As the Rugby Football Union enters its 150th season, Barney Burnham looks back fifty years to his own involvement in the celebrations that marked a Century of international rugby.
1970. Apollo 13 had a problem. Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest, for Ireland. The Troubles were flaring in Northern Ireland. Doug Saunders missed an important putt at St. Andrew’s. England’s cricketers took on The Rest of the World, after South Africa’s tour had been called off.
In rugby, England finished bottom of the Five Nations – a major disappointment, after their historic win against the Springboks in December 1969 – but the Rugby Football Union was about to embark on a season of celebrations, to mark their centenary. On a personal front, I was about to begin a French degree.
The RFU festivities began at the end of September, with an international conference in Cambridge, attended by delegates from around the world. Once the conference was over, the delegates, two from each country, dispersed to all corners of England. The North Midlands county was to play host to the Japanese and Romanian delegations. Both of Japan’s delegates, one of them being the legendary Shiggy Konno, spoke excellent English, but their Romanian colleagues – Cornel Burada and Ion Isvoranu, future president and secretary of the Romanian Rugby Federation – barely had a word of English between them.
In those days, Midlands-based Romanians were thin on the ground, so the chances of recruiting an interpreter quickly were virtually non-existent. Luckily, Messrs. Burada and Isvoranu both spoke French. This was where I stepped in. My dad, who was on the North Midlands committee, suggested that I took on interpreting duties. It didn’t take long for me to say yes!
We all met up in Birmingham on Saturday, September the 26th. We attended a club game at either OId Edwardians or Solihull – sorry, but I simply can’t remember which one! We then repaired to the centre of Brum for a big black-tie dinner. This turned out to be the most challenging event of my week, as the main speech of the evening was delivered by the North Mids president, R. Ivor Scorer M.C., J.P. – known to all as Rusty. Rusty was a true Midlander and his speech was full of Midlands humour. Translating the words wasn’t a problem, but trying to explain Rusty’s idiosyncratic humour to two eastern Europeans was nigh on impossible. Much was lost in translation, but, nevertheless, a good time was had by all.
The Sunday was blessed by glorious weather and we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing cruise on the Avon, in the beautiful Vale of Evesham. In the week that followed, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Rugby School, where young Master William Webb Ellis allegedly made history. I’m pretty sure that we also visited Coventry Cathedral, before lunching in the Town Hall.
Stratford obviously featured in the itinerary. Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s cottage and then a visit to the theatre. It may seem sacrilegious to say this in a rugby context, but this was my highlight of the week and, fifty years on, remains one of the greatest nights of my life. That may seem a rather extravagant claim, but the entertainment on offer was Peter Brook’s legendary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a staging which theatregoers still discuss in terms of hushed reverence. The language barrier did not prevent Cornel and Ion from enjoying the experience every bit as much as the rest of us.
The week ended at Twickenham, with a showpiece clash which saw England and Wales take on Scotland and Ireland and featured some of the greatest names in the history of the game.
England & Wales: J P R Williams; Gerald Davies, John Spencer, David Duckham, Keith Fielding; Barry John, Gareth Edwards; Keith Fairbrother, John Pullin, Barry Llewelyn, Mike Davis, DelmeThomas, Dai Morris, Mervyn Davies, Bob Taylor (captain)
Scotland & Ireland: Tom Kiernan (captain); Alan Duggan, John Frame, Mike Gibson, Alastair Biggar; Barry McGann, Duncan Paterson; Phil O’Callaghan, Frank Laidlaw, Norman Suddon, Peter Brown, Willie-John McBride, Rodger Arneil, Terry Moore, Tom Elliot
Replacements: John Moloney for Biggar; Mick Molloy for Moore
It ended 14-all, with England and Wales scoring four of the seven (three-point) tries Fielding, Morris, Llewellyn and Spencer all crossed the line, but JPR Williams could only land one conversion. Scotland and Ireland‘s tries came from Arneil, Brown and Duggan, with Kiernan adding a conversion and penalty.
