Ray Cale

Grand Slam Wales flanker


William Raymond Cale, rugby player: born Usk, Monmouthshire 18 July 1922; married (two sons, one daughter); died 23 May 2006.

It seems incomprehensible these days that British rugby selectors would decide not to pick a player to tour New Zealand because he was deemed to be "too rough". Yet that is the fate that reputedly befell the Pontypool and Wales back-row man Ray Cale in 1950 when the British & Irish Lions selectors picked their squad to tour Australasia.

The rugged 27-year-old flanker had been one of the mainstays of the Welsh side that clinched a first Triple Crown and Grand Slam in 39 years during the 1950 championship campaign and his performance against the infamous Irish back row in Belfast was deemed to be the most critical individual contribution to the four-match-winning series. Not only did he outshine Jim McKay, Jimmy McCarthy and Des O'Brien at Ravenhill, but he forced the mistake from Jackie Kyle three minutes from time that enabled Wales to score the try that clinched a 6-3 victory.

Having also plundered a try in the 11-5 victory over England at Twickenham in the opening match of the championship, Cale had every right to feel he was ready for the rigours of the 30-match Lions tour later that year. His reputation as one of the hardest tacklers in the game went before him, as did his outstanding form in the Welsh Grand Slam season, yet he was the only member of the Welsh pack not invited to tour.

"Ray was a lively customer and all the talk in the papers at the time of the Lions selection was of him being too rough," John Gwilliam, the Welsh Grand Slam skipper in both 1950 and 1952, said:

He was fearless, ruthless and pretty robust when it came to tackling, but, compared to some of the New Zealanders the Lions came up against, he would have been pretty tame. He was very powerful and remarkably fast on the open side. He covered every blade of grass and wherever the ball was you would inevitably find Ray. I know he was bitterly disappointed not to be invited to tour with the Lions.

Having learned his trade in the hard school of Gwent club rugby at Ebbw Vale and then Newbridge, Cale made his international début against England in a 9-3 victory at Cardiff Arms Park on 15 January 1949. Two narrow defeats followed against Scotland and Ireland before he missed the reverse in Paris against France that confirmed Wales as holders of the "wooden spoon".

That is what made the turn-around in fortunes the following season all the more dramatic. Under Gwilliam's guidance, and with Cale providing the cut and thrust, Wales went from zeroes to heroes in the space of 12 months.

Having missed out on Lions selection, Cale cut his losses and headed north to rugby league. Less than two months after winning the Grand Slam, and three weeks after finishing the season with Pontypool, he joined St Helens. His style of play was ideally suited to the 13-a-side code and he became an instant hit at Knowsley Road. His conversion may have come at the ripe old age of 28, but over the next two and a half seasons he made a major contribution to his new team. He played 128 games in total for Saints and scored 25 tries. He also became a double international by adding four Welsh league caps to the seven he won at union, figuring twice against Other Nationalities, France and England.

He joined a six-man Saints pack that boasted his fellow Welsh international union converts in Reg Blakemore and George Parsons and there were three more Taffs in the back line - Glyn Moses, Stuart Llewellyn and Don Gullick. They enjoyed good times together, especially in the 1952/53 season when the legendary Wales and Wigan full-back Jim Sullivan was pulling the strings as the Saints' first full-time manager/coach.

Cale played 38 games in that season as the Saints won every game away from home except one - the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. Having clinched the Lancashire League title for the first time in 21 years earlier in the season, St Helens were red-hot favourites to win the cup for the first time in their history, yet froze in front of a near 90,000 crowd and fell 15-10 to Huddersfield.

It was the second time the Welshman had tasted defeat in a cup final, having been part of the side that lost to Leigh in the Lancashire Cup final in 1952, yet, within a week, they had made some amends by beating Huddersfield 46-0 in the Championship semi-final. After that they duly went on to lift the trophy for the second time in their history by beating Halifax 24-14.

Cale's final appearance came in a defeat to Workington Town on 6 November 1954, after which he became a bit of a mystery to his former employers. A greengrocer in his early working life, he had run a shop in Aberscychan with his wife, Pat, before moving to St Helens. When they returned to Wales, he became the manager of a dairy in Cardiff, before going to live in Spain.

Rob Cole

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