Rugby union in Wales

Rugby union in Wales

Rugby union is the national sport of Wales and is considered a large part of national culture. Rugby is thought to have reached Wales in the 1850s, with the national body, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) being formed in 1881. ["Fields of Praise, The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union 1881-1981", David Smith, Gareth Williams (1980) pp41 ISBN 0708307663] The national team play out of the WRU-owned Millennium Stadium, and compete annually in the Six Nations Championship, as well as having competed at every Rugby World Cup. Wales are ranked as a tier-1 nation by the International Rugby Board (IRB). The main domestic competition in Wales is the Magners League, in which Wales have four sides in the competition which is also contested by Irish and Scottish clubs. Welsh teams also compete in the European Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup.

Beneath the Magner's League, club rugby is represented by over 200 WRU affiliated clubs who play in the Welsh Premier Division and the lower Welsh Divisional leagues. Historically the three major Welsh club teams that have shaped the Welsh national team have been Cardiff, Newport and Swansea, though other clubs which have fought for prominence and provided national sporting heroes during the last hundred and twenty years include Neath, Llanelli, Pontypool and England exiles London Welsh.


The growth of rugby in Wales 1850-1900

Rugby-like games have a long history in Wales, with games such as cnapan being played for centuries.Smith (1980), pg18.] Rugby seems to have reached Wales in 1850, when the Reverend Professor Rowland Williams brought the game with him from Cambridge to St. David's College, LampeterSmith (1980), pg22.] , which fielded the first Welsh rugby team that same year. Rugby initially expanded in Wales through ex-pupils of the Welsh colleges settling, or students from English colleges and universities returning to the larger industrial hubs of South Wales. This is reflected in the first clubs to embrace the sport in the early to mid 1870s, with Neath RFC widely recognised as being the first Welsh club. The strength of Welsh rugby developed over the following years, which could be attributed to the 'big four' South Wales clubs of Newport (who lost only seven games under the captaincy of Llewellyn Lloyd between the 1900/01 and 1902/03 seasons [Thomas, Wayne 'A Century of Welsh Rugby Players, 1880-1980'; Ansells Ltd. (1979)] ), Cardiff, Llanelli (who lost just twice in 1894 and 1895) and Swansea. With the coming of industrialisation and the railways, rugby too was spread as workers from the main cities brought the game to the new steel and coal towns of south Wales. Merthyr formed in 1876, Brecon in 1874, Penygraig in 1877; as the towns adopted the new sport they reflected the growth and expansion of a new industrial Wales.Smith (1980), pg11.]

The number of teams playing in Wales at the end of the 20th century in no way reflected the popularity of the sport in the late 19th century, with many informal or 'scratch' teams populating most towns. Llanelli, as an example, in the 1880s was home not only to Llanelli RFC, but also to Gower Road, Seasiders, Morfa Rangers, Prospect Place Rovers, Wern Foundry, Cooper Mills Rangers, New Dock Strollers, Vauxhall Juniors, Moonlight Rovers and Gilbert Street Rovers.Smith (1980), pg11-12.] These teams would come and go, but some would merge into more settled clubs which exist today, Cardiff RFC was itself formed from three teams, Glamorgan, Tredegarville and Wanderers Football Clubs.

The South Wales Football club was established in 1875 to try to incorporate a standard set of rules and expand the sport and this was proceeded by the Welsh Football Union which was formed in 1881.Smith (1980), pg41.] With the forming of the WFU (which would become the Welsh Rugby Union in 1934), Wales began competing in recognised international matches, with the first game against England, also in 1881.Smith (1980), pg40.] The first Welsh team although fairly diverse in the geography of the clubs represented, did not appear to truly represent the strength available to Wales. The team was mainly made up of ex-Cambridge and Oxford university graduates and the selection was heavily criticised in the local press after the crushing defeat by England.

By the end of the 19th century, a group of exciting Welsh players began to emerge, including Arthur Gould, Billy Bancroft and Gwyn Nicholls; players that would be regarded as the first super-stars of Welsh rugby and would usher in not only the first golden era of Welsh rugby, but would also see the introduction of specialised positional players.

