Welsh caught in time warp as they endlessly replay rugby's class war

The ritual humiliation of the toffs used to be a glorious annual tradition, but even now the England is the game that means the most in Wales, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

The story dates from 1978, and is counted among the classics. Bill Beaumont, up there alongside Martin Johnson as the most venerated of England captains, was delivering his final dressing-room exhortation before a Five Nations Championship game with Wales at Twickenham. "Right," he fumed, steam billowing from his nostrils. "This Welsh team has had it. The Pontypool front row? Past it. Allan Martin and Geoff Wheel? No good. Terry Cobner? Too slow."

At which point, a nervous voice emerged from some dark corner of the inner sanctum. "Yeah, but what about Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams?" Profoundly flummoxed, Beaumont wracked his second-rower's brain for a suitable response. "For Christ's sake," he said eventually. "Even we're good enough to beat four men."

Not quite good enough to beat those four, as it turned out - England lost, by three penalty goals to two in a veritable riot of trylessness. They almost always lost in those days. Between January 1963, when they prevailed on a skating rink at the old Arms Park, and February 1980, when Beaumont led his country to the third leg of a Grand Slam with a single-point win in London, the red rose army managed only one victory in 17 matches. Their record in Cardiff was more grisly still, the '63 triumph being their last for 28 years.

Which was just how the Welsh liked it. Nothing in the universe was as important as strangling the public school twits with their own cravats on an annual basis, because in the towns and valleys where the miners and steelworkers toiled for their weekly wage, rugby was very much a class game. More than that, it gave a small nation a big say in international sporting affairs. Mervyn Davies, the magnificent No 8 from Swansea, put it this way in a thoughtful autobiography entitled In Strength and Shadow. "Wales was a different country back in the 1970s. It had great coal and steel industries. It had dockyards that saw ships come in from all parts of the world. It had sustainable farming and a burgeoning tourist trade. Above all else, Wales and the Welsh people celebrated their nationalism through rugby. Rugby gave Wales a global identity, a genuine reason to crow."

And when they crowed in English ears, the English had no answer. "May the best team win," someone said to Beaumont as he led his men through the tunnel in Cardiff one year. "I bloody well hope not," he replied, memorably.

Bennett's famous team talk in 1977 has also cemented its place in the lore. "Look at what these bastards have done to Wales," he said. "They've taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our houses and live in them for a fortnight every 12 months. And what have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We've been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English - and we're playing them this afternoon." A good point, brilliantly made.

But of course, the celebrated outside-half's words amounted to something darker than the usual tub-thumping hyperbole trotted out in the minutes before a big match, especially when considered in the light of what happened at Twickenham three years later. The industrial polices of Margaret Thatcher's first government were felt as keenly to the west of the Severn as anywhere in Britain - more so, many Welshmen would argue - and it gave the 1980 contest between two unbeaten sides a uniquely dangerous dimension.

"We were being blamed for the closure of coal mines," Beaumont recalled. "If we had also been blamed for the weather and the price of bread, I wouldn't have been in the least surprised."

Predictably enough, the match kicked off in more ways then one and was fought out viciously, in a spirit of unprecedented squalor. Paul Ringer, the Welsh flanker, was sent off; more than a dozen were crimsoned and scarred. "I played in a few roughhouse games in my time but that one really took the biscuit, with players on both sides behaving totally out of character," Beaumont continued. "This is always a problem when people hype up a game too much. At the end of the day, rugby is a game, not a declaration of war."

Were the lessons learned? Were they hell. The 1987 meeting in Cardiff, a couple of years after the conclusion of the last, climactic pit strike, was every bit as violent. The Welsh forward Phil Davies suffered a broken jaw in an all-in brawl and four English players - Wade Dooley, Gareth Chilcott, Graham Dawe and the captain, Richard Hill - were dropped for their part in the mayhem.

As recently as 2001, an England captain as hard-nosed as Johnson could still feel unnerved by the atmosphere in the Welsh capital. Let him tell the story. "Our bus had driven through the city after the match on our way to the reception. One Welsh fan actually ran up and head-butted the vehicle. He turned away, head streaming with blood and a big, silly grin of triumph on his face.

"The same day, our wing mirror clipped another Welshman and knocked him unconscious. The bus had to wait for the police and ambulance to arrive, with an ever-growing crowd of home fans, pint pots in hand, gathering around the bus, shouting and making traditional gestures at us. I remember thinking, 'Yeah, this is pretty good-natured at the moment, but if one of those guys lobs his pint at us they're all going to do it, and then we we won't be laughing.'"

One way or another, then, the rugby relationship between red rose and red dragon lost the best of itself, to the extent that it is now positively unhealthy. Will it ever change for the better, or has too much blood and bitterness flowed beneath the bridges straddling the Taff and the Thames? The two New Zealanders who coached Wales between 1998 and 2004, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, could never get their heads around the naked emotionalism - the incendiary mix of the nostalgic and the political - that elevate this one fixture above all others in terms of patriotic excess. Indeed, they suspected that half the problems undermining Welsh rugby were directly linked to a destructive obsession with beating England.

"I wouldn't take too much notice of what they thought," said Gareth Jenkins this week. The revered Llanelli coach and heir to the legacy of the patron saint of Stradey Park, Carwyn James, is as familiar with the tides and currents of the Welsh game as anyone in the principality, and in his view the annual dust-up with England will forever dominate the national consciousness. "I don't think either Graham or Steve understood the importance of championship rugby, its place in our rugby tradition, and by extension the importance of the England match," he explained. "They simply didn't realise what the thing involved. When they spoke, as they often did, about treating it as any other game, it was their way of relieving the pressure on themselves.

