So there it was, Cardiff, capital city of the Land of my Fathers. The afternoon of Saturday March 15th was chilly; rain bucketing down; all streets leading to Mecca, the Millennium Stadium closed to traffic to allow the thousands of brightly bedecked Welsh and French rugby supporters, clutching precious tickets, to make their way down Westgate Street to the huge stadium’s entrance knowing that today sporting history would be made.
The rugby international crowd is good-humoured non-aggressive and happy and never more so than when France plays Wales. On the long walk down Cathedral Road to the bridge crossing the River Taff, pavements were crowded and colourful with tricolours and dragons.
François Raquin from Paris, was on his third visit to Cardiff, a beautiful city he says, and the special relationship between the two countries is ‘bien marquée’ , win or lose, besides said François, the Gallois were such convivial people. Fellow supporter, Yves Ranoud is a Breton and with the common anthem ‘Land of my Fathers‘ plus the similarity of language, Yves said he was probably a ‘moitié-moitié’ supporter.
Living half the year in St Paul de Vence, David Widdowson, a Welsh lawyer, knows rugby from the pitch upwards. Apart from a natural solidarity of Celts, rugby in France as in Wales, says David, is a game rooted in ordinary communities, as opposed to England where the game is class-based. And let’s not forget it was a Welshman who first brought the game to France!
The stadium was packed with seventy-six thousand people and must be the only one in the world where hymn sheets, in the form of booklets, are handed out with words of hymns and songs in Welsh and English. The choir, brass band and the crowd with traditional harmony belted out old favourites, like ‘Bread of Heaven’ and ‘Sospan Fach’. Finally with tension mounting, the Marseillaise was followed by the most spine tingling rendition of ‘Mae hen wlad fy’nhadau’ (Land of my fathers) I have ever been part of.
Throughout the match the Welsh supporters willed their team to victory, with appropriate bursts of well-modulated and heartfelt renditions of ’Bread of Heaven’ to accompany clever tactics, and imminent danger.
With the final whistle and the ‘Grand Slam’ well and truly in the bag, the fact the roof remained in place remains a triumph of architecture.
After the match I spoke to rugby playing Jean-Claude from La Rochelle, who seemed unphased that his team had lost, for a number of reasons. There was always a great welcome in Cardiff for France - that special relationship again, he was always completely knocked out by the atmosphere in the stadium because, he said, you would not find that anywhere in France , not even in Parc des Princes in Paris and what was more, he grinned, he was looking forward to a long festive night. I‘m sure he had one.
Wales is a small nation of under 3 million people, a third of the population of London. Historically and industrially we have been bled dry by our English masters who capitalised on the coal, the iron and the steel. The valleys may be green again but unemployment is high. Therefore our identity has to be recognised in other ways.
What better than Rugby Football. We knew we could win the Grand Slam on points but, far better, we pulled off an honourable and well deserved victory.
Elizabeth Morgan © 2008
Photos courtesy of French News and Elizabeth Morgan.