Wednesday, 28 January 2015

1983: Wales v England (Rugby Union)

England had not won in Cardiff since 1963, but they came desperately close in 1983, even during a Five Nations campaign that turned out to be a nightmare.

It can quite a nice feeling when on the odd occasion the bookmakers get things spectacularly wrong, but if you were an England rugby union fan in 1983 then you probably would not quite agree with this sentiment. Installed as the Five Nations favourites before the tournament kicked off, the 9/4 odds offered on England were looking more and more inaccurate as the weeks progressed. As Ireland (5/2) and France (9/2) battled their way to a shared championship, England were left with only the wooden spoon and plenty of time to have a sit down and think about what they had just done.

It may have only been three years since their Grand Slam achievements, yet by the end of the 1983 championship it seemed as if this was a distant memory from a completely different era. Inevitably as time moved on, one by one the winning team of 1980 began to leave the fold; skipper Bill Beaumont had retired in 1982, his loss felt greatly, with fellow pack members in Fran Cotton, Phil Blakeway, Roger Uttley and Tony Neary also out of the picture by 1983 (although Blakeway did come out of international retirement the following year). Many of the backs remained - Dusty Hare, John Carleton, Paul Dodge, and captain Steve Smith - but the opening match against France highlighted England's problems, as the 1983 Five Nations championship favourites looked anything but.

The 19-15 French victory at Twickenham may have sounded close, but in truth England were outclassed by the visitors, as a three try spell in 13 second half minutes emphasised the gap between the teams. England's cause was not helped when Maurice Colclough was forced from the field with ruptured medial ligaments in his left knee, an injury that would keep another member of the 1980 pack out for the rest of the season. The power displayed by the French forwards and the pressure on the English backs had combined to leave England with a lot of issues before their next match in Wales.

The run-up to the Cardiff fixture was hardly smooth. Centre Huw Davies was replaced by Clive Woodward, who then failed a fitness test on his shoulder which had been operated on in the autumn, resulting in Davies keeping his place after all. Peter Wheeler's ankle injury robbed England of 41 caps worth of Test experience, meaning a call-up to the team for perennial replacement Steve Mills. The 31-year-old Gloucester hooker had played twice for his country during the 1981 Argentinian tour, but had spent the last three years on the subs bench, but Smith was fully confident that Mills was up to the task ahead.

Colclough's replacement also had his own injury concerns. Steve Boyle - a Gloucester team mate of Mills - was carrying an ankle injury, and his place in the starting XV was only confirmed after he played for Gloucestershire against Yorkshire in the County Championship final the Saturday before the Wales fixture, and even then he was put through a fitness test by Budge Rogers (chairman of selectors), Don Gatherer (England physio) and Iain Duff (RU doctor) which, very much like the Grand Old Duke of York, involved running to the top of a hill and down again.

"I've waited a long time for this, but it's been worthwhile," Boyle stated, his call-up at the age of 29 fully deserved after ten years in the sport. A finance company representative by day, Boyle joked that he would need to ask his Welsh boss for time off, but once his ankle injury had cleared (helped by regular physio visits Aston Villa) there would be no stopping Boyle from realising his dream. Boyle's joy was probably not shared with Newport's John Widdecombe though, who was a surprise call-up as a potential replacement if Boyle failed his test, the 27-year-old carpenter agonisingly close to international recognition (Widdecombe would never be capped by England).

If England were enveloped in uncertainty, then their opponents Wales were in a similar position. Joint wooden spoon "winners" in 1982, the Welsh RU felt compelled to organise a trial match between the Probables and the Possibles before the start of the Five Nations, the first of its kind in five years (it's not as if it was needed during the glory years of the 1970s). Fly-half and captain Gareth Davies paid the price for the poor 1982 season, leaving both his position and the role of captaincy up for grabs.

After leading Wales in their last match against the Maoris in November, Eddie Butler was seen as the best man going forwards to assume the crucial role of skipper of the national team. The 25-year-old No. 8 was not a universally popular choice when his appointment was announced, some even questioning whether he deserved his place in the team, Mervyn Davies openly declaring that the new skipper should have been dropped.

A perceived lack of speed was one accusation thrown at Butler, although he did respond to this criticism by pointing out that he had been selected to play for the Barbarians in the Hong Kong Sevens in the previous year. Others felt that a man who had won just seven caps (six of these in 1980) was not an appropriate choice for such a position of national importance.

