Wednesday, 10 June 2009

In praise of Haydn

Haydn Tanner died on 5th June. He was one of the more legendary of the apostolic succession of great Welsh half-backs. Contemporaries such as Wilf Wooller, Bleddyn Williams and JBG Thomas reckoned him the best Welsh scrum-half ever. Apparently he could reverse pass across half the width of the field with unerring accuracy and often scored from the couple of breaks he allowed himself in a game.

His career began in 1935 in Boy's Own fashion. He was selected to play for Swansea against the mighty All Blacks whilst still at school. His fellow schoolboy and cousin Willie Davies played fly-half. As the losing captain said following the decisive 11-3 defeat: 'Tell them we have been beaten but don't tell them it was by a couple of schoolboys'.

The two lads, indeed, were reckoned to have masterminded the famous victory and Tanner received his reward by being capped by Wales to face the same All Blacks later that year. Just eighteen years old, he now helped Wales to victory, for the first time since 1905 and for what turned out to be only the third time ever. He went on to play twenty-five times for Wales over fifteen years, twelve as captain.

Wales reveres its diminutive, will-o'-the-wisp half-backs (outside-halfs the most) and the more boyish the better. Seeing crafty, plucky little fellers run rings around the powerful but oafish obviously tickles historic memories, or at least fulfills a wish or two. Tanner fitted the bill in every respect.

I remember reading a while ago that the Welsh name Haydn actually came from the composer. Aspirational Welsh parents adopted it as a way of celebrating their love of his music and, no doubt, to show off the sophistication of their cultural references. This is not entirely true: Haydn is related to the Celtic name Aidan, meaning - very appositely in Tanner's case - 'little fire'. But it could be a respectful name-check of the composer too.

Haydn wasn't the only composer to inspire boy's first names. Funnily enough, whilst Haydn was playing for Swansea, a Handel Greville was playing scrum-half for local arch-rivals Llanelli. In fact, in 1947 when Haydn was injured and unable to play for Wales, Handel filled in for him. I don't know enough about classical music to say whether this pecking order would be supported by the critics.

Sports stars named after classical composers! How far we seem to have fallen. From Haydn and Handel to Armani and Lexus (both genuine contemporary 'aspirational' children's names).

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