The end of an era
April 22, 2011
Former Wales captain Jack Bassett used Penarth as the springboard to international honours © Getty Images
A small piece of rugby history bit the dust this week with the final participation by the Barbarians in the Mobbs Memorial Match at Bedford.
The match itself, started in 1921 in commemoration of Edgar Mobbs, who died in action in 1917 - charging a German trench in much the same manner that he brought to his pre-war performances as a buccaneering wing for Northampton, East Midlands and England - will continue, but with the Army rather than the Barbarians as the invited opposition.
So ends the final survivor of what fans whose memories extend back beyond the professional era will remember as the Barbarians' annual calendar - the Mobbs match, a trip to Leicester just after Christmas and then the Easter tour to Wales.
The ending of the Mobbs match comes 25 years to the week after another of those apparently hardy annuals took place for the last time. For most of the last century Good Friday meant Penarth v Barbarians, curtain-raiser to a breakneck tour of South Wales that took the Baa Baas to Cardiff on the Saturday, Swansea on Monday and Newport on Tuesday night.
Quite what Penarth were doing in such company is a question that modern fans may well ask (and it was not infrequently asked for many years when the match was a fixed point in rugby's calendar as well).
One reason is that the Welsh seaside town was the Baa Baas' base for their long weekend, with the Esplanade Hotel providing friendly, tolerant and - Nigel Starmer-Smith's Baa Baas history suggests - inexpensive accommodation for teams between 1901 and the sale of the hotel, since closed and demolished, in 1971. It was the Esplanade that saw such spectacles as two Irish players introducing a cow into the foyer and England centre Peter Cranmer jumping out of his first floor window and falling into a 12-foot trench. On the one day off, Sunday, players - whether habitual golfers or not - played 18 holes at the nearby Glamorganshire golf club.
In 1901, when the fixture started, Penarth were not unworthy opponents. They won seven out of 12 meetings between then and 1920. But there were to be only three more victories - in 1960, 1971 and 1976 - in the remaining 66 years of the fixture.
But, just as the British & Irish Lions tend to kick off their tours against moderate opposition rather than the near-Test standard provincial teams who often follow, it made sense for the Baa Baas to take on a gentle curtain-raiser before the challenges that followed. Cardiff, Swansea and Newport in the space of four days is a challenge that few All Black teams would have relished, never mind an invitation team that always emphasised fun as much as winning.
As many as 10,000 saw the 1907 match, Alexander Obolensky in 1938 scored a solo try to compare with his immortal tries against the All Blacks and a large crowd celebrated Penarth's final victory, by 36-30, in 1976 - the 75th anniversary of the fixture.
Most of the greatness on show was inevitably clad in the famous hooped shirts of the visitors. But Penarth produced at least one player of authentic world class. Starmer-Smith (himself captain and scorer of two tries in the Baa Baas' 42-6 win on Good Friday 1970), cites the rave reviews earned by Penarth's fullback in the 1927 match. Four times he denied Ireland wing Denis Cussen tries and press comments suggest that if only he'd played like that in the season's Welsh trials, he would surely have been capped.
Jack Bassett clearly did better in the 1928-29 trials, playing his way into the Wales team. Once there, he was a fixture for four seasons - no mean feat in an era when wholesale changes were the norm rather than the exception. He was captain from late in the 1930 Championship, was seen as a worthy opposite number to All Black immortal George Nepia on that summer's Lions tour of New Zealand and led Wales to their first Championship in nine years in 1931.
Wales won their first two matches of the 1932 Championship - the first of eight from which France were excluded - but were denied the Triple Crown and had to settle for a three-way share of the title when they lost 12-10 to Ireland at Cardiff. Bassett was blamed for two of Ireland's tries and missed the conversion that would have given Wales the title.
It was probably his first bad game, after 14 good ones, for Wales. He was only 26, but it was his last game for his country. Losing Welsh captains were routinely dropped not only from their role but from the team, but this may not just have been the result of knee-jerk selection - his successor Vivian Jenkins was an authentic great and made the position his own between 1933 and 1939.
Lock forward Gomer Hughes, one of only two forwards to play all three games for Wales that season, was the last Penarth player to be capped, in 1934. His outstanding lineout performance contributed to a fine victory at Murrayfield.
In the post-war years Penarth became a weird anomaly, nominally first-class and retaining a formidable fixture list, but in reality cannon fodder. The introduction of cup rugby brought a series of embarrassments against clubs of theoretically lower status, such as a 24-0 thumping by Cardiff High School Old Boys, whose scorers included Vernon Pugh, later much more famous as a rugby administrator, in 1973.
When David Parry-Jones wrote The Rugby Clubs of Wales in 1989, just as Wales adopted leagues, he admitted that he had agonised over whether Penarth merited inclusion. He quoted club president George Moore as calling them 'a club going nowhere, with nowhere to go' and speculated that leagues would make or break them. They would either 'consolidate and achieve a genuine status based on results' or 'slide slowly out of contention'.
The Baa Baas fixture had ended on Good Friday 1986 with a 39-15 defeat, Penarth's final try coming from former Wales B centre Huw Rees, later a Rugby League player with Fulham and Sydney Western Suburbs.
The subsequent story has been more the second of Parry-Jones's two options. A week which would once have found Penarth preparing to entertain some of the biggest names in rugby will instead see them on Saturday play Tylorstown in Division Two East - the third level of the Welsh league system. The club website reports that 'chances of beating the drop are now purely mathematical'.
But perhaps little more could be expected of a club representing a town with a population of 23,000 - nearly a quarter of them retired - which as Parry-Jones noted 'is curiously suburban' and seems more an extension of Cardiff than a distinct community. If Penarth's present is no better than might be expected, their past is still something to conjure with.
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