Whilst watching Wales dash England's Grand Slam hopes so spectacularly in Cardiff last Saturday, I reminded myself of the fact that this wasn't the first time during my English rugby supporting life that a trip across the Severn Bridge had ended in sporting despair. Defeat against a strong Welsh team that actually claimed the 2013 championship cushioned the blow a tiny bit, yet it was a completely different experience watching championship chasing England leave Cardiff empty handed on March 19, 1989. A loss that still hurts 24 years on.
England's rugby journey through the 1980s descended from the zenith of the 1980 Grand Slam to the nadir of the inaugural World Cup in 1987, with many of the Five Nations campaigns in between times just too shameful to comprehend (between 1983-1987 England could boast just five wins out of twenty matches in the championship). If defeat to the Welsh in the 1987 World Cup and the nature of that performance left England at rock bottom, then surely the only way was up, as Yazz pointed out in the summer after England's improved Five Nations showing in 1988. Two wins against Scotland and Ireland - the latter said to have instigated the "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" anthem now synonymous with the national side - and a heartwarming victory over Australia in the Autumn at Twickenham, resulted in genuine optimism surrounding England's hopes in the 1989 championship. Under the triumvirate of Geoff Cooke (Team Manager), Roger Uttley (coach), and Will Carling (captain), English rugby was beginning to show signs of recovery.
Certainly the first three matches of England's 1989 Five Nations campaign were encouraging, especially for success starved supporters of recent years. After a stuttering 12-12 draw against Scotland at Twickenham, England went to Dublin and won 16-3, tries from Brian Moore and Dean Richards highlighting the strength contained within their pack. England's 11-0 win at home against the French convinced many that this new incarnation were the real deal, coach Uttley going as far to say "This side is probably a better side than 1980 and they still have more to offer." High praise indeed, although not all were so sure. Writing on the morning of the France match, Daily Mirror journalist Michael Bowen laid into various members of the England setup, under the headline 'HIT OR MYTH?'. Cooke (criticised for boring displays), Carling ("He has already proved that his decision-making as player and skipper are suspect"), full-back Jonathan Webb ("As much an international as my old grandma"), and scrum-half Dewi Morris ("Too big and slow for the modern game") came in for particular criticism, although it was telling that Bowen changed his tune afterwards, somehow trying to claim a bit of credit for the win: "They took out their anger on the French and all the men on trial came through with flying colours." Either way, England now travelled to Cardiff with their first championship in sight since the start of the decade, and were firm favourites to accomplish this feat.
The Welsh on the other hand were in a sorry state. If England's decline had been a steady and slightly torturous experience during the eighties, then spare a thought for any rugby lovers in Wales. A Triple Crown in 1988 and joint winners of the Five Nations championship, the team had been hit hard by the defection of Jonathan Davies to the riches of rugby league and Widnes, and prior to the England match in Cardiff, they had lost all three championship matches - 23-7 in Scotland, a home 19-13 reverse against Ireland, and a 31-12 drubbing in Paris - and now faced the prospect of the first whitewash in their Five Nations history. They were however, still clinging on to the fact that the English had not won an international in Cardiff since 1963, a fact often repeated in the lead-up to the match and such a touchy subject for the visitors that reports became rife that Carling imposed an interview embargo on the subject.
The psychological aspect of England's makeup was definitely targeted by the Welsh prior to the match, who were understandably keen to gain any slight advantage that they could muster. Neath's successful coach Brian Thomas was the first to wade in with the not too subtle comment: "The English are mentally inferior rugby wise, and as a race," adding that "Whenever I played against England, I knew mentally that Wales were the better side. That can still happen - it's all a question of strength and will." Injured Wales player Mark Ring highlighted general Welsh suspicion surrounding England's half-back pairing: "Quite frankly, Dewi Morris and Rob Andrew wouldn't be in our top six." He was not alone in this opinion, Thomas again questioning Morris' ability: "He goes forward and makes the ball available, but he can't pass. I can think of four Welsh scrum halves who are better than him." Barry John: "Rattle Morris and you rattle England...it has to be said that his game at present is limited." Don't sit on the fence chaps.
