Game of my father's: how Welsh victory over England in 1971 gave rise to modern rugby

Ben Wright
·13-min read
Gerald Davies  - GETTY IMAGES
Gerald Davies - GETTY IMAGES

The BBC brought out a video in the 1980s called 101 Best Tries. It had a green cover and featured the mellifluous commentary of Cliff Morgan and Bill McLaren. It includes two tries from the match between Wales and England at Cardiff Arms Park on January 16, 1971. I reckon the first of these represents quite a moment in the history of rugby but its importance is not immediately obvious and takes a while to unpack, so bear with me.

It starts with a Wales scrum in the England half. The ball pops out quite sharply, Gareth Edwards dive passes to Barry John who switches with centre Arthur Lewis cutting back on a crash ball towards the disintegrating scrum. He is well tackled by the England No 8 but rolls the ball back before a breakdown can even form. Quick ball.

Edwards gathers it again and fires another dive pass to John who juggles the ball slightly before popping it to JPR Williams as he joins the line from fullback. His hands swing low as he makes the pass in textbook seventies style. John Dawes, moving a bit quicker, has to give and take in one fluid motion without really looking because he is coming under pressure from the England wing who has rushed up in defence. But to no avail. The ball is delivered unerringly into the oncoming path of the unmarked Gerald Davies travelling like a train straight for the right-hand corner.

At the top of the screen the English fly-half appears desperately trying to cover across. There’s a footrace but only ever one winner. The defender dives at Davies a fraction after the Welshman launches himself over the try line and slam dunks the ball into the mud. The England player almost misses Davies completely. His fingertips just about brush the leather of the Welshman’s boot. Maybe. It’s hard to tell; this bit of my video had gone a bit grainy from being paused and rewound so often.

It’s a well-crafted try rather than spectacular - indie arthouse rather than blockbuster. But what a cast. Gareth Edwards, the first name on the team sheet for most people’s All Time World XV; Barry John, about whom the Welsh wrote songs and Kiwis christened “the King”; JPR Williams, who ran around the pitch like a berserker that had misplaced his axe and completely redefined the fullback position; John Dawes, the captain, a preternatural distributor and tactical genius; and Gerald Davies, one of most potent wingers to grace the game with a sidestep “like a shaft of lightning” (™McLaren).

On the other wing was John Bevan whose try that day is next up on the video. Swap Arthur Lewis at inside centre for Mike Gibson, the Ireland captain, and you have the backline that took the pitch for the British Lions in the first Test against New Zealand five months later and was widely considered to be one of the most exciting ever assembled. There are six past and future Lions in the Welsh pack including Merv “the Swerve” Davies at No 8. Such was the embarrassment of riches that Derek Quinnell and Phil Bennett were warming the subs bench.

Imagine coming up against that lot. Imagine doing so at Cardiff Arms Park, with its newly built North Stand, containing 51,000 belligerent Welsh fans belting out battle hymns like Bread of Heaven and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Imagine this being your first taste of international rugby.

I watched those few seconds of footage so often during my childhood that the Borders burr of McLaren’s commentary has taken on the quality of an incantation: “Again Edwards to Barry John. John Williams in the line. Out to Dawes. There’s a great chance here for Gerald Davies. I think he’s going to make it!” But back then I was less interested in the Welshmen he was naming than the player trying and failing to catch Davies in the corner: the Northampton fly-half Ian Wright, known to his team-mates as Stumpy. My father.

This was his first time wearing the red rose. How did he feel lacing on his boots in the bowels of the stadium before the game? What was he thinking as he peeled off his muddied shirt afterwards? I never had a chance to ask him. My parents got divorced when I was five and my mother, brother and I went to live abroad for a number of years. When we came back I only saw him a handful of times - I was a teenager and he was a stranger. I probably spent more hours watching 101 Best Tries than I did in his company. He died when I was still at university.

