Monday, 29 January 2018

1980: England v Wales (Rugby Union)

Looking back this week at a violent England-Wales Five Nations match in 1980, as Paul Ringer is sent off, and England only just manage to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Generally, Anglo-Welsh rugby union clashes do not require much promotion. But the hype surrounding the 1980 Five Nations contest between England and Wales at Twickenham was suffocating. Billed as the match that would decide the championship, Triple Crown and Grand Slam, you could almost taste the tension as the February date neared.

The fact that the contest was so important was a bonus for anyone associated with English rugby. Without an outright title win since 1963, England were long overdue anything resembling success. A 24-9 win over Ireland in their opening fixture was encouraging, yet it would be a first victory in Paris since 1964 that really gave hope a chance.

Coach Mike Davis, in the role for his first Five Nations season, had emphasised that he wanted to utilise England’s backs more during his reign. But the undoubted strength of the team resided in a strong pack. Captain Bill Beaumont, assisted by the likes of Fran Cotton, Peter Wheeler, Tony Neary, John Scott and Roger Uttley, played a significant role in the Paris win.

Even though Wales had been hit by the recent retirements of stars such as Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, Phil Bennett, and JJ Williams, they were still seen as the team to beat at the start of the Five Nations. Their 18-9 win over France in Cardiff appeared to justify their favourites’ tag, with Nicholas Keith writing in the Times that “Welsh rugby seems set fair to dominate the northern hemisphere for another decade.”

However, not everyone was as entranced by the Welsh win over France. Flanker Paul Ringer came in for particular criticism from French skipper Jean-Pierre Rives.  “Our game in Cardiff was ruined by the bad play of one man,” Rives protested after England’s win in Paris.  “If Wales continue at Twickenham to play as they did in Cardiff I would wish the English to win - for rugby's sake.”

The Welsh may not have cared too much about Rives’ opinions. Yet in the lead-up to the Twickenham encounter, more mud was slung their way. An unnamed England selector was none too complimentary about prop Graham Price, stating that “I believe he should be sent off in every match he plays - not for rough play but for persistently breaking the laws by collapsing the scrum.”

There was more to come. The BBC highlighted incidents involving Ringer during the French match, something that did not go down too well, as Mervyn Davies pointed out. “The BBC, whose ‘trial by television’ angered Wales flanker Paul Ringer and upset the rest of the side, have unwittingly helped stoke up the fires of Welsh passion. Now England must pay for the insults.”

There was even revelations from Welsh lock Allan Martin that recent threats of steelworks closures was cranking up the pressure. “There is a strong feeling that this is the most important game Wales has ever played,” Martin said. “It’s mainly because of the strike. People are feeling a bit downtrodden. There is a sense of a rape of our fair country.”

Although Wales were 4-6 favourites, with England 11-8, there was a division of opinion amongst journalists about the outcome of the match. The Express’ Tony Bodley was convinced of an England victory. “England's power pack will extinguish the fire of the Welsh dragon at Twickenham today. By four o'clock this afternoon they will be swaggering towards the Triple Crown and Grand Slam.”

Barry John and Mervyn Davies backed their fellow countrymen, and former manager John Dawes expressed his thoughts on the 80 minutes ahead. “I hope that both countries emerge with honour. The ultimate winner would be rugby football.”

It didn’t quite turn out like that. In fact, the match was roundly condemned, with the behaviour of both sets of players scrutinised heavily. Bowen called it “tribal warfare that passed for a rugby international.” Bodley bemoaned “the first half brutality and bloodshed that shamed the game.” West wrote that it “had been a wretched advertisement for the game of rugby.”

The tone was set as early as the first minute. Ringer was immediately involved in a confrontation with John Scott, and England’s No 8 would later throw punches at Cardiff team mate Terry Holmes, and also Eddie Butler. Geoff Wheel and Beaumont also confronted each other, as a scrappy affair threatened to get out of control.

Holmes, Wheel, and Steve Fenwick were accused of using their boots dangerously, and the English were incensed when Ringer rammed his knee into the side of Dusty Hare in a maul. “I was in so much pain, in my hip and side, I thought seriously of leaving the pitch,” Hare said. “I told the lads if it got any worse I’d be off.”

After 12 minutes of mayhem, referee David Burnett had seen enough. Bringing captains Beaumont and Jeff Squire together, the official warned that the next offence would result in a sending off. Just two minutes later, Ringer attempted to charge down a kick by John Horton, and made contact with the fly half. Burnett acted decisively; Ringer would be the first player to be sent off in an international at Twickenham since 1925.

“There was nothing intentional about it,” Ringer pleaded in his defence. “I couldn’t pull out and as he turned his body I caught him in the face with my right hand, not my elbow.” Horton had a different view. “I wasn't shamming when I went down. Paul elbowed me after the ball had gone.” Either way, Wales now had over an hour to play with 14 men.

Hare put England 3-0 up after Ringer’s dismissal, but the afternoon was far from comfortable. Despite their numerical handicap, Wales led at half-time after Squire went over for a try, and England were struggling to exert any pressure, due to great work by the Welsh pack, and brilliant performances by Holmes and fly half Gareth Davies.

England finally edged in front when Hare slotted over a penalty, after three previous failures. But there was a sting in the tail. With just two minutes remaining, a brilliant try scored by Elgan Rees put Wales 8-6 up. “I thought we had blown our chances after all the hard work we had put in this season,” Beaumont admitted.

Fortunately for England, there would be one final chance. In injury time, Burnett awarded a penalty after he adjudged Wales had infringed at a ruck. With nerves of steel, Hare’s kick from the touchline sailed over, giving England a barely deserved 9-8 win. But even though England were now in line for a Grand Slam, most of the talk after the match focused on the violent nature of the afternoon.

“It was war on the field and like M*A*S*H in the medical room,” RU Doctor Leon Walkden admitted. “In my 18 years involvement with international rugby I ran never remember so many players being treated after a game.” With several players requiring stitches - Uttley (10), Colclough (3), Beaumont (3), Steve Smith (3), Scott (3), Allan Phillips (6) - Walkden had a point.

The “Ringer is innocent” graffiti indicated that the flanker had sympathy in Wales, but the compassion did not extend to the disciplinary committee. Receiving an eight week ban, Ringer only played once more for his country. To mark the occasion, Max Boyce composed a song entitled Blame Ringer, the theme of the jovial piece being that the forward could take the rap for all the ills in Britain.

Things were much happier in England, though. Securing the Grand Slam at Murrayfield, Beaumont’s men had put a smile back on the faces of English supporters. But the rest of the decade would be far from enjoyable. Just seven wins in Five Nations matches between 1982-87 highlighted that 1980 was the exception rather than the norm. I’m not sure we could blame Ringer for that.

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