Ask John
Unofficial world champions, Lions captains who switched codes and England's youngest front-row
John Griffiths
February 14, 2011

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask John where renowned rugby historian John Griffiths will answer any rugby-related query you have!

So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about the game we love but didn't know who to ask, or you think you can stump our expert - then get involved by sending us a question.

In this edition John answers questions on the unofficial world champions, Llanelli's Welsh internationals in 1958, Lions captains who went on to Rugby League, the first French Championship final and England's youngest front-row.

I know that there is a website that tracks the unofficial football world champion by using the idea of "winner stays on" and I was wondering if doing the same thing for international rugby union would throw up any surprises? Would there have been any world champions outside of the obvious major test nations for example? Also, would it make a significant difference if British Lions test matches were included? (ie if the Lions won their final test on tour, the title wasn't competed for until the 1st test of the following tour series.) Tim Skepper, England

This system uses the boxing concept that the winner of any title match is the world championship-holder and in the last column the list was given up to 1984, when Romania took the title from Scotland - the first time that the title had gone outside the Five Nations, Lions or Tri-Nations. (Drawn matches result in the title being retained by the holder)

Year-Title Holder
1984 - Romania (no successful defence)
1984 - France (four successful defences up to 1985)
1985 - Argentina (no successful defence)
1985 - France (no successful defence)
1986 - Scotland (no successful defence)
1986 - Wales (one successful defence)
1986 - France (two successful defences)
1986 - Argentina (no successful defence)
1986 - France (no successful defence)
1986 - Australia (three successful defences)
1986 - New Zealand (no successful defence)
1986 - Australia (five successful defences up to 1987)
1987 - France (no successful defence)
1987 - New Zealand (17 successful defences up to 1990)
1990 - Australia (three successful defences up to 1991)
1991 - New Zealand (four successful defences)
1991 - Australia (five successful defences up to 1992)
1992 - New Zealand ((two successful defences up to 1993)
1993 - British/Irish Lions (no successful defence)
1993 - New Zealand (three successful defences)
1993 - England (one successful defence up to 1994)
1994 - Ireland (one successful defence)
1994 - Australia (seven successful defences up to 1995)
1995 - South Africa (nine successful defences up to 1996)
1996 - Australia (no successful defence)
1996 - New Zealand (three successful defences)
1996 - South Africa (six successful defences up to 1997)
1997 - British/Irish Lions (one successful defence)
1997 - South Africa (no successful defence)
1997 - New Zealand (nine successful defences up to 1998)
1998 - Australia (no successful defence)
1998 - South Africa (six successful defences)
1998 - England (three successful defences up to 1999)
1999 - Wales (seven successful defences)
1999 - Samoa (no successful defence)
1999 - Scotland (no successful defence)
1999 - New Zealand (no successful defence)
1999 - France (no successful defence)
1999 - Australia (three successful defences up to 2000)
2000 - New Zealand (one successful defence)
2000 - Australia (three successful defences)
2000 - England (nine successful defences up to 2001)
2001 - Ireland (one successful defence)
2001 - New Zealand (eight successful defences up to 2002)
2002 - Australia (no successful defence)
2002 - South Africa (no successful defence)
2002 - France (two successful defences up to 2003)
2003 - England (seven successful defences)
2003 - France (no successful defence)
2003 - England (nine successful defences up to 2004)
2004 - Ireland (two successful defences)
2004 - South Africa (three successful defences)
2004 - New Zealand (no successful defence)
2004 - Australia (no successful defence)
2004 - South Africa (one successful defence)
2004 - Ireland (five successful defences up to 2005)
2005 - France (two successful defences)
2005 - South Africa (no successful defence)
2005 - Australia (no successful defence)
2005 - South Africa (three successful defences)
2005 - New Zealand (13 successful defences up to 2006)
2006 - South Africa (one successful defence)
2006 - Ireland (three successful defences up to 2007)
2007 - France (one successful defence)
2007 - England (no successful defence)
2007 - Wales (no successful defence)
2007 - Australia (two successful defences)
2007 - South Africa (no successful defence)
2007 - New Zealand (no successful defence)
2007 - Australia (one successful defence)
2007 - New Zealand (four successful defences)
2007 - France (no successful defence)
2007 - England (no successful defence)
2007 - South Africa (four successful defences up to 2008)
2008 - New Zealand (no successful defence)
2008 - South Africa (no successful defence)
2008 - Australia (one successful defence)
2008 - New Zealand (eight successful defences up to 2009)
2009 - France (no successful defence)
2009 - New Zealand (two successful defences)
2009 - South Africa (three successful defences)
2009 - Australia ((no successful defence)
2009 - New Zealand (14 successful defences up to 2010)
2010 - Australia (one successful defence)
2010 - England (one successful defence)
2010 - South Africa, who have not "been challenged" since beating England at Twickenham in November.