The first golden era 1900-1919

The first 'Golden Era' of Welsh rugby is so called due to the success achieved by the national team during the early 20th century. Wales had already won the Triple Crown in 1893, but between 1900 and 1914 the team would win the trophy on six occasions, and with France joining the tournament (unofficially in 1908 and 1909) three Grand Slams.Smith (1980), pg481.] With the introduction of specialised players like hooker George Travers,Thomas (1979), pg40.] the WFU could no longer choose the 'best players' to represent Wales, they needed to think tactically and choose people who could do a specific job on the pitch. This period of Welsh rugby would see the grip of the 'Big Four' clubs providing the bulk of national players, slip slightly. The WFU still tended to turn to the likes of Swansea and Newport to supply the skillful back players and usually kept club half-back pairings together such as Jones and Owen of Swansea. But it was the introduction of the 'Rhondda Forward' which saw men who worked day in day out in the coal, iron and tin mines enter the Welsh front row.cite book | author = David Parry-Jones | title = Prince Gwyn, Gwyn Nicholls and the First Golden Era of Welsh Rugby (1999) pp. 36| publisher = seren | year = 1999] Chosen for their strength and aggressive tackling, players such as Dai 'Tarw' Jones from Treherbert and David Evans from Penygraig added muscle to the front row.

Although a progressive time for international rugby, this period initially saw regression for many of the club sides in the form of the temperance movement. In the early 1900s, rugby was seen as a wicked temptation to the young men of the mining and steel communities, leading to violence and drink,Smith (1980), pg120.] and the valley areas in particular were part of a strong Nonconformist Baptist movement. The religious revival saw some communities completely reject rugby and local clubs, like Senghenydd, disbanded for several years. It wasn't until the 1910s that the social view of rugby would change the other way, fostered by mine owners as a great social unifier;Smith (1980), pg121.] and like baseball in America would be portrayed as a '...source of community integration because it installed civic pride'.Morgan (1988), pg391.]

Unlike the game in England, rugby union in Wales was never seen as a sport for gentlemen of higher learning. Although this was fostered in the first international Welsh team, the fast absorption of the sport into the working class areas appeared to sever the link of rugby as a sport for the middle and upper classes.Smith (1980), pg195.]

As rugby became linked with the hard working men of the industrialised areas of Wales, it should also be noted that the sport did not escape the hardships of the industries. In 1913 five members of the Senghenydd team were killed in Britain's worst colliery disaster and many more lost their lives in the 'slow drip' of deaths caused by the industries. Far worse was to follow during the conflict of World War I when many teams lost members, including Welsh internationals like Charlie PritchardThomas (1979), pg43.] and Johnnie Williams.cite web | url= | title=A century since Wales first won Grand Slam | publisher=The Telegraph | author=Brendan Gallagher | date=2008-01-29 | accessdate=2008-07-26]

The post-war Welsh rugby 1920-1930

The 1920s were a difficult time for Welsh rugby. The first golden period was over and the players that made up the teams that won four Triple Crowns had already disbanded before the Great War. The war could not be blamed for the downturn in Welsh fortunes as all the home nations lost their young talent in equal numbers. The fact that so many of Wales' talented stars had retired from rugby before 1910 was felt when Wales failed to win the tournament in the few years leading up to the war. But the main reason for Welsh failure on the rugby pitch can be mapped to an economic failures of Wales as a country. The First World War had created an unrealistic demand for coal, and in the 1920s the collapse in the need for coal resulted in a massive level of unemployment throughout the south Wales valleys.Smith (1980), pg224.] This in turn lead to mass emigration as people left Wales for work. The knock-on effect was felt in the port cities of Newport and Cardiff, that relied on the transportation of coal.

Suddenly the call of the professional league was a very strong draw to men who could not claim money for playing union. Between 1919 and 1939, Forty-eight capped Welsh rugby union players joined league rugby.Smith (1980), pg225.] The fact that the equivalent of three full national squads left the sport can only allude to the number of trialists and club members that also left the sport. Exceptional players lost to the league game included Jim Sullivan of Cardiff, William Absalom of Abercarn and Emlyn Jenkins of Treorchy.

The other side of the depression was linked to those people that stayed behind. In homes where men were the only earners, the decline in heavy labour areas resulted in very stark choices in where the household money could be spent. It was difficult to justify paying to watch rugby when there was little money for food and rent. With crowds dwindling clubs were forced to drastic measures in the hope of survival. Loughor which had produced five internationals in the 1920s were by 1929 begging door to door for old kit.Smith (1980), pg259.] Haverfordwest disbanded from 1926-29, Pembroke Dock Quins were reduced to 5 members by 1927 and in the valleys the Treherbert, Llwynypia and Nantyffyllon clubs had vanished before 1930.Morgan (1988), pg394.] Even clubs of the size of Pontypool were not spared; in 1927 they were playing and beating the Waratahs and the Maoris, by 1930 they were £2,000 in debt and facing bankruptcy.Smith (1980), pg260.]

Another reason for the fall in the Welsh union game can be placed on the improvement of football in Wales.Smith (1980), pg232.] Traditionally seen as a game more associated with North Wales, the success of Cardiff Football Club in the 1920s was a strong draw for many supporters. With two F.A. Cup Finals in 1925 and 1927, Cardiff were making the once unpopular sport of 'soccer' very fashionable, for fans and sportsmen alike.

