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The First XV: A Selection of the Best Rugby Writing

The First XV: A Selection of the Best Rugby Writing

by Gareth Williams

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A collection of biographical, anecdotal, and literary essays on Britain's consuming passion for rugby, this account describes the exploits of the people’s heroes from Gould to Gareth Edwards. The beauty and exhilaration of the game is vividly recaptured in classic prose, as are the emotions and expectations of the most passionate rugby aficionados


A collection of biographical, anecdotal, and literary essays on Britain's consuming passion for rugby, this account describes the exploits of the people’s heroes from Gould to Gareth Edwards. The beauty and exhilaration of the game is vividly recaptured in classic prose, as are the emotions and expectations of the most passionate rugby aficionados in the world. From the humorous to the erudite, this selection features work from the likes of Richard Burton, Frank Keating, John Morgan, Dylan Thomas, Alan Watkins, and Harry Webb.

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Parthian Books
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The First XV

A Selection of the Best Rugby Writing

By Gareth Williams


Copyright © 2011 The Authors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908069-20-7



    Vive le Sport

    Sing a song of rugby,
    Buttocks, booze and blood,
    Thirty dirty ruffians
    Brawling in the mud.

    When the match is over,
    They're at the bar in throngs,
    If you think the game is filthy,
    Then you should hear the songs.

    from The Green Desert (1969)



The Master of Supreme Achievement

All my life through I have had a capacity for hero-worship. Whenever I have found greatness of character, intellect, skill, or kindliness it has been a joy to pay tribute to it. Yet, side by side with willingness to admire and praise (in connection with Rugby football and all else), has been an inability to ignore faults and shortcomings. In the early 'Nineties I thought Arthur Gould the greatest Rugby player I had ever seen. Today, after sixty years of football criticism, I think of him still as the greatest player of all time. There were days when he fell short of his own standards, and I criticised his play accordingly (much to the annoyance of some of his idolatrous admirers); yet, in spite of occasional defects, he seemed then, and to me remains, the master of supreme achievement. How wonderful were the days when Arthur Gould was the bright particular star of Invincible Newport and Invincible Wales! Under the heading of 'The Prince of Players', I wrote in 1893 or 1894 two articles which gave a full account of his career till that time. Its completeness was due to the fact that I had access to a newspaper cutting book in which Arthur Gould's admiring sister had kept records of most of the matches in which he had played. His career was remarkable in its variety. Though Newport was his home, and early and late he played for the Newport team, he spent long periods in other districts, part of the time associated with a brother who was a public works contractor. He played for the Southampton Trojans, the London Welsh, and Richmond; for Hampshire, South Wales, and Middlesex; from 1885 till 1897 he was assured of his place in the Welsh team, of which he was the accepted captain for years. Those who never saw him in his heyday can have little conception of his physical powers and the keen brain which directed and controlled them. He was a track sprinter only two yards outside evens; and a great hurdler who several times was second in the English championship. As a footballer he had all the gifts, and they had been developed by thought and constant practice. Some boys when they begin to play Rugby football find that they dodge, swerve, and side-step naturally – it is not a question of thought, it is an animal instinct. Arthur Gould was one of them. He dodged or swerved away from a tackler instinctively; but before he had gone far he had learned to study the capacity of his fellow players and the defensive powers of his opponents, knew what he was doing, why he did it, and how it was done. Other players, on their inspired days, have gone through their opponents – swerving, side-stepping, dodging with easy mastery which made the defence look silly; other centres have made perfect openings and unselfishly given their wings chances to score; other men have nipped their opponents' attacks in the bud by the quickness with which they smothered man and ball, or by intercepting passes; others have tackled man after man or compelled them to pass to avoid being taken with the ball; but no three-quarter I have known has maintained the high level of attainment in attack and defence so long and so consistently as Arthur Gould – no man has shown such uniform brilliance and resourcefulness over so long a period of years. He was in first -class football from 1882 till 1898; he first played for Wales against England in 1885, and his last game was against England – at Newport in 1897 – twenty-seven matches, at that time a record. And when comparison is made with the records of other players it must be remembered that in his day there were no matches with France, New Zealand, South Africa, or Australia to swell the record, and that he was in the West Indies in 1889. As a boy he played at three-quarter, but it was as a stop-gap full-back that he entered the Newport XV. His first game was prophetic. 'Kick, you young devil!' shouted the Newport Captain, for he was playing a three-quarter game; but twice he ran through the Weston -super-Mare team and scored tries. As a full-back he played for Newport for three seasons; he got his cap for Wales first as a full -back; but when he had a chance to play at three-quarter he soon made his mark. In those early days he was famous as a kicker, and one season dropped twenty goals; but he was known also for his speed and elusiveness, and for the wonderful quickness of his punting. Thereby hangs a tale. Arthur Gould was left-handed and left-footed; he kicked instinctively with his left foot. But when his opponents found that he could kick only with one foot, they played on him from their right and smothered his kicks. When he found what was happening, he practised kicking with his right foot so assiduously that he became as good with one foot as the other, and the late W.H. Gwynn, of Swansea, Secretary to the Welsh Rugby Union, who told the tale, concluded, 'And you simply couldn't prevent him from getting in his kick.' Never did a rugby player work harder to improve his natural gifts and perfect his technical equipment. As time went on, he became sparing of his efforts to drop goals, and concentrated upon running through the defence or making openings for his wings. In his closing years his defence was criticised, and it is true that often in those late days he would not go down to the ball, and obviously avoided clashes with big forwards who were bearing down on him; while too often he tried to intercept a pass instead of going for the man with the ball. This of course was a defect – it counts against him. But he had taken a lot of battering, and had suffered many injuries in the earlier years, when his defence was the admiration of friend and foe. Indeed, after the Welsh victory over Scotland at Newport in 1887-8, Charles Reid, the greatest of Scottish forwards, said publicly that he had never known a man who did more for his team than Gould did that day. When Gould ran, he carried the ball in both hands; often as he side-stepped an opponent he raised the ball at arm's length above his head; sometimes from that height he gave a downward untakeable pass. I mention faults developed late in his career, because if they are ignored I may be charged with praising this great player blindly or dishonestly. But, when all is said, Arthur Gould is to me the greatest rugby footballer who ever played.