Another issue that simply could not be ignored was the last Wales-England clash at Cardiff Arms Park in 1987, or the Battle of Cardiff as it had been referred to ever since. An ugly episode in Anglo-Welsh rugby history, the scenes of violence that saw Wales' number eight Phil Davies cheekbone broken in three places, led to international bans for Richard Hill, Graham Dawe, Wade Dooley and Gareth Chilcott, and with the latter two included in England's XV for the forthcoming clash, a lot of attention naturally centred on the pair. Dooley indicated his embarrassment at his involvement in the incident, but promised to be on his best behaviour, probably just as well, after Cooke had threatened anyone found guilty of foul play with a swift end to their international career.
England had relatively few selectorial issues before Cardiff, their main decision concerning the selection of Chilcott at tighthead in front of the now fully fit Jeff Probyn, who had missed three weeks action after suffering concussion in Dublin. Their pack was undoubtedly impressive; Mike Teague, Andy Robinson and Dean Richards were enjoying fine seasons in the back row, with the second row partnership of Ackford and Dooley starting out on what would develop into a beautiful relationship for England. Wingers Chris Oti and Rory Underwood - who was surpassing Mike Slemen's record of 32 caps on the wing for England - were exciting, although many felt that the pair had not been utilised enough during the championship, an allegation often thrown at England over the next few years, culminating famously in David Campese's infamous mind games prior to the 1991 World Cup final.
If England were the model of consistency - only 16 players used in their three championship matches - then Wales were chaotic in comparison, using 23 players and handing out four debuts along the way in an attempt to stop the rot (capping another new player in winger Arthur Emyr for the England fixture). Injuries did play their part in this though, with 1989 Lions squad member Dai Young ruled out after Wales' opening match, and fellow Lion player Bob Norster only returning to the side for the France fixture. Selection policy did seem muddled though, with another Lions player John Devereux leaving the field against Ireland with a facial injury, only to be dropped for the rest of the championship. Wales did possess other quality backs in scrum-half Rob Jones, winger Ieuan Evans, and skipper Paul Thorburn, but general opinion, in the English based press at least, favoured an away victory. "The only real case for Wales is the kicking of Paul Thorburn, who has amassed 191 points and is ice-cool under pressure. But not even Thorburn can score from deep in his own half. I go for an England win with style," stated Tony Bodley in the Daily Express. It was hard to disagree with this view, even with England's abysmal record in the Welsh capital.
Before the match, former Welsh star JPR Williams declared a desire that the Welsh team showed some Hwyl once again, evidently a Welsh word meaning passion or a surge of blood. Unfortunately for Mike Teague, Welsh number eight Mark Jones may have been a little too pumped for the occasion; as the match kicked off in atrocious rain and wind, Jones charged through on England's flanker, wiping out Teague and rearranging his face in the process. After just five seconds Teague's day was over, Gary Rees replacing one of England's unsung heroes of the campaign and letting England know, if they didn't already, that the Welsh were up for the challenge.
The hideous conditions, complete with horizontal rain, did not exactly conspire to allow for fully flowing rugby, and on the odd occasion before the break when England looked capable of going over, both Carling and Webb ignored the presence of Oti on the wing, leaving English fans screaming in frustration. After Thorburn and Andrew exchanged two penalties each, England inched ahead with an Andrew drop-goal just sneaking over as the Welsh put England's fly-half under great pressure. Although England had hardly been inspiring, a 9-6 lead at the interval looked a classic case of getting the job done. The Welsh needed a moment of inspiration or a moment of madness from the visitors in the second half; step forward Rory Underwood.
