Welsh moods, particularly those related to rugby, are rarely understated. The dial is wont to shift from euphoria to gloom – or vice versa – with few intermediate stops. For seven months it has been stuck at euphoria, the afterglow of last season’s Six Nations grand slam still overriding all other factors. The failure of the British Lions in New Zealand, under other circumstances a potential dampener, has been blamed on Sir Clive Woodward, with the personal successes of Ryan Jones, Dwayne Peel, Gareth Thomas and Gethin Jenkins outweighing overall disappointment.
Now, though, comes the Heineken European Cup. Little proves the success of this competition – still only 10 years old but as integral to the northern hemisphere season as the Six Nations championship – more than its popularity in Wales, since in terms of results it has been an unfailing depressor of national spirits. Never more so than last year, when for the first time no Welsh team reached the play-offs.
This season’s final will be in Wales, at the Millennium Stadium on May 20. First minister Rhodri Morgan’s publicly expressed hope, in an ebullient contribution to last week’s competition launch in Cardiff, that two Welsh teams will contest the final, might be seen as reflecting the national mood. But mildly bantering partisanship is routine for the launch – echoing improbable Scottish aspirations last year – and Morgan, a genuine rugby fan, knows much better. To get even one team as far as the semi-finals would exceed expectation.
The underlying reality is that failure has been masked for several years by the efforts of Llanelli. No other Welsh team has reached the play-offs since 2001 and only one other – the short-lived Celtic Warriors, whose reward was to be executed by the Welsh Rugby Union for being politically and financially inconvenient – has even managed to win more than three out of six matches in a pool stage. Furthermore, no other Welsh team has won a play-off since 1997.
When Llanelli’s run of seven quarter-final places in eight seasons ended, none of the other Welsh regions was capable of stepping up.
This year, experience-based pessimism is compounded by a brutal draw. Celtic League champions Ospreys, struggling this year in any case, have reason to curse the less structured draws introduced in the past two seasons. Previously the prizes for their title would have included a seeding that kept them away from the strongest French and English teams.
Instead their lot is to be confronted by Stade Français, who visit the newly named Liberty Stadium in Swansea tomorrow, Leicester and Clermont (formerly Montferrand).
Llanelli look better than last season and are the one Welsh team likely to make the semi-finals of the new Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup, where results have split
50-50. But they kick off away against mighty Toulouse today and must also play English champions Wasps – even ostensible pool makeweights Edinburgh have already won at Stradey Park this year.
Newport-Gwent Dragons start with a tough trip to France to play Castres, and must also confront Munster and Sale, leaders of the Celtic and English leagues respectively.
All of which leaves most Welsh observers clutching at the somewhat flimsy straw offered by Cardiff Blues. The comparative ease of a group including English strugglers Leeds and Italy’s second force Calvisano must however be weighed against Perpignan, who stand second in the formidable French championship, and Cardiff’s record of three wins in their last 19 Heineken ties.
The Dragons showed the Welsh regions at their best and worst in the Powergen, destroying Leicester with some dazzling wet-weather rugby, then subsiding feebly a week later at Northampton.
Their coach Paul Turner says: “We can get up for one match, but find it difficult to do it for two or three in a row. One reason for that is that while we have talented players, we don’t yet have the depth that the English and in particular the French clubs have got.”
Those views are echoed by Gareth Jenkins, as Llanelli coach the one Welshman with a serious Heineken track record. He ruefully contemplates that vicious draw and counsels patience – not always a Welsh attribute.
“We have to accept that the next couple of years will be very tough,” he says. “There’s a great deal of investment at academy level which will make a huge difference, but it won’t happen immediately.”
Patience, though, may just be forthcoming in a public whose fears that Welsh rugby was in unstoppable terminal decline have been stilled to a great extent during the past year.