Whether you trace the roots of rugby back to the handball games played by the Romans at forts like Caerleon and Caerwent, the rough and tumble game of Normandy known as ‘La Soule’, the Cornish game of ‘Hurling’ dating back to the Bronze Age or the inter-village ‘Cnappan’ battles found in Pembrokeshire in the 17th century, there is no denying the game is a vital ingredient in the life-blood of the Welsh nation.
The game was introduced to Wales at Lampeter College in the mid-nineteenth century using the Rugby School rules. In September, 1875 the South Wales Football Union was created in Brecon ‘with the intention of playing matches with the principal clubs in the West of England and the neighbourhood – the rugby rules will be the adopted code’.
But it was the selection of the first official Welsh team by the remarkable Richard Mullock to face England at Mr Richardson’s Field, Blackheath on 19th February 1881, that hastened the formation of what we now know as the Welsh Rugby Union.
The WRU have been the guardians of Wales’s national sport since 1881. A group of 11 clubs – Swansea, Lampeter, Llandeilo, Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Merthyr, Llandovery, Brecon, Pontypool and Bangor – came together at the Castle Hotel, Neath on 12th March 1881, to form the Welsh Rugby Football Union. It was a meeting that took place on the same day that Cardiff beat Llanelli in the fourth South Wales Challenge Cup Final in Neath.
Cyril Chambers, of Swansea Football Club, was elected the first President of the WRFU and Richard Mullock, of Newport, became the first Honorary Secretary and Treasurer. It had been Mullock who had selected the Welsh team to play in that first, fateful international at Blackheath against an England side that had being playing internationally for a full decade and that had lost only twice in their 17 Tests to that time.
It was like lambs to the slaughter. Led by the Australian-born, Cambridge University undergraduate James Bevan, Wales were humiliated as England won by seven goals, one dropped goal and six tries to nil – or 82-0 by current scoring values. Thankfully, no points were awarded for goals or tries at that stage. It wasn’t until 1890, at the seventh attempt, that Wales achieved the ‘Holy Grail’ and finally beat England. A try, then worth one point, by ‘Buller’ Stadden at Crown Flat, Dewsbury, won the day and the legendary Arthur Gould’s team were ready to take the game by storm.
The first Triple Crown came in 1893 and was the launch pad for the first ‘Golden Era’, when Wales dominated the world game. The Maoris, the first touring team in the UK, had been beaten in 1888 and Dave Gallaher’s otherwise all-conquering New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ were beaten 3-0 in 1905 thanks to a try by Teddy Morgan. More than any other in the history of the game, that incredible match, the only fixture lost by the All Blacks, helped to turn rugby union into a game of global interest.
The first Springboks attracted more than 40,000 to St Helen’s in 1906 for a game they won 11-0, although the first Australian tourists were defeated 9-6 in Cardiff two years later. Those early years in the 20th century were filled with Welsh victories and world class players. Gould, Gwyn Nicholls, Jehoida Hodges, Willie Llewellyn, Percy Bush, Boxer Harding, Dickie Owen, Billy Trew and the Bancroft’s, Billy and Jack, still rate among the greatest players ever produced by Wales.
The first ‘Golden Era’ included the first Grand Slam by any country and a record winning run of 11 games as Wales remained unbeaten between March 1907 to January 1910. When Rob Howley’s side of 1999 matched that feat they did it in eight months. There were Grand Slams in 1908, 1909 and 1911, Triple Crowns in 1900, 1902, 1905, 1908, 1909 and 1911and those victories over New Zealand in 1905 and Australia in 1908. Welsh rugby had arrived as a major force in the world game.
The Twenties and Thirties were harder times with less noticeable achievements. There was, however, a first win at the new home of English rugby, Twickenham, in 1933 after 23 years of trying and a second win over the mighty ‘All Blacks’ in Cardiff in 1935, 13-12. It was an era when players like Jerry Shea, Ivor Jones, Jack Bassett and Wilf Wooller captured the imagination.
International rugby shut down for much of the Forties because of World War Two and only four players crossed the seven year gap – the incomparable Haydn Tanner, Bunner Travers, Les Manfield and Howard Davies.
The Fifties brought Welsh rugby right back to the forefront of the world game with Grand Slams in 1950 and 1952, under the captaincy of John Gwilliam, and a third win over New Zealand in Cardiff in 1953. Bleddyn Williams, Jack Matthews, Cliff Morgan, Roy John, Ken Jones, Billy Williams, Rhys Williams, Bryn Meredith and Clem Thomas became household names and revered opponents across the world while playing for the British & Irish Lions. The Grand Slam of 1950, crowned with a 21-0 win over France in Cardiff, ended a 39 year honours drought.
