Wooller inspires British Army triumph
February 24, 2010
Wilfred Wooller, a former Cambridge Blue at cricket and rugby, notched a memorable try for the British Army in their clash with France in 1940 © Getty Images
They may have been international opponents for 100 years and more, Heineken adversaries for the last 15, but there is still a frisson, a touch of the exotic about any match that brings British or Irish teams together with French opponents.
This week's Wales v France match at the Millennium Stadium will have the usual ingredients, plus the added element of a Friday evening kick-off. It isn't to everybody's taste, least of all journalists who may still be filing copy to impatient news and sports desks past midnight, but it is a typically French touch - Wales reciprocating the night game played in Paris last year - of the different and the original.
It also comes 70 years to the week after a highly distinctive Franco-British confrontation, the France v British Army clash played at the Parc des Princes on February 25, 1940. It was the first representative match between France and the home nations since their expulsion from the Five Nations in 1931. The home nations had formally readmitted France in 1939, but the decision was made in July, long after that season's tournament concluded and in the knowledge that war would very likely intervene - as it duly did on September 3 - well before the scheduled 1940 fixtures which included an England v France match at Twickenham on February 24.
The best players of Britain and France - as fit young men certain to be conscripted - had been swept into the armed forces. The touring Wallabies arrived at Southampton just in time to hear Neville Chamberlain's speech, aid the war effort by filling sandbags and return home. Twickenham had been requisitioned, with one car park returned to the site's original function as a market garden. Yet some representative rugby had continued. The Varsity match was played at Cambridge and Wales/England beat Ireland/Scotland 17-3 in a Red Cross International at Richmond.
French rugby union was at a low point. Expulsion had confined them to an annual match against Germany - who had beaten them at Frankfurt in 1938 - plus the odd outing against Italy and Romania. Rugby league had arrived in France in 1934 and, with many clubs and players switching code, was by the outbreak of war close to matching union in terms of affiliated clubs and attendance for major matches. France had not played as a team since 1938.
Around 20 French players were called to Paris from their military units to prepare for the match. Their captain Pierre Thiers, who had won his previous six caps as a scrum-half but had now converted to play on the flank, recalled that, 'We were all carrying a few extra kilos'. Nine of the chosen XV - including three apiece from Thiers club Montferrand and from Tarbes but only one from the 1939 champions Perpignan and none from runners-up Biarritz - were winning their first caps. Of the six who had played before, five were veterans of the humiliating loss in Frankfurt.
Opposed to them was one of the strongest teams that has represented a British armed force. All 15 players had won peacetime caps - seven for England, four Wales, three Ireland and one Scot. Five of them had gone on the 1938 Lions tour of South Africa, including the Lions skipper Sammy Walker - who had however, in a military team, to defer to the superior rank of his fellow backrower and compatriot Herbert Sayers, a professional soldier who had risen to the rank of captain.
Thirteen of the Army team had played together a fortnight earlier when the Army beat the 'Empire', a team with 11 internationals including Wales scrum-half Haydn Tanner and England wing Alexander Obolensky, 27-9 at Richmond. They were to prove much too powerful for the French.
The final score, 36-3, was a throwback to the humiliating early days of French participation in international rugby. Their chief tormentor was the huge Welsh centre Wilfred Wooller, whose hat-trick included one 70 yard solo and another team move initiated in the Army 25.
Sayers scored twice while the others to cross were two Englishmen - centre Peter Cranmer and wing Dicky Guest - and another Welshman, Cardiff forward William 'Wendy' Davis. Fullback Vivian Jenkins, who had retired from international rugby in 1939 after being one of the outstanding players of the decade, converted six of the eight tries. France's sole response was a penalty from Thiers.
France awarded full caps. If it was a first appearance for nine of them, it was also the last for 14, with only Thiers reappearing, leading France to a 21-9 victory over the British Army in liberated Paris on New Year's Day 1945 then to a 27-6 loss against the Empire at Richmond in April of that year.
Of the Army players Guest and hooker Bunner Travers, whose reappearance in 1949 so confounded the Welsh Rugby Union that, believing he could not possibly be the same Travers who had played before the war, they gave him a new Wales cap, played on for long enough to appear in post-war internationals.
The two lock forwards, Tom Huskisson and Blair Mayne, were decorated for their war services while outside-half Frank Reynolds was mentioned in despatches. Sayers died on military service in 1943, a fate visited as early as June 1940 on French prop Francois Meret, a victim of France's subsequent, and infinitely more significant, home defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht.