The original Celtic rivalry
January 27, 2012
Arthur Gould's older brother took part in the first ever match between Wales and Ireland © PA Photos
This weekend sees the 130th anniversary of the first ever match between Ireland and Wales. It was some time in the making, as the Welsh had sought a fixture as early as 1880 but Ireland - with something of the offhandedness which was to characterise their reaction to Wales in the early years - had not been very interested.
Had the challenge been accepted when first issued, Ireland would have been Wales' first opponents. Instead they were the second, following on from the 82-0 loss (in modern scoring equivalents) inflicted by England at Blackheath in February 1881.
It was a little more than a year on from that match, on February 28 1882, that Ireland at least acceded to Welsh requests and played them at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Ireland's leading players were still not persuaded, perhaps informed by the Welsh debacle at Blackheath, of the importance of the fixture, and all but four of the originally selected XV cried off, with the result that they fielded 10 debutants. Among the comparative veterans were the captain Arthur Forrest, one of a clutch of former Cheltenham College students who made an impact on Irish rugby in this period. He was a smart forward - recalled by journalist Jacques McCarthy as 'not a very hard pusher, but he went fast...was a tricky dribbler and when he laid his hand on a man, well, that man was his'.
His pack-mates included secretary of the Leinster Rugby Union Francis Kennedy, playing alongside his debutant brother John and William Wallis, who was destined to add yet another line to the Irish game's strong family traditions when his younger brother and two nephews also won caps and noted by McCarthy as 'the first Irish forward that ever frightened a Scotsman'.
Wales were still more changed, with 11 debutants, plus two positional changes from the team which had played England. The team was also more representative of the real strength of the Welsh game than that pioneer XV, with six players from Newport and the first players capped from Swansea and Neath.
It was the first Wales team selected under the auspices of the Welsh Rugby Union, formed the previous autumn, but was to be memorable for much more than that. After the nilling at Blackheath, the man who went into the record books as the first ever Wales try-scorer was a forward, the 19-year-old Newport trainee solicitor Tom Baker-Jones, who went over in the 26th minute. He was also the first of many Joneses, albeit a double-barrelled one, to play for Wales and the first Welsh cap to be followed by his son, Paul Baker-Jones, who played a single match against Scotland in 1921. Not all of his achievements were firsts. He was to be the last survivor of this match, living to the age of 96 before dying in 1959.
Wales were to cross three more times. The scores came from Scottish-born Newport half-back James Bridie, Nantyglo (but later Newport) forward Tom Clapp and Rhymney threequarter Bill Evans, who had scored five times the previous week as the Welsh XV turned up with a resounding victory over the Midlands. It was Bridie's only cap - he was picked to play against Scotland a year later, but withdrawn when the Scots objected to Wales including somebody they regarded as one of their own. Clapp, one of many players born in the English West Country to contribute to the early year of the Welsh game, was by contrast to be a fixed point in the pack before emigrating to the United States in 1888. That made him one of four members of this Welsh XV to die abroad, but none had a more exotic trajectory in life than Evans who was to emigrate to Australia, become headmaster successively of Freemantle and Adelaide Grammar schools - all before he was 35 - then return home as a tramp, living rough in the countryside near his native Rhymney.
Two of the tries were converted, making them into the goals necessary for victory in this period, by Wales captain Charles Lewis, an all-round sportsman whose achievements in cricket and rugby have been recognised in a short biography (2009) by historians Bob Harragan and Andrew Hignell.
Ireland failed to reply, meaning that this fixture also goes into the records as Wales' first win. The Irish finished with 11 men. Two players - one of the Kennedy brothers and wing Joseph Atkinson, went off injured. Two more - not named in contemporary accounts - walked off in anger at decisions by one of the two umpires, WRU secretary Richard Mullock and William Goulding, vice-president and treasurer of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Ireland remained unamused, and unconvinced by the value of their new adversary. Ned van Esbeck's history of the Irish game records that there was no match in 1883 because 'the leading Irish players were just not interested in travelling to play Wales' - the IRFU going so far as to pass a resolution that caps would not be awarded for playing Wales. When the fixture was resumed in 1884, the IRFU resolved that 'while Ireland would fulfil its commitment….Wales would thereafter be dropped from the international schedule'. It was not until 1887 that it became an annual clash.
If none quite matched the picturesque quality of Evans' subsequent career, several players went on to have distinguished lives. Among the Irishmen, Frederick Heuston's services as a military medical officer would earn him a CMG decoration, while two of the Welshmen ended up as knights. While George Morris got his by inheriting a baronetcy right at the end of his life in 1947, Hugh Vincent's title was earned through political services including the thankless task of opposing David Lloyd George for the Conservatives in the then Chancellor's rock-solid parliamentary division in the politically momentous year of 1910.
Ireland's family connections were matched by Welsh forward Bob Gould, who would have two younger brothers - among them Arthur, the Welsh game's first immortal - follow him into the national colours. Welsh forwards William Phillips and Tom Williams would make up the WRU's International Board delegation from 1901 to 1907 - Phillips completing 20 years of service - while one of the Irishmen wound up helping run another game altogether, as threequarter Thomas McCarthy was in 1884 one of the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
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