"What does it mean for Wales to play England? The first thing to establish is that it is the fixture, the most important game of each and every year. If we beat England, the season is a success in the eyes of the rugby public. I played for Llanelli in the 1970s when Welsh rugby was as good as it gets, when we could take on anyone in the world and have a strong chance of winning. Even then, the England game was the biggest of them all, for the obvious reasons of geographical proximity and historic rivalry. It will never change, and neither should it in my opinion.

"Does this mean we have it out of perspective? Probably. But when did we in Wales ever have rugby in perspective? We wouldn't have the wonderfully rich game we see now if things were kept in bloody perspective, would we? This is where nation stands against nation, with all that entails, and this year, as in every other year, we live in hope of victory."

There are those, like dear old "Merv the Swerve", who believe the fixation with past glories against the English - indeed, past glories of all descriptions - is self-defeating. "The 1970s still haunt Wales," Davies wrote. "Modern players, who have grown up in the shadows of their illustrious rugby fathers, have struggled, and largely failed, to free themselves from what once was."

English rugby, meanwhile, has broken free of the social ties that bound it for generations. Professionalism has democratised the game in the shires - to a considerable degree, the Cecils and Claudes of Eton and Harrow have been elbowed aside by products of the state-school sector - and with the Premiership club academies now operating at full capacity, gifted youngsters from all backgrounds can plot a route towards a full-time contract.

Much to the chagrin of the most passionate rugby country north of the equator, the mere mention of the word "Cardiff" no longer turns the red rose army to stone. Today's visitors do not like the place any more now than they did when Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan were in Downing Street, but they do not fear it.

Both Andy Robinson, the England coach, and Mike Ruddock, his opposite number in Wales, have spent the last fortnight talking of discipline and focus, of controlling the controllables, of concentrating purely on the here and now - the usual performance-speak dished out by the tactical classes. The difference? Robinson has been addressing a squad of 30 players, Ruddock an audience of two and a half million, 99 per cent of whom will not have paid the slightest attention. It was ever thus, and shall always be.

When we eere kings when the dragon really roared

I was there 1993 Mike Rayer

Wales full-back in a 10-9 victory, the last by the home side in Cardiff

You could sense something was going to happen that day. Everybody gave everything - it was a huge effort. From a defensive point of view we were proud we kept them out; we got congratulations for that.

As the game wore on we sensed that we were going to win. Every time we were under pressure we brought off a tackle or knocked the ball out and relieved the pressure.

For the winning try, Emyr Lewis saw that there was nothing really on, but quite bizarrely he kicked. Ieuan Evans chased the ball down and kicked it forwards, but even then I wasn't sure if it was going to be a try. Suddenly the crowd got louder and louder and in a flash he got the ball ahead of Rory Underwood. It was one of those split-second things.

The focus has sometimes been too great on England but they are the old enemy, and the players and management will build it up. However sometimes maybe we felt "job done" - in 1993 we lost to Ireland, France and Scotland so we need to remember it isn't everything.

I know it's always special to play England but I was just happy to be playing. As it turned out I was dropped after the Ireland game. It was a case of enjoying every game.

I always used to get excited before a match; the changing room can be quite bizarre before a game but for me it was just exciting. It was always a great feeling taking the field at the Arms Park.

I was there 1959 Bryn Meredith

Wales hooker when Dewi Bebb's converted try was enough for a 5-0 win

In those days England were always the first game of the season, then it was Scotland, Ireland, then France, always in that order. You knew whom you were to play and you knew when the game was going to be. You could set your holiday plans years ahead.

England, as far as all the Celtic nations were concerned, was the common enemy. You always wanted to do well because the others would play England later and it would be good to tire them or produce a deflating performance. It was emotional to play for Wales because representing your country was the highlight. Especially, against the old enemy, of course.

When you came out of the tunnel it was overpowering really because the crowd were down in the bowl, very close to the touchline. The noise was deafening - it was always very difficult to hear the ref's whistle.

Playing for Wales was special because it was like a village team. You spoke about your heroes as if you were friends who saw each other socially. We knew them so well because there was always a double-spread in the papers of our local teams - Newport and Swansea - so we knew them.

I was there 1979 Alan Phillips

Welsh hooker in a 27-3 triumph which secured the Triple Crown

The thing I remember most is blinking and realising it was over. I only had one weeks' notice that I was playing because another player was injured.

It was the Triple Crown match. Very early on our forwards got on top and in the last 20 minutes we ran away with it.

I remember Mike Roberts scored from a line-out. Paul Ringer was my man of the match. He was everywhere that day, frightened the life out of England's front row, and scored a great try. JPR Williams scored a simple try. The tries weren't that special, just efficient and the product of hard work.

Our first try was straight from a scrum; we kicked over the top and David Richards scored. JPR played like a madman; then again, so did Ringer.

The atmosphere, like every game against England, was fantastic. Walking from the Angel Hotel to the changing room was special. People patting you on the back, cheering you on - we were 10 or 12 points up before kick-off.

We used to do our line-out signals in Welsh. However, it was so loud inside the stadium that I had to run over to our scrum-half and ask what the bloody hell was going on because the referee was ordering me to hurry up. After that we resorted to using hand signals.