To fill in the gaps I did some research. And I’ve developed a theory: if you follow the thread of modern rugby back far enough you will discover its source at this mostly forgotten match played fifty years ago. Now, clearly that’s not a totally impartial assessment but let me have a go at trying to convince you.

The game itself was, it must be said, not a classic. It was too one-sided for that. It was the first match of that year’s Five Nations Championship and England had crossed the Severn Bridge with a little more baggage than usual: this was the RFU’s centenary year, which makes it all the more odd that the England selectors appear to have done everything they could to aid and abet the Welsh by blooding seven new caps, almost half the team.

Peter Rossborough, the Coventry fullback who was one of those seven debutants, describes England’s selection process in those days as “far from scientific”, John Spencer, the Headingley centre, calls it “very eccentric”, and David Powell, the Northampton prop, is, as props sometimes are, even more blunt: "it was horrific”. Players were rarely told if or why they had fallen out of favour and many only learnt they had been dropped from reading about it in the papers.

Spencer remembers speculating that the selectors decided their fate by throwing a dice: one to five and you were dropped, six and they’d roll again. “Can you imagine anyone nowadays picking seven new players for an away match against the best side in the world?” he asks. “It just wouldn’t happen.”

Gareth Edwards - GETTY IMAGES
Gareth Edwards - GETTY IMAGES

If you wanted to be charitable you’d acknowledge that those selectors didn’t know then what we do now. The Welsh side was clearly good, they had won the past two Championships even as they chopped and changed various players and captains. But they were not yet great and nearly two decades had elapsed since their last Grand Slam.

This, though, was an inflection point. Wales now had the right players in the right positions and were starting to adopt the style of play that Dawes had pioneered at his club. One opponent described London Welsh in those days as “the Harlem Globetrotters with studs”. They were incredibly fit, ran everything, used the fullback in the line to create overlaps and were always trying to get the ball to the fastest players. The Davies try is the new philosophy transferred from the Old Deer Park to Cardiff Arms Park and distilled down to its purest essence. It’s not that spectacular because it works so well and the men in red are making it look easy.

“I’d played against Wales the previous two years and it was immediately apparent to me that they’d taken a big step up,” says Spencer. In contrast, England’s inexperience was exacerbated by the fact that, under the strict rules governing the amateur sport, players were not allowed to get together to practise until 48 hours before kick off. The scrum-half Jacko Page remembers them working out some calls on the cliff tops close to the team hotel in Porthcawl. It was also Tony Bucknall’s first - and last - game as captain.

“He was so laid back was Buckers, one of the ‘gin and tonic’ City boys,” says David Duckham. The Coventry winger remembers the England captain getting a rub down from the physio before the game “with a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other”. The Richmond flanker had to borrow Spencer’s training boots because his own studs were so worn down and then delivered one of the shortest and crudest team talks that Duckham can remember hearing. “It wasn’t hugely inspiring,” agrees Barry Ninnes, the Coventry lock.

Despite the inauspicious preparations, it was England who came out of the blocks fastest after kick off. “We actually started pretty well and scored the first try [through Bristol No 8 Charlie Hannaford],” says Spencer. “But we never got a grip after that. And then Barry John started to play a bit…”

Coming up against Barry John in 1971, then at the absolute height of his powers, must have been a bit like marking Pelé or stepping into the ring with Muhammad Ali. “He would just ghost past us,” says Page. “It didn’t look like he was moving that fast but it was another matter trying to get hold of him.”

The painfully slender Rossborough missed the conversion to Hannaford’s try, kicked a penalty but then had a second hit the post. “Then Barry John put up a high ball, I dropped it and Arthur Lewis absolutely killed me,” he says. As the England fullback lay in a crumpled heap, the ball swept out to the right and Gerald Davies scored in the corner for his other try in the match.

Despite Wales’ stellar backline, the game was arguably won by the forwards. “We were struggling up front all day,” says Powell. “We won a bit of lineout but we were totally outscrummaged.” Coming from a prop, that’s quite an admission but tallies with Spencer’s memories: “We had a fairly talented backline but we never got the ball.”

