Dragon rampant

Calon: A Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby, by Owen Sheers, Faber, RRP£14.99, 275 pages

I read this book just days after the death of the great sportswriter Frank Keating, who was the bard of sport as fun and laughter, and wrote with hwyl and empathy about the triumphant Welsh rugby teams of the 1970s.

It was strange to be reading Owen Sheers, another child of the Anglo-Welsh border, while thinking about Frank. For their version of rugby could hardly be more different.

Four decades on, rugby is professional in every sense of the word. But in Wales the game is also the chief expression of nationhood, as is true nowhere else on earth except New Zealand. Sheers – whose successful first novel Resistance centred on a Nazi takeover of a remote Welsh valley – writes particularly well about the patriotic dimension. But I kept imagining how Keating might react: he would probably regard just about everything else in this book as the result of some alien takeover.

Calon is the product of the year Sheers spent as writer-in-residence at the Welsh Rugby Union. A very fortuitous year too, since he can tell the story of Wales’ glorious victory in the Six Nations, complete with Grand Slam, and most particularly the culminating victory over France in Cardiff last March. They will defend their title when this year’s tournament starts on Saturday.

Sporting organisations are not accustomed to appointing writers-in-residence. The fact that it happened suggests that Welsh rugby has not lost all its wit and imagination. Hacks are normally kept at bay by platoons, if not battalions, of PR men and, in British sport, the dressing room is an unbreachable inner sanctum. Sheers was given an unusual degree of access, though the rules of engagement are not made clear – in particular whether there was any form of censorship. There is certainly no breath of criticism.

But he has produced a remarkable insight into the existence of the modern sportsman: “a hard man who leads a soft life”. Sometimes, a rather depressing one. While his contemporaries are becoming ever more independent, “the young rugby professional experiences a contraction”. Sheers conjures up a world of cryotherapy and aspartic acid and beetroot-and-cherry-juice, topped in game weeks with colostrum. And he introduces us to coaches and analysts for whom no detail is too trivial.

Sheers writes with ease and grace, if not much humour, in the long-essay style of the New Yorker. That is 90 per cent compliment, although it does mean that he can also lay on the detail a bit thick. The normal New Yorker trait is to describe people’s footwear as though writing for an issue of Shoe and Leather News. Sheers’ weakness is to keep telling us what players have on their iPods.

The story rattles on very nicely, though – even for readers without any loyalty to Wales or any interest in rugby. This is partly because it’s a great story, and partly because Sheers takes the trouble to talk to people who normally fall below sports writers’ radars. For instance, there are splendid insights into the Millennium Stadium ground staff, devoting extra loving care to the “Bat Cave”, the section of the Cardiff pitch that never sees the sun.

The last chapter, covering the off-season tour of Australia, is an anticlimax, mainly because the results went that way. There is a hint of better-justify-them-flying-me-out-there contractual or moral obligation about this coda, and it would be a stronger book had he finished on the high of the Grand Slam.

That said, Sheers is a considerable talent, and this is a serious contribution to the literature of both Wales and its national sport. It will also help anyone who is keen to improve their knowledge of Welsh in ways not offered by road signs or announcements on Cardiff Central railway station. The title, Calon, means “heart”, and it was written inside the collar of the Welsh home shirts between 2008 and 2010.

The publishers presumably thought that more user-friendly and pronounceable than either the slogan that replaced it, Dal dy Dir (“hold your ground”), or the one used in 2012, Cymeriad (“character”). The teams that Keating loved had lots of calon and cymeriad too, but no beetroot-and-cherry juice.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist

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