Rewind: Wales lay foundations in defeat by Australia

What will go down in history is not always clear at the time of an event. The Wales vs. Australia match played 50 years ago this week on Dec. 3, 1966 is unfailingly memorable for those of us of a certain age — three days before my seventh birthday, it is the first international match that I remember.

And Australia’s 14-11 win was recognised at the time as a great moment for the tourists. It had seemed an ill-fated tour. Captain John Thornett was struck down by impetigo and prop Ross Cullen sent home after a biting incident in the match against Oxford University, alienating team members like flanker Jules Guerassimoff who felt that the tour management had treated him badly.

The results, starting with a 17-14 defeat by North Eastern Counties in their opening match, had been poor, with as many defeats as victories in the 13 matches before their first international. Defeats against Cardiff, London Counties and South of Scotland were followed in the week before the international by a 9-8 loss to a Swansea team otherwise experiencing one of the worst seasons in their history and a 12-3 defeat by Pontypool, Cross Keys and Newbridge. That display was reckoned by manager Bill McLaughlin to be “the worst performance by any Australian team that I have seen, and probably in the history of the game.”

“Rarely in sport”, reckoned the Playfair Rugby Football Union, “Had anything been reckoned as so much of a foregone conclusion”. Wales, led by brilliant No. 8 Alun Pask, had won the last two Five Nations championships. And they had never lost to Australia — or at least not to a team called Australia.

There was the anomaly of the 1927 New South Wales Waratahs, who had toured Europe in Australia’s place when the other state unions were in abeyance. Known in Wales as the Wara Tegs after the Welsh for ‘fair play’, they had won 18-8 at the Arms Park in a match for which the WRU, like the rest of the Five Nations, had awarded full caps. Australia, though, did not regard it as a full international.

The 1966 match saw Wales award four new caps — at centre, outside-half, lock and back row. It was to be, the Playfair recorded, “a magnificent match of open rugby” which did “a very great deal for the game, badly in need of some sort of fillip at that particular moment”. The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Melford acclaimed “the most exciting international match in a long time”.

Australia led 9-6 at half-time in spite of conceding the first try to Welsh flanker Haydn Morgan, who by winning his 27th cap became Wales’s most-capped back row at the time. Wallaby outside-half Phil Hawthorne, who played much of the match with a fractured cheekbone, equalised with a drop goal — these were still the days of the three-point try — before Australian fullback Jim Lenehan, a veteran of their 1958 touring team, and Welsh counterpart Terry Price exchanged penalties. Then Lenehan, coming into the line, scored the try which gave Australia their interval lead.

That advantage was extended to 14-6 early in the second half when wing Alan Cardy crossed for a try converted by Hawthorne. Wales hit back with a try from centre John Dawes, converted by Price, but were unable to close the gap in a furious finale.

Welsh writer John Billot records that manager McLaughlin wept tears of pure joy at the end, overcome by a historic moment for Australian rugby. Playfair reckoned the key to their win was skipper Ken Catchpole, a scrum-half rated by informed critics like his All Black contemporary Chris Laidlaw as one of the greatest of all time, who was “at his most commanding, and Australia’s attack were built on his quick and long passing.”

Barry John made his international debut in the defeat to Australia, and would go on to become a legend for both Wales and the British & Irish Lions. Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Dawes was later to recall his “astonishment at the pace with which Australia launched attacks from all quarters of the pitch” and that “the sheer speed of their interpassing took his breath away”. Yet in spite of this foretaste of what Wallaby teams would offer on a regular basis from 1984 on, the tour continued to be a mixed bag.

The Wallabies went on to lose to Scotland, Ireland, Western Counties, West Midlands, Llanelli and Munster and to drop three matches out of four, including the Test, in France. But there were also spectacular wins over England, highlighted by a hat trick of drop-goals by Hawthorne, and in a rousing contest against a powerful Barbarians team

Their most memorable achievement was downgraded in 1986 when the Australian Rugby Union retrospectively awarded Test status to the Waratah matches of the 1920s — although New Zealand continues to deny Test caps to the All Blacks who played against them.

Of Wales’ four debutants, only the centre was still in the team at the end of the Five Nations. The Australia match was also the end for flanker Morgan, superb try or not, and scrum-half Allan Lewis, first choice for the Lions in New Zealand a few months earlier. Both, like skipper Pask, were Abertillery players. He too would be gone before the end of the season, and the Gwent valleys club has rarely since commanded selectorial attention.

Nor would one of the debutants, Newbridge flanker Keith Braddock, reappear after being dropped following Wales’ defeat against Ireland, his third cap. It was a different story for the other three.

The outside-half was Barry John, then with Llanelli, while the centre was Gerald Davies. Both rank among Welsh rugby’s immortals. The lock was another Scarlet, Delme Thomas. He counts among the very, very good, and was an unusual debutant since he had already been to New Zealand with the Lions and played Tests as a lock and prop.

All three would overcome this unpromising beginning to make immense contributions to the Welsh golden age shortly to come. John, dropped after one more match, became a fixed point after David Watkins ‘went north’ in 1967, while Davies’ true greatness became apparent following his switch to the wing in 1969.

Thomas, injured in the final trial a few weeks later, took a while to displace the long-established Brian Price, but by 1968 had become a dominant line-out presence in the tradition of Roy John. All three were also members of the 1971 squad which took the Lions to unprecedented — and still to be emulated — heights in New Zealand, while Thomas led the Scarlets when they beat the All Blacks in 1972.

A fair few careers began in the 1966-7 season as Wales awarded 14 new caps. The historic tendency for most countries to bring in groups of new players at the start of each season or tour means that it is far from unknown for brilliant international trajectories to have a shared starting-point. But rarely have three such luminous careers begun for the same team on the same afternoon. Fifty years on, it is far from clear which of Australia or Wales should regard this match more fondly.

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