The sense of déjå vu was all pervading as I sped through the Rhondda valley towards Penderyn Distillery, a mere screw kick from Neath, home of the Welsh All Blacks and once one of the most feared rugby teams in the country. It was where I learnt my rugby lessons, where top Welsh clubs lay in wait literally around every corner. They had a tribal following and a great sense of team spirit which inspired the Welsh National team’s multi-year triumphs. Much has changed.
Penderyn is home to the only Welsh Whisky distillery in existence, and where they have produced ‘That Try’, a commemorative brand to celebrate the most famous team try of all time by Sir Gareth Edwards in the Barbarians match v the All Blacks in 1973.Those who were part of it have gone down in history, and the Sporting Wine Club felt it was right to diversify a little into spirits to take on this wonderful tipple, hence why we were visiting to take in the story, the history and the ancient art of whisky-making. Also resting there proudly were three miniature bottles for the Welsh Football team named Celt, Myth and Legend which is entirely appropriate as there is real competition in the nation’s heart between the oval and the round ball. What would the football stadia of Europe have made of the Welsh National Anthem being hammered out as if the players lives depended upon it. Forget their glorious failure for a second, this Euro tournament was for them was a triumph of self-belief and team ethic, enhanced by the most articulate football manager in the Northern Hemisphere, Chris Coleman.
Across all sports recently, there has been an outburst of ‘team ethics’ being a decisive factor as though someone has uncorked a new vintage and people cannot get enough or overwhelmed by a first taste. Whether it be Iceland Football, England’s Football and Rugby teams, Andy Murray’s support team, Euro Rugby Champs Saracens, Racing 92’s heroics to win a Top 14 Final one man down for the most part, England cricket’s superman and top team leader Alistair Cook…I could go on but the common objective among the pundits is to root out the reasons behind victory, to look beyond natural sporting ability to something more meaningful.
It is important to differentiate between the team approach in general and one with what I want to call the ‘edge’. It is almost a truism to talk about working as a team whether in sport or a business environment. It first started to be applied in the mid 90’s in a serious way, spawning leadership consultants and companies devoted to the topic.
Comparisons abound -even in individual sports there are teams in the background supporting their front man. Who cannot have noticed Andy Murray engaging emotionally with his off court coaching and mentoring group throughout the Wimbledon final. Contrast this with Marin Cilic who barely looked at his team and he certainly cut a lonely figure, but his cheerful disposition was endearing and after all he is a Grand Slam Champion so I am sure he will be back next time with a team behind him to add an extra element.
In the Euros, when all neutrals threw their weight behind the Wales footballers and their heroics the inevitable counter view was taken of England who once again flattered to deceive. There seemed to be a good young set of ‘hungry’ players as described by Hodgson. But there was no heart and soul, no on-field leaders standing up to be counted and refusing to yield. Meantime the collective and indomitable will of the Icelanders was there for all to see and they are all heroes now back home. What was it in their joint DNA which England could not bottle and use for themselves. Was there a real connection with Hodgson? They had won all their qualifiers and since the World Cup there was some genuine optimism but you couldn’t see any leaders coming through. I hesitate to suggest that the overseas element of the Premier League has stunted the development of home grown players, but we could be forgiven for making the connection.
So to the oval ball success story….England Rugby is surging at last. Another success for the U 20’s in the World Cup, two away wins for the Saxons in SA and Eddie’s men gaining a clean sweep in Australia. Poor timing maybe with a mere four years till Japan, but you can only win your next match. The players have shown real leadership in their behaviour, hard edge and supreme self-confidence. The ripple effect has been massive. Saracens are champions of Europe and England, with Exeter and Wasps chasing hard and Leicester with a new found expansive style. Who knows whether Bath can work a sudden recovery -it will take a huge amount to turn around the momentum. In terms of quality of player, no argument but it takes more than that. However, their Challenge Cup matches against Bristol and Cardiff will be a genuine highlight of next season and a throwback to another heavyweight era of club rugby.
It is informative to compare the current England set up to last year. Then there was a sense of team, culture, attitude, collective will, compliance and desire to do well. Evidently that is not enough and while the scribes go to work trying to fathom the missing ingredients, events showed that more personal leadership and the ‘edge’ will deliver that winning feeling, that vital difference.
All of this still means that good grace, honour and dignity in defeat or adversity can set sport apart and those Welsh valleys are rightfully resounding with football pride – another Welsh whisky could be in the offing!
One last thought – did anyone see the French ‘C’ team hammer Argentina 27-0 away from home on their summer tour while the Top 14 Final was being played out in Barcelona in front of 98,000. Could there at last be a stirring in the emotional heartlands of French rugby and a recovery on the way – I hope so.
Enjoy the summer break as well as a new Prime Minister who may well surprise us all!