Scott Gibbs’ last minute try at Wembley in 1999. Picture credit: Mark Leech/Getty Images

Hymns and arias

Fierce rivalries in a shared sport


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The morning after Wales’s first win at Twickenham for 20 years, Gwyndaf found his father dead in his armchair, a cold mug of tea beside him, the television still on. On the armrest was the diary in which he recorded his life’s ephemera. The last entry read: “Went to the shops. Phoned Gwyndaf. Watched the rugby.” The old man’s final whistle blew before he could note down the result.

When Gwyndaf told me this story a few months later, I suggested it must have been comforting to imagine that his father had died in the glow of a 26-19 win, the first away win against their rivals since 1988. “Maybe so, maybe so,” Gwyndaf reflected. “Though it may have been going behind 16-3 after half an hour that killed him.”

How foolish to test the rugby gods

The previous year’s Six Nations, in 2007, had been disastrous for Wales. Or it had been perfect, depending on how you look at such things. They lost their first four matches, pipped even by Italy, but in the final game, roared on by Hymns and Arias in Cardiff, the home side pulled one out of the bag, 27-18. Like the song goes: “As long as we beat the English, we don’t care”.

Stereophonics, good Valley boys from Cwmaman, had written that in 1999 for a BBC Wales trailer ahead of the match with England at Wembley, a “home” game on enemy soil while the Millennium Stadium was being built. Wales were playing for nothing but pride having lost to Scotland and Ireland; England were undefeated and led 7-0 after two minutes. Two more tries came before the break but Neil Jenkins, that ginger metronome, kept swinging his boot straight and true to stop them getting away. With five minutes left, England led 31-25; then arrogance came off the bench.

First Clive Woodward, their head coach, demanded that English ribbons be attached to the trophy before the final whistle; then his men turned down a penalty that, if converted, would have sealed the win.

How foolish to test the rugby gods. Two minutes into injury time, Scott Gibbs, the Wales centre, barged and jinked past five defenders to score. With Jenkins kicking the conversion, England lost the grand slam, the triple crown and the title to Scotland on points difference. As that great Welshman, Windsor Davies, might have said: “Oh dear. How sad. Never mind.”

And now here we are again, England playing Wales for the 138th time, the men in white leading the series by five. They each lost their opening game of this year’s Six Nations: Wales coming within five minutes of their first scoreless match in 15 years before a consolation try against Ireland, while England lost consecutive matches against Scotland for the first time since 1984.

Both won their second match but the title is France’s to lose. England need to beat Wales to get momentum before they go to Paris. Wales, as always, only care that they beat the English.

Dan Biggar kicks the penalty for 3 points during the Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland on February 12, 2022. Picture Credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images

It will test friendship at All Saints’ Blackheath the following morning as this English churchwarden prays for a reason to be magnanimous to the lay reader, daughter of a Penarth vicar. Clare is preaching and I have drawn her attention to the allotted epistle condemning “disgraceful and underhanded ways”, surely a reference to what goes on in the scrum.

Blackheath is where this rivalry began, as well as playing a part in its continuation, since the headmistress of the church school is mother of Nick Tompkins, the Wales centre. Two minutes away from All Saints’ is the Princess of Wales pub, where the England and Wales teams got changed before their first international on February 19, 1881. They then had to walk for half a mile, cutting across what is now the car park of Marks & Spencer to play on Mr Richardson’s field.

 “We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English. And that’s who you’re playing this afternoon”

Blackheath was then the centre of English rugby. In 1863 the club had led rugby’s split from association football after a dispute over how much violence was permissible (they conceded on strangling but felt other clubs were being awfully wet to ban hacking the shins). In 1879 they had travelled to Newport to defend England’s honour against a Welsh club who had been undefeated for four years. Blackheath scored eight tries and kept a clean sheet. Two years later, an under-strength side representing Wales came to make amends. This was even more one-sided: England scored 13 tries, winning 82-0 under modern scoring. The press coverage implied that Wales did well to score nil.

They returned to the pub and drank together into the night. Reports suggest it was all quite friendly, which has not always been the case since. “The relationship between the Welsh and the English is based on trust and understanding,” Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, put it in 1986. “They don’t trust us and we don’t understand them.”

A few years earlier, Phil Bennett, the Wales fly half, had stirred up the blood in the dressing room. “Look at what these bastards have done to Wales,” he told his team. “They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they ever given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English. And that’s who you’re playing this afternoon.”

Wales won 14-9. It hasn’t, to be fair, been that bad for ages, not with so many Wales players now playing for English clubs, such as Dan Biggar (Northampton, above), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester), Taulupe Faletau (Bath) and Tompkins (Saracens). Yet however fractious the match, I’m sure there will be harmony in All Saints’ the morning after, no matter who wins. Though if we get Cwm Rhondda as the first hymn, I know I’ll be in for a hard time in the sermon.

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