The purists who argue that the Lions Tests should not be included can find how the sequence changes by visiting the interesting site at

A recent obituary in the Llanelli Star referred to the club having six players in the 1958 Welsh team. Which match was that? Huw Davies, Wales

Llanelli supplied Terry Davies, Cyril Davies, Ray Williams, Carwyn James, Wynne Evans and Rhys Williams to the Welsh side that beat Australia 9-3 in January 1958. It was Carwyn James's first game for Wales, standing in for Cliff Morgan at fly-half. James was also capped as a centre later that season when Morgan was restored.

In 1957, the club had also given Wales prop Henry Morgan and wing Geoff Howells (whose passing was noted in Star last month). Howells was best-remembered for breaking Ken Jones's stranglehold on the right-wing position in the Welsh team. Jones played in all 43 of Wales's post-war internationals between 1947 and 1956 before Howells faced England in 1957. When the Newport flyer was recalled for his 44th (and last) cap against Scotland at Murrayfield the following month, the Welsh selectors retained Howells, switching him to the left wing.

In the old amateur days were there any Lions tour captains who converted to Rugby League? Steve Williams, Wales

There was only one tour captain who fell into this category: Robin Thompson, who led the 1955 Lions to their two-all drawn series in South Africa, later joined Warrington RL.

David Watkins, who stood in as Test captain for tour skipper Mike Campbell-Lamerton on the 1966 Lions tour in New Zealand, later went to Salford RL and won Test honours at the highest level at both codes.

Since the game went open in 1995, Wales's Gareth Thomas is the only other player who has led the Lions in a Test (deputising for tour captain Brian O'Driscoll in New Zealand in 2005) before going on to play top-flight Rugby League.

I read that the first French Championship was won by Racing Club scoring a "tenu en but" ... It seems that in those days (around 1890's) the French assigned points like a try (but without conversion) if a player crossed the goal ("but" in French) line but didn't touch the ball down because of opposition defence. Is this correct? Was it a rule adopted only in France? Or also in British countries? When was it abolished? Maurizio, Italy

Before Australia, New Zealand and France became full members of the International Board they were free to make their own interpretations and variations of the laws. Only when they met full members in international matches did they have to adhere to the laws laid down by the Board.

In the early 1900s, for instance, it was common for Australia and New Zealand to use substitutes for injured players when they met one another. It wasn't until 1968, however, that the Board permitted their use at Test level.

In 1892, Racing won the first-ever French Championship final 4-3, each side scoring a converted try (worth three points each) and Racing obtaining the winning point through a "tenu en but" credited to Frantz Reichel. Translations of the match reports indicate that five minutes from the end he broke from a scrum but was held up over the line by Henri Amand, his opposite number, but was unable to touch the ball down.

In British rugby at this time the laws refer to "a maul in goal" and stipulate the (complex) conditions governing that phase of play. In Britain, however, it was only possible to score a try by touching the ball down in the opposition's goal area and a conversion had to follow. It would seem that the French had an alternative interpretation of this particular phase, awarding a scoring point but denying the conversion attempt.

The maul in goal was abolished in 1892 and presumably disappeared from the French version of the game at around the same time.

Were England's front-row against Italy in the recent Six Nations match their youngest ever? Graham, England

The average age of Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole was 23. In the corresponding match against Italy in Rome last year England had Matt Mullan, Hartley and Cole on the field together for part of the second half. Their average age was 22.

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