Orly Airport, Paris, January 1975. The winter afternoon is ripped open by repeated bursts from machine pistols. Travelers hurl themselves to cover as Black September terrorists spray the departures building. Then, in the first moment of silence, comes a passionate appeal in a high-pitched Celtic singsong. "Boys, boys," it pleads, "it was only a game, remember?"
The attack happened to coincide with the departure of a number of charter flights carrying thousands of Welsh rugby fans home after a game at Pare des Princes Stadium in which France had been defeated 25-10, and that heartfelt cry revealed much about the nature of the game as played and appreciated in Wales. First, note the arrogance. Whatever appalling troubles racked the world, it did not occur to the fan that there could have been any other cause for the outrage than French chagrin at losing the international game. Next, only the most dire and immediate peril could have wrung from a Welshman such an admission, and no doubt he retracted it as soon as the danger was past. In Wales, rugby is not a game; it is an expression of denied nationhood and a religion with a grasp on the country far stronger now than that of its declining Baptist and Presbyterian chapels.
In religious terms, 1976 has brought Wales to the Promised Land, with the successive annihilation of teams from Australia (28-3), England (21-9), Scotland (28-6) and Ireland (34-9), and a final, narrower 19-13 win over France to take the international championship and the Grand Slam—not for the first time, but never so comprehensively and with so many points scored, a world record. As in medieval Europe, holy relics are available to the righteous. In March, after the final game, the bloodstained shirt of John Williams, arguably the hardest defenseman in world rugby, was put up for auction. Williams has not yet quite achieved the kind of canonization that caused Barry John, probably the finest player of this century, to retire from the game in 1972 at the age of 27. Not only were Welshwomen curtsying to Barry John in public, but mothers were bringing children to touch his sleeve. King John the papers used to call him, but it was more like Saint John in the end, and he couldn't take it.
Welsh rugby has always been strong, but it is impossible to match the present revival, which began in 1971 when a team called the British Lions, composed of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh players, went to New Zealand and won a series against the national team. Until then, the New Zealanders had been regarded as the world champions. Significantly, two thirds of the "British" team was Welsh. In 1974 the other great power in world rugby, South Africa, was visited by the Lions, again a Wales-dominated team. The South Africans lost 21 games out of 22, managing to tie the last.
There are some curious theories to account for the fact that Wales produces fine rugby players out of all proportion to its tiny population of two million. In rugby terms, the populace is about half that, since the game is mostly played along a coastal strip less than 60 miles long, corresponding roughly to the South Wales coalfield. And one of these theories concerns the coalfield itself.
By evolutionary process, the theory runs, three centuries of hacking out coal in cramped galleries underground have produced a physique perfectly adapted to the two key halfback positions on a rugby team: a broad, muscular torso and short, strong legs. The halfbacks make a link between the eight forwards and the center backs and wingmen. The important skills of the halfbacks are twofold. The inside half, in particular, has to throw a very fast, low-trajectory pass to his outhalf the second the ball is delivered to him by his sweating, mauling forwards. To gain momentum, he will often hurl himself with the ball and will be parallel to the ground before releasing it. And for this the miner's low center of gravity is perfect, as it is for the second basic skill—the jinking run that is an alternative to the pass and also the most formidable attribute of the outside half.
Devout Welshmen believe that no other nation can possibly produce halfbacks to match the Welsh, though they will concede that the French occasionally come close. The English, presumably because of original sin, never can. To tease them, Max Boyce, a Welsh subculture hero and ex-miner who sings country-style songs, invented the Outside-Half Mine, which, he claims, is run under maximum security in a remote West Wales valley:
It's built beneath the mountain,
Beneath the coal and clay.
It's where we make the outside halves
Who'll play for Wales one day.
No naked lights or matches where the raw material's found In that four-foot seam of outside halves
Two miles below the ground....*
Boyce, who appears on stage in the de rigueur uniform of a Welsh rugby fan—long knitted red-and-white scarf, woolly cap to match and an outsize leek, the national symbol, pinned to his coat—came by an honor recently that genuinely meant more to him than any success in the theater. Spontaneously, during the Ireland game at Cardiff's Arms Park in 1975, as Wales inexorably built the score up to more than 30 points, the crowd began to sing his Hymns and Arias, a song celebrating a win over England some years back.
The singularity of the honor lies in the fact that it is very rare indeed for anything like that to be sung at Arms Park during a game. In the boozy, happy streets of Cardiff, in the pubs before the game, you can sing anything you please, many favoring barbershop renditions of well-matured pop songs like Delilah, or witty parodies like You're 15, You're the Scarlets and You're Mine (a rugby side numbers 15 and Wales wears red jerseys). Or even songs of a more serious nature, like Englishmen Are All Illegitimate. If you are inclined (and many young followers of the game are), you can scramble up onto a bar and do a slow striptease to a clapping, stomping accompaniment until the bartender calls the police. But inside the stadium you sing hymns, as is appropriate in a place of worship.