Wednesday, 20 January 2010

If they're good enough...

A 17-year old and a 19-year old have been selected for the Welsh Six Nation's squad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Tom Prydie nor Kristian Philips have played a full season of top level rugby.

Wales have a habit of giving debuts to teenagers, as previous examples across the ages demonstrate: Willie Davies (18), Haydn Tanner (18), Keith Jarrett (18), Gareth Edwards (19), Dai Young (19), Scott Gibbs (19), Leigh Halfpenny (19). And that's without thinking too hard. And there are dozens and dozens of examples of players who have made their debuts whilst just out of their teens.

I believe Wales is unusual in this. The only country that I can think of that has a similar track record is Australia (at least according to my entirely non-statistical, sort-of-just-what-it-seems-like analysis). It's certainly a different path to that taken by England, where on the rare occasion a youngster is picked, he's usually dropped soon after rather than backed to learn and improve (Danny Cipriani (20), most recently, and before that Matthew Tait (17)).

I suspect there's something of a cultural reason for this willingness to take a risk on youth. Wales is a small nation with a big and powerful neighbour and it's had to rely on cunning and cheek to keep its end up. In such a culture, crafty - not to say cocky - little buggers are highly valued.

Think of Jack's character in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' (right, in Welsh jersey and cap) - he's a plucky and rather irresponsible lad who lives with his Mam but he still manages to outwit and outrun the Ogre (who claims to smell the blood of an Englishman, but never mind about that).
This phenomenon also explains why the Welsh place such emphasis on the fly-half position, often filled by one of the smallest but most influential players on the pitch. The Welsh talk of the classic fly-halfs as being 'wizards' or refer to their 'magic'. I genuinely think this is some sort of cultural relic left over from the legends of Myrddin (Merlin). Magic is a type of craftiness and is also to be relied upon when challenging a more powerful enemy.

The Welsh have turned something of a necessity into a prized virtue. They love expressive and crafty play. And for good reason - it's often been very effective. Here's some footage from the classic 1971 Scotland vs Wales match that I enjoy particularly because it contains some wonderful breaks by the legendary Gareth Edwards and the magical Barry John (who "flits like a little phantom" in the commentary, a reminder of the homely eloquence of the late Bill McLaren):

H/t for the video to the excellent Alex Massie.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Rugby sure is thrilling when there's a but of weaving about. Ah, if only "The Oaks" could recover the spirit of Cardiff Arms Park 1988....

Jackart said...

Don't forget Wilkinson got his debut at 18, and he had a dreadful season (you probably don't remember the 'tour from hell as clearly as an englishman does). It's understandable that a Welshman remembers poor Matthew Tait after the monstering he got from your orange chap.

If they're good enough, they're old enough.

Even though I support England, my money's on the Boyos this year. I can't wait!

worm said...

all credit to Wales for taking risks in this day and age, I have always enjoyed watching them play (they always seem to be most exciting against The Kiwis for some reason, and deathly boring against the english - is it because the english style of play is so boring it simply sucks the life out of anyone who plays against them?)

Brit said...

English rugby is tediously prosaic. There was that little golden patch at the beginning of the noughties when we stuffed everyone by huge margins (2001?)but we soon reverted to type.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: 'Thrilling'? Wow, that means a lot coming from a rugby-sceptic like you. Little Barry John certainly is possessed of magic.

Jackart: Wilko is the exception that proves the rule, I guess. Poor orange Gav. We really miss him and it's one reason I'm cautious about this year. We got one hell of a thumping from the Ozzies and England at Twickers can never be discounted.

Worm: Wales vs Scotland always used to be a cracker, open and high-scoring. But the Jock's sad decline in quality of player has dampened down the fixture in recent years. One of my other favourites is Wales vs France. More skill on show there than anything else in the Northern Hemisphere, I'd say.

Brit: Thank God! Where would we be if teams didn't adhere to their national stereotypes? It was a very unsettling time for all (or nearly all).

Sean said...

Rugby is becoming a butchers back yard and England are suffering the most because of it, even when they are fit they are not fully match fit as they seem to be going from one injury to the next.

The breakdown is where the problem is, I am sure the safas and jafas will block any change.