Wednesday 16 January 2019

When Ireland put it up to Wales' Terrible Eight in the 'most violent' game of rugby ever played

The Welsh team in 1914
The Welsh team in 1914

Tom Cary

It became known as 'The Roughest Ever' and it featured in the red corner a brawling vicar at the head of a fearsome Welsh pack known as The Terrible Eight, and in the green, a man who would later become an Air Vice-Marshal and surgeon to King George VI.

Saturday's clash between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin promises to be a fiery encounter. Warren Gatland's returns to Ireland tend to pack a punch. But it would have to go some to match the infamous dust-up between the two nations on March 13, 1914 in the Balmoral showgrounds on the outskirts of Belfast.

The match was written up as the most violent in the competition's history, and there is no reason to doubt that, although like all good stories - particularly those pertaining to events over a century ago - there are varying reports as to what actually happened.

What we know for sure is that the Welsh pack which would become immortalised as the Terrible Eight came together for the very first time at Twickenham in the first game of that year's Championship, where, by all accounts, they took England to the cleaners.

That Wales lost that game 10-9, thanks to a late try from England's wing forward Charles "Cherry" Pillman, denied them what would have been a certain Grand Slam that year. But the consolation was the fact that they had discovered a magnificent pack of forwards, "men of splendid physique in perfect training, man for man heavier and stronger [than the English]," according to The Times. "These Welshmen knew every move of forward play."

Led by the Revd Alban Davies ("church militant made flesh" as described by Huw Richards in A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union) and featuring four colliers, Wales went on to beat Scotland and France comprehensively in their next two games.

William 'Billy' Tyrrell
William 'Billy' Tyrrell

By the time they arrived in Belfast, their reputations preceded them. The night before the game, Irish pack leader William 'Billy' Tyrrell sought out Percy Jones, Wales' enforcer, either at a local theatre or the Welsh hotel (reports vary). "It's you and me for it tomorrow, Jones," Tyrrell is alleged to have snarled. To which Jones replied, "I'll be with you. Doing the best I can."

Inevitably, the game - which was played against a backdrop of unrest (industrial in Wales and political in Ireland) - descended into a brawl. Ireland took an early 3-0 lead, but even before that Tyrrell had caught Jones with a punch the Wales lock later said had rattled his brains. Before long, everyone had joined in, the Scottish referee apparently showing little inclination to intervene. Wales won 11-3.

In the best rugby traditions, it all ended amicably. Tyrrell again sought out Jones afterwards and congratulated him, saying: "You're the best Welshman I've come across. The only man ever to beat me." The pair signed each other's dinner menus that night and later became firm friends. They would sit side by side again at a dinner when the two teams met in Cardiff 37 years later. By then Tyrrell was Air Vice-Marshal Sir William Tyrrell, surgeon to King George VI.

Others were not so fortunate. Dai Watts of the Terrible Eight was killed in action at Bazentin Ridge in 1916, while Jasper Brett and Vincent McNamara of the Irish team likewise did not come home. The Terrible Eight - the first pack to remained unchanged through a home Championship - never played together again.

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