England see off Wales and a deep freeze
December 25, 2012
Wales' Brian Price rises above England's John Owen during their clash in Cardiff back in 1963 © Getty Images
The significance of particular months in the rugby calendar has changed over time - and few more so than January. Nowadays it is a time for the pool stages of the Heineken Cup to be tied up and international squads to go into conclave ahead of the Six Nations challenge to come.
But it is not so very long since it meant the (then) Five Nations itself and a fixed menu of matches. In particular it meant Wales v England (or vice-versa), generally on the third Saturday. Sometimes it would share the opening day with the annual clash of the French and Scots, in other years it might come the week after.
That was the order 50 years ago, when two teams featuring the crop of new caps then usual in each country's opening match - six Welshmen and seven Englishmen, including six forwards - took the field at Cardiff on Saturday, January 19, 1963 knowing the Scots had stolen a march by winning in Paris.
It is unlikely the Scots were much on their mind. Avoiding frostbite and exposure was more of a priority. This match was played in the midst of the toughest winter of recent memory, when ice and snow gripped Britain for weeks.
It was so cold that the teams were kept in the changing rooms while the anthems were played, something which Clive Rowlands, who was simultaneously making his international debut at scrum-half and captaining Wales, remembers with 'a disappointment verging on rage. We couldn't hear them in the changing rooms and the anthems are a big moment for a player winning his first cap'.
They ran on to a scene described in the Guardian by the aptly-named David Frost, with a 'motley collection of farm implements, three tractors, harrows and other agricultural paraphernalia - parked throughout the match between the River Taff and the West goal. Then too, there were high banks of snow encroaching to within a few yards of the goal-line'.
Rowlands and his half-back partner Dai Watkins, also a debutant, had been forbidden to use a ball in Newport's gym when forced indoors to practice and had to use a rolled-up tracksuit. Watkins, panicked when team-mate Dai Hayward was late with a promised lift from Blaina to Cardiff, travelled with fans and was then refused admission to the ground by a sceptical security guard until the better-known Alun Pask turned up. England, billeted by the seaside at Porthcawl, had at least managed a run on the beach.
In spite of mittens and thermals, there were cases of frostbite. Watkins was to recall team-mate Robert Morgan, who dropped a scoring pass, showing a 'wide, raw frost weal that began at his temple and disappeared under his jersey' - according to Morgan, reaching his hip. Studs, Rowlands remembered, clicked on the frozen surface 'like a herd of cattle'. It was, reported Welsh debutant Roger Michaelson, 'so cold that even Clive Rowlands stopped talking' - possibly the only occasion that this happened in more than half a century of involvement with the game.
The RFU were to write to their Welsh counterparts, congratulating them on getting the game on. Well they might have done, since England were the clear beneficiaries. If the second of their two tries was exactly what might have been expected on such a day - debutant Coventry lock John Owen, later to be RFU President, touching down after England captain outside-half Richard Sharp kicked ahead and the first two players who got there skidded past the ball, the first would have been impressive under any circumstances and seemed downright miraculous on this occasion.
England threw long on their own 25 and centre Mike Weston passed to partner Malcolm Phillips. He scissored with wing Peter Jackson, a lethal attacker whose threat sucked in a number of defenders before he returned the pass, putting Phillips into space on halfway. Phillips recalled: "Into the freezing wind it was a long haul to the Welsh line at the river end of the ground, but fortunately for me the defenders were covering as well and I was able to round off a move in which the ball must have travelled more than 100 yards".
Sharp converted both tries and added a drop goal which made the Welsh try, scored late in the second half, something of a consolation in a clear 13-6 England win. It was a match whose significance was felt rather beyond a season which ended with Wales taking their first wooden spoon since 1949 and England the championship, missing Triple Crown and Grand Slam because of a 0-0 draw in Dublin, the last to date in the Five/Six Nations.
Wales' Norman Gale holds off England's John Thorne as Denzil Williams goes for the ball © Getty Images
While winters like 1962-3 are exceptional, foul weather spoiling England v Wales matches was not. Four years earlier one observer had been reminded of a mud wrestling bout he'd seen in Germany, while conditions at the 1965 match led Lord Wakefield, England's most revered former captain, to write to The Times complaining that 'nine times out of 10 in the last 50 years, because of adverse conditions, what ought to have been one of the highlights of the season has been markedly interfered with'. Voices like his eventually generated the pressure that led a decade later to the rotation of fixtures and more recently to a later start for the tournament, with no matches before February.
It was also the last time England won in Cardiff until 1991, a sequence of defeats that means this match may have been more recalled in previews and match programmes than any other in the fixture's history. Rowlands recalls 'Every two years I was asked what it was like to have been the captain of a Welsh team that lost at home to England. Mind you, I always pointed out that I'd started the winning sequence in 1965!'.
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