The Friendly Islands: Former Wales prop Anthony Buchanan remembers the brutal tour to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in 1987
Although he only won a handful of international caps for Wales, Anthony Buchanan’s career is unique in that it spans both the playing and administrative side of the game and bridges Welsh rugby’s shift from the amateur days to professionalism.
Taking the game up at the age of 22 to impress the barmaid at his local club, who would later become his wife Alana, Anthony was one of the last working colliers to play for Wales, answering an SOS call to play in the Triple Crown decider against Ireland in 1988 whilst in the middle of a shift underground. Wales won the game 12 points to 9.
His playing career spanned ten seasons for Llanelli and he was selected for Wales in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.
Anthony’s retirement from playing coincided with the game going professional and he subsequently became the first paid team manager in the Welsh game with his beloved Llanelli and is a former Chairman of the International Referees Selection Panel.
In an extract from his new autobiography, entitled The Buck Props Here! written by Anthony and journalist and writer Geraint Thomas, he recalls the brutal tour to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in the runup to the World Cup in 1987.
I didn’t really know anything about the type of rugby and what was ahead of me, but whoever described Fiji, Tonga and Samoa as the Friendly Islands had never stepped onto a rugby field to play against them!
While I can’t fault the people – they are lovely and so hospitable – when they cross that whitewash, they become crazed warriors who think the opposition has come to invade their land and tear down their villages!
It soon became apparent that those who thought that it would be a flamboyant, touch-rugby style of play – my wife thought I would be packing sun cream and bathers, spending
my time beneath palm trees on golden sand – were to be rudely awoken. I can honestly say that it proved to be the most violent rugby environment I have ever played in.
The rugby was physical and challenging, and you were aware that all the time you were being assessed as to how you dealt with that type of environment ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The tour started in Fiji and I was selected to play in the second game, against an Eastern Select XV, at the national stadium in Suva.
The first thing that hit you – and we were hit by lots of things on that tour, mainly boots, elbows and fists – was the heat. We wore the old heavy, woollen jerseys to play in temperatures north of 90 degrees – you were looking for a scissors to cut the sleeves off to try and get air. You were perspiring so much you probably lost half a stone of weight in sweat before you got out of the changing room door. Even the home team were looking for shade.
They kicked off. I jumped to receive the ball, and their hooker dived like a torpedo from three metres away to hit the back of my legs, sending me spinning in the air. By the time I landed most of the Fijian pack had arrived to trample all over me.
They didn’t care where they put their boots and there is no doubt that they were there to hurt you and, quite literally, leave their mark. I can remember having to move my head to narrowly miss boots coming down either side of me.
It wasn’t a good game to be part of as we lost 29–13 – our only defeat of the tour. I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance. I felt that I could have done better, but the truth was I had been badly shaken by the kicking I got at that first kick-off – the shirt had quite literally been ripped off my back – and I didn’t really recover in that game.
I had to go for stitches afterwards and got chatting to the doctor. I said, ‘You play your rugby a bit rough here.’
He replied, ‘If you think this is rough, just wait until you get to Tonga!’ And he was right!
As with all tours, there were also light-hearted moments. On one occasion we were at a function and there was a Welsh speaking expat who had come along because he had heard that the Welsh team was on tour and wanted to have a conversation in Welsh.
The boys called me over. As I was from the upper Swansea Valley, they thought I was fluent, but my Welsh is basic to say the least. We started chatting and he said, ‘I’m originally from Ystradgynlais.’ My immediate thought was that I had been set up but it turned out that his father used to be the station master in Ystradgynlais and he had moved to Fiji 25 years previously, settled there and now owned a small island called Orchid Island.
He still had relatives living in Ystrad and Abercrave, the Watkins family. He was a nice person who took me and a couple of the boys out fishing – we all have a photograph, sat holding up the same tuna fish pretending we had caught it! That’s the kind of friendships and memories you forge on rugby tours and they last a lifetime.
I hadn’t been involved in the Test against Fiji, which we won 15–22. David Pickering had a nasty head injury following one ruck – he was very lucky that there was a neurosurgeon actually at the game and received excellent care straightaway. However, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that he ever really recovered from that injury.
I was handed a start in the next match, against the Tonga President’s XV. Just before kick-off I was standing behind Richard Moriarty, waiting to shake hands with the King of Tonga, and looked across to this six-foot two-inch player, with a shaved head and a big, bushy moustache, staring back at me with wild eyes.
I said to Dickie, ‘Look at that guy.’
‘You’re marking him,’ he replied. ‘He’s their tight-head.’ His name was Latu Va’eno, and I still have nightmares about him today!
After just 20 minutes, three of our boys had to leave the field and this guy was the culprit each time. We held a team talk and it was agreed that we had to do something about him.
“Has anyone got an elephant gun?’ I asked. It was the only way we were going to stop him!
A plan was hatched and all I can say is that he was severely dealt with in the next ruck. To his immense credit, he got up with blood pouring from a large gash on the side of his head. They tried to stop the blood but the more they put the magic sponge on it, the more the blood flowed out. It was horrendous.
I have never stamped on anyone in my life – I just wouldn’t do it – but for some unknown reason he thought that it was me. He looked directly at me, pointed, and said, ‘You’re dead man.’
I thought, ‘Now I’m in trouble.’
Fortunately, his medical team forced him to leave the field. I have never been so glad to see someone go off in my life.
We managed to go on and win the game, 9–13, but afterwards our coaches, Tony Gray and Derek Quinnell, told the Tongan management that the level of violence that had been directed towards us was unacceptable.
They obviously paid no attention to the warning as the Test match against Tonga, which came next, was one of the most violent games Wales has ever faced – it was pure GBH. I hadn’t been picked but it was almost a case of, for once, being glad that I wasn’t out there on the field of play!
Although there were incidents throughout, there was one almighty punch up, initiated by Tonga, which saw Welsh jerseys laid out all over the field! Bleddyn Bowen was chased and ran into the crowd – and was thrown back onto the pitch!
I believe three of our players had to go to hospital during the game – at one stage an ambulance drove onto the field!
In all seriousness, the levels of violence far exceeded anything that was acceptable. It was well documented at the end of the tour that we had been the victims of foul play to put it mildly. I know Tony Gray was furious once more.
The game wasn’t shown live on television because of the distance and limits of technology back then. But S4C did have a film crew out there. However, the video tapes disappeared
– conspiracy theorists can make of that what they wish, but if I was a Tongan I wouldn’t have wanted people analysing what went on.
The Buck Props Here! is published by Y Lolfa and you can buy a copy here…