A Day in Cardiff: Wales v Barbarians Review

International rugby made its now regular June return to the capital yesterday, as Wales entertained the Barbarians rugby team for the 130th anniversary of the Welsh Rugby Union. These games have increasingly taken on a certain sense of tokenism, one final flog of the players, and a final drain of fans loyalty and finances, before calling quits to the near never ending season. The attendance of just over 30,000 people for yesterdays game, well below half capacity, surely indicates this point, after autumn internationals, Six Nations internationals, coupled with a fairly unsuccessful product, the Welsh Rugby supporters club just doesn’t have the legs for these fixtures anymore (certainly not at current prices).

Having said that, the Barbarians game proved to be one of the most pleasant rugby international experiences for a very long time. Crowds in excess of 70,000 can be suffocating occasions, bodies crammed into car parks, streets, pubs and stadiums, little room to breathe, and a constant jostling, means match day in Cardiff can leave you drained, exhausted, and often in no rush to repeat the experiences anytime soon again. On Saturday however, there was no rush, no squeeze. A light meal could be collected from even the most popular restaurants, a beer could be purchased without queuing for ten minutes, and no crush at the gates meant there was no last minute dash into the ground. It might not have carried the sense of occasion, or the burning energy that can be found on a winner-takes-all match at the end of the Six Nations, but then does it need that to be enjoyable? Maybe age, or a sense of apathy is creeping in, but on a personal level, although the crowd was quiet, the whole day was enjoyable, and too often I feel, a ‘proper’ international day has become a task, something that has to be done in a certain way, to a certain schedule, for a certain cost. None of those pressures were there yesterday, and the entire experience was better for it.

The game itself was very much a Barbarians affair. Not a lot of thought on display, but plenty of entertainment. Lessons were there to be taken by the Welsh management as well. The first ten minutes were a bleak affair, and hearts must have begun to sink as scrums were re-set over and again – this was not the stuff of the 1970s. But therein lay lesson No1. The veteran Iestyn Thomas must join the Wales squad. He systematically embarrassed the offerings of the youngsters put in front of him. How his name has not been added to the World Cup training squad is a farce, and one wonders whether Gatland was watching the front rows.

While the front five failed to inspire, the backs, certainly towards the end of the game, lit up the occasion. There should be little question about Henson now, the man offers nothing. His audacious forward pass to ‘create’ the first Welsh score, was about as good as it got, and his repeated embarrassment at the hands of the Barbarian centres should act as a massive warning sign should he serve as any line of defence against Samoa or Fiji in the World Cup. But the real sign of Henson’s problem was the emergence of Scott Williams. The Scarlet centre from nowhere, split the defence open time and again, and offered a go-forward not evident beforehand. A first cap debutant, with 10 minutes to show his worth, did more than Henson achieved in the entirety of his time on the field. The bench as a whole should be a beacon of hope for the future of Wales. Maybe not so much for the World Cup, but the back line which ended the game, looking so dangerous and pace filled, was led by Jonathan Davies (in terms of experience) winning only his 12th cap, and stand as real hope going beyond New Zealand. Henson, an experienced championship winner, offered nothing, the youngsters offered so much more – the question marks over his Wales future should end here.

And while Wales lost in a dramatic finale (experience playing its part here from the Welsh defence), on the whole the match can be taken as a positive. Morgan Stoddard for instance, probable played his best game in a Welsh shirt, and actually offers Byrne some competition now, while the backrow, perhaps not as polished as we would like, continue to show great potential. If young Toby Faletau looks up and passes a little more often, the threat from No8 could be huge.

A promising performance then, and with Stephen Jones entering the 100 club, an occasion in its own right was marked before a ball was kicked. Afterwards, Cardiff was busy not crowded, underwhelmed but not dismayed, entertained if not overjoyed. It was in all senses a relaxed day, not too much to get excited about, but enough to say that a good day had been had by all, and no headaches this morning mean that although a defeat was inflicted, the supporters won’t be suffering for it too much today.

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