Woodward caught out
January 14, 2011
Clive Woodward was caught out by Brynmor Williams in Cardiff in 1981 © Getty Images
When does a losing run become a 'jinx' or 'curse'? The cynical answer is that it happens when a newspaper sub-editor reaches for one of those compact words for a headline, but it is probably still true to say that it is when a run of results seems to be rooted in more than the relative quality of the teams.
There was no sense of a jinx about England's inability to win in Cardiff in the 1970s. Wales were simply much better. They didn't lose to any European opponent on home soil during that decade and went down only once, in 1974 amid some controversy, at Twickenham.
The 1980s were different. England invariably travelled down the M4 feeling hopeful, and not just on the 'there's no point in turning up if you don't think you can win' basis often preferred in the case of long-shots. There really was not nearly as much between the teams as in the previous decade. But they still could not win at Cardiff. It is under such circumstances that notions of jinx or curse take root.
It was 30 years ago next week, on January 17, 1981, that it really did begin to look that way. England were reigning champions after the Grand Slam of 1980 and had the bulk of that team intact. Their defence began, as so many England Five Nations campaigns had in the past, at Cardiff.
It was not a great contest. Legendary coach Carwyn Jones, writing in the Guardian, reckoned it, 'forgettable, but exciting…lacking in skill, lacking in respect for the laws of the game and lacking the essence of a handling game'.
Had England won it would have been remembered as Dusty Hare's match. The prolific Leicester fullback, now director of scouting for Northampton, scored all 19 of England's points with a try (then worth four points) and five penalties - a tally he only matched on one other occasion during a 25-Test career that saw him cross the opposing line twice.
England had also withstood the loss of prop Fran Cotton, who went off clutching his chest during the first-half. He had had heart trouble during the previous summer's tour of South Africa and the crowd evidently sensed that this injury was the end for a hugely respected adversary. England captain Bill Beaumont recalled, 'a wonderful ovation by the crowd…that while the most passionate and vociferous in the world…is also one of the most knowledgeable. Perhaps they were glad to see the back of him.'
It led to a first cap for replacement prop Austin Sheppard of Bristol, the only man of the dozen on the two benches who made it on to the field, a common statistic in the era when replacements could only be made for medical reasons. Neither of the two replacement hookers, Andy Simpson of Sale and the late Steve 'Junna' Jones of Pontypool, would win a cap.
Andy Ripley, the charismatic No.8 recalled for bench duty five years after his last cap, sat alongside a bunch of lively, youthful attackers like scrum-half Nick Youngs - father of Ben - and outside-half Huw Davies. It was as close as Ripley, who died last year, ever again got to a cap, although he was still playing for Rosslyn Park into his forties.
Wales had kept in touch with a try from Newbridge lock Clive Davis, the only score of a short international career, plus a conversion and three penalties from skipper Steve Fenwick and a drop-goal from outside-half Gareth Davies, but still trailed 19-18 as the match went into the final few minutes.
What happened at a scrum around 30 metres from the English line may be one of the less treasured memories of Sir Clive Woodward's career. Wales scrum-half Brynmor Williams, a fine player unlucky to have played second fiddle to the incomparable Gareth Edwards for club and country in the late 1970s, then see Terry Holmes emerge for both just as Edwards retired, fed the scrum.
Woodward, playing centre for England, has recalled: "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him bend over for the ball. He lunged towards his backs to start the attack. I raced off with a single focus of preventing their scoring. As if looking for me, Williams rounded on the referee with his two hands held out, begging the call.
"The ref instantly blew his whistle and raised his hand to indicate an offside offence. I turned around in shock to see fourteen of my team-mates all standing behind the offside line, a couple of yards away. All behind, but me. All onside, but me. 'Shit', I screamed in complete frustration and exasperation. I'd fallen for the oldest trick in the book".
It was indeed an ancient trick, one made illegal not long after. Dickie Owen, the first great Wales scrum-half, had used it in 1902 to break Wales's long run of defeats at Blackheath. Here it extended a losing run as Fenwick unerringly landed the penalty.
Hare still had an injury-time chance to steal victory, as he had done at Twickenham in the same fixture a year earlier. Woodward has remembered watching him with a sinking feeling, 'we knew we had been beaten'. Hare's memory of the kick is that it was, 'Just out of easy kicking range, too far to stroke over, and I tried to kick it too hard'.
Woodward was reportedly inconsolable afterwards, but extracted more than adequate revenge with the series of hammerings he was to preside over as England's coach in the late 1990s and the early years of this century. England's wait for the win so narrowly denied them at Cardiff in 1981 was to extend for another decade - almost 10 years exactly - to January 19, 1991, when seven penalties from Simon Hodgkinson and Mike Teague's try brought them a 25-6 victory that in no way exaggerated their superiority.
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