What a great weekend in Cardiff! The opening game of the 2011 Six Nations was thought to have been watched by more people globally than ever before, the Friday evening kick-off allowing rugby fans in Australia and New Zealand to tune in over their Saturday morning breakfasts.
My first away trip after joining the RFU Council was to Cardiff in 2009 and I was able to make some comparisons with that weekend this time around. As before, the black-tie dinner with the Welsh committee was in a magnificent dining room in Cardiff Castle although this time it was on the Thursday rather than Friday. Perhaps because I have now settled in to the RFU role I was less overawed by the occasion than last time but the Welsh were very friendly and welcoming. The Welsh RFU President Dennis Gethin is an excellent speaker with a dry wit delivered in a slow, deliberate style in a deep and resonant accent.
He pulled RFU Chairman Martyn Thomas’ leg about living in Carmarthenshire and welcomed him ‘home’, but in his after dinner speech there were a couple of hints at why I sensed a warming in the relationship between the two Unions compared to 2009. The first was a welcome to new Chief Executive John Steele and a reference to his predecessor Francis Baron’s habit of checking his Blackberry during formal occasions. This seemed to point to some tensions between Francis and his Welsh counterparts.
The second was in the sincere manner that Dennis congratulated the RFU on being selected to host the 2015 Rugby World Cup and their decision to hold one of the pools and one of the quarter-finals at the Millennium Stadium. This is something he repeated when he spoke at the pre-match lunch and the post-match dinner the next day. The prestige of hosting some of the World Cup games and the income from renting the stadium are clearly very important to the Welsh.
Traditionally, there is singing after the dinner and two years ago the English tried to compete with the Welsh but it was a pretty poor show. Since then however, some of my colleagues have been getting their act together and we combatted ‘Hymns & Arias’ with ‘Blaydon Races’ and never looked back. Overall the Welsh probably shaded the singing by dint of the quality of their voices but the English can be proud of their efforts against a country where bursting into song is second nature.
The next morning dawned with a gale blowing and my hangover was eased by the news from New Zealand where the England 7s team had beaten Wales 33-7 to top their group in the IRB 7s in Wellington, a good omen for the evening game! The later kick-off meant that there was more time than usual to kill which I did by taking a wander around the city and the bay and having a couple of meetings to sort out some bits of RFU business.
The impact of the Friday night game for bars, pubs and restaurants looked to be a negative one. Two years before on the Saturday Cardiff was teeming with red and white shirted supporters having got the morning train into the city. The Friday afternoon was busy but on nothing like the same scale. The majority had to be at work that day and even if they finished early they wouldn’t get to Cardiff much before 6pm.
Time came for us to make the 15-minute walk from the hotel to the stadium for the pre-match lunch. This was a first for me as two years previously I missed out. The arrangements then were such that the Welsh RFU could not accommodate all the the visiting committee and their wives and partners, so as a very junior Council Member I was told on the Saturday morning that I could claim lunch for me and my guest at the hotel on expenses. The Hilton where we were staying is one of the main hospitality venues so was very busy, but the dining room looked like it had a few free tables. We asked about having lunch to find out that it was a buffet only that day and the cost was £70 per head! Expenses or not I was not prepared to pay through the nose so we decided to call room service and settled for steak sandwiches and a bottle of Merlot watching the Irish game in our room.
Anyway, this time around the Welsh had got their act together and we were all invited, although the men were in the Presidents Suite and the women were in the Millennium Suite on the other side of the stadium. However they were entertained with Scott Quinnell, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins joining them! A couple of surprise guests in the Presidents Suite were Ashes hero Alistair Cook and bowler Simon Jones. Cook hails from my part of Essex so I took the chance to have a few words about a couple of people we both knew.
Pre-match formalities over we took our seats just above the players tunnel. The atmosphere was building with a male voice choir singing a Tom Jones medley and everyone joining in. When the anthems were played the passion and intensity with which the Welsh crowd sang Gwlad! was spine-tingling, especially with the roof closed.
Welsh anthem before Wales v England 4 Feb 2011
So to the game. After weathering the initial first 10 minutes England controlled most of the first half, but the second half was unbearably tense at times. They key to the result for me was that while England had a player in the sin-bin they conceded three points and scored three, while Wales had ten unanswered points scored against them while they were a man down. My man of the match was Tom Wood who had a great game at blind side on his debut.
The after-match arrangements were also far better than two years ago. Then, the dinner was in the Hilton with players cordoned off from the rest in a room not really big enough to cope comfortably. This time we remained in the stadium using the President’s Suite and the players mingled with with everyone else. Dennis Gethin congratulated the English on their win and again praised the RFU for hosting the 2015 World Cup. Mike Tindall pointed out that this was the first win for England in Wales since 2003 and with tongue firmly in cheek wondered therefore if he should have been made captain sooner!
We left the stadium at about 11:30pm and although there were plenty of supporters in the pubs, there were far fewer than for a Saturday afternoon game and they were outnumbered by the hordes of teenagers and twenty-somethings queuing to get into the various bars and nightclubs. I have to say that I am pleased that the Six Nations committee has decided to hold off on any more Friday night games for at least two seasons.
So to the Twickenham for the first of three home games in a row and a chance to take another step towards a Grand Slam in World Cup year.