Saturday 21 November 2020

The Mid and "One of the Greatest Wings. . . "

 “One of the Greatest Wingers I Have Ever Seen”

Maurice in full flow for Wales.
It was around 8.00 Saturday morning on 9th March 1968 when I stumbled off the Fishguard ferry onto Irish soil. A combination of warm cans of beer drunk on the overnight train from Cardiff to Fishguard and a night’s sleep snatched on one of the ferry’s deck benches had left me in less than pristine condition. I downed my first pint of Guinness at 8.30 and by noon had almost forgotten why I was there, almost!

Into my second year as student at Barry Teacher Training College I leapt at the offer of a ticket for the Ireland v Wales international to be played at Lansdowne Road Dublin, the following Saturday. Who wouldn’t? The side was packed with men whose names have long since passed into Welsh rugby folklore, John Dawes, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Delme Thomas, Dai Morris and John Taylor. But there was one name on the team sheet that held a special significance for me. . .  Maurice Richards. We had both been pupils at Tonypandy Grammar School. Four years his junior I recall climbing the stone stairs to the first floor where two intimidating figures, prefects Maurice and Lyn Baxter, towered over us like giants who had just stepped down from Valhalla. 

Lyn became one of the best, and unluckiest, Welsh rugby players never to earn a full Welsh cap. He toured Argentina with Wales in 1968 and played in both Tests but was never awarded a full cap. Lyn is one of life’s true gentlemen. Our paths have crossed many times, and in fact I live in his old house in Kenry Street. Until recently I had never spoken to Maurice, but I regularly stood on the touchline around the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Field watching him demolish the opposition with, in the words of the legendary Mervyn Davies, Physique, determination, speed and a shattering side-step.” He was destined for greatness and I was not going to miss the opportunity of seeing him take his first step on the journey. 

So, on a cold March Dublin morning a small but expectant group of students stood amid a hostile Lansdowne Road crowd and waited for their heroes to emerge. It was Maurice’s first cap. Wales lost 9-6 to an Irish side that contained rugby legends of its own in Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Syd Millar, Ken Goodall, and Tom Kiernan. Maurice was far from over-awed and a long and illustrious career beckoned but sadly for union fans, it was to be an all too brief affair. During the game the referee wrongly awarded a drop goal to Gareth Edwards and the crowd's mood  bordered on mutinous. Fortunately for all concerned, especially English Referee Mike Titcombe, Ireland scored through Mike Doyle in the ninth minute of injury time to win the match. Having blown the whistle, the referee hared off to the changing room, as a hail of bottles rained down on him, at such a pace even Maurice would have been pushed to catch him. I am ashamed to admit it was the only time I ever felt relieved by a Welsh defeat.

Maurice played just nine times for Wales scoring seven tries including four against a shell-shocked England at the Cardiff Arms Park in 1969. Apparently, Maurice was unaware that he had equalled the feat of the great Tonypandy born wing, Willie Llewellyn set seventy years earlier. The story of how Willie Llewellyn’s chemist shop was left untouched during the so-called ‘Tonypandy Riots’ has now passed into Welsh folklore. They shared something else in common, both played on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Field, Maurice in the first flush of youth and Willie for Penygraig during the autumn of a glittering career that began with the ‘old invincibles’,  Llwynypia RFC. Willie had played against the first all-conquering All Black touring side in 1905 in a match that attained mythical status when Wales scored a try through wing Teddy Morgan while New Zealand had their 'try' contentiously disallowed. Willie may not have scored but he contained the dangerous Billy Wallace with a defensive display of the highest quality despite being considered by many too old for selection.

Recognising his prolific talent, the Lions selectors picked Maurice for the Lions squad to tour South Africa in June 1968 on the back of just two international appearances against Ireland and France. It was a formidable challenge. The tourists lost three tests and drew one but succeeded in restoring some pride against the often-brutal Boks. The Lions suffered a blow in the First Test in Pretoria when Barry John broke his collar bone following a dangerous tackle. Maurice played in the first three Tests at Pretoria, Cape Town, and Johannesburg but would never play for the British Lions again.

