Tarr survives near-death experience
March 12, 2010
Cardiff Arms Park, circa 1935, the year it played host to Wales' famous win over the All Blacks © Getty Images
More than 2000 men - getting on for one in six of the total who ever played international rugby - have had to be satisfied with a single appearance at the highest level. It is hard to believe that any of them have had a more eventful day than Welsh hooker Don Tarr, the centenary of whose birth was Thursday, March 11. Tarr not only took part in a famous victory, but probably came closer to dying on the pitch than anyone else ever has in an international match.
He was a product of the fertile rugby nurseries of the Amman Valley, who rose to prominence via the Welsh Secondary Schools Rugby Union, a potent factor in Wales's revival after the miserable years of the 1920s. He was one of seven Wales schools players - the others included Claude Davey, Wales's captain on the day when Tarr won his senior cap - from the 1927 team, the fifth year of schools international rugby, to eventually take his place in the full Wales XV.
Tarr played for Ammanford club and joined the Royal Navy. In 1931 he joined Cardiff, for whom he played often enough to receive a First XV cap and appear against the 1931 South Africans. In 1933 he moved to Swansea where his promise was noted, but opportunities limited by the presence of Tom Day, an All Whites stalwart who captained the club in 1933-4 and was Wales's hooker for much of the first half of the 1930s, winning 13 caps.
Forces rugby, including club appearances for United Services, Portsmouth, further broadened his experience. In early 1935 his skill at hooker was reckoned the main reason the Navy beat the RAF in their annual match, although they later fell to the Army. He also played county rugby for Hampshire.
Those mixed allegiances became particularly important later in 1935 when they enabled him to play against the touring All Blacks four times in less than three few months. He packed down alongside former England captain Douglas Kendrew in a tough Combined Services side that, in foul, windy conditions at Aldershot, held the tourists to a 6-5 margin of victory.
A few weeks later he was in a combined Hampshire and Sussex side that took the All Blacks on at Dean Court, Bournemouth. This was expected to be one of the easier matches of the tour, but Tarr's efforts were one reason why the counties lost only 14-8, with the United Press agency reporting that he had much the better of his opposite number Douglas Dalton.
These were his second and third meetings with the tourists. Still more significant and memorable were numbers one and four, for Swansea and Wales. He was not originally selected to play for Swansea, but called up when Day was injured. This was the famous day when the All Whites became the first ever club to defeat the All Blacks. While after-match coverage naturally focussed on their prodigious schoolboy half-backs Haydn Tanner and Willie Davies, and two blockbusting tries by the bull-like Davey, their success was built on a rousing display by the Swansea forwards, with Tarr conspicuous among them. By the time of the Combined Services match it was being noted that 'Tarr seems to find a particular relish in his encounters with the All Blacks'.
The Welsh selectors evidently noticed as well, and Tarr was called up for his international debut when the All Blacks, who had already beaten Scotland and Ireland, came to Cardiff four days before Christmas 1935. The tourists had the edge in the scrums, but All Blacks Charles Oliver and Eric Tindill, in their account of the tour, still reckoned that Tarr was Wales's best forward.
The All Blacks, slightly against the run of play, were leading 12-10 with 10 minutes to go when a loose scrum broke up. As the players picked themselves up, one figure remained prone and motionless - Tarr, face down on the pitch. As the stretcher bearers came on referee Cyril Gadney told them to place him on the stretcher in that position.
Gadney saved his life. Tarr had broken his neck and any attempt to sit him up would very likely have killed him. Down to 14 men, Wales still found the means to hit back and win 13-12, wing Geoffrey Rees-Jones following up for the clinching score after Wilfred Wooller had broken and kicked ahead, only for the bounce to elude him at the line.
Tarr too recovered, but such an injury was inevitably the end of his career in big rugby - although the Ammanford RFC website records that he did play one more match. His service career took him to the rank of Lieutenant - Commander and he lived nearly 45 years from the day he might have died on the Arms Park pitch.
One other international player was also born on March 11, 1910. By an extraordinary coincidence it was Tarr's opposite number on December 21, 1935, All Black hooker Bill Hadley. All Black number 400, Hadley had been among the first 10 players chosen for the 1935-6 tour under an exhaustive process that incorporated 10 trial matches and no fewer than 188 different players. The selectors seem to have got it right. Oliver and Tindill recorded that the Aucklander 'won the advantage in every match in which he played', no mean feat given that New Zealanders were still coming to terms with the 3-4-1 scrum formation following the outlawing of their own preferred seven-man formation earlier in the decade. Hadley - whose elder brother Swin was also a front rower and All Black tourist who played all four Tests in South Africa in 1928 - had fractured his jaw on the first week of the tour and so missed several matches, including Swansea, but returned to play in all four internationals, scoring against Scotland. He eventually won eight caps and lived until 1992.