Boks feast on Morgan's mistake
June 4, 2010
Cliff Morgan's change of tactics proved to be a mistake by Wales © PA Photos
Wales's rivalry with the Springboks, which continues this weekend at the Millennium Stadium, lacks the accretion of affectionate legend which has attached itself to the relationship with New Zealand.
There are a number of possible reasons, including the intangibles of national affinity. One factor, though, is that the relationship has simply been too one-sided. The same, of course, could be said of the past half-century of Wales-New Zealand matches, but at least earlier history gave Wales enough happy memories - notably the immortal clash of 1905, which plays a vital role in the mythology of both nations.
There is nothing like that in dealings with the Bokke, which form the grimmest single chapter in Wales's international record. One victory, one draw, 21 defeats. It gives Wales the worst record against the Boks of any of the foundation nations, trailing behind Scotland and Ireland (four wins apiece).
This shows not only that South Africa have usually been stronger than Wales, but also that Wales has underachieved even within this equation. Alongside some historic hammerings, most famously the 96-13 reverse at Loftus Versfeld in 1998, have been crushing disappointments in matches Wales began feeling they had a chance to win.
The famous defeat of the All Blacks in 1905 was followed within 12 months by a clear-cut 11-0 beating from the Boks at Swansea in the match that ended Gwyn Nicholls' magnificent international career. In 1912 only a single penalty goal separated the teams, and in 1970 Wales needed a late try by Gareth Edwards in one of the last Arms Park mudbaths to draw with a Boks team that failed to win any of its four internationals on tour.
Right up with them in terms of disappointment was 1951. The touring Boks were clearly an exceptional team. They had begun their international programme with a 44-0 slaughter of the Scots that, considered against the usual scores of the era, is probably the greaTest hammering inflicted by one great rugby nation on another. If that represented an improbable peak, they were wont to win with something to spare, arriving at the Arms Park with a record of 17 wins to one defeat, 11-9 by London Counties. Only one of their victims, Cardiff (9-11), had got closer than the five points then awarded for a converted try.
Wales, though, had reason to expect. While the 1951 Five Nations had been a disappointment, highlighted by a staggering defeat at Murrayfield, they still had plenty of veterans both of the 1950 Grand Slam and of that year's Lions tour to New Zealand. Excitement was reflected in 15s (75p) stand tickets changing hands for £10 in the streets around the Arms Park.
Wales fielded a genuinely brilliant back division - Gerwyn Williams, Ken Jones, Bleddyn Williams, Malcolm Thomas, Lewis Jones, Cliff Morgan and Rex Willis. To read that, and to remember South Africa's traditions of fearsomely physical packs, could be to assume that the failure by Wales that led to a 6-3 defeat in a ferocious conTest was down to the forwards.
It was not. Roy John, the Neath man reckoned by New Zealander Terry McLean "to do the Indian rope trick without the rope", and skipper John Gwilliam dominated the line-out, which Wales took by a margin of 38 to 21. The scrummaging fully justified the decision by the selectors earlier in 1951, aimed specifically at South Africa, to go for size and power at prop, converting Swansea lock Billy 'Stoker' Williams for what proved to be a long front-row career.
Wales had plenty of ball. It was what they did with it that was the problem. Cliff Morgan was playing in his third Test, already renowned as a vivaciously brilliant runner from outside-half. In this match he kicked, a transformation as unlikely as the famous Gillette Cup final when Geoff Boycott hammered Surrey around Lord's with brilliant strokeplay, but much less effective.
Morgan remembered in his memoirs: "We had this theory that the way to reduce the effectiveness of their back-row was to have them constantly turning on their heels to field short punts and grubber kicks. It didn't work: they read our minds (the fullback Johnny Buchler in particular) and much of the time we were simply feeding them the ball."
Morgan was, at the same time, being harassed and hurried by Springbok flanker Basie van Wyk. This was an era when back-row forwards had, in the words of Wales's Clem Thomas "a license to kill outside-halves". South African skipper Hennie Muller, one of the greatest of all time, recalled that under the pressures imposed by himself and van Wyk, Morgan "looked for damage limitation and at both line outs and scrums began to stand behind Willis and the pack in order to gain the maximum protection".
Bleddyn Williams reckoned that van Wyk was the true match-winner in a South African victory by 6-3. Wing Chum Ochse crossed just before half-time following a break and high, lobbed pass by centre Tjol Latergan, then a 73rd minute drop-goal by outside-half Hannes Brewis sealed the win before Wales's late consolation try, scored by Williams following an audacious scissors with fellow centre Malcolm Thomas.
Morgan recalled that, "We felt that we had let ourselves down", and surviving members of that team still recall the disappointment. At the same time, their conquerors were a very fine team, winners of all five internationals on their tour. Both Bleddyn Williams and Gwilliam reckoned them probably the best opponents they faced during distinguished careers.
The once-a-decade structure of tours in this period meant Wales did not get another shot at the Boks until 1960 - they were to lose again. South Africa's unbeaten run against Welsh opposition, dating back to a loss to Swansea in 1913, was not to end until Dawie de Villier's 1969-70 team went down at Newport. But the bulk of the Wales team beaten by South Africa went on to win a Grand Slam in 1952, while Morgan was to take a more personal revenge on his Arms Park tormentor. Four years later van Wyk lined up against him in the first Test of the British & Irish Lions-Boks Test series at Johannesburg. Morgan ran amok, scoring a memorable try in perhaps the greatest Lions victory, by 23-22. Van Wyk did not play for South Africa again.