Paul Turner's high kick towards England's 22 was easily caught by England's winger, but what followed was sporting suicide. Underwood's pass inside to Webb was a shocker, the full-back unable to stretch far enough to gather the ball, and the Welsh smelt blood. In the ensuing scramble, the ball was kicked on behind England's try-line by debutant Emyr, allowing centre Mike Hall to win the race and get his hand to the ball first and slam it towards the sodden turf. Although the try was given, subsequent viewings of the incident were inconclusive, opinion pretty much divided dependent on which side of the border you reside. In subsequent years Welsh lock Phil Davies admitted that had television replays been in place at the time then the try may not have been allowed , yet it would have been a brave decision for Australian referee Kerry Fitzgerald to disallow the score, and as Thorburn converted to give Wales a 12-9 lead (four points for a try back then), England's championship hopes were being washed away in the Welsh rain.
England may have felt aggrieved by the try, and when Andrew missed a penalty to level the scores, their tempers got the better of them. Again Cardiff hosted another Wales-England brawl, as a thirty second punch-up commenced between various members of the packs, Richards and Wales' prop Mike Griffiths getting particularly friendly with each other. England's discipline was disintegrating faster than their championship aspirations, and the match descended into a scrappy affair, with Robert Jones constantly pegging England back with a fine kicking display, not allowing them a sniff of a chance. It was becoming sadly apparent to English supporters that this was simply not their day, as another chapter of Cardiff calamity was being played out before their very eyes. At the final whistle, hundreds of jubilant Welsh fans invaded the pitch to celebrate their 12-9 win, and the English post-mortem was already beginning.
Underwood was immediately cast as a scapegoat for all of England's woes, although Morris was not far behind in the criticism stakes. "It was my mistake. I thought I would give the ball to Jon to kick. It was a dreadful pass and all my fault," said a distraught Underwood, who broke down in tears in the dressing room after the match. How he must have been cheered on the Monday morning to pick up a paper only to see Bowen refer to him as 'Rory Blunderwood'. Morris' display had also irked Bowen, who felt Rob Andrew had been frequently exposed by weak passing from his half-back partner, and it would appear that the England setup were not too enamoured either; Morris had played his last test for nearly three years.
Wales were understandably cock-a-hoop, taking the chance to lash out at their critics and stick the boot in on England as a bonus. "The reason Wales won was clear. When it comes to playing in Cardiff, England just don't have the bottle," indicated Robert Jones, although it would be Paul Thorburn that would cause the biggest furore, with his comments aimed towards journalist Stephen Jones at the after-match dinner: "I would very much like Mr Stephen Jones to leave the room because I consider him to be the scum of the earth." Thorburn was clearly unhappy with Jones' not unreasonable pre-match assertion that defeat for the Welsh might be a blessing in disguise, a wake-up call for the Welsh administrators. The pride and passion displayed by the Welsh was one thing - the Daily Express' 'Hail the glory boyos' headline one of many tributes to the team - but Thorburn's behaviour was frowned upon, leading to many officials apologising on his behalf. His subsequent exclusion from the 1989 Lions tour to Australia was heavily linked to his actions post-match.
Despite England's setback, they returned the next season in fine form, only to fall at the final hurdle yet again as Scotland won the winner-takes-all clash to end all winner-takes-all clashes at Murrayfield. After two soul destroying final day losses in a year the England team could have been forgiven for sulking, but the wheels were fully in motion behind the English juggernaut, as 1991 proved to be a case of third time lucky, their first Grand Slam in eleven years starting a year in which they almost won the World Cup too. As for Wales, the victory at Cardiff may have been sweet, and raised hopes for a brighter future, but the win merely put off the inevitable for another year; a 1990 wooden spoon and first whitewash snowballed into 1991, with a repeat bottom-placed finish (one draw and three defeats) and humiliation at the hands of Western Samoa in the World Cup, bringing the Welsh game to its lowest point. The team would gradually improve, they had to, yet such was the state of the national sport that Wales' next win in Cardiff in the Five Nations was three years and two days after their 1989 triumph over England. But during that bleak period, there must have been some consolation for depressed Welsh supporters in remembering the day that they broke English hearts. Not for the last time as it would turn out.