In honor of the start of my favorite sports season, I'll share one of the first pieces I wrote for my magazine course while I was studying in Cardiff. We were assigned to cover the local reaction to the start of the Rugby World Cup, hosted in Cardiff that year. Given that I knew absolutely nothing about rugby, I had to take a different approach than traditional sports reporting.
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we celebrate March Madness, a month devoted to the great sport of college basketball. As college teams from across the United States compete for the NCAA title, Carolina fans flock to arenas and television sets, decorating their bodies, their homes, their cars, even their pets in support of the Tar Heels.
The enthusiasm reaches a fever pitch during the first weekend in April, when the last teams standing compete the The Final Four. If the Tar Heels have survived from the original field, every bar on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill's main street, welcomes a standing-room-only crowd of blue face paint and Carolina cheers.
In Cardiff, Wales, they celebrate the World Rugby Cup. And althought it's quite some distance across the proverbial pond, the enthusiasm of openting day, as Wales hosted Argentina, felt just like home for this Tar Heel alum.
On Friday, 1 October 1999, I was amazed to see the usually drab, grey Colum Road awash in a vibrant shade of red. Bright red rugby jerseys boasting the WRU [Welsh Rugby Union] logo had replaced the typical full-black European ensemble. Cabs flew Welsh flags from their antennae. Even the bank clerk at Barclay's sported a temporary face tattoo in support of her team. The trains passed by, filled to capacity with more red jerseys to spill into the city. Students wearing Welsh flags as sarongs cheered in the streets. And there were still six hours until kick-off.
By the time the opening ceremony began, every pub in the City Centre fortunate enough to possess even one television was bursting with rugby enthusiasts. The pub crowds joined with fans inside the newly built 72,500-seat Millennium Stadium singing anthems and folk songs, cheering for celebrities and waving their inflated daffodils and red-and-green scarves.
When Welsh performer Max Boyce took the stage, even the rowdy crowd at O'Neill's Pub hushed each other to hear the original verses in his song, then erupted with the familiar refrain in his obvious crowd-pleaser.
The volume of enthusiasm only increased when the players took the field. The crowd around me began chanting, "Wa-les! Wa-les!" But another hush came over the group at the sounds of the Welsh anthem, a patriotic tear trickling down the televised face of one of them team members.
Although it seemed impossible, the start of the game brought even louder and rowdier cheers, But as the game progressed, not all of the cheers were friendly. At the sight of an injured Argentinian player on the field, one pub fan shouted, "Let 'im die!"
As the WRU fought for their 23-18 win and their ninth-straight victory, the cans at O'Neill's never stopped their energetic support of "Henry's Army." And although I understood little of the game of rugby, I did understand the sense of pride felt by the crowds there and throughout the city of Cardiff.
The face painted and jester hats, the radio station ticket-giveaway contests and the closed-off city streets are all symbols of something that every Chapel Hill fan recognises: a true love and loyalty for a sporting team that serves to unite the community. Whether young or old, male or female, city professional or country worker, everyone who cheered for the WRU on Friday enjoyed equal status: victor.