The forgotten story of … the Battle of Cardiff, when England ran amok
March 1987. English rugby was in critical condition and in grave danger of flatlining. The national team had won four Five Nations matches in as many years but had at least shown some fight despite two defeats in two games at the halfway stage of the latest championship. A 17-0 hiding by Ireland in Dublin was followed by a dogged display against the reigning champions, France, at Twickenham where England’s chairman of selectors was encouraged by the spirited performance of his team’s forwards. Mike Weston, for it was he, believed it was a game of rugby they could and possibly should have won.
A former England centre who had been capped 29 times, Weston had been a member of the last England side to beat Wales on their own patch 24 years previously. It was an embarrassing record that needed to be rectified and on the morning of his team’s latest trip to Cardiff, he sounded cautiously optimistic in the Guardian. “The forward play against France gave us a lot of hope,” he said.
“I am not for one moment saying we are going to win, but I am looking forward to the game.”
Less than 12 hours after the interview’s publication Weston was left stony-faced, ashamed and under pressure to resign by the appalling behaviour of a team whose selection he had rubber-stamped. England had been beaten again but the continuation of their losing streak in Cardiff beyond the milestone quarter-century mark was the very least of his concerns.
While the forward play against France was encouraging, against the Welsh it was little short of shameful. Buoyed by their efforts against the French and determined to put to bed the widely held view that they were soft, England’s players decided to take the fight to Wales in a very literal sense.
, which began in the opening minute, something vaguely resembling a game of rugby broke out from time to time and once again Wales emerged victorious at the Arms Park. The 19-12 scoreline provided little more than an administrative footnote to a nasty, bruising encounter that would become known as the Battle of Cardiff.
“Altogether it was a mean, bad-tempered match which Wales never remotely looked like losing after the first 20 minutes, mainly because of the advantage presented to them by the appalling indiscipline and indiscretions of the England forwards, who throughout the game concentrated on disruption rather than construction and reverted to the indecision they had shown in Dublin,” wrote Clem Thomas in the following day’s Observer. “England’s misdemeanours conceded 20 penalties to 12, all but seven of them in the first half. This profligacy gave Wales 12 points from four penalties while playing into the wind and, perhaps even more importantly, allowed the Welsh to find an impetus which they did not even have to create themselves.”
A former Welsh international flanker who’d taken up a place in the press box after retiring from the field of play, the paper’s former rugby correspondent would in today’s age of instant reader feedback almost certainly prompt self- righteous howls and accusations of one-eyed reportage, but if anything his description of the violent scenes he’d watched unfold in Cardiff were fairly understated.
In print the following week he would confess to having missed one particularly bad challenge by his compatriot Jonathan Davies because his view of the incident in question was impaired. Chronicling scenes that would make even modern-day English rugby delinquent Dylan Hartley wince, the much-loved commentator Bill McLaren sounded characteristically understated when one considers the sanctimonious outrage with which such scenes would almost certainly be greeted today.
“They’ve made their point, let’s hope it settles down,” observed the soothing voice of rugby following a frank exchange of views between the England second-row Steve Bainbridge and his Welsh counterpart Steve Sutton before a line-out in the opening minutes. His hopes were quickly dashed one throw of the ball from the England hooker Graham Dawe later when Sutton had his nose accidentally broken by the flailing elbow of his second-row partner Bob Norster. Following the ensuing free-for-all, the Wales No8, Phil Davies, was forced from the field with his right cheek bone broken in three places by a punch thrown by Wade Dooley. “And I tell you this has got to be sorted out,” counselled McLaren with obvious distaste. “What a start to an international.”
What a start, indeed. Had the right hook with which Dooley felled Davies been thrown by one of the recalcitrants with whom the England second row was often forced to interact during his normal working hours as a serving police officer, the perpetrator would almost certainly have ended up in prison. On the rain-drenched morass of Cardiff Arms Park, Dooley escaped sanction of any kind from the referee, Ray Megson, who didn’t see what had happened, although the Scottish solicitor was forced to issue a stern warning to the England No4 on the half-hour mark for repeated foul play in the scrum. A copper like Dooley, Davies had been replaced by Richie Collins, also a member of the constabulary. With so many British policemen from the mid-80s on the field, it’s probably no great surprise the prevailing mood was one of violent menace, with scant regard for the law. Dooley would later claim he’d punched Davies in retaliation for an attack he’d seen somebody - possibly Davies, possibly somebody else - in a red shirt launch on his team-mate, the No8 Jon Hall. “I saw red, literally,” he said. “It was a gut reaction, totally spontaneous. I lashed out at Hall’s assailant, completely unaware of his identity, and the punch landed with a sickening thud on the side of Davies’s face.”