During the 1920s the one team that appeared to be unaffected by the double threat of soccer and debt was Llanelli.Smith (1980), pg234.] The Scarlets had an unswerving loyalty shown by their home supporters, who were repaid by exciting, high scoring matches. During the 1925/26 season the club were unbeaten and the next season they had achieved the unprecedented feat of defeating Cardiff on four occasions. This success would later be reflected in the growing number of Llanelli players that would represent their country in the 1920s,Smith (1980), pg236.] including Albert Jenkins, Ivor Jones and Archie Skym.

Apart from a few sporadic victories from the national team, there appeared little to cheer about in the 1920s for Welsh rugby at club or country level; but the seeds of recovery were being planted during the same decade. On June 9 1923 the Welsh Secondary Schools Rugby Union was established in Cardiff.Smith (1980), pg240.] Founded by Dr R Chalke, head of Porth Secondary School with WRU members Horace Lyne as president and Eric Evans as secretary. Its aim was to promote rugby at school level in an attempt to regain 'the glorious days of Gwyn Nicholls, Willie Llewellyn and Dr E.T. Morgan'. In April 1923, at the Arms Park, Wales played their first secondary schools fixture led by future international Watcyn Thomas, who would progress to captain the very first Welsh University XV in 1926.Smith (1980), pg241.] Over the coming years, schools such as Cardiff High School, Llanelli County School, Llandovery and Christ College, Brecon fostered a generation of players which would fill the Welsh ranks over the coming years. Wales had in effect begun to mimic the systems adopted by England and Scotland, that rugby should be nurtured from youth, through adolescence to adulthood.Smith (1980), pg243-44.]

The 1920s closed with the formation of the West Wales Rugby Union, an event that initally appeared to be a positive indication of growth, but in fact the union was formed by western clubs to wrest control away from the WRU. The West Wales clubs had become disenchanted in decisions made by their parent body and believed the Union had no interest in the lower tier clubs, allowing them to become mere feeders for the bigger clubs.Smith (1980), pg261.]

The Welsh revivial 1930-1939

The 1930s began on a high for Welsh international rugby, with success in the Home Nations Championship and the emergence of a strong Welsh team. In the 1930/31 season Wales beat Ireland at Ravenhill in a bruising affair that not only gave Wales the title but denied Ireland the Triple Crown. This may have signaled a change in fortunes in Welsh rugby but underneath the same problems that dogged Wales throughout the 1920s still remained. Wales was still suffering the effects of the depression and club rugby was struggling to survive.Smith (1980), pg268.] Even the WRU had problems, as it faced the fact that it was the only home union without their own ground. The Cardiff Arms was leased and St Helens was on loan.Smith (1984), pg182.]

From what at first appears to be yet another decade of turmoil for Welsh rugby, is actually regarded as a period of revival. The economic situation began turning from 1937, the WSSRU was bringing many exciting backs through the school system, North Wales embraced the game and the national team won two morale lifting games against England in 1933 and the All Blacks in 1935.

Post-war Welsh rugby 1945-1968

The second golden era 1969-1979

The zenith of Welsh rugby was the 1970s, when Wales had players such as Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams. Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns. All of these players are considered amongst the best players of Welsh rugby ['] , especially Edwards who was voted the greatest player of all time in a players poll in 2003 and scored what is widely regarded as the greatest try of all time ['] in 1973 for the Barbarians against New Zealand.

Many attributed Welsh success to the fact that their forwards were toughened by manual work, according to the theory when Welsh industry declined and players started to be drawn from 'soft jobs' the team suffered [""] . The strong Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor & Charlie Faulkner were all manual workers, and Robin McBryde was formerly the holder of the title of Wales's strongest man.

Shamateurism and the professional era 1980-to date

The 1980s and early '90s were a difficult time for Welsh rugby union when the team suffered many defeats. Harsh economic times in the eighties meant that players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs were tempted to 'go North' to play professional rugby league in order to earn a living. They often faced social ostracism as a result as many believed that they were traitors to Wales [""] .

In 2003/4 the Welsh Rugby Union voted to create five regions to play in the Celtic League and represent Wales in European competition. This soon became four when the Celtic Warriors were liquidated after just one season. [cite web | |title= WRU axe falls on Warriors | url= |accessdate=2008-03-01 |date=2004-07-01]

Governing body

The Welsh Rugby Union is the governing body for rugby union in Wales. Their responsibilities include producing the national team and the four regional franchises Cardiff Blues, Llanelli Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons and the Ospreys from the Neath-Swansea region.