Ninnes remembers having his hands full in the line out. Denzil Williams, a wily front row operator with 32 caps and a Lions tour under his belt, was illegally lifting Delme Thomas, serving up clean ball for John to slot drop goals at will. The prematurely balding Page appeared to be aging by the minute behind a beaten pack, his passes getting shorter as the game wore on.

“They had no weak links in that Welsh side,” says Rossborough. “I actually think it was the more unheralded players that won it for them. Dai Morris [the colliery blacksmith from Neath playing blindside flanker] was an absolute star on the day, as was Arthur Lewis.” Ninnes agrees: “We were a bunch of individuals; they were a team.”

The final score was 22-6, quite a margin when tries were still worth only three points. “An honourable but sound beating,” says Page. In my copy of the match programme, a spectator has scrupulously noted who scored what and scribbled a snap summary in the margin: “Welsh massacre.”

It was the perfect start to the tournament for Wales. Their next game - against Scotland at Murrayfield - is widely considered to be one of the best Five Nations matches ever played with Wales winning 18-19 thanks to a last-minute try from Davies and “the greatest conversion since St Paul” from out wide by left-footed flanker John Taylor. Next up were victories over Ireland back in Cardiff and France in Paris to secure the Grand Slam.

The all-conquering campaign provided the momentum, the vast majority of the personnel and, crucially, the style of play for the series victory by the Lions in New Zealand that summer. The home sides particularly struggled with John’s tactical kicking and the use of JPR as an attacking option in the line.

Barry John  - GETTY IMAGES 
Barry John - GETTY IMAGES

“God knows how many tries we scored that way in New Zealand,” says Duckham, who went from being a victim of the tactic to a beneficiary. “It was such a successful weapon in our armoury. But it was the Welsh who pioneered it.”

Graham Henry, who coached Wales, New Zealand and the Lions, believes the tour was the “biggest wake-up call in New Zealand rugby history” and credits it with transforming the coaching culture in the country at all levels. “The 1971 Lions changed the face of New Zealand rugby. They helped lay the foundation of the All Blacks side that won the 1987 World Cup and that style of counter-attacking play we’ve seen from All Black sides ever since.”

And where New Zealand have led, the rest of the rugby world has followed in a process that was accelerated but not fundamentally redirected by the advent of professionalism.

So, in the creation myth of modern rugby, Wales’s victory over England in 1971 was arguably Genesis, chapter one, verse one: “In the beginning, JPR created an overlap for Gerald Davies.”

What a moment to have witnessed up close. Doubtless the memories are bittersweet for some of the England players, especially Rossborough and Ninnes who were left out for the next game against Ireland. “There were actually two dropped catches that day,” says Rossborough. “JPR put one down too. But no one remembers his mistake.”

Rossborough did eventually work his way back into the England side for six more caps, including a win against New Zealand at Eden Park in 1973 (an achievement that has eluded the Welsh national side since 1953).

Ninnes never played for England again. He’s probably the best person to answer the question I would most have liked to ask my father. Was it one of the greatest days of his life running out into a cathedral of rugby, fulfilling a boyhood dream and getting the chance to measure himself against the very best? Or was it one of the worst as he found himself wanting at that level?

The softly-spoken Cornishman is unequivocal. “When you start playing rugby, you want to go as far as you can. It was a dream come true to pull on that shirt. The fact that we lost doesn’t take the shine off.

“It was an absolute honour to be on the same pitch as so many great players that are still held up as icons of the game to this day.”

My father played only three more times for England. By March that year his international career was over. But he, Ninnes, Rossborough and the other England players were present at the birth of modern rugby 50 years ago. “That’s the beauty of sport,” says Page. “You have the grafters and those with magic talent; there’s a place for both.”

By no stretch of the imagination could Ian Wright be considered a rugby great. But he managed to get onto the same pitch as greatness, so close he could touch it, if only with the faintest brush of his fingertips. Maybe.