The official post-match festivities were simply spectacular, consisting of what only can be described as a monumental booze-up in a marquee in the West Car Park. If you went to the bar and asked for a whisky, you were given a full bottle. People were staggering around with a bottle of whisky in one pocket, gin in another, vodka in one hand, brandy in the other.
We were standing near a group of Irishmen, who were certainly making the most of the hospitality. After several hours of serious celebrations, one of them closed his eyes and sank slowly to the floor. There followed a heated debate, in which his friends discussed whether it would be better to lay him on his stomach or on his back. We left before the issue was resolved, but I think he survived.
That marked the end of my direct involvement, but I was back at Twickenham a few weeks later, as a guest of the RFU – courtesy of the late, great Peter Jackson. I was there to watch England Under-25s taking on Fiji, in the final game of the island nation’s tour. Three weeks after the England and Wales v Scotland and Ireland game, Fiji had stunned the rugby world, with the spectacular demolition of a star-studded Barbarians side 29-9, at Gosforth.
The BaaBaas line-up was truly stellar. J.P.R.WIlliams; Alan Duggan, John Spencer, David Duckham, Keith Fielding; Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards; Phil O’Callaghan, Frank Laidlaw, Barry Llewellyn, Delme Thomas, Mike Davis, Rodger Arneil, Fergus Slattery, Derek Quinnell.
The U-25s match was the last of the tour, in which Fiji had struggled to reach the heights of that epic performance at Gosforth. On a cold, wet, miserable day at Twickenham, they outscored the hosts by two tries to one, but slipped to a 15-11 defeat. Before leaving for home, their manager told the press that his forwards would have to ‘learn how to ruck’. Unfortunately, one of the newspapers came up with a memorable, but regrettable typo which must have condemned the Fijian pack to some awkward questions from their other halves.
The climax to the centenary season came with a tour by the President’s Overseas XV, made up of players from Australia, Fiji, France, New Zealand and South Africa. Before facing England at Twickenham, they played and beat three regional sides I was in the crowd to see them open the tour with a midweek win over the Midland, London and Home Counties XV, at Welford Road, Leicester. They then saw off The North and The South and Southwest, before the tour finale against England, at Twickenham.
England had endured another disappointing Five Nations, ending fourth, with a win in Dublin, a home draw against France, and defeats away to Grand Slam winners Wales and at home to Scotland, for whom Peter Brown’s characteristically inelegant late conversion had sealed a 16-15 win – their first Twickenham victory since 1938. That was Scotland’s only win, but disappointment at finishing bottom was tempered by a second win over the Auld Enemy a week later, as they thrashed England 26-6 in a Murrayfield encounter which marked the centenary of the first ever international match.
England’s season ended with a 28-11 defeat against the President’s XV, on April the 17th. A pretty creditable performance against a team of global stars, the like of which Twickenham had never seen before and has rarely seen since.
Pierre Villepreux (France); Stephen Knight (Australia), Jo Maso (France), Joggie Jansen (South Africa), Bryan Williams (New Zealand); Wayne Cottrell (New Zealand), Dawie de Villiers (South Africa); Roy Prosser (Australia), Peter Johnson (Australia), Hannes Marais (South Africa), Colin Meads (New Zealand), Frik Du Preez (South Africa), Greg Davis (Australia), Ian Kirkpatrick (New Zealand), Brian Lochore (New Zealand) (captain)
Replacements: John Cole (Australia), Sid Going (New Zealand), Ron Urlich (New Zealand), Jona Qoro (Fiji)
The rest of their tour squad was Roland Bertranne (France), George Barley (Fiji), Elie Cester (France), Christian Carrère (France)
So ended the RFU’s centenary season, an unforgettable celebration of a great milestone. Little did we know it, but even more historic events were about to take place on the other side of the world, as Doug Smith and Carwyn James’s Lions achieved immortality in New Zealand – but that’s another story!
Was it really half a century ago? Tempus fugit.
About the Author – Barney Burnham has been a Tour Guide at Twickenham Stadium since 2005. A Wasps supporter for over 25 years, he has been the club’s official match reporter for 12 seasons, has a regular column in their matchday programme, and co-wrote ‘150 Years of Wasps’.