from Rugby Recollections (1948)



The Greatest Match of All

... And so the game began. Straightway was remarked a strange lethargy about the All Black movements. Because they had travelled so much and understood each other so well, the New Zealanders glossed over their mistakes with a kind of professional competence. But there were mistakes, all the same, and alone among the teams of the Kingdom the Welsh had the wit to perceive and the knowledge to employ the means of capitalising them. So often in the past the ball had flashed from the scrum into the hands of Roberts and gone from him in smooth movement to Stead, to Hunter at the start of a weaving run and thence into the three -quarters and sometimes back to where Seeling and O'Sullivan and McDonald and Glasgow hunted and hungered like black panthers. Now, there were awkward movements, fumblings, slow passes and aimless runs which drifted across the field into touch. Time and again Gillett hefted the ball and, more often than not, it swerved into midfield so that All Black heads rolled and began to hang as they chased hither and thither.

Where Gillett aimed and misfired, Winfield, steady as a rock, planted the ball unerringly ahead of his forwards into touch. Where Mynott stumbled outward, Percy Bush nipped and jigged. And while the All Black forwards for the main part had the advantage, this was slight. Wales had deduced that the New Zealand formation of seven forwards, seven backs and Gallaher as half one and half the other was more elastic and hence more dangerous than the standard formation of eight forwards and seven backs, and with that imitation which is the sincerest form of flattery they had made their Cliff Pritchard a rover, too. His roving here and there was the ruin of a number of attacks at their inception; and when he was beaten on the tackle, the Welsh backs, all enduring, thudded into their markers and put them down as comprehensively as if the Leaning Tower itself had bitten the dust of Pisa.

So the play went for half an hour. As someone afterwards remarked, keen, strenuous and intensely exciting, yes. Brilliant, no. Then Wales breached the New Zealand 25 and heeled from a scrum somewhat to the right of the posts. It was the moment to execute the planned attack. Owen feinted to the right, to the blindside, and in the confusion seemed to run a yard or two wide of the scrum. The All Black defence bore across, rapidly massing. In a moment, Owen flung back a pass to Pritchard to the left of the scrum. Away went Wales. Now Gabe in the centre had the ball and was thrusting ahead. As a tackler loomed he passed onward to Morgan on the left wing. Years later, Morgan's mind seemed to grow clouded on issues of the game and a famous statement of his on events was taken as gospel truth – as it might have been – and made thousands of New Zealanders embittered. At this moment, all that mattered was the present and in it Morgan was at the height of manhood and dangerously quick in his running. Clasping the ball, he sped around the lumbering stretch of Gillett and flew a few yards onwards for a try. Forty thousand Welshmen screamed their delight. Teddy! Teddy! Did you see it, man, did you see him get the ball and go! Lord, what a run! And did you see Gabe, man, and Cliff Pritchard? And Owen, Dicky Owen. He fooled 'em. Dicky fooled those bloody All Blacks, man.

Winfield could not manage to goal, but it was Wales 3 and New Zealand 0 and so it remained at half-time which, proclaimed two minutes too soon, caught the New Zealanders storming at the Welsh goal-line and battering down the defence, too. Now was seen the almost professional competence of the All Blacks. Though Bush once caused swelling screams of joy and hope as his dropkick soared toward – and only just dropped short of – the posts, the attack was principally delivered by New Zealand. The old, smooth, rippling movement of men and ball toward the goal-line wanted in rhythm and fluency, but its substitute, an honest, almost tormented endeavour, seemed too strong for Wales. McGregor once placed the ball back in mid-field from the centre and, with a surer grasp, anyone of half a dozen forwards could have had the ball and a try. Another time Roberts snapped the ball to Mynott with the goal-line only feet away; but Welsh hands turned Mynott for the time being into the Leaning Tower of Taranaki and struggle as he might he could not score.

