A new diploma course could help restore self-respect to a once-powerful expression of Welsh nationhood. Huw Richards reports.
Those seeking the heart of Welsh rugby should bypass the ostentatious stadium under construction in the centre of Cardiff and head further west to Stradey Park, Llanelli.
Located amid the community which is to rugby union what the North-east is to English football - the hottest of hotbeds - Stradey is home to Llanelli's Scarlets. The team is one of the game's great traditional powers, famously victors by 9-3 over the New Zealand All Blacks in 1972.
The decline of the Welsh game can be gauged as much by the result when Llanelli played New Zealand last year, 81-3 to the All Blacks, as by the world record 96-13 thrashing inflicted on the national team by South Africa or the secession of top clubs Swansea and Cardiff from the Welsh leagues. A sport which historian Gareth Williams has called "a pre-eminent expression of Welsh consciousness, a signifier of Welsh nationhood" has become an unmatched source of national angst and embarrassment.
But those seeking fresh optimism need travel only a few hundred yards down the road to Carmarthen, to the Llanelli campus of Carmarthenshire College (CCTA). If Stradey is the heart of Welsh rugby, CCTA intends to be an important part of its brain through the introduction of its new national diploma in Rugby Studies.
The two-year course was devised by sports lecturer Sean Holley, formerly full-back for Welsh Premier League club Aberavon, who recognised the new career opportunities provided by rugby union going professional in 1995:
"The course is strongly vocational. With professionalism there are opportunities for careers in coaching, refereeing and administration as well as playing."
Producing elite players isn't the aim, although Holley would be delighted if anyone did make it to the top. The course aims to turn out all-rounders, as capable of coaching, refereeing or running a club as of playing a decent game of rugby, and with a good grasp of sports medicine, history and law.
He hopes those all-rounders will help revitalise a rugby culture once unmatched in the northern hemisphere. Pointing to defeatism and cynicism compounded by widespread greed among not very impressive players, he says:
"Wales is in danger of being identified with rugby for all the wrong reasons. We want people who are dedicated to the game, to understanding it and making the best of it."
Gareth Evans, one of the first group of students, might have stayed at school to do the science A-levels for which impressive GCSEs qualified him. Instead Gareth, 16, has left Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul to spend three-and-a-half hours every day travelling to and from Llanelli. His academic credentials - nine passes including four As - are supplemented by representative rugby honours at district, county and regional level.
Like most talented sportsmen of his age, he hopes for a career as a professional player - and sees the course as providing both a preparation for and alternatives to playing at top level: "It will improve my playing level, but will also teach me skills like physiotherapy and coaching." He has already coached younger players at his home club, Newcastle Emlyn, and hopes the course will lead on to a place at the University of Wales Institute or another strongly rugby-conscious university.
The course is built on the foundations of CCTA's sports science diploma, which attracts around 40 students a year. But Holley had to devise a number of elements from scratch, drawing on the advice of experts like Llanelli coach Gareth Jenkins and international referee Robert Davies, director of student services at CCTA.
Students devote around half of their timetables to sport and rugby subjects, but there is a core science element - including anatomy, biochemistry and nutrition, exercise physiology and sport psychology. Both years will incorporate three weeks of work experience: "They will either go to school or work with a Welsh Rugby Union development officer," says Holley.
The course has the enthusiastic backing of district development officer Leighton Morgan, who is based at CCTA: There is a huge tradition to maintain in this area, but to do that we need people to go into schools, to help rekindle enthusiasm and provide decent coaching." He should have no difficulty in persuading John Devine, an 18-year-old student who, like Gareth Evans, plays for Newcastle Emlyn. "I am looking forward to taking back what I learn here and helping people in my own and younger age groups develop better skills and knowledge," he says.
With the Llanelli club sharing training facilities at CCTA - an old squash court is currently under conversion into a gym for the club - the students can draw on the knowledge and skills of the coaching and playing staff. The club expect to send apprentice players on the course. Morgan says: "This site should develop into a centre of excellence for this part of Wales."
It is already attracting wider interest - national coach Graham Henry, the New Zealander charged with extracting Wales from the wreckage in time for next year's World Cup, was a visitor this week. Holley expects 30 students next year, and they may not be all be males - two women have enquired about the course. He also hopes to persuade his alma mater, Loughborough, to join rugby-conscious institutions such as UWIC and Exeter in recognising the national diploma for entry.