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Review: Wales and the All Blacks by Roger G.K.Penn

03 Dec 2022 6 minute read
Wales and the All Blacks is published by Y Lolfa

Rhodri Davies

There may be more one-sided sporting rivalries. There are definitely worse historical records among other members of rugby’s old guard. Scotland’s recent ‘could have, should have…blew it again’ effort for example, was a good reminder that they have never beaten the All Blacks.

No victories, two draws and thirty defeats since 1905 needs to be swallowed alongside your best bottle of Lagavulin to be remotely palatable.

But for a nation that likes to think of itself as rugby aristocracy despite much evidence to the contrary, Wales’ three wins and thirty four defeats – with no wins at all in thirty three attempts since 1953 – well that, in the grander scheme of things, is as humbling as a home defeat to Georgia.

So, it takes a brave man to take this challenge on, especially since what we see as a ‘special relationship’ is in reality akin to the UK’s with the USA. In truth, New Zealanders have historically measured themselves against South Africa, the only other country to have a traditional claim to being a rugby ‘super-power’ and a country that, before its apartheid induced isolation, had led the All Blacks in head-to-heads.

As evidenced by Jamie Wall’s recent history The Hundred Years’ War, this rivalry had its roots in real conflict – when loyal New Zealanders joined the Empire’s colours to fight the Boers at the turn of the 20th century. Springbok legend Boy Louw put it best, as he rallied his men in 1949: “When South Africa plays New Zealand, consider your country at war.”

Yet Wales versus New Zealand has, over the last half a century, been not so much a war as a walk in the park for the boys in black, making Roger Penn’s updated version of 2013’s Three Feathers and a Silver Fern very much a book of two halves.

Compelling

The origin story makes for compelling reading. Dave Gallaher, himself a Boer war veteran, led those 1905-06 ‘Originals’, who arrived in Wales unbeaten after 27 matches. Their pre-match haka was met by 45,000 voices joined as one for an impromptu rendition of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ and so a new, anthemic, game-day tradition was born.

Wales won, New Zealand felt robbed, after referee John Dallas adjudged that Bob Deans had been hauled down short of the line in the dying moments. It became known as ‘the try that never was’ and those Kiwis have longer memories than they do white clouds.

Wales won again in 1935 and Swansea became the first ever club side to beat New Zealand. Add Cliff Morgan, Clem Thomas, Ken Jones, Bleddyn Williams et al starring in the Welsh win of 1953 – a few weeks after Cardiff had done the same – and you have a real rivalry.

All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick’s father Brian played in that defeat. He vowed never to return to Wales and kept his promise. Unfortunately – from a Welsh perspective at least – his son and countless others did return – and prosper – time after time. 1953 was the last time Wales beat New Zealand.

From then on, Penn has to make do with slim pickings – Newport’s victory in 1963, the triumphant Welsh Lions of ’71, Llanelli in ’72 and the Barbarians classic that followed.

Hence the ‘off-field’ element. The real joy of Penn’s work isn’t so much the matches themselves but the context, the journeys undertaken and relationships forged.

An Ebbw Vale colliery, Tenby’s South Beach, Tintern Abbey, Porthcawl’s Seabank Hotel, even the legendary – in Llanelli at least – Ritz ballroom…Each played host to enchanted New Zealanders and besotted locals over the decades.

Yes, the rugby does tend to get in the way, but when it comes to match-days, it’s the personal vignettes that live in the memory not the scores.

A good villain

Swansea’s victorious half-backs in 1935 for example were Haydn Tanner and Willie Davies, both so young that they’d been given time off school to play.

All Blacks captain Jack Manchester pleaded with a journalist accompanying the squad to tell the nation back home that: “We were beaten…but, please, not by a pair of schoolboys.”

Of course, every tale needs a good villain, and from a Welsh perspective at least, there are many candidates.

Yet Penn’s focus on the closeness of the bond means that he chooses to neglect possibly the most famous All Black off-field scandal of them all, Keith Murdoch’s tour expulsion and subsequent self-imposed exile after an altercation at the Angel Hotel in 1972.

John Ashworth escapes lightly too – not even named as the culprit for the stamp which forced JPR Williams from the field – his blood-soaked face in ribbons – during the tour match against Bridgend in 1978.

Neither are New Zealand rugby’s answer to Tom Daley and Matty Lee hauled over the coals. Andy Haden, along with second-row partner in crime Frank Oliver, blatantly dived from a line-out, securing a last-gasp penalty and a 13-12 victory over Wales in 1978.

It ended a dark decade in terms of rugby relations between the two nations, as summed-up by New Zealand skipper Graham Mourie’s post-match observation: “Nobody ever beats Wales at rugby. They just score more points.”

Hope

The following decades pass in a blur of fifty point hammerings, the gloom leavened by a Jonathan Davies length of the field try here, a gallant ‘oh so nearly – well not really’ performance there.

Wales at the World Cup in 2003 is a prime example – Steve Hansen throwing Shane Williams to the wolves for the dead rubber in Sydney, only for Shane to dazzle and mesmerize, sticking up a figurative two fingers to his coach in the process.

Wales led by 37 points to 33 inside the last twenty minutes, before their opponents remembered who they were. Final score, New Zealand 53 – 37 Wales. And so it goes…

The author’s final chapter is a new addition, and offers a glimmer of optimism. Ireland failed to beat New Zealand in 28 attempts between 1905 and 2016.

Then they won in Chicago, did it again in Dublin in 2018 and 2021 and this year achieved the unimaginable – two test wins and a series victory in New Zealand.

That’s five wins in six years…So, there is always hope, and if – when – that day comes, it will be worthy of both chapter and verse.

Wales and the All Blacks by Roger G.K.Penn is published by Y Lolfa. You can buy it from good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.


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