Wales end Ireland's championship hopes
March 5, 2010
Wales skipper Jack Bassett was inspirational in their victory over Ireland © PA Photos
Ireland v Wales has a distinctive place in the collective consciousness of both nations. Before the Five Nations started fixture rotation in the 1970s, it was the Triple Crown match. Both would already have played Scotland and England and if either, or both, had won both matches their meeting could carry what until the rise of France in the 1950s and the consequent coining of 'Grand Slam', was regarded as the championship's supreme accolade.
So a disproportionate number of each nation's memories of triumph and disaster are concentrated in that single fixture. For elderly Welshmen, mention of 1950 and 1952 will bring a reminiscent smile, while Irishmen of the same vintage cherish memories of the triumphs in 1948 and 1949.
Along with those, though, are the failures. Eighty years ago this week a fine Irish side made the journey to St Helen's ground, Swansea for the match that would decide whether they went down in history. After an unexpected opening defeat against France, Ireland had beaten Scotland and England. Wales had lost to both.
Like their successors of 2009, Ireland had more than a single season resting upon them. In the previous five seasons they had won 13 matches, draw two and lost only five. Yet the spacing of those defeats - one in each year - meant that like the great team led by Brian O'Driscoll, they had relatively little to show for their consistency - not a single Triple Crown and only two shared championships, both with Scotland in years when they had beaten the Scots, but lost to lower-placed opponents. One of those defeats was on their last visit to Swansea, in 1926, when a last minute drop-goal attempt - worth four points in those days - by centre Tom Hewitt swerved wide to leave Wales 11-8 winners and Ireland tantalisingly short not only of the Triple Crown, but a first Grand Slam.
Memories of that match were still clear in the 50,000 crowd at St Helen's. Irish loose forward Jammie Clinch recounted to the end of a long life the anecdote of his running on to St Helen's after that four year gap and being greeted by a spectator's shout of 'send him off'. Clinch said 'I was touched that they remembered me'.
Ireland looked well set on March 8, 1930 when centre Eugene Davy, a converted outside-half who had scored a hat-trick of tries two weeks earlier at Murrayfield, landed a second minute 40-yard drop-goal. Wales struck back with two tries. Lock Archie Skym crossed after charging 40 yards from a line-out, then shortly after half time debutant wing Howie Jones, playing on his home ground, and back rower Harry Peacock claimed a rare joint try as both leapt on the ball simultaneously. But Wales's lead was short-lived, with Paul Murray, the outside-half whose emergence had prompted the long-serving Davy's shift to centre, restored Ireland's lead.
Ireland, it was reported, might have won but for the brilliance of Welsh fullback Jack Bassett. It was the Penarth player's first match as captain and he rose to the occasion, reportedly making three try-saving tackles, including one spectacular felling of Davy with the line apparently at his mercy.
Instead a 50,000 crowd was able to celebrate a Welsh victory as Bassett landed a penalty and Neath prop Tom Arthur crossed for the third try by a Wales forward, a reflection of the edge in a vigorous forward battle in which Clinch appears to have failed in his proclaimed quest to 'make an orange' of combative opposite number Arthur Lemon. There would be no outright Irish title until 1935, no Triple Crown before 1948.
It was not merely the end of Ireland's hopes in one of the tightest championship seasons of all time - England claimed the title with five points, Scotland were bottom with three and the rest tied on four points between them - but of a remarkable career.
Ireland's captain George Stephenson had won his first cap 10 years earlier, a centre completing a rise within a few months from Queen's University's third team to international selection. Once there he was not to be shifted for a decade, missing only a single match through injury, against Scotland in 1929, as he piled up totals of 42 caps and 89 points, making him the leading cap-winner and points-scorer in international history when he retired.
Opinion as to whether his talent matched those formidable statistics varied. Welsh writer Townsend Collins had no doubts, noting 'quickness of foot, swiftness and grace, and the beauty of a deceptive swerve, he played for his fellows, he made openings and gave his passes with the accuracy and judgment of a master. He was a lovely kick and…was magnificent in defence. In many a game he was a rock against which the waves of attack broke in vain".
Neither the Englishman E.H.D Sewell nor Stephenson's compatriot H.J.Harland questioned his quality in defence. But Sewell reckoned that 'his wings seldom scored a try that mattered - in my seeing' while Harland, pointing to his devastating displays for Queen's, reckoned a mystery in 'his inability to reproduce more of that brilliance in international struggles'.
Yet his 14 tries remained an Irish record until broken by Brendan Mullin in 1991 and his wings, who included his older brother Henry, crossed 13 times while he was playing centre, against the 11 scored by players on the other wing.
Certainly the Irish selectors felt no urge to drop him, and evidently regretted that his medical career took him to London, where he was to live until his death in 1970, to work as a psychiatrist. His records were also to prove durable - he was the leading points-scorer in all international rugby until overtaken by Jean Prat in 1952 and his caps record survived until Ken Jones won his 43rd in 1957. Jack Kyle took his Irish appearances record a year later, and the points record lasted until Tom Kiernan reached 90 points in 1968. Great names all, and there seems little doubt that Stephenson belongs in their company.