With the tone set and open warfare declared from the get-go, Megson refereed admirably in the most difficult circumstances as the match descended into a series of brawls, high tackles and late hits punctuated by occasional bits of skill from the Welsh half-backs, Robert Jones and Davies.
“Well I tell you, there’s a bit of nastiness festering all throughout this match and Ray Megson, there, he really is having a tough job,” said McLaren at one point, a sympathetic tone on the occasion of the referee’s first Five Nations match.
With Megson forced to award so many penalties, the vast majority against the English, there were also regular pauses for Mark Wyatt’s kicks at goal with which Wales, bolstered by four points from a try scored by Stuart Evans, eventually won the match. Their captain, Dai Pickering, had called for discipline before the match and reinforced the need for it after Dooley threw his first haymaker. It was this reluctance to become totally immersed in a brawl that would have looked more at home in the setting of a pub car-park that ultimately won them the game.
But while England were undoubtedly the main aggressors it would be incorrect to assume the victors were entirely innocent. The Welsh forwards were in fact the first to get stuck into their opposite numbers in the opening minutes while their backs also dished out plenty of punishment. The victim of a late hit early in the second half, the England full-back Marcus Rose was perhaps mindful of the shoulder charge he had shipped earlier when he flung a hospital pass towards his team-mate Rob Andrew at fly-half. An instant later, the England No10 was buried in the Cardiff dirt by the combination of a Davies elbow and a late tackle from the try-scorer Evans.
As sporting spectacles go it was rather unedifying although the violence did keep the capacity crowd entertained on an otherwise grim afternoon when skilful rugby was at a premium. England’s Rugby Football Union found the match rather less entertaining and the following Monday, took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement condemning the behaviour of their players. “There was a serious loss of self-discipline by players in both teams which cannot be condoned,” said the RFU secretary, Dudley Wood. “I have spoken to both the chairman of the England selectors and the coach and I have told them that this behaviour is totally unacceptable to the RFU.”
Suitably chastened, England’s captain and scrum-half, Richard Hill, apologised for his team’s thuggery despite having spent large portions of the match against Wales arguing with the referee over most of his decisions. “As far as the players are concerned, and especially the forwards, we regret what happened,” he said. “I would have been really worried if the players had just shrugged off Saturday’s incidents as just one of those days. But afterwards we all accepted that things went too far - over the top. What upset me was that some forwards continued to concede penalties even after I insisted that we quieten down.”
Wheeled out to show contrition for his assault on Davies, Dooley also appeared chastened … up to a point. “I am not proud of what I did especially as I am a policeman,” he said. “But I don’t want to be labelled as a hard man. The two teams went out there psyched to the hilt and the game just exploded. There were incidents throughout with stuff going on off the ball all the time. The Welsh were not angels either.”
Quizzed on rumours that he planned on taking legal action against Dooley for smashing his cheekbone, Davies could not have made his position more clear. “That’s a load of old rubbish,” he scoffed. “I don’t know how these stories get started. It wasn’t a very good advert for the game of rugby but I just hope this dies down as soon as possible.”
As is customary on such occasions, it behoves somebody to think of the children whose delicate sensibilities might have been upset by the sight of such violence and on this occasion the task fell to the RFU technical administrator, Don Rutherford, whose duties included generating interest in rugby among the country’s youngsters. “Please burn the film of that match,” he pleaded. “I never want to see it.”
In a stern polemic in the following Sunday’s Observer, Clem Thomas was unequivocal in his calls for “the villains of this rugby piece” to be axed and predicted long bans for Wade Dooley and Richard Hill. He did, however, suggest Dooley’s crime was out of character for a man who, some years later in retirement, would prompt much amusement in rugby circles by being appointed a citing officer by the RFU. “Certainly the committee of the four Home Unions and France should officially warn their international players that this type of behaviour in the showpieces of the game in Europe, seen on television throughout the world, will not be tolerated,” wrote Thomas.
The RFU took a similarly dim view and immediately stripped Hill of the England captaincy and dropped him from the team for failing to maintain order among his troops. It would be three years before he would represent England in another Test match. Dooley, Dawe and the prop Gareth Chilcott were also axed for the following month’s Calcutta Cup win over Scotland but made the England squad that would go on to lose in the last eight of that year’s inaugural Rugby World Cup. Having finished second in Pool One behind Australia, they travelled to Brisbane for a quarter-final in which a Wales team that had escaped punishment for their role in the brutal events at Cardiff once again proved their superiority and piled on the pain.