Butler was captain of his club side Pontypool, so despite his lack of international experience, he was at least comfortable as a leader of men. "I'm not for all that shouting and frenzied motivating talk in the dressing room," admitted Butler, when asked about his captaincy style. "The occasion itself should be big enough to motivate anyone. If the player does not think so then there is very little I can say to change his mind". Wales' fifth captain in just four years appeared, from the outside at least, to be confident of his own abilities as a player and captain.

The Butler arguments were not the only topics of debate amongst the Welsh supporters and ex-players who were repeatedly asked for opinions. The cherished number 10 shirt was handed to Malcolm Dacey, either an exciting ball-running fly-half who was a refreshing change from his predecessor Davies, or someone who lacked a tactical game, depending on which side of the fence you sat.

Dacey would be one of five debutants in the Welsh team. David Pickering won the nod for openside flanker ahead of Gareth Roberts, after Mark Davies, the man tipped for the job, broke his hand whilst playing in the trial match. Pickering's selection was viewed as a positive, his pace seen as a major advantage to the Welsh pack. Hooker Billy James, like his opposite number Mills, had served his time on the replacements bench, spending the previous nine internationals on the sidelines. And Mark Wyatt came in at full back, the Swansea star having kicked 219 points for his club side (at the time of his initial selection), with Mervyn Davies bigging up the new boy, writing in the Daily Mirror that Wyatt was "the nearest thing I have seen to the incomparable JPR Williams".

The final new cab off the rank was the extremely gifted and exciting prospect of Mark Ring. The 20-year-old centre was originally a fly-half, appearing for the Welsh Youth team in this position, but with his path at Cardiff obstructed by the former Wales captain Gareth Davies, Wing switched roles, with no apparent reduction in the quality of his displays.

An attacking player by nature - "There's no lack of an eye for a gap. I like to take people on from all sorts of positions on the field" - Ring's selection was seen as a gamble, but one which was widely applauded, after the original choice Robert Ackerman was ruled out after breaking a bone in his hand whilst playing for London Welsh against Leicester. Above all, Ring was viewed as yet another talented youngster that the Welsh game seemed to throw up at regular intervals, or as The Times put it, "Ring is a special version of the production model".

Ring was so young that he was still in nappies when England had last won in Cardiff, the 1963 victory a match that the press were always happy to recall every other year when the fixture neared. Frankly, it was not just England who had an issue with Cardiff Arms Park, after all, Scotland's win in 1982 was Wales' first defeat on home soil in the championship since 1968. "One of the reasons England haven't won there for so long is because there have been some very good Welsh teams," Mills said truthfully, so 1983 really did provide England with a perfect opportunity to break their duck.

"There's no negative psychology about going down there," Budge Rogers said on the eve of the match, in a not all too convincing fashion. At least England could take to the field in front of a smaller crowd than usual, the redevelopment of the South Stand reducing the attendance to 45,000, a whopping 20,000 down on what the capacity would be on England's next visit in 1985.

The general consensus of opinion seemed to be pointing towards a narrow Welsh victory, although The Times' David Hands probably best summed up the difficulty in selecting a winner when he described doing so as "the act of a brave man". Nevertheless, others were willing to give a view. "I believe we will secure a narrow victory," wrote passionate Welshman Mervyn Davies. "I expect it to be frantically close but fear there will be a disappointment for Steve Smith, one of the most popular men to captain his country," indicated Chris Lander in the Mirror, with Barry John concurring: "It's going to be close, but Wales can just about do it".

The pundits were certainly right regarding the closeness of the two teams, as come the end of 80 minutes nothing could separate the nations. For England it was an opportunity lost, the chance to lay their Cardiff ghosts to rest, and a match that slipped away, in turn heaping a great deal of pressure on skipper Smith. On the other hand, Wales were left with a lot of unanswered questions, and even more confusingly, could have won the game late on, even though they were probably lucky to escape with a draw.

England were dominant for the first twenty minutes, their pack superb in both scrums and line-outs, Steve Bainbridge putting in a particularly strong performance, as the Welsh initially struggled to deal with the onslaught. A fine backs move involving the Leicester trio of Les Cusworth, Paul Dodge and Dusty Hare - a training ground exercise perfected by their club coach Chalkie White - saw the visitors rewarded after 13 minutes, John Carleton going over for the first score (his final ever try in international rugby). It looked like being a long afternoon for the men in red.

