When Wales take to the field in Bordeaux on Sunday 10th September, in their opening match of the Rugby World Cup 2023 it will be more than 150 years since the game we know as the ‘most English of games‘ was introduced into the principality.
Rugby, as we know it, originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire in 1823, when during a game of ‘football’, it is said that a pupil at the school named William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball and run with it.
By 1845 the ‘Laws of Football’ had been drawn up at Rugby School and are considered to be the first written set of rules of any style of football anywhere in the world.
Rugby’s Headmaster, Thomas Arnold’s methods strongly influenced a young Pierre De Coubertin, who visited Rugby and witnessed both ‘football’ and cricket in the late nineteenth century and he would base a lot of his future ideas on the English Public School system when organising the first Modern Olympics in 1896.
So how did a sport invented in an English Public School arrive in Wales and subsequently flourish in the industrialised heartlands of the south?
It has long been believed that rugby was introduced into Wales by the Reverend Rowland Williams, who became Vice Principal and Professor of Hebrew at St David’s College Lampeter, in Ceredigion in 1849.
Many believed that he had acquired knowledge of the game played at Rugby School from Arthur Pell, an ‘Old Rugbeian’ who had attempted to introduce the ‘school’s laws’ of the game to Cambridge University in 1839 which was witnessed by Williams, a student at King’s College and who subsequently brought these with him when he arrived at Lampeter.
Dismayed at the lack of physical activity Williams introduced them to ‘Rugby’, Croquet, Cricket and Eton Fives, in keeping with Dr Arnold’s vision of Muscular Christianity, which advocated the notion of ‘a healthy mind and a healthy body’.
It has become apparent however, that there are now many historians that question his involvement and in fact the College themselves accept that they do not have any actual evidence that Rowland Williams introduced the sport , but Gwyn Prescott writing in ‘This Spellbound Rugby People’(2011) believes that,
His influence at Lampeter (founded in 1822) may have been immediate because a college rule of 1850, urged students to spend their spare time in ‘‘healthful exercise rather than in clownish lounging about the shops or market place”
In 1851 Rowland Williams apologised for the poor sporting facilities at Lampeter compared with those at Cambridge and according to Prescott,
May well have been responsible for the introduction of cricket in 1852 and football, However, whether he introduced rugby, a restricted version of which he can only at best have witnessed briefly over ten years earlier at Cambridge, is questionable
Undoubtedly though, he was responsible for encouraging a ‘sporting environment’ at the college in which Rugby would eventually flourish and initially, games would have been internal probably in the form of ‘House Matches’, but in ‘Fields of Praise: The Official History of The Welsh Rugby Union, by Dai Smith and Gareth Williams in 1980, they believed that,
Foreign matches of an undefined football nature under local rules took place against other local school teams, in particular Llandovery College
David Dow in his book, ‘White Gold’ (2023) believes that a match took place as early as 1856 against Llandovery College, but this was likely to have been a ‘hybrid’ game as it is known that at this time Llandovery (founded in 1848) were playing a variant of football which was something between association football (codified in 1863) and rugby.
Harrison J Roberts, Llandovery College archivist believes that
There is no defining moment of origin at Llandovery , yet it is clear that some form of rugby must have been present at the college in its early days and what is certain is that there must have been a standard of rugby being played by 1866, that would have warranted a game to be organised between the school and Lampeter college
Interestingly, this match has often been considered by many to have been the first ever match played in Wales by an organised Rugby Football Club and was given official recognition by the WRU in 1966, however it was not necessarily played under ‘Rugby school rules’, particularly bearing in mind that the Reverend Walter Price Whiitington arrived at Llandovery from Edinburgh in 1868 and stated that he had,
Introduced Rugby and it throve wonderfully. The boys took to it and rejoiced in it and will never look at Association( football) again
Peter Owens the WRU heritage manager believes that by 1868 there is strong evidence to suggest that Llandovery had become a ‘Rugby’ school and that Lampeter College soon followed.