The following 1969 Five Nations proved a successful one for Wales. In their first fixture away to Scotland Wales triumphed by 17-3 with tries from Edwards, John, and Richards. In Cardiff they defeated Ireland 24-11 scoring four tries in the process although Maurice saw little of the ball himself. Fans began to dream of

Grand Slam glory. Despite outscoring the French by two tries to one, Gareth Edwards and Maurice crossing for Wales, a draw at Colombes ensured Wales’ Grand Slam dreams were dashed. England were next up as a frustrated Welsh team returned to Cardiff and awaited the visitors. A second half blitz saw the English demolished by a rampant Welsh team still smarting from their failure to beat France. Barry John scored a try, but Maurice helped himself to four. Unbeknown to jubilant Welsh fans it was the last time they would see Maurice Richards in a Welsh shirt on Welsh soil.

In 1969 Wales toured New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji. They defeated Australia and Fiji and remained unbeaten in provincial matches but were outclassed by the All Blacks in both Tests. Yet it is a try scored by Maurice Richards in the Second Test that is indelibly imprinted on my memory. It was a try of supreme quality that left Fergie McCormack, the All Black full-back sat on his backside a bemused expression writ large on his face. I do not think any other wing, before or since, could have scored that try. It was not that Maurice had taken the All Blacks by surprise as he had recently scored a hat-trick of tries against Otago. Maurice was a uniquely special talent, but don’t just take my word for it, the late great Mervyn Davies included Maurice in his dream Welsh XV, declaring simply, “Maurice had everything.” Gerald Davies, himself regarded by many as the greatest Welsh wing ever said of him, “I know he left union early, but Maurice has not been given the acknowledgment that one of the greatest wings I have ever seen deserves.”

Nine of that Welsh tour party would be chosen for the 1971 British Isles tour to New Zealand, a tour that is engraved forever in the annals of rugby history. Coached by the charismatic Carwyn James the Lions achieved what was considered an impossible dream by defeating New Zealand in a four match test series on their own soil. I imagine the All Blacks breathed a sigh of relief when they discovered Maurice Richards had already gone North. We can only imagine what damage he might have inflicted. Maurice was just twenty-four when he followed in the footsteps of David Watkins and joined Salford. Had he stayed in Union a year or two longer his grog would have been as prized as any of those legendary Welsh players of the 60’s and 70’s Golden Era.

In the sixties and seventies official reaction to the decision to go ‘up North’ had hardly changed since the days of the great Australian dual code international Herbert ‘Dally’ Messenger. Messenger toured in 1908 with the Australian Kangaroos
attaining celebrity status in the North of England where ‘Messenger Will Play’ placards were placed outside grounds to confirm his appearance. Following Messenger’s defection to League the New South Wales Rugby Union struck all his games from the record books. They were not restored for another hundred years! At least we still have Maurice’s intact. Both men had something else in common besides their unique talent – both played on the Mid. Maurice did so regularly in his Tonypandy Grammar School days, ‘Dally’ only the once when the touring Kangaroos defeated Mid Rhondda Athletic by 20 – 6 on October 3rd 1908. Messenger certainly impressed the watching Rhondda Leader match reporter:

“. . . their side seemed to be a one-man show, and that man was undoubtedly ‘the Percy Bush of Australia,’ viz., Messenger. This player is superb as a three-quarter, and we deem him one of the finest exponents of Rugby extant.”

Maurice Richard’s impact on Rugby League was comparable to that of his great Australian predecessor. His 498 appearances for Salford stand as a club record as does his 297 tries.  To place that achievement in context consider some of the other talented Welsh players who graced the ‘Red Devils’ jersey down the years like David Watkins, David Bishop, Adrian Hadley, Clive Griffiths, Colin Dixon,  Billy Banks, Malcolm Price, Tom Williams and the great Bev Risman. In 2001 Salford selected a ‘Team of the Century’ to celebrate their centenary year. It was chosen by supporters, board members, sports writers and club historians and contained no less than eight Welshman in the 17- man squad. Inevitably Maurice Richards was included in a side captained by Bev Risman.