However, despite the great start by the English, a half-time lead of just 7-6 was a poor reflection of how much the visitors had been in the ascendancy. Smith's role in matters was analysed intensely after the dust had settled, his lack of service to the backs and constant darts around the edge of scrums criticised heavily, with many journalists declaring that due to Smith's age (he was 31) and lack of tactical awareness on the day, that he should be immediately replaced by Nigel Melville. Fly-half Cusworth was also under the hammer from the Express' Tony Bodley, who suggested that his indecision put England's backs under constant pressure, adding that a half-back duo of Melville and Huw Davies was now the way ahead.

England had actually fallen behind in the first half when a Wyatt penalty, and Dacey drop goal from behind the scrum turned a great English start into a 4-6 deficit. Hare's penalty before the break did restore the England advantage, and when Cusworth dropped a goal midway through the second half, England led 10-6 and were looking good for their first win in Cardiff since the year of The Beatles' first number one. But in the process of setting up Cusworth, Smith strained his rib cartilages and struggled through the rest of the match. Even though he continued manfully, even this action created some anger in the press pack, who felt he should have made way for Melville.

As the afternoon developed, Wales did gain a foothold in the match. Lock Rob Norster performed admirably in the line-out, and a lot of good work was performed in the rucks, with the forwards enjoying a much more successful day than the backs, who were perhaps understandably shaky. Indeed it would be the forwards that helped to edge Wales in front after 69 minutes; Wyatt's penalty had put the Welsh just a point behind, when Bainbridge's deflection from a line-out on England's line was seemingly gathered by Smith, only for Jeff Squire to dive in and emerge from the bottom of a pile of bodies with the ball.

Lander questioned the validity of the try, claiming that Squire had come in from an offside position, yet referee John West raised his arm, leaving the Welsh spectators ecstatic, and England searching for a score of some sort to come back from 13-10 down. Hare's boot would again come to the rescue, his 74th minute touchline kick going over via a post, which in turn gave him the England scoring record (140 points from 16 internationals, beating Bob Hiller's 138 in 19).

Still there was time for Wales to almost snatch a victory, scrum half Terry Holmes held up just short of the line, as Wales finished strongly. But fittingly there would be no winner, both teams not quite good enough to deliver the final blow when they found themselves on top, leaving Hands to bemoan the inconclusive nature of the draw. "Few of the 45,000 spectators could even summon up the enthusiasm to invade the pitch as their heroes departed, walking with the tread of men not entirely happy with life".

The quality of the match may have been questioned, but for excitement there could be no doubting that the 13-13 draw was edge of the seat stuff. Hands had a slight point; it's hard to get too excited when the match ends with no winner, as both sets of fans look back on the 80 minutes with a feeling of what might have been. But on the plus side, at least England had left Cardiff without a loss, even if their championship and triple crown dreams had long since faded.

Critics of Smith and Cusworth were no doubt delighted when the pair were dropped for England's next match against Scotland, Melville and John Horton replacing the half-backs, with John Scott handed the poisoned chalice of the captaincy. It says a lot for the chaotic state of the English game at the time though that Melville was then subsequently injured, with the man he had usurped then put straight back in the side, much to the annoyance of those demanding change (Nick Youngs would come in for Smith in the final championship match against Ireland, as the musical chairs continued).

Unsurprisingly, England went from bad to worse, the point in Wales their only one in a season that had travelled from favourites to the wooden spoon with alarming haste. Dick Greenwood came in to take over from Mike Davies as coach, and there was a brief ray of light when a weakened New Zealand team were beaten at Twickenham in the autumn. But the 1983 championship was sadly a sign of things to come; between 1984-1987 there would be just five wins in the Five Nations, as the decade that had started so well began to slowly disintegrate.

Conversely, Wales enjoyed a much happier season. Wins against Scotland and Ireland meant that an unlikely victory in Paris would see the title going back to the Principality. Alas it was not to be, a 16-9 defeat leaving the Welsh in third behind France and Ireland, but with hope for the future. After a fine World Cup in 1987 and a triple crown a year later, the 1989 season ushered in a period in the doldrums for the team internationally, but even in their poor state they could still keep their proud Cardiff record intact against the English, just as they had managed in 1983.

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