The first “golden age of Welsh rugby” were the pre WW1 decades. No Wales team visited Australia during that time, but their star players were part of early Lions tours, leaving a legacy on Sydney rugby via their innovation and flair.
Welsh teams in Australia have been a rarity. The first was in 1969, with a one-off game against the Wallabies at the SCG, shoe-horned into a vacant Saturday between the end of the Welsh team’s tour of New Zealand, and Australia flying out to South Africa.
Wales were reigning Five Nations champions, at the out-set of what would be the team’s second great era in international rugby. Though defeated by the All Blacks, no team with backs Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Barry John behind a formidable pack was going to be easy for Australia to contend with. In front of 27,000 spectators, the Welsh prevailed 19-16 in what was a game long recalled for its refereeing controversies.
Rugby in Wales had developed later than in the other Home nations, not playing its first international until 1881.
Less shackled to the old way rugby had been played, the Welsh were quick to take advantage of the change from a forwards dominated game, revolutionising the arrangement of players into just eight forwards and seven backs – the primary innovation was utilising four men in the three-quarter line.
The Welsh players placed greater reliance upon one another, and they combined with such success that in 1893 Wales won the ‘Triple Crown’ for the first time. England, and later Scotland and Ireland, much against their conservative nature, were forced to fall into line with Wales, and adopt the more modern game and the one that we play by today.
The “four three-quarter game” was still a mystery to rugby in Australia when the British Lions arrived in 1899. Rugby in Sydney had, largely unsuccessfully, imitated the systems used by New Zealanders. Great anticipation of seeing “the new rugby” and star Welsh centre, Cardiff’s Gwyn Nicholls, abounded.
In the UK it was Wales’ Arthur Gould who had first shown the greater advantages and possibilities of being a centre under the four three-quarter line system, but Welsh rugby did not reach the level of winning excellence until Nicholls’ arrival (making his debut in 1896). In Nicholls’ time the rugby footballers of Wales had come to be revered as the brightest, brainiest and most formidable exponents of running rugby that one could encounter.
By the end of the 1899 Lions’ tour, Nicholls was the team’s leading try-scorer, including two in the test series against Australia, and left such a convincing example of the merits of spectacular and successful open rugby with four three-quarters in the backs, that the following year all of Sydney club rugby and the NSW team converted to the new scheme.
Over the next few seasons Wales was the dominant team of international rugby. Apart from success in the Home Nations, the era is best remembered for Wales now famous victory over the 1905 All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park , the visitors only defeat during their now legendary campaign.
Understandably the 1904 Lions to Australia and New Zealand boasted some of Welsh rugby’s finest names of the time: Rhys Gabe, Fred Jowett, Willie Llewellyn, Teddy Morgan, Percy Bush, Tommy Vile, Sid Bevan and Arthur Harding.
Such was the anticipation to see this Welsh-infused Lions team, that over 35,000 fans packed into the SCG for the opening tour game against the name-sake state, New South Wales.
What connection in 1770 Captain Cook saw between the land he proclaimed as “New South Wales” and Britain’s “South Wales” is a mystery. By coincidence, 130 years or so later, the centre of Welsh rugby was South Wales, and in Australia it was in New South Wales. In the late 1880s the NSW rugby team wore scarlet red jerseys emblazoned with a fiery Welsh dragon.
It was said that the secret to Wales’ success in the early 1900s was the combination brought about by choosing players that knew each others game so well – these players came from a core group of clubs in South Wales – namely Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.
As it turned out though the Welsh player most remembered from the 1904 Lions tour was stand-off half Percy Bush – a great individualist player. Bush arguably had far less international appearances for Wales than his talents deserved, primarily as the Welsh selectors put team combination as their foremost criteria.
As many of the scrum halves and No.10s that have come and gone on the international stage since Bush will attest, the balance between being a team-man and one playing a natural off-the-cuff game is often a dark abyss between rugby celebrity and career oblivion.
NSW and Australian selector in 1904, Jimmy Henderson, enthused about Bush after he led the Welsh on a 27-0 rout of NSW in that opening Lions tour game.
“As for what is termed five-eighth play, it was a revelation,” said Henderson, “Bush, in my opinion, outclassed for headiness, quite apart from individual effort, any other player I have seen in the position.”
“Some of his feint dodging to the open side and then wheeling to the blind side, racing at his top in order to gain position for his inside centre was excellence in itself. It tended to show, in conjunction with his excellent kicking, what possibilities there are in the rugby game for a versatile player, such as Bush proved himself to be.”
Bush also had tremendous and freakish drop kicking ability. He caused a minor newspaper sensation when he kicked an astonishing drop goal just five minutes into the Wales vs NSW game. Hemmed in near the touchline, seemingly without options and about to fall under a wash of light blue forwards, Bush drop-kicked the ball over the cross-bar.
After the game the newspapers published stories claiming that Bush had backed himself with bookmakers to kick a drop goal within ten minutes of the game starting. Naturally he denied all knowledge of it, but few believed him. No one though seemed too bothered. The Bulletin wrote “Nobody who knows football wondered at the denial. The mystery was how he did it, and not why he did it.” Others praised Bush for succeeding at his first attempt and only needing five minutes, not the full ten.
In the wake of the examples of the Welsh game, particularly Nicholls and Bush, the way rugby was played in Sydney dramatically changed, and proved enormously popular with the public. Club games often drew 25,000, rep football twice that number, and great individualist halves and centres including Chris McKivat and Dally Messenger became stars of the game.
Ironically, the successful adoption of Welsh rugby ideals on Sydney rugby provided a ready-made bed for the easier switch-over to rugby league, which in England had also changed to the four three-quarters model. Had the attempt to start league come earlier, the game on the field at least, may not have been so quickly accepted.
As for the Welsh no one doubts that with hard work and with their rugby resources success must from time to time inevitably come. As an Australian journalist prophetically wrote in 1913, at the close of Wales’ first golden era, “Rugby is part of a Welshman’s existence; It has grown into his very bones, so a revival is sure to come sooner or later.”
© Sean Fagan