The little island nation of New Zealand (pop. 2.7 million) has given the world more than its share of sporting heroes. Peter Snell won two Olympic gold medals on the track at the 1964 Olympics. Bob Charles was the first left-handed golfer ever to win a major championship, the 1963 British Open. Denis Hulme is now the world road-racing champion. But please do not bore a New Zealander with tales of Runner Snell or Golfer Charles or Driver Hulme. The conversational spark will ignite only when you talk to him about Rugby. Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand, played by New Zealanders from the time they are old enough to know that Kiwi does not necessarily stand for shoe polish. Talk to him especially about the All-Blacks, the national all-star team that is now in the midst of a 16-match tour of Europe and that just happens to be the biggest, toughest and best Rugby team there is anywhere.
Of course, this last statement might be disputed on the little peninsula of Wales (pop. 2.8 million). Wales has given the world more than its share of heroes, sporting and otherwise. Lynn Davies, the defending Olympic broad-jump champion, for one. Or how about a British prime minister, a brilliant poet, a couple of film stars and even a wizard or two? But here again, please do not bore a Welshman with talk of broad jumpers, or David Lloyd George, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton or Merlin. Talk to him about Rugby. That is the way to really get a Welshman's hwyl flowing. Rugby is the national sport of Wales, too, and it is played by Welshmen from the time they are old enough to put the slug on anyone with the temerity to recite that scurrilous old limerick about Taffy, the beef thief.
You may also talk about the All-Blacks in Wales, but duck. The Welsh just do not happen to agree that the All-Blacks are the biggest, toughest and best Rugby team there is anywhere. And until last week they had the record to prove it. Saturday afternoon in a howling gale and rain that ripped horizontally across Cardiff Arms Park, before a massed chorus of 58,000 singing Welsh Rugby fans whose national spirit, whose hwyl, was at a feverous Celtic pitch, Wales lost to New Zealand 13-6. The All-Blacks still had 10 more games to play, and some tough ones, to be sure, but they had now won the game they wanted most of all.
The furor began back in 1905 at the first Rugby meeting between the two countries at Cardiff Arms Park. Trailing 3-0 in the closing moments of the game, and with the Welsh crowd in an uproar, New Zealand seemed to have scored what might have been the winning try when Center Bob Deans, squirming in the grasp of two Welsh tacklers, lunged just across the Welsh goal line. Unfortunately for New Zealand, the referee, a Scot, did not see it that way. Out of position and coming up late, he ruled that Deans had not made it. The score stood 3-0 for Wales, and New Zealand suffered its only loss in a 33-match tour of Britain, France and Canada. For 62 years the incident has served as Rugby's version of the Dempsey-Tunney long count or the Cornell-Dartmouth fifth down.
Nor in its subsequent tours has New Zealand lost very often, except to the Welsh. In their first five tours the All-Blacks won 156 matches and lost only nine. Six of these losses came in Wales, three times to national teams, three times to Welsh club teams.
"The Welsh are the team we absolutely have to beat," says Ian MacRae, a rangy lumber-company executive from Hawke's Bay who is a hard-running back on the All-Blacks and this year's vice-captain. "South Africa has slipped in the last couple of years. So has Australia. The English give up too easily once you get them down. But you know you're in a game with the Welsh. With them it's anything goes. They fight you right to the death."
"Why, they are absolute fanatics," adds Fergie McCormick, a short stock slaughterman from Canterbury and the All-Blacks' starting fullback.
A few sporting historians claim that the great affection the Welsh have for Rugby has something to do with the vast lack of love they feel for their English neighbors across Bristol Channel. The Welsh have their own language and national pride, and often they feel stifled in the stiff-upper-lip atmosphere of things English. How to cancel their frustration has long been a vexing problem. They do supply the west of England with water, however, and a nice, rough contact sport gives them another chance.
"The cry you often hear around here is 'Cut off their water and maim them at Rugby,' " chuckles Rhys Williams, Welsh to the core, a cheerful, husky, broad-shouldered man who has maimed more than his share of Englishmen as a many-time member of past Welsh national Rugby teams. "But I think the reason we are so keen on Rugby when all around us they play soccer is because it's suited to our national psychology. It's a rough game, and we like action. We like to express ourselves."
