A visit to Cardiff.
It’s the middle of the evening, thousands of people are milling around the wide pedestrian main street just outside the stadium. We’re in Cardiff and we’re all riding high on the euphoria of having watched Ireland beat France in the rugby world cup pool stage and in one of the great stadiums of the world.
Right up until the last seven minutes of play, les Français could have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. They’ve a valiant but fearsome history of doing exactly that, so emotions ran high for seventy-three minutes of the game, and thereafter the relief of about one hundred thousand emotionally drained Celts exploded all over the city.
It’s a wide pedestrian precinct and well-lit, but not hard enough to burn out your corneas. There’s still a soft shadowy feel to the masses of people milling around. Cardiff is on the south coast of Wales but more importantly, only an hour’s drive from a car ferry port from Ireland, so it’s well attended. Nine out of ten are wearing green but the rest are les bleus and they’re wearing their colours with pride as well.
It’s a rugby crowd of supporters. All the violence starts with the tweet of a whistle and ends after eighty minutes of play with another tweet. It’s a point of honour thing. Rugby crowds do not need to be segregated, neither inside nor outside the stadium. They’re safe events which is why the age and gender demographic of attendees is very broad. Out singing each other is the only battlefield and la marseillaise is tough opposition. Everybody when pressed grudgingly admits it’s the best national anthem by a country mile.
They’re obviously in the plucky minority but well up for the game. There’s a whole bunch of them dressed up as Napoleonic soldiers and they get a great welcome. Everyone wants a pic with them and drapes them with our scarves. It’s all smiles and great fun. They’re good men. Bonne chance are the parting words, because we all know that can be the deciding factor.
I’m watching the night life shuffling by, chatting with people as I sip a drink – just enjoying the atmosphere and thinking back over the day’s events as I watch people having fun.
We all met up at a restaurant before the game, after a few leisurely pit stops at various pubs that struck our fancy before the agreed hour. Some stuff I like organised, but weekends like this I like to freestyle my way through. We noshed away in the restaurant, which is probably the only Madeiran one in Cardiff but apparently it came highly recommended according to my youngest son, whose nickname is Vladimir for reasons I won’t go into. It’s appears to serve lots of red meat with a nod towards seafood, all garnished with exactly one piece of optional lettuce on the side, so all the savages love it. That’d be my three sons, my daughter in law, my brother, his daughter and son and a nephew of my wife.
I’d no idea of the type of food a Madeiran restaurant lashed out and neither I think did Vladdy, so taking no chances before a big game and having been gastronomically experimented upon before, I’d taken full advantage of the full English breakfast served at the hotel we’d stayed overnight in. I’d maxed out on fried eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, beans and toast – all washed down with a couple of mugs of steaming hot coffee. Bring it on and then bring me more.
It’s only a few hours after breakfast and I’m still full. It’s one of those fixed price, all you can eat deals, so being sociable I order everything after finding out which dishes the savages want more of. My daughter sitting to my right is enjoying some seafood with her fair share of my spare ribs starter. She eats precisely but with pleasure; she’s eight months pregnant and though eating very daintily, is doing so for two as they say. The little dictator inside her is hungry and calling the shots.
When we entered the restaurant it was rammed, I was lead man asking people to scrunch in and make some room for her to squeeze by. It was a bit like that scene in the Blues Brothers where they visit the Penguin. All you could hear was the ratchety clump clump of people in chairs scrunching up their bellies against the table to make way for her as she ten to two waddled her way through the parting of the green and blue sea.
She’s a doctor in Obs and Gyny, so has a whole team fretting over her and driving her slightly insane at this stage, but this weekend she gets off lightly and only has to cope with a bunch of alpha males falling over each other to look after her. Nobody dodgy goes anywhere near the bump. We eventually finish the meal and are all having a leisurely chat over the remains of the wine. I notice her unconsciously stroking her tummy with both hands as she chats with my niece. They move slowly up and down in unison either side of the bump. I remember my wife doing exactly the same thing on what we nicknamed le massif central.
Her relationship with the baby is already fully formed; for a man it’s a more traumatic event in that it happens at the very moment of birth. When you hold that little morsel of life in your hands, suddenly it’s all for real. An impact hit, as they say in rugby.
Down the far end of the street, I hear the unmistakable thump of someone kicking a ball. It sails up through the light and into darkness but it looks like a bloody good kick. At the other end of the street, all heads are raised expectantly as are hands. It reappears out of the night like a guided missile and fifty people leap like green salmon to secure it. Someone does and a small circle quickly forms around him because everyone knows it’s going to be punted back. Another thump, and a good one, and it sails back up into the darkness, to the other end of the street.
