A rip-roaring Six Nations would be a fitting tribute to Eddie Butler
The Six Nations will kick off in Cardiff this weekend but in our hearts it is already under way. As we gathered in Abergavenny to celebrate the full-to-overflowing life of Eddie Butler the only missing ingredient was a game to help soothe our swirling emotions as we sang Cwm Rhondda and remembered a “modern renaissance man” as Clare Balding perfectly described him.
At least the spirit of Eddie lives on. Because each and every time we hear the anthems or see an aerial stadium shot in the coming weeks, we will hear that voice and be reminded of the sport-as-art montages in which he specialised. If this year’s Six Nations soundtrack will sound slightly different, the bard of Monmouthshire’s back catalogue will stand the test of time.
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For anyone heading to the Principality Stadium for this year’s opening fixture against Ireland, for example, go online and find Eddie’s brilliant description – is lyrical Welsh rugby rap a genre? – of his home nation on big international days:
Match night under the skies of Wales
Fuelled by the pies and fries of Wales
By ale and the why, why, whys of Wales …
Watch it all the way through and then try to argue the Six Nations is just another tournament. Like Bill McLaren before him, one of Eddie’s great gifts was his ability to make us understand that the Six Nations is about far more than numbers on a scoreboard. The presence of so many, from Sir Gareth Edwards and Jonathan Davies to his tearful old Pontypool teammates, in Abergavenny’s Market Hall underlined that soulful truth.
Looking back at some of Eddie’s Observer and Guardian musings this week was similarly uplifting. When Wales won their grand slam in 2005 they did so “in spring sunshine hot enough to wilt a crocus”. Then there was his intro to a 2001 column about the unpredictability of the Six Nations. “As soon as you put words like ‘mouth-watering’ before the Six Nations, you know it will all dry up. I think I nearly put ‘sacred’ before it once. May the Lord preserve me from ever trying to link Him with the spectacularly profane world of rugby. Jesus.”
Or what about these wise words about the critical importance of scrummaging at the top level. “A retreating scrum leaves its inhabitants on legs of jelly. And a jelly-legged loose-head is just what a France midfield is looking for.” Or this gloom-tinged summation after Wales had been swallowed up by the Irish, in defiance of predictions the contest would go down to the wire. “It didn’t. The Welsh pliers never even cut through the plastic coating.”
Good old Edwardo. Mind you, even he might have struggled to extract much poetry from the reputational bin fire that is international rugby union just now. If there was a league table for under-pressure national unions, it is fair to say the battle for the wooden spoon would be seriously intense. Allegations of sexism and misogyny in Wales and now Scottish club rugby, corruption in France, incompetence in England … the list is long and depressing.
Which is why, as a tribute to Eddie, we need this Six Nations to be an absolute banger. Rugby lovers of every nationality need fresh reasons to keep the faith. It does not all have to be soaring passion or dreamy sonnets but this is too pivotal a moment in the game’s history for the rugby to be soul-sapping and dull, either as a spectacle or in terms of tactical nous.
Eddie, sadly, is no longer around to pronounce on the likeliest winner but he would definitely have relished the idea of a resurgent Wales and a few green shoots of recovery under Warren G. Or England finally shaking off the mental shackles imposed by their antipodean Lord Voldemort and replacing the groaning in the shires with something far more enthusiastic.
Then again, he absolutely loved pronouncing those French surnames and would have salivated at the idea of Les Bleus becoming both consistent and captivating at the same time. And, goodness, how he would have embraced the Rugby World Cup in France later this year. The road trips, the stadiums, the brasseries and, perhaps, the voiceovers in at least two or three different languages.
Along with the rest of us, though, he would also be looking admiringly at Ireland’s loose forwards – how good is Caelan Doris? – and purring his continued appreciation. Even France will have to raise their game in Dublin where they have won just once since 2011. Ireland also still have Johnny Sexton while Garry Ringrose has been superb for Leinster lately. Assuming they win enough ball – and Sexton stays fit – their mental toughness is second to none.
But hold on. Even the improving Italy could nick a victory or two. After Scotland play at Twickenham, three of their remaining four games will be at Murrayfield. England and Wales should both enjoy some degree of “new coach bounce”, though how long it lasts will be fascinating. Hopefully it will all make for something as memorable as yesterday in Abergavenny, where everyone left with hearts replenished and souls enriched. The voice of rugby may have departed but the game he loved is still here to sustain us.