Why the Cardiff crowd beats any other rugby experience in the world and Wales need it for Six Nations

Top referee Nigel Owens welcomes the news supporters will be back inside the Principality stadium for the Six Nations

Like so many others in Wales, I watched a re-run on TV the other night of that famous Gavin Henson kick against England.

The 2005 moment, captured on BBC Wales’ documentary Slammed , brought memories flooding back of a very special afternoon in our Welsh capital.

There’s nothing quite like Six Nations day in Cardiff, particularly when England come to town.

Meeting the old enemy takes everything up a notch or two, but even without England, you simply can’t beat the Cardiff experience.

Which is why I’d been really, really hoping, everyone’s well-being coming first, of course, that there would be a full house at the Principality Stadium when Scotland come to town in three weeks’ time, and also for Wales’ other home games against France and Italy, which everyone here will be wishing is another title decider as Wayne Pivac’s men defend their trophy.

That applies whether it’s Murrayfield, Twickenham, Dublin or the Stade de France, where I’ve stood in between the players before kick off with more than 80,000 belting out La Marseillaise. Trust me, when you’re out there in the middle, that really is a hairs on the neck experience. Anyone playing in Paris knows they are up against it at that point.

"There is something very special about that stadium. On the field you just feel a part of it, with the fans so close to the pitch. But off it there's something about Cardiff that just brings out the support, creates a buzz - and that applies to opposition fans as well who love walking just a few hundred yards from the railway station to the ground right in the city centre, going to the nearby pubs, restaurants, just savouring the whole occasion. Even people without tickets want to come into Cardiff for the day to be a part of it, something that is pretty unique to us, I feel. It's why I had been somewhat concerned about this talk of no fans for the Six Nations at the stadium this year. The supporters make the day. Take it from me, they matter."

Nigel Owens

Even when they’re booing you as the referee and calling you every name under the sun! It’s part and parcel of rugby.

I was at Parc y Scarlets on New Year’s Day to do some commentary work for S4C as the Scarlets played their arch-rivals Ospreys at an empty stadium because of the Covid rules in Wales.

There was just something eerie about the occasion, it didn’t seem right before, during or after.

I watched the referee that day, Adam Jones, who did a pretty decent job and has a very bright future ahead of him, run out for his warm-up with his fellow officials ahead of kick-off to silence, or an echo at best. Crikey, I couldn’t help thinking of the times I’ve refereed that particular derby and how the ground would already be full by that stage – and I’d be greeted with boos, jeers and the occasional cheer as I ran out!

For some of these games the Ospreys would be in their pomp, with their big name Galacticos, the Scarlets were a formidable force too. If the quality of rugby wasn’t exactly Test level, and the standard can dip in derby matches, or indeed cup finals, when so much is at stake and no-one wants to make a mistake, the intensity certainly was of the level you would see in international rugby.

That was down to the crowd; the players would respond and feed off their passion. the two sets of supporters.

I just felt on this particular occasion that intensity wasn’t there. If it wasn’t like a training ground exercise, it certainly didn’t have the feel of a proper and historic big Welsh derby showdown.

We need the buzz the fans create in the Six Nations too and with Nicola Sturgeon announcing earlier in the week restrictions are lifted for sporting events in Scotland, and thus Murrayfield, it was only a matter of time before the similar announcement was made here.

Fortunately it has been.

I just feel people have been getting frustrated, we’re double and indeed triple jabbed, there are vaccine passports. The economy of Cardiff needs full crowds as well, given the windfall rugby day in the city provides to local businesses.

The fans are Wales’ 16th man, so to speak. They make a huge difference when the ground is full, not just to the Welsh players who are lifted by the noise and fervour created, but also the opposition who at times sub-consciously wonder ‘what on earth is going on here then?’

Welsh rugby has just come through a tough time, with the Ospreys and Cardiff being hammered by Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively last weekend, which on paper doesn’t augur too well for the Scotland game.

But we shouldn’t read too much into it, this has happened before and we tend to see a Wales team inspired by home support raise their levels come the Six Nations.

That certainly happened in 2005, didn’t it? Back to the Gav kick versus England, something I got to see it close up at the time. Really close up.

Although it’s natural to assume I never got to experience the Cardiff factor on Six Nations day, owing to my own refereeing duties tending to take me elsewhere, I was actually just a stone’s throw away from Gav as he lined up his effort by the touchline that Saturday afternoon.

Myself and Hugh Watkins were the fourth and fifth officials to Steve Walsh, the New Zealander who was man in the middle, which meant we were tasked with substitutions, time anyone had in the bin for yellow card offences, that sort of administrative thing.

I watched Gav line up the kick in front of me, look up at the posts, take his run up and bang, it sailed over from distance. There was no roof on that day at the Millennium Stadium, but if there had been one it would have come off when the touch judges raised their flags.

A win over England, the start of a famous march towards the Grand Slam which culminated in that triumph over Ireland on a day when they reckoned there were as many folk celebrating on the streets of Cardiff as inside the stadium itself.

As I say there’s nothing quite like Cardiff on rugby day, particularly when Wales are winning.

Everybody looks forward to the Six Nations. Christmas is over, there’s that January lull, but the fact rugby’s greatest annual tournament is just around the corner keeps a lot of people’s spirits up.

Original article published 15.01.2022 on the Wales Online website

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