Vladdy remarks idly that there are a lot of women milling around. That’s bloke speak for they don’t appear to be accompanied by any men and indeed are organised into three or four up packs and they are very definitely on the hunt for men. Despite all the cultural conditioning, the veneer strips off both sides. They’re looking for warriors.
We get out of the restaurant and we’ve got the colours Vladdy got me to buy. White face paint and green and orange hairsprays. I point off to some steps on my right and say I’ll go first – let’s do it. War paint. I sit there and one side of my hair gets green sprayed, the other oranged and the white bit in the middle I’ve already taken care of. The kids are howling with delight and loving it but my niece cleans off a bit of over enthusiastic spray from my jacket. Like my bro said in the restaurant, this is the stage where they start to look after us.
In their own way and with a certain artisanship, they apply colours to each other. My niece, who has a very girly degree in fashion design but is also now a two up veteran of Afghanistan, seems particularly adept at it, as opposed to one of my drongos who managed to spray the right colours but in the reverse sequence on his cousin’s face. There have been many times when I’ve looked at my woman in exasperation and declared there was a mix-up, we brought home the wrong baby from the hospital.
They all have this right side / left side brain thing which means they’re consistently ambidextrous, and that’s on a good day. He was spraying from his cousin’s viewpoint but anyway she took over and no further mistakes were made. Lordy, where would mortal men be without women.
The punt reappears out of the night sky at the other end of the street to be taken by a rising exhalation of the sea of green. This one they’re not going to punt back down the high street. A very disorganised scrum involving only fifty or so people forms. It’s a massive push from both sides and the belly deep slow chant of heave, heave begins from the sidelines. They push harder and harder and you can see their feet slip on the paved precinct but they recover and remain undeterred.
Several hundred pounds of liquored up but determined Celt are up against each other. I smile as I imagine some prissy referee trying to reset that scrum. Up street, having the slight advantage of the slope, slowly push down street backwards but it isn’t easy.
We’re in the stadium. I’m sitting near a Frenchman and we’re comparing thoughts about the game between bouts of standing up and cheering. He talks to me in broken English and I’m shamed into inflicting my broken French on him. The first half is just the clash of wills by both teams and I think we might just be edging that one, but we’re also taking some serious casualties. We lost our kicker and then our talismanic captain, and from the look of them, it could be bad. Everybody wants to win, but not at the cost of serious injury or a career ender. They both get huge rounds of applause from all sides as they get taken off.
We lose another man and then another. I tell the Frenchman I feel as if there’s a sniper up there on the roof picking off all our best men one by one. He nods in sympathy, as only a man can do whose own team is having a bad day at the office. Our replacements come on and when our second string kicker takes the pitch, some people boo and that’s a big no no in international rugby. Our team, our tribe, our man doing his best for us, and if you can’t get behind that, fuck off.
Within minutes, our replacement kicker gets to take a penalty kick at goal, and it’s some way out. The majority of seventy-three thousand people in the stadium go silent, pray and at the same time curse those handful of fuckers who booed him. Eight seconds of silent hell but he slots it sweetly between the posts to rapturous applause, even most generously from the Frenchman beside me, who knows what a pressure kick that was.
The high street scrum has collapsed and the ball is buried somewhere underneath it. There’s a bit of milling around as people get their wind back and are helped up onto their feet by strangers. The ball reappears and the guy holding it is immediately reinforced. It becomes what’s called a maul, which is a kind of moving scrum but much less organised. He holds on for dear life as fifty people push him down the street.
“There’s nobody on the other side” he shouts desperately, so half of the maul nip around the other side and start pushing back, as one naturally would. People rush in to join the maul and it becomes a monster. The thing stabilises but starts crabbing sideways towards a shop front. “Mind the glass, mind the glass” becomes the shout so the pressure comes off until the maul gets back on track down the high street. It collapses in the end and everybody regains their footing, dusting themselves off to great applause from the onlookers.
The guys getting back on their feet are all laughing and there’s more than a few Frenchies among them. There’s a momentary lapse in the background noise and I slowly hear the marseillaise being sung with an Irish lilt. It’s such a damn good tune, you can’t resist it in the end.
It all means nothing in any larger sense, but a day spent with your kith and kin, your true brothers of whatever nationality, your soul kinsmen, the still unashamed warriors who have grace, is a fine day.
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