title is a masterstroke. Calon, Welsh for ‘heart’, is one of the words that has in recent seasons been embroidered into the national jersey. The ‘heart’ of Welsh rugby to which the subtitle’s journey refers is multi-faceted; it is place, it is people, it is history, tradition, heritage, pride. Sometimes, it seems, it is everything. Where Sheers excels is in his communication of those iconic moments in Welsh rugby history where we all have a story of what bar we were in or who we were with or roughly what row and seat number in the stadium.
Leigh Halfpenny’s agonising kick against France in the World Cup semi-final tumbling a bare inch short of the crossbar and its counterpart moment of success in the Aviva Stadium against Ireland just months later are both described in fascinating detail, the key use of Sheers’ unfettered access to the players being to tell the story from the one perspective we never usually get in our rugby-saturated media, that of the player. Halfpenny uses visualisation. Time and again we are taken back to Gorseinon, where Leigh (first names are used throughout Calon) practised with his grandfather, to whom he gave his boots after the Ireland match. We are also taken to Cae Fardre, near Pentre’r Eglwys, where ‘Jenks’ – the legendary Neil Jenkins – developed his own kicking skills, passed on to Leigh and Rhys (Priestland) and to James (Hook), and to various other fields throughout the country, flattened out of the valleysides or rolled into Carmarthenshire fields.
The ‘heart’ of Welsh rugby to which the subtitle’s journey refers is multi-faceted; it is place, it is people, it is history, tradition, heritage, pride.
Dan (Lydiate) is described throughout as ‘a farmer’s boy from Llandrindod Wells’ and it is via these kind of subtle epithets, as well as the use of Christian names (slightly annoying at first, as if Sheers wants to emphasise that Sam and Shaun and Warren are his new pals, but growing in power as the book goes on) that we get to know the surnamed figures we watch on television and read about in the press as human beings. Who knew, for example, that Shaun Edwards used to sleep with a rugby ball as a child? These men in red have always been heroes, vessels for the displacement of our hopes and dreams, but here in Sheers’ intricately woven narrative they become also men; increasingly, very young men at that.
There is some cultural analysis – of Wales’ working class rugby tradition compared to the public school nature of the game in the rest of the British Isles, for example; or the game itself as a metaphor for dogged defence against invasion – but for the most part Sheers, or Owen as we perhaps must call the writer for the rest of the review, simply writes about what he has witnessed first hand in 2012. There are other books that deal with the history; Owen cites them in his acknowledgements. This is a writer, like the team he writes about, most interested in the now.
It helps enormously that Owen’s year as writer-in-residence coincided with Wales’ third Grand Slam in eight seasons. I told you he was a lucky writer. Thumper, a straight-talking member of Wales’ backroom staff, points out that it’s ‘always the wedding or the funeral game with us’. And while the pain is as much a part of Welsh rugby’s heart as the pleasure, it must have been easier for the squad to open up to Owen in the way that they obviously did whilst in the process of sweeping the northern hemisphere clean with victories in Dublin and at Twickenham as well as three at their own HQ.
The final victory over France is given the most attention, with an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of the play, Sheers weaving his intimate knowledge of the game’s pattern with his poet’s eye for detail. It is here amid the bruising skirmishes (the root word of ‘scrummage’, we learn) of battle that we finally realise the reason for Owen’s insistence on first name terms. As the match we all remember replays in Owen’s slow-mo prose, here is not Jenkins and Jones, Phillips and Roberts – the distant figures we know from sports reports; this is Gethin and Alun Wyn, Mike and Jamie, boys we have come, through the course of Calon, to know, and to care about beyond the simple sense of their representing our dreams.
the game – the occasion – can become, for eighty minutes, the nation itself
It is fitting, too, that Wales clinch the Grand Slam on home soil. Although Sheers’ journey ends with a coda on Bondi beach following the team’s disappointing Australian tour, it begins in the Millennium Stadium. And it is here, if anywhere, that the heart of Welsh rugby lies. Owen talks to Lee and Craig, the head groundsmen. Many of the journeys within the book – Warren Gatland’s helicopter ride over south Wales prior to accepting the job as Head Coach, Roger Lewis circumnavigating Cardiff streets on matchday – centre on the stadium. Owen’s own year as writer-in-residence begins with a new year’s eve visit to a deserted arena.
But the poet’s real skill, and the one that confirms him as ‘a proper artist’, is the way in which he convinces that the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Arms Park (he doesn’t once fall back on the sporting cliché of ‘hallowed turf’) is simply a crucible, a symbol of all the many fields in Wales where young boys dream. Even more than that, at times, the game – the occasion – can become, for eighty minutes, the nation itself. There is something uniquely Welsh about this ostensibly preposterous assertion; that Sheers – that Owen – has captured something not only of the claim, but also its truth, is cause enough for celebration. Come on Wales!