The Welsh took advantage of a chance to express themselves, at least against the All-Blacks, three days before the big match at Cardiff. This year's New Zealand team is something of a switch from tradition. Rugby is a complex game; even its own rule book requires 22,000 words to explain it, but suffice it to say that past New Zealand teams have won with brute strength rather than with agile speed and ball handling. U.S. football fans know the style as "three yards and a cloud of dust." This year, however, All-Black Coach Fred Allen promised wide-open, exciting Rugby—and brother, did they provide it, fair weather or foul. The All-Blacks notched two routs in Canada and swept easily, wide-openly through four games in England, including a 23-11 victory over the English national team. Then at Swansea, against a combined team representing West Wales, the All-Blacks got a bit of a jolt. Trailing 14-13 with only eight minutes left, they just managed to pull the game out with two late tries.
With this near-miss as inspiration the crowd in Cardiff was fit to bust with hwyl by game time. Those 58,000 pairs of lungs were roaring out such songs as Land of my Fathers, and those well-known favorites, Blaenwern, Sospan Fach, Calon Lan and Rachie, with such joyous fervor that the din brought tears to the eyes of every Welsh rugger fan, old or new, and shook the stones of nearby Cardiff Castle. The singing started an hour before the kickoff and continued into the second half. The New Zealanders countered with their own war chant, a song in Maori that ascends to those brave words. "Katu te ihi i hi" (We shall stand as children of the sun) and tops out with "E tu iho nei" (We shall attain the zenith!).
For some inexplicable reason, possibly because his mind was muddled by the spirit of the occasion, Welsh Captain Norman Gale chose to defend the east goal at the start of the game, thus facing his team squarely into the fierce wind that was sweeping in from the west off the River Taff. With the wind at their backs the big, mobile New Zealand forwards were able to contain Wales in its own territory while the All-Blacks went about the business of scoring. After 10 minutes, following a Welsh offside during a scrum, Fullback McCormick booted a 22-yard penalty kick squarely through the uprights, and New Zealand was ahead 3-0. Seven minutes later the All-Blacks scored again. The ball popped out of a scrum about 20 yards short of the Welsh goal line, was quickly picked up by a New Zealand back and pitched out to Right Center Bill Davis, already sprinting hard toward the left sideline. As he was tackled Davis spun the ball over to Left Wing Bill Birtwistle. Birtwistle, who has a gaunt face that bears an amazing resemblance to the beardless Abraham Lincoln, weighs only 156 pounds, light for a Rugby player, but, oh, is he nimble. Running as if he feared instant annihilation at the hands of a brutish Welsh defender, Birtwistle skittered down the sideline and dived across at the corner. McCormick converted the try, and New Zealand led 8-0.
This turned out to be the winning margin, but it was not an easy one to hold. Welsh teams usually make effective use of speed in the backfield combined with tricky ball handling and passing, but the weather conditions kept that kind of wide-open game to a minimum. Nevertheless, with the wind at their backs in the second half they scored three points off a 20-yard drop kick by Halfback Barry John and appeared to be ready to make the game even closer. That is, until disaster struck. Following a mauling pileup at about mid-field, New Zealand was given a penalty kick from 45 yards out. McCormick's attempt was short all the way, but John Jeffery, standing astride the goal line to catch it, let the wet and slippery ball slither through his arms. As the wave of 15 black-clad New Zealanders pounded downfield toward him, Jeffery rummaged on the ground for agonizing moments. When he finally got a grip on the ball, he straightened up and tried to toss it over to one of his backs. The pass was more of a flutter than a flip. All-Black Right Center Davis burst through the line of bright-red Welsh jerseys, snatched the ball out of the air before it ever got to where it was supposed to be going and thumped it onto the ground behind the goal line. McCormick converted. New Zealand, leading 13-3, reverted to three yards and a wallop of mud and the Welsh ruggers were as flat as the 58,000 fans who looked on in songless despair for the remaining 27 minutes of the game.
After it was all over, All-Black Vice-Captain MacRae, resting in a deep tub of hot water, the flesh around his right eye puffy from a blow he had received late in the game, seemed almost apologetic about the result. "It wasn't what you'd call a fantastic game, was it?" he said. "The conditions were just too difficult. But those Welsh, as usual, were just magnificent. I can tell you, we are all very, very happy to have beaten them."
And the Welsh? Well, they get two more chances to sing. Next month the All-Blacks return for matches against Monmouthshire in Newport and against East Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. Cardiff Castle may yet rock to the bellowed choruses of Land of my Fathers at the final whistle.