Wales was the last of the four countries to come into Rugby football. In the spring of 1881, or ten years after the commencement of the Scotland and England series, the Welshmen were beaten at Blackheath by 5 goals and 8 tries. The first match between Scotland and Wales was played in 1883 at Raeburn Place, and was won by Scotland by 3 goals to 1 goal. A comparison of these results would appear to suggest improvement, but, with the exception of a few isolated successes, Welsh football travelled through a vale of darkness for the next ten years, and it was not until 1893 that a Welsh success at Raeburn Place served the dual purpose of establishing Wales as a rival equally dangerous as England, and at the same time demonstrating in a very practical manner the efficacy of the new thing that had come into football—the four-halfback formation.
In the evolution of the game the four-half-back line stands as the Welsh contribution to Rugby. Its inception has been attributed to an inspiration on the part of A. J. Gould, the great Welsh player, who, as the apostle of the new doctrine, had to preach and labour long before he saw his work accomplished. As early as 1886 Wales had tried the line of four against Scotland, but, finding the reduction in the number of forwards dangerous, Gould, who had started in the half-back line, was transferred to the full-back position, whence the occupant went into the scrummage. Wales had a horror of Scottish forwards.
In most of the earlier games, popular opinion of the Welsh teams was that they could make a stand for about half an hour, and that they then 'cracked up.' Scotland won the first match in tolerably easy fashion. The pitch was hard and treacherous after frost, and very early in the game J. G. Walker twisted a knee and was out of football for the remainder of the season. Scotland played two half-backs, W. E. Maclagan and D. J. M'Farlan, behind A. R. Don Wauchope and W. Sorley Brown. D. Y. Cassels was captain, and had with him in the pack C. Reid, T. Ainslie, W. A. Walls, and J. B. Brown among a good all-round division.
The next season at Newport A. G. G. Asher dropped a goal and T. Ainslie scored a try. J. P. Veitch, John Tod, and W. A. Peterkin were included in a strong Scottish team, which contained Asher and A. R. Don Wauchope at quarter and W. E. Maclagan, D. J. M'Farlan, and G. C. Lindsay at half-back. After a draw on a muddy pitch at Glasgow, where the Welshmen were taking no risks, the series up to 1893 continued in a somewhat conventional groove, with the exception of a couple of remarkable occurrences in 1887 and 1888.
In the 1887 match Scotland ran up the enormous score of 4 goals and 8 tries. I have a clear recollection of that game, which was remarkable for the flights, successful and unsuccessful, of G. C. Lindsay, who in all crossed the Welsh line on five occasions. I remember, too, that although the team contained C. W. Berry and other reputed expert place-kickers, many easy attempts ended in failure, and as a last resort A. W. Cameron (Watsonians) was called up from full-back, and he, as others had done before him, 'sent down a wide.'
G. C. Lindsay's performance remains as an individual Scottish International record. It is of more merit than modern performances in so far that as one of a line of three he had more to do than merely run. The passing game was well established, but it was rarely worked to the advantage of the wing players as it is done in the present line of four.
In the Loretto team which won the championship of 1881-82, Lindsay was the schoolboy back of his year. He went into the Oxford University fifteen as a notable addition to the scoring strength of the team, and was fast enough to be chosen as one of the representatives in the hundred yards race against Cambridge. Speed was only an adjunct to his football. It was his vivacity, cleverness, and dash that contributed most to his effectiveness. He had no defence. On principle he did not believe in it. A confirmed heretic on the defensive theory, he went out and out for attack. From an opponent's point he was a most dangerous man. Spectators considered him an entertainment and a beautiful player.
To transform a defeat of 4 goals and 8 tries into a victory the following year represented a most unusual occurrence, partaking of the nature of a convulsion. Following the debacle at Raeburn Place, Wales won the 1888 match at Newport by a try scored by T. J. Pryce Jenkins (London Welsh) from a run remarkable in that a goodly part of its course was in touch. Some of the Scottish defenders allowed him to go, and although his tracks were quite discernible, he got his try.
Scotland were not so fortunate. Five times the ball was touched down for a try over the Welsh line, and on each occasion it was disallowed. They were still fighting adversity and hoping that a sixth appeal on numeric grounds, if on no other, could not be withstood when time was called. That was the first Welsh triumph over Scotland.
The coming of the four three-quarters, or halfbacks, as they were then termed, marks one of the epochs in the history of the game. Wales had been experimenting with the system, but until England were beaten at Dewsbury in 1890 the departure had not awakened more than a passive or academic interest in the other countries, and its adoption and general acceptance among the Welshmen themselves still hung in the balance.
Before dealing with the 1893 Welsh International, which clinched the argument as far as Scotland is concerned, I might perhaps quote some extracts from the Scottish Athletic Journal, in a discussion in which I happened to be personally concerned, and which will convey some conception of the state of the Rugby mind on the subject at that time.
