Rugby: 1. a city in Warwickshire, central England 2. famous school for boys located there; founded 1567 3. a kind of football, a forerunner of the American game, first played at Rugby school; each team consists of 15 players, action is continuous, and the oval ball may be passed laterally or backward, kicked forward, or carried.
Rugby is often referred to as the national religion of Wales, so it is not surprising that it was introduced to the country by a theologian. Rowland Williams was professor of Hebrew at St. David’s College, Lampeter, and one of the most influential theologians of the nineteenth century. Educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge, he was ordained a deacon in 1842 and priest in 1843. After his eight years as a classical tutor at King’s College, he came to St. David’s College in 1849 and brought the sport of rugby with him from Cambridge.
Owing to my family heritage and a curiosity about all things Welsh, I was introduced to the sport by my first cousin once removed (but he beat the charges) Graham. On one of my first family visits, Graham took me to a local match near his home in Tredegar. It was a cold and misty night, and the stands were packed with tweeds of brown and gray and “Andy Capp caps." The lone American in attendance, I wore a bright red ski jacket and stood out like a guy in a bright red ski jacket. I knew little of what was going on in the game and between the crowd noise, Graham’s Welsh accent, and his tendency to mumble, I remained clueless throughout. All I knew was it was violent and not meant for sissies.
In the following years, I enjoyed the music of the sport more than the sport itself. Graham sang tenor in a few men’s choirs, each of which were of a quality to offer their talents nationally and even internationally. They often sang the Welsh National Anthem at Rugby World Cup and Rugby Six-Nations competitions, and through the gift of video tape, I was able to experience those thrilling moments. The Welsh love their rugby, their choral traditions, their national anthem, and the opportunity to belt out each note before the opening kickoff at a match. My dream was to one day be in the stands to join my distant countrymen in song.
In the meantime, Nick and Katharine came into our lives in Raleigh and re-introduced the sport of rugby to Hayden and me. Both natives of Wales, fellow parishioners at our church, and the most generous souls that a person could ever meet, we have become good friends over the last six years. Coincidentally, Nick was born in Tredegar, my family’s ancestral home.
We were invited to their beautiful home early one pre-pandemic morning to watch Wales compete in a Six Nations contest. Nick, who had played rugby growing up, was as helpful as he could be in explaining the game to us. That is as helpful as anyone could be while shouting, cheering, jumping, and occasionally dying over a bad play or a ridiculous call. This was pre-Tik Tok, but we could have gone viral with one called...Watching Nick Watching Rugby. Like countless Welshmen the world over, Nick leaves it all on the pitch when watching the sport. Just be sure to move the expensive lamps, coffee tables, and favorite pillows to the other room.
Roll the clock forward to last Christmas when Nick and Katharine were at our home for a holiday reception. The subject of World Cup Rugby 2023 came up and Hayden mentioned to Nick my lifelong dream of seeing Wales play in an international contest. Nick had had the foresight to buy tickets to the entire series of Welsh matches in France and was planning an extended family holiday to follow the team across the country (and to drink some good wine along the way). I had investigated possible tickets and found they were sold out and secondary sales were at astronomical prices.
Hayden mentioned to Nick that if he stumbled across extra tickets from his Welsh connections, please let her know. She was sure that we would head to France for my bucket list opportunity.
In January, Hayden walked into our bedroom and asked me a question...one that I won’t soon forget.
“Would you like to go to Lyon to see Wales play in the Rugby World Cup.”
Holy Rolling Rowland Williams are you kidding? Are you serious?
It so happened that Saint Nick and Katharine the Great had two extra tickets available to see Wales play in Lyon, and contacted Hayden regarding our interest. The Welsh National Anthem played in my head as I literally danced around the bedroom. I looked like Nick celebrating a Wales try. (similar to a touchdown and good for 5 points and the opportunity to kick a 2-point conversion).
Yes...oh Hell Yes!
Hayden did her normal world-class travel planning along with able guidance and assistance from Katharine and Nick. So, after our sojourn to Belgium (see Bucket List Belgium), we rendezvoused with our Welsh pals in Lyon.
