I’m not sure if what we’ve just seen in Welsh rugby happens anywhere else in the world, but credit where credit is 100 per cent due.
The bank holiday Monday just gone marked the end of a wonderful 10-day rugby carnival, which saw more than 2,500 community players get the chance to shine at the Principality Stadium, widely regarded as the greatest rugby ground on the planet.
Officially called ‘Road to the Principality 2022’, the WRU-organised festival was the culmination of various national competitions for schools, colleges, clubs and diverse teams throughout Wales. I’m told more than 30,000 people attended, so that would suggest grassroots rugby is well supported.
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It involved everything from rugby tots, under-eights and differing age groups, through to the semi-pro Welsh Premiership Cup Final which saw Newport overcome a spirited Aberavon 25-21.
Senior Welsh Cup finals have historically been played on the biggest stage. Crikey, I still remember refereeing the 2006 game between Neath and Pontypridd, when a young fly-half with bewitching talent burst onto the scene, scoring a try and kicking his goals so expertly.
His name was James Hook. A star had emerged. Just six months on, Hooky was back at the then Millennium Stadium – this time making his Wales home debut in front of a capacity crowd as he was named man of the match against Australia. A few months further on again, he went through the entire scoring card with 22 points – try, penalties, drop goal, conversion – and won man of the match once more as Wales beat England.
Hooky probably remembers that final I talk of as much for the yellow card I gave him as anything else! Well, he did take out Ponty’s scrum-half Gareth Jones with what in my view was a cynical foul, most unlike him, in fact. That, and the fact that Neath had victory snatched away from them with 84 minutes and 41 seconds showing on the clock, when Ponty kicked the match-winning penalty.
But he is a perfect example of how dreams are made when you first start in the community game with your local club and that was even more apparent for me with this truly magnificent carnival of Welsh rugby we’ve just witnessed. When these youngsters first started these competitions much earlier in the season, the end goal was the opportunity to play at the Principality Stadium, where they have so often seen their rugby idols like Shane Williams, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, or whoever, light up the venue with Wales.
It’s not just about the privileged few who actually got to play on the turf, though. I was at the stadium on the first Sunday, doing some promotional work for Principality, and was chatting to some youngsters from Bedwas who were watching their team play Trebanos in the Championship Plate final.
They told me that two of them had never been to the stadium before, so this was an opportunity to go there for the first time and support their local club. The smiles on their faces said everything to me about how much they enjoyed it. I’ve no doubts they were thinking if they thought that was special, just imagine what it would be like coming back to watch Wales play here.
These are the fans of the future Welsh rugby has just tapped into.
Their opponents, Trebanos, had 14 buses bringing people to Cardiff for the game. This is the village club that produced Tipuric, as well as fellow Lions star Robert Jones and Bleddyn Bowen, Wales captain when they won the Triple Crown in such thrilling style back in 1988.
It was fabulous to see that rich rugby pedigree carrying on with almost the whole Trebanos community descending upon the Principality Stadium to cheer on their team. And this applied across so many of the various finals we saw over the 10-day period.
This is why I have previously stated that for me, the community game is the most important part of Welsh rugby. You have a special affinity with your local team, it draws you into the sport, whether as a player or spectator. This is where the dreams first start and that should never be forgotten.
It has to run in tandem with the professional game, of course it does. The youngsters need to see successful regions and a good Wales team to get their enthusiasm in the first place, and the regions and national side need those youngsters taking an interest in the game in order for it to thrive for the future. One needs the other.
I was fortunate enough to referee a World Cup final, but my first rugby memories were of watching my cousin Phili Owens playing for Tumble back in the 1980s. My early rugby idols were people like him and others like the legendary Tonto (Robert Roberts) and Peris Williams who were playing for the local club, it encouraged me to get involved, albeit in a different capacity. As I say, this is where everything begins and the WRU deserve enormous credit for enabling those dreams of appearing at the Principality Stadium to come true.
Not just for the players, but the supporters and indeed the referees as well. You can’t start at the top. You have to start in grassroots.
I used to referee seven to eight community games a week when I was younger, even as a World Cup final ref I would still take opportunities to put something back into Welsh rugby by doing those kind of matches when the opportunity arose.
But another great thing about the festival just gone is that the WRU didn’t appoint people like myself, or referees doing United Rugby Championship and international fixtures. They stuck by the very same officials who, like the players, were involved in these community games from the start earlier in the season.
That’s a deserved reward in its own right. Always remember you cannot have matches, at whatever level, without a referee volunteering to give up his or her time. Sometimes it can be a thankless task, a back field somewhere in the rain and mud on a horrible Sunday morning. Trust me, you get more abuse from the sidelines in those sort of games than I would receive refereeing an England versus Scotland Calcutta Cup game, for instance.
But it is your involvement which enables those youngsters to actually play the game and as such it was only right and proper the referees, and those close to them, were also able to sample the wow factor of the Principality Stadium as reward for their efforts over the years.
Those officials did a great job too because some of the finals were brilliant spectacles. The standard of rugby on show, individual skills and team efforts sometimes matched what I see at professional level when it comes to excitement. Some professional games end up disappointing, if we’re honest. None of these community games did.
One of the best was the National Youth Cup Final between Builth Wells and Bridgend Athletic. Builth won 44-17 and produced some brilliant rugby that made your jaw drop at times. There was some celebration in the town that night, I’m told, and rightly so too.
This is what happens in the community game. You celebrate together, you commiserate together when losing. But you’re always proud of your involvement If you don’t get to see rugby at that level, take a chance to do so, every so often. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the rugby on show and the enthusiasm shown by everyone.
The WRU tapped into that with their festival. There was a lot of hard work involved, it took a fair bit of organising, but from what I saw, and the feedback I received about other days, it was a roaring success. The union will obviously evaluate, assess, and tinker where necessary, but I strongly suspect this will be repeated next year. And the year after. And the year after that.
Rightly so, too. Welsh rugby at its best isn’t just about Wales beating England in the Six Nations – it is about the very fabric of our game, too.