A. R. Don Wauchope wrote: 'I have always been a strong opponent of this "new" game. . . . Beat them well forward, and you have the game won. Many forwards play as if the half-backs (three-quarters) were the only real players on the side; consequently they never do their own share of the play. Swing the scrummage, then it is that the backs get a real chance, and then it is that the opposing backs are run over by the forwards. If our Scottish forwards will play their own good game I should not have any doubt. Forwards who are continually trying to play for their backs will invariably be beaten.'
C. Reid, who at the time of writing had given up playing, characteristically summed up the situation thus : ' Give me a forward team like that we had at Manchester in 1882, and I don't care how many three-quarter backs you have; we could go through them. We dribbled very close, and one backed up the other so well they could not get away, and they had fliers like Bolton against us. Dribbling and tackling are the characteristics of the Scottish forwards, and on them we depend to win.'
The opinion of R. G. MacMillan, one of the finest forwards who ever played for Scotland, was: 'As to the influence of the Welsh system on Scottish forwards, I consider it will be deteriorating, as they will lose all their old dash. I don't say there should be no heeling out, but as the game stands at present the attention of the forwards is entirely given up to it. The older players may be able to stick to the old genuine game which they learned at the schools, but the younger ones will not be taught to put down their heads and shove, and will shirk and become loafers.'
H. T. O. Leggatt, the famous Watsonian forward, said: 'My opinion of the four-half-back system generally is that it is much showier, and, therefore, more attractive to the spectators. The passing is easily spoiled when the tackling is determined and vigorous. I prefer the Scottish style, undoubtedly, for this substantial reason: The Watsonians, who play essentially a Scottish game, played, under unequal conditions, the strongest Newport fifteen, who are acknowledged to be facile princeps in the four-three-quarter game, and morally beat them. I think the Scottish forwards would lose their strong points, rushes and footwork, if they adopted the Welsh system.'
The Newport team referred to contained seven International players, and was regarded as the perfection of the Welsh game, and invincible in club football. Reference to the Watsonian-Newport match in question will be found in its appropriate place under Club Football.
Scotland stood at the parting of the ways. On the one hand, we had a style of play peculiarly national and Scottish, well adapted to the conditions in Scotland, and admirably suited to the temperament and upbringing of the players. Forward play was a Scottish heritage. It was Scotland's contribution to Rugby football. Even such a great exponent of back play as A. R. Don Wauchope said, ' Keep your forward play.' On the other hand, the fear of jeopardising International prospects, and the dread of being left behind in the apparent march of progress, hung like the sword of Damocles over Scotland's head.
We joined in with the mob. Whether we were right or wrong, or whether we should have stood firm and forced our game upon the others, does not admit of more than a conjectural answer, and it is too late now to turn back the hands of the clock. The only certainty about it all is that in accepting the new game Scotland bartered her heritage, and henceforward there was nothing left in Rugby that was exclusively or peculiarly Scottish.
If it had been known that proficiency in the four-three-quarter system entailed assiduous and intensive practice, coaching, rehearsal, and training, I doubt whether it would ever have obtained a footing in Scotland. During the years of 'Welsh ascendancy,' when the prospects of challenge seemed hopeless, the advantages lay far more in the preparatory functions than in the formation of the teams, and the host of great Welsh players of the time owed much of their superiority to comparison with novices in the inner requirements of the Welsh game.
Time has dispelled that early advantage and obliterated the distinction. Schoolboys are all now trained in the Welsh game. That they are better players, or that the straining after unity and perfection of combination has not had a deteriorating effect on the individual, even so far as self-reliance is concerned, are questions of a debatable character. To all who remember the old Scottish forward game the accuracy of the prognostications dreading deterioration of the forward play will appear remarkable.
In the demonstration of 1893 the Scotsmen were not well placed for a critical test. All round, the team were rather under than over the normal strength, and, owing to an unusually long spell of frost, the players were not in good physical condition. The backs—A. W. Cameron ; D. D. Robertson, Gregor MacGregor, and J. J. Gowans; and R. C. Greig and W. Wotherspoon—compared unfavourably with many former Scottish back divisions. R. G. MacMillan, H. T. O. Leggatt, W. B. Cownie, G. T. Neilson, W. R. Gibson, H. F. Menzies, A. Dalgleish, T. L. Hendry, and J. N. Millar formed a strong pack, whose failure to beat the Welsh forwards, playing a man less, was largely attributable to want of condition.
