Wales as Favourites? Not for the lad of 1998.
Probably too bleak a title to lead into tomorrow’s match in Twickenham. Wales are very much the favourites, even if the majority of us Welsh fans don’t cope well with such suggestions. On form, on talent and on experience Wales stand, on paper at least, a year or two ahead of the current English team, and were the game to be played in Cardiff, any sense of doubt might be laughed out of the room. And yet…and yet, there are those of us who are scarred, tortured even by the memories of our past, of games lost, of dreams crushed, of humiliations endured time and again. You see good reader, I was there in 1998.
Now many Welsh fans will probably either be of an age where that date is too long gone to earn a place in the memory banks, or too painful for those who saw it to be discussed in the light of day. But for a young lad, travelling to his first away game in Twickenham, following his beloved Wales into the belly of the beast, 1998 left an indelible mark on that fragile memory. On that day, Wales were certainly no favourites, indeed Wales in those days was the team that pretty much everyone in the then 5Nations expected to beat – but no one, not even those oh so jolly English men, could have imagined what would happen. We need not dwell on the details, but the result, Wales 26…England 60.
Suffice to say, it was a long afternoon for the corner of Welsh fans, shoved into the upper levels of the home of English rugby, to endure. Try after cursed try was planted with increased ease over the Welsh try line, the jeers of the home fans, frustrated by the standard of opposition offered by Wales on the day, rang down on player and red clad fan alike. We all carried our share of shame that day – how could that which stood to represent our beloved nation prove so ineffective and impotent in the face of the enemy that should have brought out the best in them.
Some memories die hard, so you will forgive me, I hope, if the concept of Wales travelling to Twickenham as match favourites is something that proves a little challenging to accept – 1998 has never truly been forgotten or forgiven.
Yet, destiny brings us once again to Twickenham, a return to the venue of that darkest of days. Fate sees fit to point towards Wales and say ‘you chosen XV, you are the favourites for this occasion – you must now deliver’ – and those nervous many in Wales line up to shudder and crouch, whispering to each other while rocking back and forth ‘no, no, not favourites, can’t be favourite, lose if favourites…’ we are a troubled bunch when it comes to our rugby. Even when the rugby world recognises us as the most likely team to take a result, we are still the ones to hold back and say ‘no’. Well, please don’t blame us, 1998 and many such occasions have left their mark.
So, Wales travel east, and with them they go the troubled memories of a 14 year old lad – in the hope not just of a win, but also with a prayer, that those memories might once and for all be banished. Do it for Wales, but do it for the mental well being of that 14 year old, locked in the mind of a man much older now, but still haunted by the terrifying sight he saw on the Twickenham field all those years ago.
Come on Cymru, please Cymru, pretty please, let that lad get some restful sleep, when in the future thoughts once again turn to that Twickenham game…