Missing rugby, already? Don’t worry. If there’s nothing happening on the pitches right now, there’s still plenty to look back on – like 42 years ago this week when Wales won the Grand Slam by beating France 16-7 in Cardiff. Phil Bennett scored two tries, Gareth Edwards called the shots, and then both walked off into the sunset to play for their country no more.
It was Saturday, 18 March, 1978 and an afternoon tinged with sadness.
Yes, Wales made it three Grand Slams in eight years, but it was also the last time Welsh rugby fans saw Edwards and Bennett playing for their country.
The Seventies was a decade dominated by Wales and France. There were Grand Slams for Wales in 1971, 1976 and 1978 and one for the French in 1977. They were joint champions in 1970 and between them captured six more titles.
The 1972 tournament wasn’t completed, and no champions were declared, there was a five-way tie in 1973 and Ireland were champions in 1974.
The 1978 clash was the second successive Grand Slam showdown in Cardiff between Wales and France.
In 1976, Wales won 19-13 to complete the clean-sweep. Two years on the stakes were even higher, with both sides unbeaten after three rounds to set up a winner-takes-all Grand Slam decider for the first time in the history of the tournament.
Wales 16 – 7 France – Saturday, 18 March, 1978
Wales: JPR Williams; JJ Williams, Ray Gravell, Steve Fenwick, Gareth Evans; Phil Bennett (captain), Gareth Edwards; Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor, Graham Price, Allan Martin, Geoff Wheel, Jeff Squire, Terry Cobner, Derek Quinnell
Reps: Pat Daniels, John Bevan, Brynmor Williams, John Richardson, Mike Watkins, Trefor Evans
Scorers: Tries: Phil Bennett (2); Con: Phil Bennett; DG: Gareth Edwards, Steve Fenwick
France: Jean-Michel Aguirre; Daniel Bustaffa, Roland Bertranne, Christian Belascain, Guy Noves; Bernard Vivies, Jerome Gallion; Gerard Cholley, Alain Paco, Robert Paparemborde, Francis Haget, Michel Palmie, Jean-Pierre Rives, Jean-Claude Skrela, Jean-Pierre Bastiat (captain)
Reps: Jean-Francois Perche, Armand Vaquerin, Alain Guilbert, Jean-Pierre Lafforgue, Francois Sangalli, Alain Caussade
Scorers: Try: Jean-Claude Skrela; DG: Bernard Vivies
Referee: Alan Welsby (England)
The French arrived with a massive pack. It was the Pontypool front row against Cholley, Paco and Paparemborde, while in the back row the Welsh trio of Squire, Cobner and Quinnell took on Rives, Skrela and Bastiat. Throw in the uncompromising Michel Palmie v Geoff Wheel and it was no place for the faint-hearted.
No wonder, then, that 60,000 fans flocked to the old National Ground, Cardiff Arms Park, to witness one of the biggest occasions in the history of the Five Nations Championship.
HOW THE GAME WENT
France drew first blood with a driving line-out try from two metres out from the Welsh line at the river end. Skrela came up with the ball to give his side the lead. Vivies then added a drop goal from the 10 metre line after first tapping what was in those days described as “a short arm penalty” and then dropping a towering goal that made it 7-0.
The French had arrived having beaten England 15-6 and Ireland 10-9 in Paris. In between they won 19-16 against the Scots at Murrayfield. Their new scrum half, Jerome Gallion, had scored a try in each of those matches.
Wales had been forced to draft in Gareth Evans at the last minute when Gerald Davies was ruled out of the game. That was the only change throughout the whole campaign as the ‘Big Five’ kept faith with a team that had already clinched the Triple Triple Crown.
After a slow start, Wales managed to edge their noses in front by the break in a superb nine minute onslaught that reaped them 13 critical points. Bennett picked up a loose ball from a French scrum 10 metres out and managed to force his way over for a try which he also converted. Then his half-back partner, Edwards, dropped a goal to make it 9-7.
