I blame it all on Calon Lân. Two weeks ago, 2 pm Saturday, I was all ready to go I just needed my outside shoes on, and I would be here, Sedgley Park v Chester.
I still had the TV on and, at that very moment, the band in Cardiff struck up Calon Lân, and I had a startling vision from the past. I saw Barry John, in grainy black and white. The ball had gone loose behind the Wales backline, but he scooped it up before floating and ghosting past white-shirted defenders, one, two, three, four, to score a try of unbelievable brilliance.
You would have to be of a certain age to know just how bad England were in those days. The Welsh game was always the Five Nations opener, and it was the kiss of death to be selected, because ten of the team would inevitably be dropped following the ritual humiliation. The Welsh would beat us up in the first half, run us ragged in the second, and their supporters would gloat for twelve months until the whole sorry scene was repeated next season.
I’m not even Welsh, not the teeniest fraction, but this was lump in the throat stuff, watching that great side. Here at Park Lane (into the 1970s now) we had Leighton Hughes and Dick Hellings, who could be relied upon to put the boot in following England’s annual walloping.
So, as this one tune soared over the stadium and through my speakers, fifty-thousand Welshmen telling us about their pure and honest hearts, I made a very stupid decision. I put my slippers back on and settled down to an afternoon of Six Nations on the box.
What was I thinking of? Wales v Italy, with Dan Biggar at 10? And Sedge v Chester is invariably a good game. Italy 2020 are probably about as good as England 1970, but fifty years from now you won’t hear wrinkled old men telling you that back in their day they saw Dan Biggar play, worthy and skilful though he may be.
I was actually bored within ten minutes as Italy never remotely looked like making a game of it. I suspect shortage of quality players is their problem, the reverse of England’s situation fifty years ago, where the talent was there, but spread thinly amongst perhaps forty first-class clubs. The selectors didn’t know where to start, though a good performance in the Varsity match was often enough to propel one youngster into the team.
The change happened in the late 1970s, when a group of talented northern players came together to defeat the All Blacks’ full-strength XV at Otley. Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley, John Carleton and others were to become household names as Beaumont’s England team won the 1980 Grand Slam. A giant had been awakened.
Like all teams (except the All Blacks) England had their ups and downs in the years that followed, but never again were they abysmal. Will Carling’s side was brilliant, and pretty violent, it must be said, and they were denied the 1991 World Cup only by some dodgy Welsh refereeing (Campese deliberate knock-on, penalty try every day of the week). Martin Johnson’s boys went the whole way in 2003, and the current team is handy, at worst, sensationally good at best.
I enjoy watching Jonny May as much as I ever enjoyed Barry John – more, because he’s English – which is where we came in. Swing low is not quite Calon Lân though, is it?