A period piece
March 23, 2012
Rodney Parade hosted Wales for the sixth and final time 100 years ago this week © Getty Images
Sunday will see the centenary of the last international match ever played at Rodney Parade, Newport. It was on March 25, 1912 that Wales entertained France in the final match of its poorest season since the turn of the new century.
It is hard to avoid a sense that Wales regarded the visit of the French as something of an afterthought. The match was played on a Monday, and the Welsh team was a little below full strength, although this was not entirely the doing of the selectors - their preferred half-backs Dickie Owen and Billy Trew had opted to go on Swansea's tour of Devon rather than play for their country. It was a decision that signalled the end of Owen's 35-cap career, then the highest for any country and a Welsh record that would stand for more than 40 years.
The choice of venue also suggested that Wales, perhaps because they had scored 147 points to 23 in their meetings so far with the tournament's fifth nation, did not regard France as serious opposition. It was their first match at Rodney Parade since 1897. Their first Golden Age had come, and was now pretty much gone, in the interim.
Newport has a strong claim to be regarded as the cradle of Welsh rugby success. It was the first dominant Welsh club, going four years unbeaten in the late 1870s and challenging English giants Blackheath at the end of that run. They were slaughtered for their temerity, but the crowd of 5,000 - then a huge assembly - for the match may well have been what Blackheath and England's captain Lennard Stokes had in mind when he forecast a bright future for the Welsh game in spite of the still greater humiliation heaped on the national team in its first outing against the English in 1881.
In the early years Rodney Parade had equal standing with Cardiff Arms Park and St Helen's Swansea. It was in 1884 Wales's second international venue, ahead of Cardiff, and when it staged its fifth international, Wales v England in 1897, it was only one match behind its two rivals to the west.
But Newport's problem was two-fold and simple. It was not a large town - its population would not reach 100,000 until the 1930s - and it was much too close to bigger, richer, more powerful Cardiff whose attainment of city status in 1905 was a harbinger of its consistent growth in standing and influence over the next century.
Rodney Parade itself did not develop. David Parry-Jones, wrote in 1989 of looking at an ancient early-century coaching manual by Gwyn Nicholls illustrated by pictures taken at Newport 'with, in the background, the same popular terrace with the self-same overhead cover' as could still be seen three quarters of a century on.
But those early internationals certainly had their memorable moments. The first, against Scotland in 1884, had its element of farce. Welsh back Billy Gwynn, not long afterwards to become secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union, contrived to cross the Scottish line without realising it, then drop the ball before he could touch down. Both of Scotland's winning tries were hotly disputed.
As too was Wales's decisive score four years later, a single try that secured their first ever victory over the Scots. Welsh accounts credit debutant wing Tom Pryce-Jenkins with running half the length of the field to score. Scottish chronicler RJ Phillips does not dispute the distance but adds that 'a goodly part of its course was in touch' and that several defenders did not in consequence try to tackle him. Phillips also records that Scotland had five tries disallowed. It seems possible that Scots were complaining about 'blind Irish referees' - in this case a Mr Chambers - the best part of a century before Max Boyce conferred a certain immortality on John West's decision-making at Twickenham in 1974.
Pryce-Jenkins, a founding father of London Welsh who combined medical studies with the stage, was just one of a number of memorable debutants in Newport Tests. Six years later, with Scotland contriving one of the great tactical dead-ends of the game's history, belatedly responding to Wales's four-threequarter formation by naming four half-backs, Cardiff's Dai Fitzgerald scored all the points, a try and a drop goal, in a clear-cut 7-0 victory. In between Pryce-Jenkins and Fitzgerald came the Blackheath wing Percy Christopherson crossing twice for England in 1891, both scores converted by the Hartlepool Rovers centre Fred Alderson, who in this match also became the only Englishman between 1871 and 1947 to be simultaneously debutant and captain.
For Wales in 1897 their 11-0 victory over England - their first really comprehensive defeat of the old enemy - was underpinned by the performances of Dick Hellings and Jack Rhapps, prototypes of the 'Rhondda forwards' whose emergence, reflecting the wider social reach of the game in Wales, was to give Welsh teams a physical edge they had previously lacked.
But that game in 1897 was more noted as an end - the last international match played by the greatest of all Newport players, Arthur Gould, and the last by Wales for more than a year as the other nations objected to the national subscription raised to mark Gould's achievements.
Gould led his country at Rodney Parade, as he had done in 1894. Newport men led Wales in five of the six internationals there, with Bill Bowen of Swansea in 1891, deputising for the absent Gould, the only exception in a line also incorporating Charles Newman in 1884, the veteran Tom Clapp in 1888 and Tommy Vile - beneficiary of Owen's disregard for the occasion - in 1912.
Vile, later a distinguished referee and administrator, will not have enjoyed his day. The disregarded French played with fire and competence in muddy conditions, dominated up front, and led 8-6 at half-time with tries from Stade Francais centre Emile Lesieur and Perigueux wing Leon Larribeau. John Billot's account of Wales's international matches credits their recovery, for a fortunate 14-8 win, to the Cardiff duo of centre Billy Spiller and wing Ewan Davies, scorer of two tries.
The cruel randomness of fate visited on this generation can be seen in the dates of death of these four players. Larribeau was killed in action in 1916, but the others were all still alive in 1970 - Spiller dying at the end of that year, while Lesieur lived until early 1985, only a few months short of his 100th birthday.
Spiller was to go on to fresh post-war sporting distinction as scorer of the first century for Glamorgan after they were admitted to the county championship in 1921. Rodney Parade was, like most leading Welsh grounds, host to cricket as well as rugby, hosting 27 first-class matches between 1935 and 1965 and seeing two of Gloucestershire's greatest batsmen at their best - Wally Hammond scored 302 in 1939 while 17 years later Tom Graveney hit 200 in an innings total of 298, the lowest ever to include an individual double hundred.
Rugby visitors were generally treated less hospitably and those departing empty-handed included the Springboks of 1912 and 1970 and the All Blacks of 1963. A period piece it may be, but Rodney Parade still has a history to cherish.
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