Maurice Richards perhaps encapsulates the attitude that prevailed towards footballers who ‘turned their back’ on the union game. Prodigal sons who would never again be allowed to return home to the unsullied pastures of amateurism. Fortunately, we now live in more enlightened, some might say ‘honest’, times and professionalism has become an accepted reality for both codes. However, it remains an enduring tragedy that the man regarded as one of the greatest exponents of wing play on either side of the divide was never welcomed back to once again grace the green, green, grass of home.

From a personal perspective all I can say is, “Maurice Richards, thanks for the memories”.


Spoke to Maurice on the phone a few weeks back and he expressed his support for our campaign to preserve and develop the Mid for the community.


Going ‘up North’ was not a new phenomenon for Welsh and Rhondda rugby stars. Maurice was in fact treading a well-worn path, and neither was Salford an unfamiliar destination. However, the task of enticing talented young rugby players from the valleys of South Wales could be a hazardous occupation as one Northern Union scout from Swinton discovered when he arranged a covert meeting with three of the ‘invincible’ Llwynypia side at the Ivor Hael Hotel, adjacent to Llwynypia Railway Station. The Rhondda Leader reported the events that took place:

Swinton Looking for Welsh Players – A representative of Swinton, at present putting up at Cardiff, went up to Llwynypia by the 5 train and met crack centre three-quarter Tom Williams, also J. Evans and Dick Hellings, with a view of inducing them to go up to Swinton, but through the news leaking out he was shortly afterwards made the object of a hostile demonstration in the Ivor Hael Hotel. Whilst talking to the players in question he was threatened with all sorts of penalties and found it convenient to return by the following train. On the way to the platform a large crowd hooted him to their hearts content, but, thanks to the protection of Mr. David Llewellyn, the Llwynypia secretary, he was enabled to reach the train in safety.”

But it appears Northern Union representatives were made of stern stuff even when threatened with “all sorts of penalties”. Shortly afterwards, in July 1897, the Rhondda Leader announced that Dick Hellings of Llwynypia and Wales, had decided to head North and play for Swinton. If this was not bad enough local rugby supporters’ worst fears were soon realised when three Mid-Rhondda footballers, Tom Williams captain of Llwynypia, W. Morris and Jack Rhapps of Penygraig, opted to join Salford. Rhapps, along with Anthony Stark became the first dual-code rugby international and gained the nick name ‘The Lion of Salford’. Rhapps and Hellings had played together in the Welsh pack that helped rout England in the 1897 Home Internationals. While at Salford Rhapps again enjoyed a victory over England by 9-3 whilst playing for Other Nationalities.

The South Wales rugby fraternity recognised the threat posed by Northern Union. Attempts were made to discourage a possible exodus of the brightest talent. In 1903 one newspaper reported the salutary tale of diminutive scrum half Danny Ryan from Cardiff who joined Swinton Lions, under the heading:

 Allegations of Foul Play by a Welshman. . . Ryan, since his “flit” to the north, has sent several letters to his friends, in which he makes an allegation of foul play, which, if true, should give Welsh footballers who have any inclination to go ‘up North’ something to think of. This is what he says: - ‘. . .They are awfully jealous of us up here, and in practice games they will do all they can to ‘shove us out.’ Last Saturday I met with an accident - had my knee put out and ankle twisted in a practice match. I told you they would do all they possibly could to flatten us, and it came off too, for Tom Burris had his knee twisted as well. . . ‘”

I imagine Welsh imports, including Maurice Richards, anticipated a ‘warm’ reception, but most ‘toughed it out’ and flourished. Tom Williams certainly held his own and on one occasion was suspended for a fortnight for striking an opponent in a match against Oldham. 

