Comment | Wales and the Shackles of Rugby

Gary Raymond suggests that rather than being the thing that makes Wales great, rugby is the thing that holds us back.

There is an interesting argument that pops its head above the parapet every now and again, normally voiced by some aging academic or organic farmer in the letters pages of the Telegraph (on its wittier days), or a phone-in moment on Radio Four; what if at the end of the national news instead of the broadcaster dedicating the final ten minutes of a show to the latest sports news, that ten minute slot was dedicated to the arts. Laugh all you want (some of you will be morosely nodding, though). But perhaps there is something in this. Perhaps in Wales (whisper it, damn you) we should be thinking about shifting the emphasis.

But let’s not forget that sport does tell us a great deal about what it is to be human – endeavour, tribalism, physicality, futility etc. – whilst we remind ourselves that art is, and has, attempted to explain all that makes us human. Sport is not lowbrow, if we do indeed need to go into the hierarchical pigeonholing of the pensive (I yawn at you, sir). Competitive sport is most likely as old as literature, if not older, (certainly older than written literature, if not oral), and there is obviously a good reason for that. As we argue these points, art and sport meet at cross purposes. It can be argued both exist for escapist reasons, although you’d probably have to be a minister for culture to truly believe that is all art is, and probably a minister for sport to believe the same of sport. Is art more important than sport? Intrinsically, this question asks who is a more significant figure: Pele or Caravaggio. And from here we inevitably ask the next question: Pele, Caravaggio or Einstein. Sport, art and science. (I’ll leave facebook updates to argue that one out with a series of misquoting memes).

Perhaps it seems odd to pair those three as the triangulated cornerstones of what it means to be human. But we cannot dismiss with upturned noses the fact that Svetlana Alexievich, nor Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald, would not fill the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund once a fortnight with people wishing to listen to ideas on literature and chemistry, as Dortmund’s football club, Borussia, do to the tune of an average of 80,000 every home game (the highest average club attendance in European football). We cannot turn our noses up safe in the idea that sport is for mugs and art is for those who are above it. Sport is not simply escapism. It is part of the same Venn diagram of eternal musings as art and science. This is why more effort needs to be spent in examining why it is Wales is so intent on defining itself almost entirely by the achievements of its national rugby team. (Football is fleeting in this, despite obvious glories, and as far as national identity goes, has neither the history nor embedded social-psychological tropes that the oval ball has).

The dust is a long way from settling in the aftermath of Wales’ departure from the ever-running Rugby World Cup, losing in an agonising, if familiar, style to South Africa in the Quarter Final on Saturday. Another hair’s breadth defeat by a Southern Hemisphere side. Immediately – even before the touch kick that ended the game had landed in the stands – eulogies of pride-in-defeat were being sung. And it is of course a continually remarkable thing that Wales, a country of 3 million, can come so close to bettering a country such as South Africa that has 54 million people to potentially train up and choose from (I appreciate women are, at present, not eligible to play in the men’s game). Remarkable. But pride in defeat, when it happens so often – when it happens every time – is most likely a bad habit not a good one, the emotional equivalent of a whisky chaser. If Wales defines itself by the achievements of its rugby team, is it any surprise that Wales is comfortable being proud in defeat in other walks of life? Far from suggesting the boys on Saturday deserve anything less than a heroes’ banquet for what they did, I am saying the shortfall of that team need not be an excuse for our national identity to be one of accepting ‘our place’ as plucky underdogs. Surely losing is for losers, no matter what the nature of the loss. For all of the thrills and spills of the nature of Wales’ World Cup journey, losing is ultimately a mediocre experience, a pale fart in a hurricane compared to the feelings waiting for whichever Southern Hemisphere side eventually lifts the trophy. Wales is a country, then, defined by its willingness to smile, shrug and accept that mediocrity, a country peopled by ‘pseudo-warriors’ who are in thrall to a fatal romantic idea of nobility in defeat. It is this idea that holds Wales back in every sphere: we lost, but least we have the respect of our betters.

And thus we have the BBC we deserve; we have the national press we deserve; the school systems we accept; the NHS we put up with. All bastions of the mediocre when not simply striving tooth and nail to reach up to a state of mediocrity. Perhaps – just perhaps – if Wales did not settle for defining itself by the achievements of its rugby team, it would eventually start to do what it is we believe we do; punch above our weight. Wales could have gone out on that pitch on Saturday armed to the teeth with sub-machine guns and they wouldn’t have beaten the Springboks. Why? Because Wales never does. Because Wales expects heart not victory – we know our place. Being Welsh apparently, means pride in defeat, and not just on the rugby field. So long as your unofficial national anthem is “As Long as We Beat the English” that’s all you’ll ever do. And as long as you’re singing along with the Stereophonics, mediocre is all you’ll ever be.