It’s been a tough few days to be a Welsh rugby supporter. Having failed for the 18th time to beat a Southern Hemisphere side, the press have been quick to remind us of our weaknesses.
The world was a very different place back in 1905, when Wales and New Zealand first met on the rugby field. For a start, Western Mail journalists had enigmatic pseudonyms, and there were no video replays. The first meeting of these two great rugby nations resulted in a 3-0 Welsh win. These days you could be forgiven for calling that boring, but it most certainly wasn’t. There was controversy, for a start. Did Kiwi Bob Deans ground the ball and score “the try that never was” ? We shall never know.
The story of that moment and the debate which has swirled around it ever since is just one of many jewels in Roger Penn’s meticulous collection. It must have been great fun putting this book together. Interviewing the protagonists in the 71 Lions tour, the Scarlets’ victory over the All Blacks in 1972, and that famous Barbarians match in 1973.
Many of us don’t remember the time when Wales and New Zealand were still neck and neck at the top of world rugby. That was back before the Second World War, when the running total of matches won stood at three apiece. Since then, there’s been just one solitary Welsh victory.
Let’s not forget the strong Welsh influence on the 71 Lions and the 73 Barbarians, but those don’t count as official Welsh victories. Maybe Newport’s (in 1963) and Llanelli’s (in 1972, in case you’d forgotten) are unofficial Welsh victories.
The fact remains that after the initial decades of parity, our two countries’ fortunes have diverged dramatically.
Wales is still synonymous with a collective passion when it comes to rugby, but does our enthusiasm for the game still pervade our society as much as it did in the early 20th century?
That passion is still undoubtedly there in New Zealand. The All Black ethos is still revered and protected, albeit with a certain amount of commercial influence which is vital in these times of professionalism. It doesn’t seem to have been diluted as much in New Zealand as it has been in Wales.
One of the most striking themes in this book is the enduring kinship between ex-players from our two countries. Men who still travel halfway around the world to attend dinners in each others’ honour and to present jerseys to clubs they visited on tours which happened over 50 years ago. That enduring camaraderie reminds us that, however much the game has changed over the years, rugby still has that ability to build and maintain friendships in spite of the barriers the modern world tries to put in their way.
It would be interesting to explore some of the reasons why two very similar countries’ fortunes have changed on the rugby field since that first game in 1905. That may help us in Wales to wrestle the increasingly annoying monkey from our back.