There was little doubt that the Arm’s Park would be on this list. The shrine of Welsh Rugby over the years and the home of both the Regional side, the Cardiff Blues and Cardiff from the supporting league. Adjacent to the Millennium Stadium (It has a new same but I refuse to use it, Wales is not a Principality) and the River Taff it has been a part of my life for a very long time. The banner picture was the view from my season ticket location in the North Stand on Boxing Day this year, right in the centre, high enough up for a pretty much ideal view of play and (critically) sheltered from the elements; this is, after all, a winter sport. Behind the South Stand opposite is the Millennium Stadium.
But that is a very modern picture, contrast to top left, where we have the stadium more or less the way it looked when I first went there, interestingly not for Rugby but for cricket. In those days international sides used to always play Glamorgan when they were on tour either at the Arms Park or St Helens in Swansea. Both were shared between cricket and rugby and the games were paired in those days via the Gammer Schools in the main. There were a lot of dual internationals and of course, Rugby was strictly Amateur and while Cricket allowed some professionals they were very much looked down on. The old adage that Rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen while soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans very much apples and still does today at least in terms of the spectators as I know to my cost. There were no leagues, clubs arranged fixtures and the most popular were those against English Clubs and we got a massive turnout of home and away supports. In the current set up with the Celtic League away games are in Scotland, Ireland, Italy, and South Africa so most matches are all hot affairs aside from the derby matches. The national team shared a pitch with Cardiff side and there was one covered stand (as you can see) That was gradually extended to surround the ground in a U shape and I saw my first international there when, thanks to a runaway try by Ieuan Evans, against current form Wales defeated England although not by a high margin, that came more recently and you might as well listen to the national anthem being sung, it is always best in the national stadium! We won by 30 points to 3 that day, and on both and many occasions I was there. I also ended up stuck in the lounge at Hamilton Airport with Ieuan and Richie McCraw with a delayed flight which resulted in a memorable conversation. I met with Ieuan again in a hospitality box at the Hong Sevens and on the flight back from Bilbao where the Blues came from behind to beat Gloucester by one point in the European Challenge Cup Final; we have a good record against them in competitions with a devastating 50-12 victory at Twickenham; Huw and I were there. It was also there for the only and only Penalty Shootout in Rugby between ourselves and Leicester where we were cruelly deprived at the last minute.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My first memory is of cricket watching the West Indies at the height of their powers with Viv Richards, Wes Hall, and Gary Sobers. and then Australia both games as three-day matches. I used to get to the ground first thing and settle down with my scorebook with its green packing, perfectly designed to record each ball and then compare my results with those of the official scorers at the end of each day – you got a card with all the details for a token payment at the end of the day. My first rugby match was with my cousin to see Cardiff beat Liverpool, then a first-class team with English international Mike Slemen playing for them. We stood on the terraces as you did in those days and I learned why live performances are always better than on television. We had lived in North Wales since I was five and I went to a soccer school. All the big teams were in the south so I didn’t get a chance. We were taken to Cardiff every summer so a large part of my identity is tied up with that city and Mum saw her self as Cardiff Born and Cardiff Bred all her life. Her Grandfather had been Head Gamekeeper to the Marquis of Bute. He had started work for the Bute in West Wales then came east as he was promoted. I previously posted on the family bible he started. The family stories were all of South Wales and Mum had been a rebel (it runs in the family). we lived in an enclave of exiled South Walians in Mold and the only rugby was on television and then only internationals, but our identity was South not North. I became a lot more passionate about it at University, being Welsh in an English University does that for you and a changed a lot in the process. I remember those first visits to the Arms Park well, both Rugby and Cricket grounds on the banks of the Taff. The North-South divide is a fundamental part of Welsh life, brilliantly summarised in Emyr Humphries The Land of the Living, an “epic sequence of seven novels charting the political and cultural history of twentieth-century Wales”. I am pretty sure Mum identified herself with the heroine.
Everything has now changed. To the left, you can see the picture of how things are today and for the record, I paid for the right to use that from Alamy so don’t go copying it. With the Rugby World Cup coming to Wales in 1999 we needed a new stadium. We also needed a new team but that is a story for another day, the abuse of the team captain by the WRU, the mass move to the heresy of League in the North; it took a long time to recover from that. If the tournament had existed in the 70s we would have won it as we dominated in those days but it wasn’t until 2005 we recovered with a first Grand Slam in a long time and Huw and I were at each match. I got tickets for Wales-England from a scalper and still remember Henson’s long-range kick. We were in the Gods in Paris to see Martin Williams lead a recovery in the second half with the pack producing one of the best defense displays in history on their try line in the final ten minutes, The trip up to Scotland for a game which was settled in our favour well within the first half. Then a family trip to Italy for Rugby and tourism in Rome with the result a forgone conclusion. Just before the final match against Ireland, I decided in invest on Debentures as the latest release came with tickets for the final match and thus settled into what have become very familiar seats over the subsequent years to see the Irish defeated and the heights of Gethin Jenkins charge down of O’Gara’s kick to score the winning try. Middle year opposite Glanville’s Gap four rows up dead centre and behind the goalposts. For Cardiff matches, I’m on the halfway line and they both offer different perspectives. You get to see more tries close up behind the goal post and the three we scored to come from way behind against Scotland a few years later are memorable.
Glanville’s Gap brings be back to the rebuild of the stadium and regrettable to the blight of Welsh life namely politics. My mother always told me to get elected secretary, not chairman as you get to write the minutes, which illustrates the point. We lost around 8,00 seats because the Cardiff Athletic Club who own the Arms Park pitch would not allow a stand to be demolished – something no one understands to this day they would have got a better replacement. Not so long ago frustration caused the board of the club to move to share grounds with the football team. But that didn’t work, there was no atmosphere, it was out of town and no one was happy. After a few years, they moved back but the conflict with the Athletic Club continues over redevelopment – critical to put things on a sound financial footing. We do have a relatively new artificial pitch which has reduced the risk of death by drowning in mud and allows for faster more entertaining play. I go down whenever I am in the UK and organise some travel around key matches. That involves 140 miles of a round trip or a train journey if the match is early enough so no one can say I am not dedicated.
My son Huw summed some of this up during one of the bad periods where we were losing too often. He said it is all about loyalty and staying with the club you have grown up, you don’t simply transfer allegiance in order to be associated with success. Huw is pictured left competing the Dorset 7s back in May 2007 when he was still at school. He is third from the left
I thoroughly enjoyed years of standing freezing to death with a bacon buttie on the touchline of Marlborough Rugby Club while he went through the various age groups. He was every Welsh Father’s dream as he started as a fast fly-half with a great sidestep and a will to win but as he grew he ended up a second row. I was playing seven in my day. They teach them well in Rugby, to thank the other team at the end of the match and to respect the referee which the children do better than the parents. Huw was approached by a better club and I encouraged him to move; but he wanted to stay loyal to his mates and on reflection, I think he was in the right.
Rugby and the Arms Park are both sacred and I positioned this in history not from when I first went there but from when I got two season tickets and Huw and I went to most matches thereafter. Sometimes I picked him up from a Motorway junction with his mother dropping him off from school – I would be dashing in from Heathrow. In a rugby match, you sit with the opposition without violence; rugby is family and the Arms Park is, and will always be special.