From the re-start, Wheel showed off his immense strength at a maul – he was known as ‘Ripper’ – to take the ball off a French forward and deliver to Edwards on the 10 metre line. He kicked superbly up the right touchline towards Westgate Street and forced the French to feed a line-out 10 metres from their own line.
Having seen his second row colleague help to set-up set-up a great attacking position, Martin then stole the French line-out. Gravell charged into the heart of the midfield to create a ruck 10 metres out from the posts. The ball was moved back towards the right touchline, Edwards beat one man and passed out to JJ Williams near touch, but the wing had the presence of mind to throw the ball over-arm back in field as he closed in on the corner flag.
There to gather was Bennett, who snapped up his fourth and final try for Wales. Now it was 13-7 to Wales with the second half to come. It continued to be tight and tense tussle between the two best teams of the decade. Fenwick settled matters with the only score of the second half as he added a Grand Slam sealing drop goal.
EDWARDS AND BENNETT
Firstly, it was Edwards and John. Then came Edwards and Bennett. Wales were blessed with world-class half-backs in the late Sixties and Seventies. Edwards won a Grand Slam with John in 1971 and toured South Africa and New Zealand with him as British & Irish Lion. Theirs was arguably the best combination in the world game at its peak. But when John retired in 1972 after 28 games in tandem with his Cardiff clubmate (23 with Wales and five with the Lions) everyone wondered what was going to happen.
Bennett was waiting in the wings and fitted in seamlessly. He, too, played 28 times on the international stage with Edwards (24 with Wales and four for the Lions). Neither of them announced their retirement after the Grand Slam triumph, but later declined the chance to tour Australia in the summer.
Edwards ended with 53 consecutive caps and a record 20 tries for his country. He also played 10 times for the Lions. Bennett took his Welsh points record up to 166 with his haul of 10 against France. He also surpassed Don Clarke’s then world record points mark of 207 with a combined total of 210 for Wales and the Lions. Jean-Pierre Romeu had signed off with 265 points in his 34 tests for France the previous year, but his total included five games against Romania, four against Argentina and one against America. At the time those sides were outside the top eight teams.
EDWARDS ON THAT FAMOUS DAY
“It was another tough old match. As much as I love them, that back row of theirs – Bastiat, Rives, Skrela – still give me nightmares. I snapped over a drop-goal and there was some magic from Phil Bennett, who scored a couple of tries which won the match.
“At the end, amid the jubilation of another grand slam, Jean-Pierre Rives said, in his broken English, ‘Today, Gareth, you were the old fox. You were the master. This was your day.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe next year, in Paris, it will be mine.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Jean-Pierre, it probably will be.’
“As I spoke I suddenly knew. I just said it to myself, ‘I don’t think there’s going to be a next year.’ And so it proved.”
AND THE CAPTAIN’S VIEW
“The noise of the crowd’s singing seemed to intensify and somehow we held on. I never normally noticed the crowd when I played for Wales. I blotted them out and kept my mind on the game. But that day they refused to be blotted out.
“It was as if their noise, their desire came on to the field as an extra force. They became part of our weaponry, part of us as a team. I had never known anything like it. It was a victory based on guts, spirit and formidable support. Playing ability was way down the list.”
DID YOU KNOW ?
At the post-match function at the Angel Hotel, Cardiff, Gareth Edwards was presented with a second Welsh cap to celebrate him becoming the first player to play 50 times for his country. It was the first time the WRU had awarded a cap to any player other than a debutant. It has since become a customary practice, along with a third cap for those reaching 100 caps.
The souvenir industry went into overtime after the latest Welsh success. No fewer than 10,000 Grand Slam ties were commissioned by one company, while another followed up the success of the Triple Crown T-Shirts produced two weeks earlier with another special edition. Almost 15,000 Triple Crown T-Shirts were sold in 10 days after the win over Ireland in Dublin.
The Welsh team went up to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, on 3 April to celebrate their success. The Labour leader was the MP for Cardiff South and Penarth.