And then came the moment which was to stand not only this match but all of Rugby on its ear, not for a spell but for generations, which was to engender a feeling that New Zealand had been unfairly used and which, when all the pros and cons had been argued into eternity, was to be the greatest event in the history of New Zealand Rugby because it provided a basis, a starting-point, a seed of nationalism upon which all aspects of the game were to depend in succeeding years. Wallace the Nonpareil dashed in and, gathering the ball, set off from near halfway, bearing to his left and weaving and swerving away from the tiring mass of Welsh players. Nothing that this genius ever did on the field was marred by gross miscalculation or foolish blunder and now, with the light in his eye and the honour of New Zealand to save, his flying run shouted of death and destruction, no matter how much Wales might or could endure.

Striding up to join him ran young Deans, the powerful centre, and as they rushed onward in concert the youth sensed that Wallace might be covered. He called and the pass came swiftly to him as he thundered for the goal. He dived –

And then, of course, all hell let loose.

Gabe tackled Deans. It was certain that they lay a moment. It was also certain that soon Welsh reinforcements were pulling the two back into the field and not wasting any time about it, either.

The question was whether Deans had grounded the ball across the tryline, or not. Gabe felt that he had not, because he could feel Deans straining forward as they lay on the ground. Wallace and other New Zealanders swore that he had. The Welshmen, of course, were far too busy. Never were traces of a crime – and, in Wales, it is a crime to score against Wales – so swiftly expunged.

And the only man in all the world whose yea or nay meant anything at all was, poor fellow, in a state of utter confusion. Poor Mr Dallas, a Scotsman, had taken the field as referee heavily clad and without bars to his boots. He was not in fine training. The pace of the game was great. At this vital moment when all he needed to do was to be there and to see for himself, giving a judgment which all would have to respect, he was not present. Like a blunt-nosed trawler shipping steep seas, he was trudging along a good 30 yards behind the play. When he did get up, Deans and Gabe lay in the field. The Welsh expungers had been diligent at their task. Mr Dallas blew his whistle; but it was not for a try.

You may, if you wish, even now embroil yourself in the aftermath. Gabe has stated that he said to Deans, after the game, 'Why did you try to wriggle onward?' There was no reply. There is evidence that Gallaher had no complaint. But the next day, at 10.26 a.m., Deans handed in to the Cardiff Post Office a telegram to the London Daily Mail. 'Grounded ball six inches over line,' he wrote in it. 'Some of Welsh players admit try. Hunter and Glasgow can confirm was pulled back by Welshmen before referee arrived.'

Deans was a man of complete probity. It was unthinkable that he would deliberately falsify the issue. And, years later, the issue was bedevilled still further when Morgan, now Dr Morgan, wrote on a programme that it was a try. Fifty years later, those few, those gallant few, who remained of this incomparable team were treated to a reunion by the New Zealand Rugby Union and, as is the custom, gathered in a hotel bar to drink and talk. It was a moving experience to hear Hunter say to Stead, while the years peeled off their shoulders back to the days when they were stalwart and strong and without compare, 'Without you, I should have been nothing. You were the finest player of all.' But it was also wryly moving that the gathering had scarcely got going before Wallace was producing a diagram which purported to show where he had run, when he had passed, and how Deans had scored. The old men grouped about it. 'Yes,' they said. 'That is right. That was how it happened. It was a try.'

In all this seriousness, there is a touch of the comic, if not irreverent, in the evidence of George Nicholson, an Auckland forward who had not won a place in the match. 'Billy Stead,' Nicholson said, 'was touch judge. Bill felt the call of Nature. He asked me to take over. When Wallace began to run, I went with him. I was only yards away when Deans got the ball. I was whooping along. And then I saw the dive and the tackle.'

'And what was it?'

'Ah,' said George. 'It was a try, true enough.'

So it can go and has gone on. And yet, what did it matter?

What does it matter? Only one man in all the world could decide and he said no. That was the end. The place of the 1905 All Blacks in history is secure. No other team ever approached their back play. By modern standards, Seeling and McDonald and Casey and O'Sullivan and the rest were small forwards; but so powerful were they, so husky, so well trained, so tough, that for all time they fulfilled Falstaff's dictum that it is the spirit and not the size of the man that counts.

It is fascinating, if fruitless, to speculate on the might-have-beens if the try had been awarded and Wallace, as he would almost certainly have done, had kicked the goal. Would Rugby in New Zealand have remained the national game? Would the rivalry with Wales still be of a special quality which none but New Zealanders and Welshmen can ever properly understand? One speculates and gets no further. Was it a try? Of course not. The referee said so.


Excerpted from The First XV by Gareth Williams. Copyright © 2011 The Authors. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gareth Williams has written and broadcast extensively on the sporting and musical history of South Wales. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Fields of Praise, Valleys of Song, and Wales and its Boxers, and a former history professor and director of the Center for Modern and Contemporary Wales at the University of Glamorgan. Gerald Davies is one of the acknowledged greats of Welsh rugby, playing for Cardiff RFC and London Welsh. He is also a journalist for the Times and a chairman of the Wales Youth Agency.

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