I should say we rendezvoused with tens of thousands of new Welsh pals and countless Australians (it takes two teams for a decent match) who had descended on Lyon. The streets were filled with the Cymry bedecked in red and black kit and the Aussies sporting green and gold. The city was also filled with beer-fueled laughter, good natured national spirit, and even an occasional rugby ball to kick. Unlike other national sports that will go unmentioned here, rugby features violence on the pitch, but reverence for the rules and unwavering sportsmanship when the final whistle blows. The people on the streets reflected the exemplary brotherhood on the pitch and fun was everywhere you looked.
Believe it or not, Lyon has a bar named Le Welsh. It was hard not to think that this was a pop-up bar idea for the Cup, but the graphics, the furniture, the beer, the sticky floor, and the vibe seemed permanently legit, and it became our headquarters for the weekend leading up to the Sunday night match. Suffice it to say, that was one happy publican.
A neighboring bar had become the headquarters for the Aussies, maybe because the Welsh wouldn’t let them pass through on the street and hey, they were thirsty too. The songs, the chants, and the punt, pass, and kick contest that broke out on Sunday was worthy of a separate admission charge for all in attendance. It was a great warm-up for the match.
One thing we weren’t ready for was the transportation knock-on (think fumble in football) that Lyon committed in trying to get 59,000 fans from the city to their seats in the suburban stadium. The experience started with an impenetrable on-line explanation of pre-game bus ticket sales which some followed to completion, and many did not.
After the crush of a frightening tram ride (we were so close I was concerned that I’d be wearing someone else’s underwear by the time I got off), we arrived at clown car central where inadequate planning, buses, and personnel ensured no one would be happy. Those who had not bought bus tickets were mad that they had been expected to and those who had bought bus tickets were mad they didn’t have enough staff to check them before boarding the buses.
But we did get on a bus, and we did get to the stadium, and we did get to the one entrance that was open to enter. Wait a second. 59,000 people and one entrance?
Little known fact. No Frenchman has ever successfully obtained a degree in logistics.
Once we cleared security (picture D-Day), we joined the hundreds of people fighting to get a beer from the overrun outdoor vendors, only to carry our beers into the stadium where there were dozens of vendors with better beer, decent food, and NO LINES.
Did I mention that logistics thing?
But, as my blog readers know, we always Ride to the Sunshine, and the stadium experience was “brilliant” as my British friends would say. Our seats were 10 rows from the field, comfortable with a good contingent of Welsh fans all around. The mood was giddy anticipation, and I was tingling from the get-go. I had sprung for a Peacock TV subscription and had been following the team throughout the tournament. I was now looking at those very players right in front of me and couldn’t quite believe it.
I was especially happy to see Hayden so pumped. She had done this trip for me and my bucket dreams, but she had been bitten by the bug and was sharing every joyful moment as well. We were dressed in the kit, wearing the silly hats, waving the Welsh flag and having so very much fun.
And then I heard the music lead-in to the Welsh National Anthem. As I stood up to sing, I thought of my grandfather who had crossed an ocean to spread the Gospel, my dad who loved Wales from afar but had never seen the land of our fathers, and cousin Graham who had first taken me to the pitch but whose infirmities had him in hospital. I was going to sing for all of them.
Working with my stumbling Welsh, I belted it out as best I could. That was the moment that I had been waiting for. The match would be icing on the cake but singing with 25,000 Welsh fans including Hayden and our good friends who had gotten us there was the real manna of my night.
Inspired by the sound of my voice, the Dragons scored in the first two minutes of the match and never looked back. They were bested by a couple of Aussie penalty kicks, but those 6 points was all the Australians scored for the 80-minute match.
Wales 40 Australia 6
Another scrum to get out...but nothing could douse the joy. What a trip. What a night. What an opportunity.
“And we were singing hymns and arias,
‘Land of my Fathers,’ ‘Ar hyd y nos’” *
* The chorus of a favorite Welsh rugby anthem written by the incomparable Max Boyce