- By Adam Julian on tour.
Get to Cardiff. It’s simple for a Kiwi rugby tragic travelling around the UK for the first time. Wales are playing Ireland on Saturday to win the Grand Slam.
Get to Cardiff. My notorious inability to plan ahead hurts. A search for accommodation on Hostel World reveals the only room left in the city is a single bunk in a female dormitory of a dozen. It costs 65 pounds.
Now in this age of gender flexibility, and with my long blonde hair, perhaps I could stick a pair of tennis balls underneath my shirt?
Get to Cardiff.
Airbnb is an extortion racquet for this oil rag tourist.
Rhondda Cynon Taff. A room suddenly surfaces for 17 pounds.
Taff? It’s hardly a Lonely Planet destination. In fact it’s bloody grim.
This is the valleys – dark, green, tough terrain, but the people are honest, resolute and warm. My host immediately brightens the gloom with a home cooked stew. She runs her own charity, housing ex-offenders and displaced veterans. Twice she has done time herself for drug smuggling and a drink driving accident.
When the mines closed, imported German coal cost twice as much as the local product had. Narcotics, especially heroin, became the go to for many strugglers. Livelihoods were ruined, but rugby remained a galvanising force.
Two rusty, smelly, crammed carriages screech slowly out of Trehafod station. “Why are their only two carriages?” I inquire. “It’s always like that,” a local passenger responds.
Immediately my unique accent is queried. New Zealander? Experiences are shared by those who attended the 2017 Lions tour.
At Pontypridd I’m compressed against a tall, bearded gentleman.
“What’s your name mate?” I ask.
“Tony,” he answers.
“What’s your involvement with rugby?”
“My son Cory plays for Wales. He scored the winning try against England.”
“What? The famous one that lasted 35 phases and everyone in the team touched the ball?”
“Yeah he injured himself while doing it, so he’s not playing today, but Cory has scored three tries in 24 tests, all of them in the same corner. We always sit in that corner.”
Without a ticket to the game the Old Arcade is the ticket. It’s been there since 1881, a year before Wales actually played Ireland in an international. It’s Barry John’s local. The place reeks of rugby.
How do I get a drink?
“Excuse me,” “sorry,” bump, nudge, wink.
The counter is horseshoe shaped and risen on a slight podium. My instincts tell me to head to the corner closest to the visible kitchen out back. There will be less foot traffic in that direction and its close to a bin, coat stand and, most importantly, Brains. The beer here is named after the most vital thinking organ.
The view of the screen is adequate, though sometimes one has to emulate Owen Farrell taking a kick to avoid the back of someone’s head.
There’s still an hour before kick-off.
It doesn’t take long to meet a Jones, but a squat figure with broad shoulders and dark skin becomes my chief companion. I affectionately nickname Mark ‘the Welsh Chester Williams.’. His aptitude to swiftly refuel is quicker than his actual movements, but his local knowledge proves invaluable.
“Don’t move. I always watch the game in this spot.”
A man with tattoos covering both arms and wearing a Welsh jersey the size of king sized duvet glances suspiciously in my direction Whose this charlatan, gravy training the All Blacks and barricading this spot? You don’t just rock up to Cardiff and occupy this space.
The perfect start for Wales. Hadleigh Parkes scores a try in the first minute. How apt number 12 delivers the opening punch. Wales are seeking Grand Slam number 12. The omens are good.
Gasp. George North and Alun Wyn Jones hit the ground injured. Wyn Jones hobbles back to his feet and the crowd roars. The Welsh pack inspired by their battered leader are relentless. By halftime its 16-0 – the same score Wales was down by in its opening Six Nations match.
The continued industry of the Welsh pack is only matched by the dynamic bar staff. One man who resembles an electrocuted parking warden is an absolute trojan. He mazes through the crowd with the agility of Shane Williams to keep us all lubricated.
A tremor in the crowd sees me impeded by a vivid cauliflower ear.
“Gee that’s a great cauliflower ear,” I quip.
The Irishman doesn’t hear me initially before wriggling a few degrees to employ his opposite.
“That’s a great cauliflower ear.”
The Irishman explains it’s actually a birth defect. He’s sweet in forgiving my innocent presumption. It’s been a rough day for Ireland. With two minutes remaining it’s 25-0 to Wales.
The real party is about to start. The bartenders swing into action by emptying multiple bins simultaneously. It’s like a formula one pit stop and today Wales are driving a Ferrari.
Song, analysis, gibberish – or should I say Cibberish? Wales are champions and even the respect of the stone glare man is earned over a bitter.
Meanwhile England are smashing Scotland. Is this a major World Cup statement? It’s blissfully irrelevant until Scotland surges: 31-0 becomes 31-14, then 31-19. This can’t be happening? A series of Rod Stewart’s greatest hits echo loudly around the bar as fellow Celtic’s urge the Scots on. With four minutes left Sam Johnson dashes clear and Scotland leads. A true miracle is on. England’s George Ford ruins that, but a draw at least retains the Calcutta Cup for Scotland.
“What a beautiful day Mark. England didn’t win and Wales won the Grand Slam with all the points scored by Kiwis.” I chuckle.
Gareth Anscombe had kicked 20 points to go along with Parkes’ try.
“You’re one of us now,” Mark acclaims, locking his sturdy arm around my shoulder.
More beer, no care, Tom Jones.
The morning after, argh.
Back at Trehafod a young pencil shaped bloke with soaking wet track paints, unkempt facial hair and a forlorn disposition asks if he can borrow my phone.
He’s been walking for six hours and could walk for two more, but figures he can spare the legs a bit by using his only remaining money to get to the next stop and hopefully be intercepted by his mum while there.
Asking why he’d been walking that long led to the following exchange.
“My girlfriend threw me out.”
“On the day Wales won the Grand Slam?”
“I don’t mean to be funny, but it’s properly not meant to be.”
“Ah you’re properly right.”