The build-up, the noise, the fury and the banality that precedes every Wales v England game has already begun. It was ever thus. Though misty-eyed nostalgia can sometimes obscure the truth of this fixture when you look back. Dai Sport guest columnist Stephen Bale – former rugby correspondent at The Independent and The Express – reflects on the famous 1999 fixture of exactly 20 years ago . . . and remembers plenty you may have forgotten.
After two decades, I remember it as if it were yesterday. Not Wales beating England 32-31 at a home from home that was otherwise not that homely, not the Scott Gibbs try nor the Neil Jenkins conversion that deprived England of a Grand Slam.
No, it is – work done for the day – a memory of leaning over the outside parapet that used to be behind the old Wembley press box and staring down on the decamping Welsh masses with my friend Chris Hewett of The Independent and suggesting to him: “It’s all a class thing you see, Chris.”
Hewett may even have agreed, though what on earth I meant by that is another question to which I still could not give an answer. Anyway, it hardly ranks with Phil Bennett’s legendary pre-match diatribe about “them” having shut down all “our” collieries and steelworks.
Still, it’s been a decent little line ever since, to the extent that Peter Jackson of fondest memory has publicly misquoted me as having said this to Hewett before every Wales-England game. Not true, however much I may have thought I thought it.
Perhaps this is what I meant: that in those days there was an ineffable sense of superiority that exuded from English rugby, and not just towards Welsh rugby. Fair enough: though Wales had recently embarked on their previous 10-match winning run, it had only recently started.
So, 20 years since Scott Gibbs’ try and Neil Jenkins’ inevitable conversion at the end of stoppage-time, a concept that still existed then. Wales were no less outsiders in ’99 than they unexpectedly find themselves in ’19. Then, they were not, or certainly had not been, that good.
Nor, incidentally, were England stuffed with public-school types – only five among XV by my count, though one of them did decide a kickable late penalty should go to touch when another penalty goal would probably have settled Wales’ fate.
Most people remember that fateful decision by Lawrence Dallaglio, his team leading by 31-25, almost as much as they remember the Gibbs-Jenkins climax. But there are any number of other matters in and around that momentous match on 11 March 1999 that are as good as forgotten.
I don’t mean Tom Jones and Max Boyce, by the way, or my other discussion with Hewett about what on earth would be our best way through the traffic mayhem from the borough of Brent out to the M4. No: a few weeks later Dallaglio was actually stripped of the England captaincy.
It was one heck of a price to pay for going for the corner against Wales. That Dallaglio was caught in a News of the World sting which had him admitting recreational drug use may also have had something to do with it.
He had already been named captain for England’s impending pre-World Cup visit to Australia, so by extension virtually so for the tournament itself. Dallaglio was withdrawn from the tour and only ever again led England when Martin Johnson was either absent or retired.
Lest we forget, Dallaglio was later fined £15,000 with costs after appearing before a quasi-judicial Rugby Football Union tribunal held in public. In “court” this monumental player was represented by George Carman QC, possibly the most illustrious brief of his day.
Something else you may not recall. Wales’ victory, number three in that 10-match sequence, came towards the end of a season in which Cardiff and Swansea – as illustrious in their field as Carman in his – were at such odds with the Welsh Rugby Union they withdrew from their own league.
They had thrown in their lot with leading English clubs who themselves deprived Bath of the chance to defend their European title by withdrawing en bloc from the Heineken Cup. Swansea and Cardiff had also dutifully joined the English rugby Brexit.
The Welsh absentees were missed rather less than their English confreres, whatever the interest generated by their season-long friendlies against the English clubs. How about this? Gareth Davies, WRU chairman, was then Cardiff chief executive.
Five, including Gibbs, of the Wales XV at Wembley were from the two recalcitrant clubs. Who now, beyond tinplate territory, recalls that it was Llanelli who won the truncated championship? Plenty more might remember Ulster conquering what was left of Europe.
Then there were Wembley winners Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson – Kiwis whose Welsh connection was formally accepted with no verification beyond their own word of mouth. Grandfather from Carmarthen? Oh sorry, I meant Caernarfon.
Oh no, it was, in fact, Oldham but as Oldham is in Lancashire it is quite near Wales so there might have been a mistake. Inaccurate, misleading, downright duplicitous, whatever it was the WRU were to follow Dallaglio as well as Cardiff and Swansea into the dock.
For fielding ineligible players, they escaped with a tap on the wrist, not even a rap over the knuckles. Howarth, who should not have been there, had even scored Wales’ first try at Wembley. If he had hung around at Newport after leaving Sale, he would eventually have qualified on residence.
A cause for frantic Welsh celebration, partly enabled by an ineligible try-scorer, this match was bitter-sweet (more bitter than sweet) for two new England caps who were never chosen again. The prolific Steve Hanley’s Test career ended forthwith with a try-a-game strike-rate.
The other was Barrie-Jon Mather, who genuinely was named after our own dear Barry John. Mather is worth a mention now if only for one of the finest newspaper misprints in a Sunday Times report on a game between his team, Sale, and Wasps around that time.
Mather created a try, as Michael Austin reported. Mather? “Baritone Father intercepted a pass in modified to feed Brand,” it reads in the yellowed cutting I still possess. “Baritone Father”? Mr and Mrs Mather’s consolation: their lad’s sudden sobriquet rhymed, more or less.
“Modified”? A modified version of “midfield”, maybe? According to the report, the try scored by one Adenomas Brand (and here I rashly assume Adenomas was spelt correctly) was converted by one “Stave Davidson”. Sale’s rugby was music to someone’s ears, especially sung by a Baritone.
If the one-cappers had perused one London paper on match-day morning, they might have known. “England’s Grand Slam juggernaut may well be jackknifed by the man with the most deadly boot in world rugby,” read the predictive sub-headline over a particularly acute analysis of Neil Jenkins.
Six penalties by “the player to make the Dragon roar again” duly kept Wales in contact when England were scoring their three first-half tries. Jenkins then converted Howarth’s try and it was Jenkins who lastly landed the conversion of Gibbs’ to win the match.
Modesty forbids me from saying who wrote that perceptive article, though I would admit that the 20 years younger Bale can claim no credit for that headline.