In 2005, Wales beat Ireland on the final weekend of the Six Nations to win the Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years. Had Ireland won, they would have taken the Triple Crown. Colin Murphy was there, just about.
Coming off the train at Cardiff, a crumpled looking fellow in a Welsh jersey is standing with a sign around his neck: “Ticket please, will swap for sister.”
Two others are talking about the touts.
“Mate of mine, he was offered £1400 each for two tickets yesterday.” “What’d he do?” “Kept them of course. Wouldn’t be right to sell them.”
From the station we can see the Millennium Stadium. It looms over the city centre, throwing multiple spires at precarious angles into the Cardiff sky.
Five minutes later, we find ourselves in a queue – to get onto the main street. It’s two o’clock, and Mary St, all four lanes of it, is packed like Grafton St on Christmas Eve. On every inch of it people in red jerseys are standing, walking, sitting, drinking. Every second building is a super pub, and outside each one there is a long, long, line of people queuing. Almost everybody has their face painted or hair coloured: it’s a city gone tribal. The odd green jersey flits by, bemused and lonely.
We come out into the stadium proper, just above the half-way line. The Irish in the crowd are some token daubs of green on a red canvass. It seems an oversight that the grass, too, is not red. It is breath-taking, magnificent.
The Welsh anthem is played, Land of My Fathers. Beside me my father mutters, “I’ve waited thirty years to hear this.” As the teams fan out for the kick-off, Bread of Heaven rings around the ground. “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
But the Irish are determined, in the opening minutes at least, to spoil the feast. Three points are won with determined efficiency. The crowd is quiet. Some impressive early Irish back play. Somewhere in the stadium, an invisible Irishman sings. “By the lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling.” And for a few glorious minutes, the refrain is taken up by every Irish person in the crowd and the Millennium Stadium echoes to cracked Irish voices instead of lilting Welsh ones. There is something about this stadium that makes people who would never sing find voices they didn’t know they had. For a few minutes. And then…
You’ve read the match reports. It wasn’t any prettier inside the stadium, though it was clear, there, that this had been ordained in the natural order of things. The crowd only really regains its voice in the dying minutes, when Bread of Heaven rings out again, but this time in acclamation, not aspiration.
Then it is over: the match, and 27 years of waiting. The Irish team disappear off, while the Welsh take their medals, their applause and then, reluctantly, their exit. We stand and watch the stadium empty. A couple waving Welsh flags are walking quietly around it. He holds out his hand as they pass. “I’m very, very sorry”, he says, looking downcast now. How cruel that somebody has to lose for Wales to win. And that it has to be Ireland, fellow Celts! He looks mournfully at us. “I hope you have a really great night”, he says. And then they walk off, waving their flags, and he starts to skip a little.
We walk back out towards Mary St, at six o’clock. It’s like St Patrick’s night in Dublin, except painted red. People walk in wavy lines across the street, clutching at each other. We kick through inches of litter. At an open-air plastic urinal in the middle of the street, a young woman is struggling to pull up her trousers while her friend tries to hold off the police. Though what purpose having a specific urinal serves isn’t clear. The difference between it and the street is a little vague.
The Hilton Hotel has become an Irish refugee camp, and we wangle our way in past he doormen to huddle over pints in a packed but unhappy bar. And then – with extraordinary good fortune – the concierge manages to get us a table at a nearby Chinese restaurant. The crowd of refugees clamouring to get into the hotel has grown larger, and the doormen have got stricter and less friendly. Brian O’Driscoll’s dad comes out and hands around bottles of beer to friends stuck outside.
We fight our way through the crowds towards Noble House Chinese Restaurant. Across the street, a policeman is standing, stuck, with a woman leaning, asleep, on his stomach. Another policeman is trying to stop a taxi. People stop to take photos of the hapless policeman on their phones. Two oversize furry red dragons carrying cans of Carling stagger around singing. A lot of the passing Irishmen seem less lonely, though still bemused, draped now across women in Welsh jerseys. Some of the crowds from the pubs have obviously diverted to the takeaways, and each one’s territory is marked by a wide, sweeping ark of inch-deep burger wrappings and chip cartons. The lap-dancing club has a long queue outside it of men in green jerseys, and the queues outside the other pubs are longer still.
Outside the Chinese restaurant, a Welshman grabs me. “Irish, mate. Will you swap jerseys?” A chorus of friends plead with me to swap jerseys with him, and so we pull them off and trade. They go off down the street, as chuffed as if they’d just mugged Brian O’Driscoll. My brother claps me on the back. “Nice one, that’s a real replica jersey you’ve just got, 60 quid. Your one was just a cheap Dunnes job.”
We decide to order the Rugby Day Special Menu, at only £24.95 a head. (The alternative is the Rugby Day Special Menu at £29.95 a head.) At each table, waitresses are busy mashing up roast duck or handing out six packs of Asian beer to groups in rumpled rugby jerseys. But it does the job. Beer without queuing, indoor toilets, and in over an hour that we’re there, there’s only one fight.
Eleven thirty, and we’re back on Mary St, picking our way through the bodies, broken glass, cans, fast food, half-digested fast food and puddles. Outside the Hilton, Irish players in tuxes with ties off are tiredly talking to friends who can’t get past the bouncer. We give up. An hour later, our taxi arrives, and the under thirties in our group have a last-minute change of mind and plunge back into the Mary St melee. (There are too many drunk bodies on the street for the pubs still to be full, is their reasoning.)
So that leaves myself and the old man with beds! 20 minutes later we’re leaning over pints in the bar-reception area of the Quality Hotel on the M4. Tired Irish eyes peer at each other through a light haze of cigarette smoke, and the bar busily serves sandwiches for soakage. Somebody starts up a song. “By the lonelish prishon wall, I hearg a…” He drawls off. Somebody else sings something incomprehensible, to the acclaim of three men leaning on him and each other. Every now and then a taxi disgorges another small group on the hotel bar, and there is a brief surge in energy and interest as they enter rowdily, until they too take up places along the edge of the lounge, slumped in front of flat pints and staring disconsolately.
We go to bed. Sunday morning, we get a taxi to the train station. “What a day,” says the driver, “Did you enjoy it?” “Is Cardiff always like that on rugby nights”, I ask. “Ah no”, he says, “yesterday was special. I’ve never seen it so good.”
Published in Village, March 2005