The story of the Red and the White
February 20, 2009
"As A.A.Thomson once put it, when Bleddyn Williams went for the line he took the whole nation with him" - Wales supporters head to London for the 1935 clash with England © Getty Images
J.P.W Mallalieu, an Oxford blue who became a journalist and politician, reckoned that the supreme moment in international rugby came once every two years. It was, he argued in a fine essay published back in 1953 'at Cardiff Arms Park when, before the kick-off, the Welsh and English teams stand stiffly facing each other and the Welsh crowd sings 'Land of My Fathers'.
Mallalieu is long gone. So are the Arms Park and, one must assume, the vast majority of the singers who so enthused him on that January afternoon 56 years ago. The decline of chapel-going and all-seater stadiums have done nothing for the collective choral traditions of South Wales and the teams are usually strung out side-by-side in a single long line rather than facing each other.
Yet the passions he was aware of remain as strong in 2009 as they were in Coronation Year. They are the passions that underpin this particular rivalry and make it among the most intense in international rugby.
Nothing is easier or more frequent than overclaiming for your own particular enthusiasms. Part of the magic of the Six Nations is that all of its longer established fixtures express national identities and interaction that long predate professional sport and that rationing them so that each team visits another only every two years makes each of them an event in itself - part of a wider championship context, but also to be cherished in its own right. If Wales v England is special, then so in their own, different ways are Scotland v France, Ireland v Wales, England v France or any of the others. Wales v England is neither the oldest - that is the Calcutta Cup match - or the greatest in playing terms, which has to be New Zealand v South Africa, of rugby's international fixtures.
What it can claim is to be the closest rivalry, in more than one sense of the word. If one element in the charm of the Six Nations is that its longer-established fixtures have a competitive balance - in even the least equal of them, Ireland v France, the loser has won well over one third of the matches - then England v Wales is the high-point. One hundred and twenty-eight years and 118 matches after the first match at Blackheath in 1881, Wales's 23-15 win at Cardiff last Saturday tied the all-time record at 53 wins each.
For every era of Welsh dominance like the 1900s or 1970s there is an English counterpart - the 1920s and 1990s. For each English memory like Will Greenwood's record seven tries in the series there is a Welsh equivalent like the five scored from fullback by J.P.R Williams in 11 appearances, none of them on the losing side. Even in eras where one side dominates there are uprisings by the other - England's win in Andy Ripley's finest hour in 1974, Wales's accomplished by Scott Gibbs' most memorable try 25 years later.
Closeness is not just a matter of results. The close relationship between Welsh and English rugby reflects a far longer-standing administrative connection dating back to the Acts of Union enacted under Henry VIII. Consider, even now, how often you see statistics in some field like education in which 'England and Wales' is a single unit.
It may not always have been a very warm or welcome embrace, but it made a difference.
Not least of the effects was that Wales, lacking the conventional institutions of national identity, had to find them elsewhere. As journalist John Morgan wrote in the 1950s, picking the national rugby XV was the closest Wales got to self-government.
It would an insult to the English players, coaches and fans who were at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday - and to the predecessors over the previous 128 years - to suggest that their desire to win or passion for rugby is, as individuals, any less than their Welsh counterparts. What has distinguished Wales is a collective passion - as A.A.Thomson once put it, when Bleddyn Williams went for the line he took the whole nation with him - that has enabled it to match England, much larger and wealthier, over more than a century. To do this, Wales has had to put much more of itself, its energy - both mental and physical - and its sporting talent into rugby.
If Wales defines itself in relation to England in almost any field, one of rugby's distinctive features has been that England has also defined itself against Wales. Competitive equality has compelled respect. Every generation of players until the most recent has been shaped by club excursions across Offa's Dyke that were often a means of sorting the mentally and physically resourceful from those less well equipped. Almost every English club has its Welsh contingent - when I attended a lunch recently at my local club, Woodford, most of the jokes in the president's speech were about the Welsh, and so were perhaps a dozen to 15 among the 100 guests.
That closeness has taken the form of many players eligible to play for both teams. Only John Robins, who wore a white shirt in wartime service internationals before appearing for Wales in the early 1950s, actually played for both, but there were many others - following the example of Henry VIII, who was born in England but had a Welsh father - who might have done so.
The greatest hammer of the English was J.P.R Williams, whose mother came from Rochdale. Nobody has better expressed the positive aspects of Englishness - selfless, dogged and resilient - than Martin Corry, whose has a Welsh mother and speaks enough Welsh 'to ask for a cup of tea', more than many of the men who played against him for Wales.
In 1921 England fielded a team which had four Welsh-born players plus another who had played football and rugby for Wales, had been chosen for both teams and would in all honesty have preferred to play for Wales, but appeared for England because they had asked first and he would not go back on his acceptance.
Rather more of us can remember Dewi Morris playing scrum-half for England against Rupert Henry St. John Barker Moon. You could not make it up - but then who needs to when reality furnishes such wonderful material ?
'The Red and the White : The Story of England v Wales Rugby' by Huw Richards (Aurum Books £17.99)