An unfortunate claim to fame
October 7, 2010
Buck Shelford's punch proved to be the last act of Huw Richards' Test career © Getty Images
A very happy birthday to Huw Richards, who turns 50 on Saturday, October 9.
No, this column has not descended into self-referential narcissism. My namesake (apparently there are 83 of us on the UK electoral roll) played lock forward for Neath and Wales in the 1980s.
He was a Cardiganshire product, went to school in Ystradgynlais, had Wales youth trials and undoubtedly learned plenty about rugby - and quite possibly a fair number of the skills that earned him a sheep-shearing championship - from two years spent in New Zealand.
Reaching Neath by way of Abercrave, he became an integral part of the Gnoll-based teams who rose to become the dominant force in Welsh rugby in the late 1980s. Strong, athletic and a decent ball-winner at the line-out, he fitted well into that team's ruggedly rampaging style.
They first made themselves seriously noticed by getting to the Welsh Cup final in 1984 and giving prohibitive favourites Cardiff a serious scare, scoring three tries to two before going down 24-19. It got Richards noticed as well, earning him a Wales 'B' cap in the then annual match against France 'B' the following November.
A 29-20 victory in Newport laid down a useful marker for some team members, particularly with the senior XV going down to a 28-9 hammering by the touring Australians later in the same month. Neath team-mates Paul Thorburn and Jonathan Davies both made their Wales debuts later the same season, but Richards had a longer wait.
There was plenty of competition in the Wales second-row - with Bob Norster nailed on for one place, John Perkins a complementary partner and others including Phil May, Richard Moriarty, Steve Sutton and Kevin Moseley in contention.
Still, he went on Wales' tour of the South Pacific - in those days a genuine piece of pioneering - in the summer of 1986 and was on the bench for the match against Tonga. Seventeen minutes in, play was interrupted by a spectacular brawl. Scrum-half Robert Jones recalled, "Most punch-ups last about 10 seconds, this must have lasted for a good minute and a half…it is about the only time I have ever felt frightened on a rugby field."
Among those injured was flanker Mark Brown, whom Jones remembers "had been punched to the ground by three Tongan forwards and was being kicked". Richards came on to replace Brown, accompanied by wing Glen Webbe - also a debutant - who replaced Adrian Hadley.
Wales won 15-7, but with Moriarty leading the team and Norster, Wales's best line-out operator since Roy John in the 1950s, an automatic choice, Richards was back to the sideline for the final match against what was still known as Western Samoa. He did, though, do well enough the following season to make it into the squad for the inaugural World Cup. Again he found himself in the queue behind the captain, Moriarty, and the indispensable Norster, but still got his first ever start as Wales rested frontline players for the pool match against Tonga at Palmerston North.
This match is mainly remembered for Webbe scoring a hat-trick - the third when he was so evidently concussed that it was surprising he knew which way to run - and the malfunctioning of a planned Wales move that twice had fullback Malcolm Dacey colliding with team-mates. Richards had a fierce battle with his opposite number at the front of the line and Wales won clearly but hardly convincingly, 29-16.
Then it was back to the bench until the quarter-final against England. Norster went off injured, Richards came on to replace him and later found himself starting in a distinctly patched-up semi-final line-up after Wales won what still remains one of the worst of all World Cup matches 16-3.
The semi-final against New Zealand proved to be the punchline, literally, of Richards' international career, giving him a permanent place in rugby history. As a contest it was long over, the only question being quite how humiliating New Zealand's final margin of victory was going to be, when Richards tangled with opposite number Gary Whetton. They emerged wrestling from a loose scrum, Richards punched Whetton and was in turn comprehensively blindsided by a blow from All Black No.8 Buck Shelford.
Laid out, Richards was brought round, treated, and climbed to his feet to discover from referee Kerry Fitzgerald, acting on advice from his touch judge, that he had been sent off. Some felt that Shelford might have walked as well, but given that Fitzgerald - who sadly did not live to see 50 - was given the following week's final, the game's rulers clearly felt he had got it right. As Richards walked rather unsteadily off from the Lang Park pitch, he also left international rugby.
It was not clear at the time that this was so. He was chosen, in Norster's absence, for the Probables in the Wales trial the following year, but lost his chance when the senior team went down 14-6. Instead the place alongside Norster went to the hugely popular Llanelli veteran, Phil May, who got to make a belated international debut and play in that year's vibrant Triple Crown campaign.
Richards went on to play in the Neath team, partnering a teenaged Gareth Llewellyn, that beat holders Llanelli 14-13 in the 1989 Welsh Cup final and was still part of Neath's squad as they dominated Wales' last pre-leagues season, losing only three matches as they won the Western Mail championship, official Merit Table and Welsh Cup. But he missed out on the cup final victory over Bridgend, where Andrew Kembury was preferred, and had gone from Neath's ranks in the following season, when they became Wales's first league champions.
His misfortune is his claim to immortality, that permanent place in history as the first man sent off in a World Cup match. Still, four caps, a World Cup and several domestic trophies. Not a bad career, and one for which most would settle.
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