Dire warnings were not the only methods used to dissuade any wavering souls seduced by the promise of a more secure future for themselves and their families. The Glamorgan Police Force upped the ante considerably. Newspaper headlines (September 1907) announced:

“GENERAL ORDERS Rugby Professionalism Discouraged. P.C. ARCH REDUCED IN RANK”

The unfortunate P.C. Thomas Arch of Penarth was suspended from playing for the remainder of the season having received money from Aberdare Football Club. As if this was not sufficient punishment, on the orders of Chief Constable Lord Lindsay following a report by Inspector R. H. Thomas, Arch suffered a loss of two years seniority and a consequent 1s 2d a week drop in pay. From henceforth no policemen was permitted to play for a professional club. 

 A more high-profile victim of the WRU’s investigation into the affair was Welsh international forward Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones from Treherbert who received a life-time ban. Two years earlier in 1905 Dai had helped Wales inflict the only defeat suffered by the formidable All Blacks tourists at a delirious Cardiff Arms Park. Dai turned to Northern Union although the furthest north he travelled was Merthyr Tydfil. In January 1908 he became Wales’ second dual code international when he faced the New Zealand All Golds on a frozen pitch in Aberdare. Jones scored the winning try just before the final whistle. Dai also featured in another international that was to have repercussions for rugby in Mid-Rhondda. The game against England was played on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Grounds, Tonypandy on Easter Monday, April 20th 1908. Wales won 36-18 and the game exceeds expectations, A large crowd departs delighted at what it has witnessed. The Western Mail writes, “. . . if first impressions count for ought, then the big majority of Rhondda Valley spectators who made their initial acquaintance with NU football must acclaim the game as played under the new regime with positive delight.”

The Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club immediately set wheels in motion and within weeks the Mid Rhondda Northern Union Football Club is formed. Admittance to the Northern Union is secured on 30th June 1908 where they join Ebbw Vale and Merthyr. Northern Union has taken root in Rhondda. The formation of Mid Rhondda Athletic has a direct impact on neighbouring Penygraig RFC. In 1906 Penygraig abandoned their old venue in favour of The Mid Rhondda Athletic ground and now find themselves having to look for a new home. At their annual meeting held at the Butcher’s Arms Hotel, Penygraig the club secretary expressed his regret that the Mid Rhondda Athletic Grounds Committee had decided to run a professional team. He also confirmed they had been successful in securing a new ground. 

Rumours had already begun to circulate of players being enticed ‘up North’ and it was reported by the Evening Express that Ridley and Wrentmore of Penygraig RFC had travelled to Salford. Ridley was allegedly offered £40 down and 30 shillings a week. Salford, and the players concerned, denied the rumour. Councillor Fred Hampton, Chairman of Salford, explained the two players mentioned had not been invited to join the club, “Two Welsh players have been in Salford, they came here on a trip to see some friends and they returned to Wales yesterday. During their stay they visited our ground, but beyond that I know nothing concerning them,” he said. But in Rhondda the treatment meted out to Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones was for some the tip of an iceberg that threatened to inflict significant damage on the status of the amateur game in the valleys of South Wales. Discontent hung heavy in the air and Penygraig RFC were not immune to its effects. The Evening Express (30th October 1907) explained the source of this malaise:

It is no wonder that the amateur game is fast losing ground. For years past Penygraig have had a very strong team, and several players, capable of holding their own in international and county batches, have been passed over as unworthy of the slightest recognition, while others not possessing half the ability and playing for the teams in the city and elsewhere have been selected. In Police-constable Bevan, Mathews, Flyn, and Baker Penygraig possess for whom, it is contended, it would be hard to find superiors in Wales, and seemingly they are not worthy of selection. These and sundry other grievances, it is stated, are the cause of the dissatisfaction. A section intend holding a meeting at an early date to express their views and to discuss the matter. A prominent committeeman of the Penygraig team informed our correspondent that the officials, if given fair play, were entirely in favour of amateur football, but they all felt themselves unfairly dealt with by those in authority. In all disputes in which the Penygraig Club had been concerned they always had the Welsh Union against them, and he feared an additional grievance would probably arise out of the Treherbert dispute, which consequently he felt would, bring matters to a climax.”