:"See also" Welsh rugby union system

Wales' four professional rugby regions play in the Celtic League and take part in the Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup. Since 2006 they have also competed in the EDF Energy Cup against clubs from the English Guinness Premiership.

There is also a Welsh league and Welsh Cup competed for by Wales' traditional club teams. Recently there have been talks about the potential founding of a regional rugby franchise in the north of Wales, starting with a semi-professional team in the Welsh Premier Division.


Rugby union has a particular hold on the national psyche of Wales, especially the Six Nations tournament.

The first proof of Wales as a nation embracing the sport of rugby union is reflected in the rapid growth of rugby clubs in the late 19th century. Within a period of 25 years, from 1875 to 1900, most towns and villages in South Wales were represented by at least one team, though it would take until the 1930s for the North of Wales to set up their own leagues.

Although difficult to prove popularity, two events that took place early in the history of Welsh rugby illustrate its growing influence on the people of Wales. The first was the Gould Affair, when a testimonial fund was set up for Welsh international Arthur Gould, instigated by a local newspaper. From an initial fund of one shilling the public response saw the amount reach into hundreds of pounds, mainly from working class families with little spare money. The second incident was during the Tonypandy Riot of 1910, when the striking coalminers attacked the shops and premises in the town centre. 80 police officers and 500 civilians were injured and one person died. Over 60 establishments were attacked and looted, with only two buildings avoiding damage. One was a jewelers which had roller shutters, the other was the chemist shop owned by Willie Llewellyn, which despite the chaos of the events was spared due to his services to Wales on the playing field. ["The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales". John Davies, Nigel Jenkins, Menna Baines and Peredur Lynch (2008) pg512 ISBN 9780708319536] [ [ Rhondda Cynon Taff Library Service - Tonypandy] ] Morgan (1988), pg393]

For the match against Scotland in 2005, 40,000 Welsh people went to Edinburgh to watch the game ['] . Over 10,000 gathered on "Henson Hill" to watch a big screen of Wales v. Ireland that gave Wales its first Grand Slam since 1978. The result was greeted well amongst fans and was even used to explain a sudden economic surge ['] .

The choral tradition of Wales manifests itself at rugby games in singing [""] . Popular songs among the fans are 'Delilah' by Tom Jones, 'Cwm Rhondda' and 'Calon Lan' and in part replace the normal chanting of other Rugby supporters.


According to the IRB, Wales has 239 rugby union clubs; 2321 referees; 28,702 pre-teen male players; 21,371 teen male players; 19,000 senior male players (total male players 69,073) as well as 1,000 teen female players; 1,056 senior female players (total female players 2,056).cite web | | title=Welsh R.U. | url=| accessdaymonth=8 April | accessyear=2006]


Whereas Rugby in England fractured into the two separate sports of rugby union and rugby league over the issue of money, Wales for the most part stayed loyal to the union game. There were some attempts to run professional rugby league sides in Wales but the heartland of Welsh rugby was simply too far from Yorkshire and Lancashire for this to be sustained.

There has always been an element of class warfare to rugby union in Wales [""] . In 1977 Phil Bennett's pre-game pep talk before facing England produced a memorable quote: "Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They've taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We've been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English — and that's who you are playing this afternoon."cite news| url= |title= Actions speaks louder than words for White | |accessdate=2007-08-24 |date=2006-03-09 |last=Philip |first=Robert]

The Welsh valleys north of Cardiff produced so many quality number tens [""] that it was often referred to as 'The Outside Half Factory' immortalised in a [ song] by Max Boyce. Boyce's humour refers to rugby union very often and he has written many songs about the trials and tribulations of following the game as a fan e.g. 'Asso Asso Yogoshi', 'The Scottish Trip', 'Hymns and Arias'.

The national team

Wales compete annually in the Six Nations, which they have won 24 times, the last being in 2008, making them the current champions. Wales have also qualified for every World Cup that has been held, and achieved their best result in the 1987 tournament, when they finished third. The national team play at the Millennium Stadium, built in 1999 to replace the old National Stadium. Wales play in scarlet jerseys, white shorts and red socks, with the jersey sporting the Prince of Wales's feathers as their official badge. Every four years the British and Irish Lions go on tour with players from Wales as well as England, Ireland and Scotland.

ee also

* History of rugby union
* Welsh Rugby Union
* WRU National Leagues
* Wales national rugby union team
* Celtic League
* Cardiff Blues
* Llanelli Scarlets
* Newport Gwent Dragons
* Ospreys
* Welsh Premier Division
* WRU Challenge Cup
* Rugby League in Wales
* Sport in the United Kingdom




External links

* [ The BBC's Welsh rugby union news page]
* [ IC Wales's rugby union news page]
* [ Gwlad] Popular fan site for supporters of rugby union in Wales

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