CARDIFF, WALESI'm here to study a famine that has lasted for half a century. It doesn't involve potatoes as with the Irish, a short ferry ride away from the Welsh coast. It involves rugby.
Atop downtown's 12th-century Norman keep inside
Cardiff Castle, through a steady drizzle, I survey large masts in the east, a nautical motif to 74,500-seat
Millennium Stadium, equipped with a retractable roof for days like today. That's where the famine will play out.
My purpose is to absorb the electric atmosphere surrounding the annual rugby battle between Wales and New Zealand's famed
All Blacks starting at 5.15 p.m. About 100,000 fans, including
Prince William, have descended upon Cardiff from northern Wales, nearby Swansea, the next biggest Welsh city and London. The tickets were sold out long ago; 30,000 surplus fans will jam every pub and restaurant.
Red rugby jerseys dot city streets by the cathedral as early as 10 a.m. By noon, I'm queued up in congested areas, trying to get into a pub with a large-screen TV. I notice a dense crowd six rows deep on St. Mary Street, intently watching Australia play England on a storefront set. "Rugby is our religion," Mike Price, my guide, says. "Here, it's a middle-class game, not geared to universities or the upper crust as in England."
I watch a young lady whose cheeks are stencilled with red dragons cheerfully pose for a picture, as do a group of "daffodils," four middle-aged, smiling women each equipped with a pint and sporting flower headdresses. The daffodil is Wales' national flower.
Price and I settle on the Old Arcade Pub near a warren of Victorian and Edwardian arcades stuffed full of the quirky and unusual, where we stopped earlier to savour hot coffee and tasty Welsh cakes.
At 4.30 p.m., those with game tickets head out. We follow the game here, loyally drinking beer from
Brains, a local brewer and team sponsor. Price lustily joins in as fans, in all-male choir tradition, originated by the coal miners, sing inspiring hymns such as "Bread of Heaven". Complete silence envelops us as a lone bugler sounds a pre-game "Last Post" to honour fallen British soldiers in Afghanistan, followed by Land of My Fathers, the Welsh national anthem. Eirlys Thomas, a lady standing beside me, weeps.
I feel energized as a kid at a Grey Cup game. All Blacks haven't lost to Wales in the last 55 years, and they perform their menacing, pre-game
accompanied by nasty body language. The Welsh are unimpressed, and at the end of the first 40 minutes, the score is tied 6-6. More talented New Zealand is relentless in the second half, and despite heroic goal-line stands by Wales accompanied by screams of delight in the pub, they lead 19-12, controlling the ball deep in Welsh territory with two minutes left.
Unexpectedly, the hymns and prayers to St. David appear to be answered by what looks like a miracle. Stunned fans suck in their collective breath as huge forward,
Alun Wyn Jones, intercepts a pass and lumbers toward the All Blacks' goal line, no one close behind. A try and a convert would tie the game.
Just 10 metres from success, Jones, who is more accustomed to scrums, is run down. The All Blacks prevail and the famine endures for a 21st straight game.
Pubs such as Walkabouts on St. Mary Street quickly refill, the patrons tightly wedged side by side. Price takes me to nearby "Chippy Lane" where at around 2 a.m. the diehards flock for an order of fries at favourites Tony's or Dorothy's and then head back home.
Later, I tour the massive stadium, dutifully sit in Her Majesty, the Queen's royal chair, am allowed to clutch the silver
Invesco Rugby Trophy
and watch two resident Harris hawks chase intruding birds from the rafters.
Inside, I watch grass literally grow as half of the natural turf is systematically heated by a large series of bright lamps that promote growth. Incredibly, the pitch is laid on top of 7,412 interconnected pallets that can be moved for storage to allow the stadium to be used for concerts, exhibitions and other events.
The Welsh dressing room is surprisingly Spartan. No names on the stalls, little wall decoration except for two large pictures of rugby scrums, one
captioned, "Yesterday is in the Past" and the other, "How do YOU want to be REMEMBERED?"
Price guides me to the massive barrage system that has dramatically altered the nearby bay. "It used to be all mud flats and coal docks," he explains. "Now, sailboats and spawning salmon get in and out through a short canal and elevator connected to the Taff River."
We visit a few iconic structures that characterize Cardiff's transformation. The Senedd or Parliament Building's wavelike roof juts into the sky, its glass walls affording a clear view yet reflecting the waters of Cardiff Bay.
Next door, The Millennium Centre is shaped like a bronze armadillo, all glass and slate, dominated by a huge dome coated in copper oxide. Two poetic lines are inscribed above the front door: "Creating truth like glass from the furnace of creation" and "In these stones, horizons sing." The letters form the windows of the upper floors and are lit at night to celebrate the performing arts. We sneak a peek at the large theatre as workmen prepare sets for an opera.
Despite the lingering rugby famine, in a mere decade,
has set a remarkable course of impressive development.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
How to get there
Trains from Paddington Station, London are 15 and 45 minutes past each hour; the journey takes two hours; Cardiff's train station is a short walk to the Radisson BLU Hotel.
Where to stay
The Radisson BLU Hotel Meridian Gate, Bute Terrace, Cardiff, Tel: 44-2920 454 777
"We welcome our readers' input and personal travel tips. To share feedback on this article, please click below."
Others have made submissions which you may find of interest:
View Article Comments
Meet Great Writers
On These Pages|
Search For Travel Articles
Informative articles organized
by your favourite writers.
Destination Index by Author