R League: The day Wales made history
Dec 23 2007 by Peter Shuttleworth, Wales On Sunday
NEW Year’s Day will mark the centenary of the first rugby league international.
But in a cruel twist of sporting fate, the nation that gave birth to international rugby league is at its lowest ebb.
Wales’ heroics in union are much more notable than their achievements in the 13-man game but the Welsh will go down in league history for staging the top level fixture when they welcomed New Zealand to Aberdare Athletic Ground on a freezing afternoon on January 1, 1908.
By the time New Zealand arrived in the Valleys, rugby union had established itself as Wales’ national sport just three years earlier when the All Blacks, the Kiwis’ 15-man rugby team, were defeated 3-0 in Cardiff in the battle between the world’s two finest union nations.
South Wales was a firm amateur union hotbed but league clubs were starting up in Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale, Aberdare, Barry, Mid-Rhondda and Treherbert as attempts were made for a foothold in the market as they tried – in vain – to become part of the professional Northern Union.
Sporting fans in South Wales were curious of this new form of rugby so, despite the bitter conditions, 12,000 folk came from the collieries and chapels and witnessed a heart-warming Wales victory.
Wales’ players that day had previously suffered abuse, being labelled traitors and mercenaries, for daring to turn their back on the amateur union clubs, chasing the professional cash and migrating north – including their captain Tom Llewellyn, who left Treherbert for Oldham.
Wales boasted talented and quick stars, many of whom had benefited from long pro experience, and the New Zealanders didn’t enjoy the frozen pitch, despite taking an early lead when Arthur Kelly scored
Home-town hero Dai Thomas levelled almost immediately for Wales but the All Blacks were again ahead at half-time when Billy Wynyard scored and Dally Messenger converted to give New Zealand an 8-3 interval lead.
Wigan outside-half Johnny Thomas shone as Wales enjoyed the wind behind them and the hosts got their dividends when Bradford player Howell Francis scored and Wales sealed victory just before full-time as Dai Jones touched down to put Wales a point in front.
In the dying seconds, though, the touring New Zealanders could have snatched the win had Richard Wynyard not, somewhat uncharacteristically, dropped a pass in front of Wales’ try-line as the Dragons claimed a 9-8 triumph.
You’d hardly know it but Tuesday week will mark 100 years since that momentous occasion at Aberdare.
Those 12,000 crammed around the pitch didn’t fully understand that they were watching history in the making.
The shame is that Wales’ rugby league side has just failed to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup finals, the first time they’ve suffered such heartbreak, as the impact on union’s professionalism in 1995 finally hits home. The migration of talented rugby players ‘going north’ for fame and fortune has stopped as they can now achieve such riches at home playing union.
No Welshman will probably ever again replicate the heroics of superstars such as Billy Boston, Scott Gibbs, Jonathan Davies, Dai Watkins and Scott Quinnell, who went on to become Great Britain greats.
Before ’95, Wales’ rugby league team revelled in their golden era as Davies, Quinnell, Gibbs, John Devereux, Allan Bateman, Dai Young, Iestyn Harris, Keiron Cunningham took the World Cup by storm as they roared to the semi-final. Wales’ team of 2001 emulated their predecessors.
But now Cunningham and Harris have retired, the Dragons are made up of journeymen.
Awarding a Super League franchise to Welsh rugby league team the Celtic Crusaders in 2009 wouldn’t just be a fitting reward for Wales’ impact on rugby league, but it is the faint light at the end of Welsh rugby league’s dark tunnel.