The kiss of life that signalled Argentina’s arrival in rugby

Rugby lives rarely come longer or more varied than that of Tom Holley, who died in January aged 99.

He was one of the unlucky generation which lost its best years to the Second World War. A product of the St Peter’s club, he had not long broken into the Cardiff XV as a back row when war broke out in 1939, and was over 30 by the time peace-time rugby resumed in September 1946.

While he had the rare distinction of playing for Cardiff either side of the war, his first team career amounted to no more than 10 matches. There were, though, a further 62 for Cardiff’s renowned second team, the ‘Rags’ and victories, more than a decade apart, in the Cardiff and District Rugby Union’s Mallett Cup.

And he did play once for Wales — or at least for a team of that name against England in a charity match played between servicemen stationed in Palestine in 1942. His dummy created the decisive score for Wales in a 5-3 victory.

But he lives on vividly in Cardiff’s annals as their trainer and masseur for decades after the war, also serving the national team. The award of an MBE for services to sport in 1985 — matching the BEM won in 1943 by his father, also Tom, for heroism in the bombing of the Cardiff docks — reflected that contribution to rugby, service as secretary of the International Baseball Board (governing body for the distinctive code played in Cardiff and Liverpool) and his cool, live-saving response to an on-field incident 40 years ago this week, on October 2 1976.

He was on duty as usual at a Cardiff match, though it was hardly a routine contest. Argentina, visiting Wales for the first time, were the opposition at the National Stadium.

The match was part of Cardiff’s centenary season and came only a week after they had played, and beaten 24-13, an Overseas International XV featuring players from nine countries, the match decided by a 70 yard interception try from their captain, Gerald Davies.

On the Wednesday in between they had lost to Wales’s other centenarians of that season, Aberavon. The Argentinians, meanwhile, had been warning anyone taking notice of their prowess, scoring four tries to one in beating a powerful East Wales team 25-22 at a rain-sodden Rodney Parade. They had dominated the scrums in spite of the presence of the legendary Pontypool front row among the opposition, hooker Bobby Windsor conceding: “Let’s face it, they took us to the cleaners”.

Prominent in that powerful scrum, packing down opposite the venerable but feared Charlie Faulkner, was Mario Carluccio, a product of the Deportiva Francesa club in Buenos Aires. True to Argentinian tradition, he could play either side of the scrum and on the Saturday switched across to face the scarcely less formidable Mike Knill.

“The Pumas are no longer an emerging rugby power — they have ARRIVED.”

The Welsh Brewers

Cardiff were unchanged from the previous Saturday, while Argentina fielded 12 of the team which had triumphed at Newport, the only changes coming in the front row and because of injury to tour captain Arturo Rodriguez Jurado. And on a bright sunny day, the tourists showed themselves equally equipped for those conditions.

Former Wales full-back Vivian Jenkins quipped in his match report that some Cardiff forwards played as though they, rather than their club, were 100 years old. Gareth Edwards made one of his few recorded errors, throwing out a wild pass which led to an Argentinian try.

Again the Pumas scored four tries, but where three at Newport came from forwards, all of these were touched down by outside backs. Wing Jorge Gauweloose crossed twice, with the others coming from full-back Martin Sansot and wing Daniel Becca Varela, as the tourists ran up a 29-6 lead.

Cardiff’s response came from their pack. The Welsh Brewers Rugby Annual for Wales reported that “props Nelmes and Knill burrowed low under their opponents and destroyed their scrum drive, and Cardiff became tigers in attack. The Pumas did not know which way to turn as the pressure built on their overstretched defence”. No.8 Bob Dudley-Jones, also a Glamorgan county cricketer, crossed twice with lock Peter Rawlins claiming a third try as Cardiff fought back to 29-25.

Fifteen minutes from time a scrum collapsed, leaving Carluccio motionless. It was, it is worth remembering, only a few months since Wales captain Mervyn Davies had come close to dying during a match on the ground next door.

Summoned from the sidelines, Holley gave the Argentinian the kiss-of-life, reporting later that “Mario’s tongue had relaxed about two inches or more down the back of his throat. He was conscious, but was getting hardly any air.”

Mervyn Davies would never play again, but Carluccio’s mishap had a happier ending. Taken to hospital, he later appeared at the after-match dinner suffering only from a bruised jaw. He was well enough to play 10 days later against West Wales at Stradey Park, and against the All Blacks back in Argentina a month later.

His international career ended in July 1977 with Argentina’s historic 18-18 draw against the touring French. Chosen for the South American championship tournament in October 1977, he was one of a group of players who withdrew when the Argentinian Rugby Union vetoed the choice of Rodriguez Jurado as captain and were suspended as a punishment. His subsequent contribution to the game has included spells of coaching with the Deportiva Francesa club and at the rugby outpost of San Martin de los Andes.

Tom Holley’s finest hour was also arguably the moment at which British rugby became fully aware of Argentinian rugby’s potential. The South Africans had known about them since the 1960s but Britain, in spite of historic links, was slower to catch on. The Pumas 1973 tour to Ireland and Scotland was more remembered for their propensity for dangerous tackling than holding a full-strength Scottish team to 12-11.

Argentina are regarded as one of rugby’s modern day superpowers. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Victories over powerful Welsh teams — the Pumas hung on to their 29-25 lead, with Gerald Davies conceding that “To an extent they beat themselves” — were harder to dismiss. And any doubts were ended two weeks later back at the National Stadium.

Wales were reigning Grand Slam champions, and would not lose to any European opponent other than France between 1975 and 1979. The All Blacks would be the only team to beat them at Cardiff between 1968 and 1982. Nobody came closer to truncating that home run than the Pumas. Facing a full-strength Wales XV, with only Mervyn Davies, lock Allan Martin and centre Steve Fenwick missing from the Grand Slam team, they fought back from a 17-6 deficit to lead 19-17 five minutes into injury time.

As Wales pressed desperately, JPR Williams broke in midfield and was confronted by 6ft 4in centre Adolfo Travaglini, described in the Welsh Brewers as “a granite-like defender” who “stretched enormous arms to engulf any who tried to pass him”.

Travaglini tackled hard and high, JPR went down and Scottish referee Norman Sansom blew for the 40-yard penalty which Wales’s new captain Phil Bennett landed unerringly to salvage a 20-19 victory.

Not many observers, though, could disagree with the view of Pumas manager Carlos Contepomi — a year later to become the father of famed twin sons — when he said that: “The way we came back in the second half, I thought that we deserved to win”.

The 1976 tour inaugurated a period in which every year brought a breakthrough for the Pumas. They returned home from Wales to entertain the All Blacks for the first time. The draw with France followed in 1977, then a 13-13 draw with an almost-full-strength England XV at Twickenham in 1978 and a 24-13 defeat of Australia in 1979.

The Welsh Brewers had no doubts: “The Pumas are no longer an emerging rugby power — they have ARRIVED”.

Yet Wales did not award caps for the match, even though its own team and the opposition were of unquestionable international quality. One might also think that such impressive tourists would earn an early return invitation, but not so. The Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 did not help, but that the Pumas were not invited back to play Wales for a further 22 years — their World Cup clash of 1991 came from the tournament draw, not a WRU invitation — shows that there is nothing new in short-sightedness towards the game’s developing nations.

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