At both colleges running with the ball was encouraged and ‘hacking’ (kicking) was allowed’ and by 1870 schools in Bridgend and Cowbridge were also playing with a ‘version’ of Rugby School Rules
If pressed to say when and where the first game of rugby as we would recognise it, from separate organisations was played, Owens said,
I may opt for early 1868 at Cardiff Arms Park when a XV from the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers played two matches against a team formed from the Cardiff and Canton cricket clubs. In a report on the second of these matches there is a reference to ‘touchdowns’ having been made for the club team. Admittedly not empiric evidence but a strong suggestion that the match played had been more rugby football than association football
However David Dow believes that this match was likely to be a hybrid of the handling variety as the rugby football union laws were not produced and codified until 1871 and that in his view,
The Neath v Swansea game of February 1872 that Neath RFC founded in 1871, quote as their earliest recorded external game, was ‘’probably’’ played under Rugby School Rules, although it was unlikely that the new laws would have been available so soon after codification
Gwyn Prescott(2011) asserts that Tredegarville in Cardiff may have been the first to play under Rugby School rules as ‘The Football Annual in 1871,‘ provides the first conclusive contemporary evidence of an established club playing according to ‘Rugby Rules’ anywhere in Wales’ and a former Captain of Glamorgan FC, Cory Sexton-Campbell believed that he had taken part in the ‘first regular football match that ever came off in South Wales’, referring to Roath v Pontypridd at Sophia Gardens in 1873.
David Dow believes that many of the matches played in the late sixties and early seventies could have been under ‘Rugby School Rules’, but were they?
We can only speculate, but from the schools and colleges, the game was slowly extending its reach into the wider society and young men educated at these institutions provided the impetus for the formation of the adult clubs that would provide the backbone of Welsh Rugby in the decades to come.
After Neath RFC was formed, Llanelli and Swansea followed in 1872, Newport in 1874, Mountain Ash in 1875 and Cardiff and Merthyr in 1876.
South Wales was a society in transition bursting with the sheer force of industrialisation and between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that over 300,000 workers from England came to Wales to find jobs in the coal, iron and steel industries, many from rugby strongholds in the west country, bolstering the game’s popularity with many joining the new clubs that were springing up everywhere across the region and in Cardiff alone it is estimated that by 1895 there were more than 230 clubs.
The South Wales Football Club, Welsh Rugby’s first Governing Body was established in 1875 in Brecon and they introduced a ‘Challenge Cup’ in 1878 in response to the Football Association of Wales (FAW) organising their first Association Football competition in 1877.
Eighteen clubs entered and the competition was won by Newport RFC in front of 2,000 spectators and this undoubtedly helped to put rugby at the centre of South Wales’s popular culture and by the time the Welsh Football Union (it would not change its name to the Welsh Rugby Union until 1934) was formed in 1881, it was becoming a mass spectator sport and a source of civic pride and local rivalry.
By the late 1870’s, Welsh working men began to take up the game alongside doctors , teachers and managers from the mines and factories and with the middle classes being a relatively small group in Wales, the success of the sport depended very much on the inclusion of the working class members of the community (unlike England and Scotland) if the sport was to survive.
Crucially’ argues Gwyn Prescott (2011)’a massively expanded and diverse working –class embraced the game enthusiastically
Wales’s first international match took place on 19th February 1881 at Blackheath with England winning by 7 goals, 1 dropped goal and 6 tries to nil and was organised ‘unofficially’ by Richard Mullock who was soon to become the first honorary secretary of the new governing body of rugby in Wales.
On March 12th, almost one month later eleven clubs- Bangor, Brecon, Cardiff, Lampeter College, Llandeilo, Llanelli, Llandovery College, Merthyr, Newport, Pontypool and Swansea, met at The Castle Hotel in Neath to form the new body.
In 1882/3 The Home Nations Championship was launched and was contested between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
England were the inaugural winners and in beating the other three participating countries, became the first winners of the Triple Crown, but more importantly international competition had begun and Wales were a part of it!
Since this historic first championship, Wales has competed annually in every competition played winning the tournament outright on 28 occasions, most recently in 2021, but the incredible ‘golden era’ of the 1970’s, brought Wales five ‘Triple Crowns’ and three ‘Grand Slams’ and produced the most talented group of players ever to come out of the British Isles, creating the sports’ first ‘Superstars.’
Throughout Wales and especially in the south, rugby is more than a national sport, it borders on religion; it is seen by many across the world as a symbol of ‘Welshness’ and the Principality Stadium in Cardiff is now considered to be one of the greatest sports arenas in the world.
When Wales begin their campaign in Bordeaux, it will be their tenth appearance at the finals having qualified for every event to date, hosting in 1999.
Their best performance was in 1987 where they achieved 3rd place overall and were losing semi finalists in 2011 and 2019, finishing in 4th place on both occasions a far cry from those early days in the west of Wales where the seeds were sown for what would become ‘a national obsession!’
Article Copyright of Bill Williams