Penygraig remain steadfast to the amateur code but in turbulent times several of their leading players decide to jump ship. The opportunity to earn an extra income doing something you enjoy is a temptation too great to resist at a time when working men cannot even command a minimum wage. Penygraig captain George Matthews is one. He is accompanied by Wrentmore, Palmer, Griffiths and Norris. Such is the impact made by Norris he is subsequently selected to play for Wales against the Kangaroos. Penygraig’s loss proves to be Mid-Rhondda’s gain.

Three more Welsh clubs will also cross the amateur/professional divide in the same year. Predictably Treherbert and Aberdare, still smarting from the treatment meted out by the WRU, are two the third being the flourishing port town of Barry. There are now six teams in Wales playing Northern Union style football and this number facilitates the formation of a Welsh League. The Mid Rhondda Northern Union Football Club is now about to compete in two leagues. A lucrative new dawn is set to break. At least that is what the optimistic committee are hoping. A fixture list is hastily drawn up and presented to a curious public. The Rhondda Leader reports under the heading ‘Mid-Rhondda Northern Football Club’:

“The committee of the above are to be complimented upon their efforts in being able to place before the football loving public of the Rhonddas such an excellent fixture list for the forthcoming season. The great international match played on the Mid-Rhondda Ground between Wales and England, on Easter Monday last, will no doubt be fresh in the memory of our readers. Encouraged by the success which attended that match, the committee have put forth every effort to run a Northern Union team, so as to supply a long felt want during the coming season.”

Whether this ‘long felt want’ reflects the wishes of the footballing public or rather, the wishful thinking of the Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club committee is about to be put to the acid test. The article continues:

“Much has been written about professionalism in Wales, and it will be interesting to watch the course of events during this first season of professional Rugby in the Rhondda. The first match, on September 5th, when Bradford pay their first visit to the Rhondda, will be eagerly anticipated. We also observe several Welsh League matches are included in the fixtures.”

By the end of the season Mid Rhondda have played 18 games in the Northern Union, winning only five and drawing one, finishing 24th out of 31 clubs. They experience more success in the Welsh League finishing second behind Ebbw Vale, winning six of the nine matches played. But the writing is already on the wall. Reporting on a match between Mid Rhondda and Aberdare the Rhondda Leader reporter notes that, “Only a small company of spectators assembled.”  The Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club had been established in an atmosphere of optimism and anticipation, but by the end of their first season all that positive energy has dissipated. The venture has proved a failure commercially and from a sporting perspective. The quarter final of the Challenge Cup and the epic encounter with Dally Messenger’s Kangaroos have proved the high points and both ended in inglorious defeats. Rugby League in Wales will limp on for one more season but realistically it is already in its death throes. There will be no limping in Tonypandy as the Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club committee ruthlessly wield the axe after just one season. This must have been tough for players like Dai Thomas and Frank Wrentmore, who have committed their futures to the newly established club.

Numerous contributory factors undermined the attempt to establish rugby league in South Wales. It had been hoped more Welsh teams would emerge but that never happened. Hostility from the rugby union scene as demonstrated by the WRU’s draconian response to ‘alleged professionalism’ was one, but not the most telling. Unlike their Northern counterparts Welsh clubs did not have the financial clout to tempt top players to switch codes. Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones was the only union international signed by any of the six Welsh clubs and he was already banned from ever playing union again. By comparison, wealthier Northern Clubs were able to attract star players from the amateur ranks. Welsh international Ben Gronow from Bridgend rejected Ebbw Vale’s offer of £25 to sign for Huddersfield for £125.

With few star players, attendances at Welsh grounds were low and this was noted with concern by the Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club committee. The Northern Union did not help matters when they halved the travel subsidy for Welsh clubs playing in the North from £10 to £5. This, combined with the mismanagement of certain clubs like Merthyr whose administration was described as ‘shambolic’, ensured the Northern Union venture was doomed to failure. In retrospect the Northern Union let the opportunity to establish the game in South Wales slip through short-sighted fingers. For the foreseeable future rugby league will remain confined to its Northern stronghold and those who make the trip ‘up North’ will, for years to come, be treated as sporting ‘pariahs’.

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