6 FEBRUARY 1948, Page 11



ONE afternoon last September I regained an old enchantment. For years I had been watching soccer, watching it breathlessly, tensely, passionately ; watching it from corrugated-iron grandstands which rise into the fog from a welter of back-to-back houses ; watching it against a background of slag heaps or of hillsides blistered by chemical fumes.

But that afternoon I was to watch rugger again, to watch the Australian Wallabies open their tour against Devon and Cornwall at Camborne. Camborne is no idle health resort. It is an industrial town where, for centuries, men have worked the great tin mines or made the machinery tin miners need the world over. Yet its granite houses look neat and clean and its narrow streets are unhustled. Ten minutes from the centre of the town are country lanes ; and there, too, is'the rugger ground, with a car park in which you can pick blackberries, and heather-covered moorland rising gently to the horizon. Spectators who came early had queued in the shade of the cupressus trees which line the park leading. into the ground ; but by now they were inside, all fifteen thousand of them, fanning themselves lightly in the stand, or basking, shirt-sleeved, on the open mounds. Small boys, of course, were perched high in the trees, and when one of them was asked who'd told him to get up there, he said: "My father did," and pointed to an elderly, suspender- showing miner floundering about in the lower branches. Here was a crowd, bathing itself in sunshine and in the relaxed, week- end happiness which hard work had earned. Here was the expectancy which comes from green grass and a game about to begin. The streamer in front of the grand-stand which told the Wallabies they were welcome meant exactly what it said.

Each Saturday since then, in sunshine, in rain and in cold, I have watched a rugger match ; and the atmosphere has grown more enchanting every time. Once I went to Herne Hill to see wild and expatriated Irishmen battle with the wild and expatriated Welsh. The Irish said that Herne Hill would be quite a nice place if there weren't so many Welshmen about ; and the Welsh kept asking why Irishmen ever leave their bogs. Nobody that day played very good football ; but they played with all their might. And when late-autumn mist crept across the field, spectators left their seats in the stand to peer from the touch-line at the ghost-like battle before them.

Then there was that day at Blackheath. There was a cup-tie up the road at Charlton, and the buses swept by laden with men in coloured bowler hats, wearing gigantic rosettes and carrying rattles. Their faces looked strained. Would they get to the game in time for the kick-off? Would they get into the ground? Would their team win through to the next round? And while these soccer spectators fussed and fretted, young rugger men who were due to play that afternoon in the Club match of the year cheerfully waited at the end of a piled-up bus queue. Would they be late? What matter? The afternoon was young and matches don't have to begin on time.

Or again at Cambridge. I strolled away from Grange Road with a leisurely, scarf-bound, undergraduate crowd and suddenly found myself in King's. I looked through windows into rooms where young men were making toast. Across the grass was King's Chapel and Evensong. Easy going, peaceful, comradely—the atmosphere round English rugger grounds is all of these things. Yet it cannot equal the en- chantment of rugger in Wales. In Wales? Well, wherever Welshmen are. Last month I saw them come to Twickenham, the most English of all grounds, and inside five minutes their singing had turned it into Wales. Even the slates on the grandstand came out of Blaenau Festiniog and dripped with Welsh mist while seagulls, straight from Cardigan Bay, circled overhead.

What a sight those Welsh crowds are! Years ago men came down to Cardiff from the valleys straight off the morning shift, with their • hands and faces still black with the coal. Nowadays it's Saturdays off, so bring the missus and have a look at the shops. But mind we get to the ground in time to sing. And how they sing ! When Wales played Australia, the crowd sang Cwm Rhondda so fervently that the Wallabies were drawn half-dressed from their changing-room to listen. When the Wallabies at length came on the field, prancing like high-spirited horses in their long, curling, menacing line, the crowd involuntarily broke off in mid-song to admire and then, recovering, threw back the challenge with a deep-throated Land of My Fathers. Throughout that game the Wallabies played, not fifteen, but forty thousand Welshmen.

Last Saturday, the Wallabies came back to'Cardiff, fittingly playing their last match, as they had played their first, in a place where rugger is the game not just of one class but of a whole people. They were not playing a Welsh team that day, only the Barbarians, so at first the Welsh crowd would not sing. They sat or stood in the sunshine, shuffled an inch or two when the police chief, on a loudspeaker, begged them not to block the entrances, laughed good-humouredly when he asked what had happened to their voices and—waited to be entertained. They were just like an English crowd. But just as the Australians were about to kick off, the police chief came on the loud- speaker again. " This is the last time the Wallabies will play in this country," he said. • "Let's show them what a Welsh crowd thinks of them! " Now there have been times during this tour when a Welsh crowd has not thought much of the Australians—and when the Australians have not thought much of a Welsh crowd, for that matter. But the cheers which now poured from 44,000 throats drowned all memory of that and inspired both teams to play the finest game I have ever seen.

The Wallabies will remember many things from this tour. But perhaps their most abiding memory will be of its last ninety seconds. The Barbarians were leading by 9 points to 3. After the breakneck pace, feet felt leaden and lungs tight. The setting sun, reddening the faces of the crowd, showed that the afternoon was all but over. Suddenly the Wallabies rose to a supreme effort and scored a try. Then straight from the kick-off, with every man in that crowd on tiptoe, they swept down on the Barbarians' line again. They were stopped five yards from home, and the two packs, with victory at stake, fought out their last scrum right under the Barbarians' posts. As it happened, the Barbarians won that scrum and, with it, victory. But the ecstasy of the Welsh crowd, which transformed God Save the King into a hymn of almost unbelievable beauty, was inspired, not by victory, but by a superlative demonstration of a game which, better than any people on earth, they love and know.