Diana's Boys Duke It Out Over Rugby
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a house divided cannot stand. But the knock-down, drag-out fight could be cool.
By Robert Meakin
Dressed warmly in a long magenta coat, the lady, along with her two young boys, braved the cold to cheer for Wales as it faced France in the Five Nations rugby tournament. The children, kitted out in Welsh jerseys and scarves, got to meet most of the players, and they charmed the policemen on patrol, playing with their motorcycle horns.
But this was no ordinary family outing: The woman was the most photographed in the world, Princess Diana, and she was helping cement her sons’ love for a sport that would one day see William and Harry take to opposite sides of the field. When England hosts the Rugby World Cup this fall, it’ll go head to head with its fiercest rival and next door neighbor: Wales. And adding to the tension, it’ll also pit Diana’s two boys against each other.
It’s good for Welsh rugby. … If we have princes of Wales, we should have them watching Wales.
JPR Williams, former Welsh rugby player
It was hailed as a royal coup back in February 1992, when Diana arrived at the National Stadium in Cardiff to support the nation’s beloved rugby team. Conscious that her English-born children both also had the historic “Prince of Wales” title, the princess was keen to ensure that they embraced Welsh culture. There was no better way than cheering on the men in red that chilly Saturday, when the boys watched Wales narrowly lose to France, 9 points to 12. But for one of the princes, the ties to Welsh rugby were only just beginning.
Twenty-three years later, Wales will meet their longtime sporting rival, England, on Sept. 26. While it will be the 127th encounter between them — the first was in 1881 — the fact that it’s the two teams’ first World Cup encounter on British soil guarantees it’ll be one of their biggest clashes ever. Upping the ante even more is the fact that these very English princes will be sitting on opposing sides: William has been the vice royal patron of the Welsh Rugby Union since 2007, and Harry assumed the same role for the English team in 2010.
As royal duties go, it’s hardly a chore, as both men are known for their love of sports and can regularly be seen rooting for their team. But, of the two, William’s support for Wales has always been the tougher sell. Many Welsh rugby fans have long believed his true sporting loyalties are firmly rooted in English soil. “It’s always puzzled me, really, in terms of Prince William playing the Welsh card,” acknowledges Camilla Tominey, royal editor of the Sunday Express. “At the end of the day, he’s also an England fan and has been seen at England matches. William does turn up to the Wales matches, but he can’t change the fact he’s English.”
Media-shy William has never tied his late mother’s affection for the Welsh team to his own loyalty to their cause, but it’s fair to speculate that devotion to her memory helps drive his attachment. And although the Welsh Rugby Union is reluctant to discuss the prince’s involvement, other prominent figures have zealously supported William’s Welsh allegiance. JPR Williams, widely regarded as one of Wales’ greatest former players, has said: “It’s good for Welsh rugby. … If we have princes of Wales, we should have them watching Wales.”
Compared to William’s somewhat uncomfortable status as a Wales supporter, Harry’s link to English rugby is an easy fit. Ever since he was seen celebrating England’s 2003 World Cup triumph in the squad’s dressing room in Sydney, the younger prince has confidently been able to call himself the team’s most famous fan. And the nation’s rugby chiefs hope to use their popular, more mediagenic patron to full effect, as Harry, honorary president of England Rugby 2015, officially promotes the tournament to “new and existing rugby fans.”
More controversial than the princes’ alliances were widespread reports in the 1990s romantically linking Diana — officially separated from Prince Charles — to then England rugby captain Will Carling. Carling maintains that the princess was no more than a “good friend,” but rumors persist. Whatever the real story, her support for Wales held firm.
Come Sept. 26, when one of the world’s oldest sporting rivalries will play out in front of 82,000 fans at London’s Twickenham Stadium, two princes will be flying flags for different sides of Offa’s Dyke, the historic English-Welsh border. While there has been many a bloody contest waged between opposing British royals over the centuries, this should thankfully be concluded amicably at the final whistle.
- Robert Meakin, Robert Meakin is a British-based newspaper columnist. Primarily focusing on politics, he also appears as a current affairs commentator on BBC television and radio.Contact Robert Meakin