It was 19 years after the success of 1952 before the sixth Grand Slam of 1971 heralded the dawn of the second ‘Golden Era’. Clive Rowlands’s 1965 side delivered the Triple Crown, but it wasn’t until he had taken over from David Nash as only the second Welsh coach in 1969 that the good times began to roll again. Players like Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mervyn Davies, John Taylor, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and John Dawes emerged to take not only Welsh rugby, but also the British game to the top of the world with some scintillating performances throughout the Seventies.
The 1969 Triple Crown paved the way for the 1971 Grand Slam, which was won by a team widely regarded as the greatest side ever to wear the Welsh jersey. The ‘Super Seventies’ included Grand Slams in 1971, 1976 and 1978 and Triple Crowns in 1971, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979. Had the game in Ireland in 1972 not been cancelled, that otherwise undefeated campaign could have ended with another Grand Slam.
There were 11 Welshmen in the victorious 1971 Lions Test side in New Zealand and six Welsh players in the victorious 1974 Lions Test side in South Africa. Other Welsh greats from this era were Phil Bennett, Geoff Wheel, Allan Martin, the Pontypool front row – Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price – and Steve Fenwick.
The Eighties saw the WRU celebrate its 100th anniversary in the 1980-1981 season, the Rugby World Cup made its bow in 1987, with Richard Moriarty’s Welsh side finishing third by beating Australia, the emergence of Jonathan Davies as a world force and a Triple Crown in 1988.
The Nineties saw professionalism enter rugby union for the first time when the former WRU Chairman Vernon Pugh pronounced in Paris in 1995 that the game would be ‘open’. Neil Jenkins became the first international player to break the 1,000 points barrier and the biggest transformation of the decade was that of the old Cardiff Arms Park into the Millennium Stadium in time to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup. After 113 years of hosting international rugby, the spiritual home of Welsh rugby, the Arms Park, was torn down, turned around and recreated into the most magnificent rugby venue in the world.
Home to Welsh teams since 1884, housing more than 62,000 fans in its pomp, the Arms Park became the Millennium Stadium, offering each of its 74,500 customers a seat. In just two and a half years, and at a cost of more than £120m, the centre piece of the Welsh capital was totally transformed. The Stadium has already established itself as an icon of the modern Wales. Its image has been used as a symbol of a new and vibrant, entrepreneurial and confident Nation. The importance of the Stadium to the economic, social, sporting and cultural development of Cardiff and Wales is significant. No other building in Wales contributes more to the economic benefit of the Nation; no other attraction comes close to matching the 1.3 million visitors each year that come to the Stadium. The sheer scale and diversity of events on its CV ranges from hosting the FA Cup Final to the Heineken Cup Final, Songs of Praise to the Rolling Stones, Wales Rally GB to the Tsunami Relief Concert not withstanding world class international rugby union.
In the modern era, the WRU as a business blends the traditional with the modern; with over 125 years of rugby tradition and heritage behind us. The benefits of the restructure of professional rugby have reaped huge rewards since 2003 with three Six Nations Grand Slams, in 2005, 2008 and 2012, and a fourth championship title in 2013. The Wales Sevens team won the Rugby World Cup Sevens title in Dubai in 2009 and there was also a semi-final place at the 2011 Rugby World Cup which helped turn this period into a third Golden Era for Welsh rugby. Further successes at age grade level, led by Wales Under 20 reaching the World Junior Championships final in 2013, have ensured a conveyor belt of talent has been delivered to the Regions and senior Welsh squad and the Wales Sevens side, as one of the core teams on the IRB World Sevens circuit, continue to provide great exposure for burgeoning young talent on a global stage.
The sights and sounds of the 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2019 Grand Slams will never be forgotten, and the scenes at the end of the record breaking victory over England (30-3) that made it back-to-back Six Nations titles for the first time in 34 years in 2013, proved once again that nothing excites and unites a nation in equal measure than Welsh rugby played at its best.
If Arthur Gould and Gwyn Nicholls were the pioneers of Welsh rugby style and greatness in the 1890s, then Billy Trew, Johnnie Williams, Jim Webb and Jack Bancroft carried their work on in the 1900s with three Grand Slams. Then came another two in the 1950s, with John Gwilliam, Roy John, Ken Jones and Lewis Jones leading the charge. The 1970s saw Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams dominate Welsh teams that won another three Grand Slams before we uncovered a new set of national heroes in the 21st century.
Now the likes of Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Ryan Jones and Alun Wyn Jones, can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the great names of the past – as can a whole host of other players who starred for both their country and the British & Irish Lions both home and abroad. And let’s not forget Warren Gatland who in 2019 became the first coach in northern hemisphere rugby history to mastermind a hat-trick of clean-sweeps.
Welsh rugby has a glittering past, an exciting present and a wonderful future.