No scoring occurred in the first half of the game, and general expectations were to the effect that the Welsh team would 'crack up' in the second half. Instead of that, the play opened out, and we had the finest exhibition of sustained handling, passing, and running that had been seen in an International match. The Welsh wings were occupied by two fast men, W. M. M'Cutcheon and N. Biggs; A. J. Gould and his brother, G. H. Gould, were in the centre; and F. C. Parfitt and P. Phillips were the 'quarters.' The younger Gould and M'Cutcheon worked out a try very prettily. A. J. Gould was playing clever football in the centre, and controlling the back play thoroughly. Another passing movement brought a try to Biggs. Bancroft dropped a goal, and the cup was full to overflowing when M'Cutcheon ran round and laid the ball behind the posts.
The Scottish forwards had worked hard and seemed to be denied a good try scored by H. F. Menzies (West of Scotland). But they had a heartbreaking experience, and even when they bore down on Bancroft in a body and seemed sure to smother him, that acrobatic member in most unorthodox fashion met the falling ball with his foot ere it reached the ground, and kicked it back over the heads of the advancing mass.
I can still hear the sharp ejaculation of a Mer-chistonian bystander: 'That's not football,' and the equally prompt Welsh rejoinder : ' No, that's Banky.' That was the older and the great Bancroft. His play did not conform to Scottish ideas of the requirements of full-back position. Still he was wonderfully clever, and in nothing more than in the manner in which he initiated or participated in an attack. Two years later, Scotland, leading by a goal, were being hard pressed, when W. M. C. M'Ewan made his mark almost on the line. His lofty punt was caught before finding touch by the waiting Bancroft, who made a straight line into the centre, whence he dropped a goal. In a rather unsatisfactory match the numeric difference in value between the two goals was all that separated the teams. A. J. Gould, when it was all over, was an annoyed, if not an angry man. The pitch, after frost, was hardly fit for play. Before they had long started, the clatter of feet sounded very ominous. When the result hung in the balance, Gould saw a possible chance of winning the match and darted through a gap in the Scottish three-quarter line. Thus far he got and no farther, for in the next stride or two, in endeavouring to change his course, the slippery ground took the feet from him. There is no question as to 'Monk' Gould being a great player. I do not know that he could have stood up in a hurricane and sustained attack as W. E. Maclagan and H. J. Stevenson would have done, though his abilities extended much beyond the limit of the 'winning game' type of player. Years afterwards, when I heard Welshmen extol Gwynne Nichols as the greatest of all Welsh three-quarters, I thought they could never have seen or known Gould. Three years later than the match referred to, the famous Welshman became the storm centre in an International convulsion which interrupted the Scottish series of matches with Wales during the years 1897 and 1898. The trouble arose through the largeness of the public subscription raised, and the form of the testimonial proposed to be presented, by the Welsh football community to Gould on his retirement. The sum, approaching £1000, was regarded as too large, and the investment of the money, in the purchase of a dwelling-house, could not be reconciled with the retention of Gould's status as an amateur. Scotland, as usual, was blamed for raising the dust, but if the fabric of amateurism is to be kept clean, the use of the broom is not to be hindered by the risk of soiled fingers.
The further story of Scottish relationship with Wales differs from that with the other countries in so far that while Scotland appeared to be meeting England and Ireland on conditions of comparative equality, a period dating from about the beginning of the century and continuing until the year of the outbreak of war witnessed such an eclipse of Scottish football as to engender a feeling almost of hopelessness of ever attaining the standard of the Welshmen. England was no more immune, and scarcely less was Ireland. When in 1906 Wales alone, of the four countries, beat the 'All Blacks,' Welsh football appeared to have reached the peak of perfection, and her rivals could do little more than endeavour to assimilate her teaching and copy the model that had been set up. These were the years of ' Welsh ascendancy.' I do not think
that this predominance was due to the birth in Wales of a race of phenomenal players. Rather was it the product of an intensive system of practice, preparation, and training already referred to.
After the 1901 victory, Scotland beat Wales at Inverleith in 1903 and 1907, and lost the remaining matches up to the war interval. The position is even more emphasised when it is realised that until 1921 Scotland had not won in Wales since 1892.
Wales has been an impoverished country since the resumption, and Scotland has been rapidly making up leeway. The flicker of a revival presented itself in 1922 when Wales routed England at Cardiff by the strength of her forward play, for about the first time in history. Immediately the cry arose that Wales had introduced something new and more potent than anything hitherto known in that department of the game. Scottish scepticism was justified in a draw snatched by Wales at the last gasp at Inverleith, and since then the home section have witnessed one Welsh debacle in 1924 reminiscent of the old times of the 'eighties, and has seen Welsh national football descend to quite the primitive level. That it will revive, and soon, may be hoped in the interests of Rugby in general. There is no manner of doubt that the game, as played at present, is the Welsh model moulded and polished on the base of the four-three-quarter system introduced by Wales early in the 'nineties.