A doubly unlucky great
December 17, 2010
The 1912 Springboks fell to Harry Uzzell's Newport © Getty Images
Next Monday, December 20, will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Harry Uzzell, a fine player who was doubly unlucky in his timing.
He made the Wales team in 1912, just as the first golden age of Welsh rugby was ending. It meant that the two second places and one joint championship - which would have been a title under current rules - from the four Five Nations seasons he played were seen as failures rather than successes.
There should have been a lot more than four seasons for Uzzell, but five were lost to the First World War. It seems a fair bet that given those years he might have finished with around 30 caps - which would have kept him in the record books as the most capped Welsh forward until Rees Stephens topped that mark in the 1950s - rather than with the 15 he did secure.
He epitomised many of the virtues associated with his club, Newport. He was tough, versatile, athletic - winning Welsh national titles at 440 and 880 yards - and durable. This was a time when forward play was much less specialised. He is listed in some record books as a hooker, but was also as a tall man a serious line-out presence. He was picked at least once for Wales with the specific aim of using his athleticism as a loose-forward in the style of the exemplar of that breed, England's Charles 'Cherry' Pillman.
He might very easily have played alongside Pillman for England. Uzzell was born at Shirehampton in Gloucestershire, but was part of the influx into then-booming South Wales from the West Country, whose most famous rugby product was Gwyn Nicholls. In 1907 Uzzell was offered an England trial, but declined it on the grounds that 'all of the rugby players that I know are Welshmen'.
It was clearly an honest preference. It was not as if Wales were about to pick him - it took until 1912, when he was 29, for the call to come. Wales lost 8-0 to England in his first match, but the debutant clearly did enough to impress. He was to be a fixture until the end of the 1920 Five Nations, with only a single, rather bizarre break.
It came immediately after perhaps the high point of his Newport career, the 9-3 defeat of the Springboks in October 1912. Uzzell played a prominent part, appearing to have opened the scoring when he dived over from a line-out. The score was disallowed, but was rapidly followed by Fred Birt's drop goal, in those days worth four points, to give Newport a lead they never lost.
It is one of the mysteries of Welsh rugby that while Cardiff, Newport and Swansea had all beaten the Springboks by 1912, the national team failed to do so until 1999. One explanation for the 1912 defeat is bizarre selection, choosing nine new caps, including six forwards, to play the Boks. Uzzell was restored after a further defeat by England.
His two most memorable seasons were those either side of the war. In 1913-14 he led Newport. It was not one of their great seasons, but they still came close to going into club history as they won their first three matches against Cardiff before falling by only 3-0 in the fourth, just missing a clean sweep of the old enemy they never could quite manage.
For Wales he scored the only two tries of his international career in the hammering of France at Swansea and was a prominent number of the pack led by the Reverend Alban Davies, that was immortalised as the 'Terrible Eight'. Their most famous battle was against the like-minded Irish who thoroughly enjoyed an 80-minute Belfast brawl that with a less tolerant referee would almost certainly have pre-empted Geoff Wheel and Willie Duggan's dubious claim to fame as the first Five Nations players sent off by more than 60 years. Scotland were less amused, their captain David Bain saying 'the dirtier team won' after their 24-5 loss at Cardiff.
Uzzell was 36 when peacetime rugby began again in September 1919. His decision to play on was richly rewarded. In Newport's first match programme following the second war, he would recall the 1919-20 black and ambers as 'the finest team I ever played for'.
Demolishing Cardiff 29-3 at the Arms Park, he recalled, set the style for the year: "Newport's play that day was all that could be hoped for in clean, open and brilliant football, and some of the passing runs were the perfection of grace and rhythm." Defeats by Swansea and Neath stopped them adding to their list of invincible seasons - a feat they would achieve three years later - while a drawn return visit to the Arms Park averted the clean sweep.
With Newport team-mate Jack Wetter he was the only pre-war international in the team that began the post-war era for Wales and, at 37, was appointed captain. His single-season term began and ended memorably, with thrashings of England at St Helens and Ireland at Cardiff, but a shock defeat in Edinburgh, neither the first nor the last decent Welsh team to suffer that fate, meant a three-way title share with Scotland and England..
The Ireland match was his last international, but he played one more year for Newport, ending with an appropriately memorable occasion - the clash with Bristol on April 30, 1921 when the black and ambers fielded an all-international XV - 10 Welsh, three English, an Irishman and a Scotsman.
In retirement he was landlord of the Tredegar Arms in Bassaleg and remained a considerable figure in Newport rugby - that he was chosen, from all of their great names, to do the first article in a series of match programme reminiscences as peace returned in 1946 says something about his standing.
Sadly he did not live quite long enough to see great nephew Dickie Uzzell enjoy his own day of triumph against a touring team, dropping the goal that proved to be the only score in Newport's 3-0 victory over the 1963 All Blacks.
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