Rugby in Wales – the beginning

It is 130 years ago today, Saturday, 19 February, 2011, that Wales played its first international rugby match. We take a look back to the very beginning.

The game of Rugby Football was introduced to Wales at Lampeter College in the mid-nineteenth century using the Rugby School rules. In September, 1875, the South Wales Football Club was created in Brecon ‘with the intention of playing matches with the principal clubs in the west of England and the neighbourhood – the Rugby rules will be the adopted code’.

In 1878, a new body came into existence, the South Wales Football Union, which took over the regulation of competition and the selection of representative teams.

But it was the selection of the first Welsh team to face England at Mr Richardson’s Field, Blackheath, on 19 February, 1881, by the remarkable Richard Mullock that hastened the formation of what we now know as the Welsh Rugby Union.

The WRU has been the guardian of Wales’ national sport since its inception 130 years ago, but the Union was only formed after Wales had played its first international fixture.

A group of 11 clubs – Swansea, Lampeter, Llandeilo, Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Merthyr, Llandovery, Brecon, Pontypool and Bangor – came together at the Castle Hotel, Neath, on 12 March, 1881, to form the Welsh Rugby Football Union. It was a meeting that took place on the same day as Cardiff beat Llanelli in the fourth South Wales Challenge Cup final in Neath.

Cyril Chambers, of the Swansea Football Club, was elected the first President of the WRFU and Richard Mullock, of Newport, became the first Honorary Secretary and Treasurer.

THE SOUTH WALES FOOTBALL CLUB AND UNION
The South Wales Football Club was formed in September, 1875, in Brecon with the express intention of playing games against the leading clubs in the West of England. Rugby rules were adopted.

Among the members of the SWFC’s inaugural ‘Match Committee’ was Neath’s Tom Whittington. The founding father of one of Wales’ oldest clubs – the first recorded match in Wales was between Swansea and Neath on 7 February, 1872 – he was also the first international player to play in a Welsh club side.

Although listed as Merchiston Castle, the Welsh-born doctor was playing for Neath when he made his one and only appearance for Scotland in a drawn 20-a-side match against England on 3 March, 1873.

Whittington attended Merchiston Castle school and then studied medicine at Edinburgh University before returning to practice in his home town of Neath. A fine all round sportsman, he also played cricket for Glamorganshire in the 1860s and 1870s.

Another member of that early SWFC committee was the Swansea skipper, Charles Campbell Chambers. He went on to become the first President of the Welsh Rugby Football Union and served in that post from March to September 1881 before handing over to the Earl of Jersey.

Chambers’ brother, Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge educated John Chambers, was one off the founders of the Amateur Athletics Association in 1880 and its forerunner, the Amateur Athletic Club, in 1866. The Earl of Jersey combined his role as President of the WRU with that of President of the AAA.

In 1878, the South Wales Football Club was superseded by the South Wales Football Union, which came into being to regulate the ever expanding competitive rugby scene in Wales.

THE FIRST REPRESENTATIVE FIXTURE
Castle Green, Hereford, was the venue for the first representative fixture played by a Welsh team when the South Wales Football Club side met a Hereford XV. It was December, 1875, and the Welsh team wore black and white colours.

In order to mark that game the WRU struck a special black jersey which was used as part of their 125th anniversary season celebrations, including the win over the Australians at the Millennium Stadium in November, 2005.

The South Wales FC won that opening fixture by a try to nothing. The try was scored by Swansea’s AH Richardson.

THE BIRTH OF THE UNION

The Welsh Rugby Football Union was founded at the Castle Hotel, Neath, on 12 March, 1881, but there was a bridge between the formation of the South Wales Rugby Union in 1878 and that momentous day in Neath.

The origins of the WRFU can be traced to an informal meeting of clubs at the Tenby Hotel, Swansea, in March 1880. As no records exist as to the status, purpose, attendance and outcome of the Swansea gathering there is only anecdotal evidence to go on.

It has always been claimed that Cardiff, Chepstow, Haverfordwest, Llandaff, Llanelli, Neath, Newport, Pontypridd and Swansea attended the meeting. But nothing was recorded and so this could not have been the founding moment for the governing body of rugby in Wales.

That came a year later when 11 clubs turned up at the Castle Hotel. The Swansea captain, AH Richardson, took the chair and his clubmate, Fred Meager, seconded the chairman’s motion ‘that a Welsh Rugby Football Union be formed’.
The motion was unanimously accepted and then the President of the Swansea Football Club, Cyril Chambers, was elected as the first President of the WFRU.

Richard Mullock was elected as the honorary Secretary and Cardiff’s EC Fry and Llandovery’s CP Lewis were made vice-presidents. The entrance fee for clubs wishing to join the WFRU was £1 1s with an annual subscription of the same amount.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

All 11 founder member clubs of the WRU are still going strong and are currently playing in the following leagues:

Principality Premiership
Cardiff, Swansea, Llandovery, Llanelli, Newport, Pontypool

Swalec National Leagues
Division 1 East: Merthyr
Division 3 West: Lampeter, Llandeilo
Division 3 South-East: Brecon
Division 2 North: Bangor

While Neath were not recorded as having attended the meeting at the Castle Hotel, the WRU chairman David Pickering formally acknowledged that Neath would almost certainly have had a presence at the gathering when the Union’s Board of Directors met at the hotel on 12 March, 2006, to mark the 125th anniversary.

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