Internationally, Wales were the first side to ever host an international match under Northern Union rules when, on New Year’s Day 1908, Wales beat New Zealand 9-8 in Aberdare in the heart of the Welsh valleys on a ground which later became a training pitch to many of the current Welsh international rugby league sides at different age groups.
Both Wales and New Zealand had a lot in common 100 years ago. The game of rugby was the national sport in both countries, and both had caused controversy by inviting players to legitimately turn professional and play this new version of the game. New Zealand were also newcomers to the professional game but no matches were played in their country until July 1908, a month after the tourists arrived back home. The tour was inspired by the 1905 union All Blacks who dominated and impressed on a European tour. In Wales however, they came a cropper as they lost 3-0 in front of 47,000 at Cardiff Arms Park after New Zealand controversially had a try disallowed. Wales had succeeded where the other home nations had failed and were unofficial champions of the rugby union world at the time. However there was unrest in the visitors’ camp. The players had witnessed the Northern Union game and had seen that there was money to be made by playing rugby. Nine New Zealand rugby union internationals were selected for the 1907-08 Northern Union tour, four of whom had toured in 1905. Wales versus New Zealand was game 29 in a gruelling 49-match, 10 month tour for the professional All Blacks, who were famously nicknamed the “All Golds‟ by their local press due to their acceptance of money for playing rugby. The tourists had visited Wales two months earlier and defeated Merthyr Tydfil 27-9 in front of what was reported to be the largest crowd to have witnessed a rugby match in the town.
For the historic international on that New Years Day, reports of the crowd ranged from 12,000 to 20,000, but one thing was certain – it was large. Despite the obvious prejudices and backlashes from Welsh Rugby Union quarters, the game had taken off in the heads of the Welsh valleys with many enjoying the new version of the sport and seemingly pleased that players could legitimately earn a crust from playing rugby. The fact that many people from the valleys remembered the Welsh Rugby Union‟s historic defeat of the amateur All Blacks under three years earlier would have also helped to boost the gate. It was a hard-fought game for the Welsh in freezing conditions at the Athletic Ground in Aberdare, as they scraped home 9-8 after being 8-3 down at half-time. Dai Jones (one of six Dais in the Welsh team) scored the winning try for the Welsh just minutes before the end to put them a point in front. The local press loved the spectacle. Reporters from the Rhondda Leader, South Wales Echo and Western Mail were all present with the Western Mail calling the match “a red-letter day in the history of Welsh sport” and also adding that the spectators were “quite thrilled… when they saw the scarlet-clad warriors attacking in the old sweet way.”
New Zealand returned to Wales exactly a month later to beat Ebbw Vale 3-2 before going on to win a test series against the Northern Union (England) by two games to one. Wales went on to beat England 35-18 on 20 April 1908 in Tonypandy while another of Wales’ biggest achievement in the early years was beating Australia 14-13 in Merthyr on 16 January 1909 with a team made up of entirely Welsh-based players. A month later, the Merthyr club followed that up by beating the Australians 15-13.
Wales carried on playing on a regular basis with some success. The regular flow of players from South Wales to play rugby league in the north usually gave them a good base for a team, even at times when rugby league was hardly played in the country itself. The biggest example of this was when Wales played a match in Llanelli against France in 1935 in front of a crowd of 30,000 – the first time that the sport had been played in an area of Wales not hosting a side. Wales won that game, took the first European Championship crown and won two more titles before World War 2.
The Wales side was disbanded in 1953 after the player drain to the north of England subsided. Two internationals were organised against France in 1959 and 1963 before an official relaunch in 1968. However the side was only to last another couple of years before disbanding again.
Wales’ biggest year for rugby league before the 1990s was 1975 when the team, revived after a gap of five years, played in a year-long World Championship with home and away matches against England, France, Australia and New Zealand. In total, Wales played 16 matches that year and included legends such as David Watkins, Eddie Cunningham, Jim Mills and Clive Sullivan in the side. Sullivan, who is mentioned in the same breath as other immortals like Billy Boston, Jim Sullivan, Gus Risman, Lewis Jones and Trevor Foster, is the only Welshman to have ever captained a World Cup winning side in any football code, with the exception of truncated versions of a game when he led Great Britain to Rugby League World Cup success in 1972. Wales finished third in that year’s Championship, above New Zealand and France.
But the process was unfortunately never repeated and Wales suffered because of that. Following a mammoth 1975, no Welsh international matches were played the following year. Wales won games against England and France in 1977 and 1978 respectively, but their 29-7 victory against the French in Widnes would be their last win for almost 14 years. Wales played 11 more games from 1978 to 1984, losing them all, before the national side was wound up at the same time as the only club side Wales had at the time, the Cardiff City Blue Dragons.
Wales bowed out of the international game on 14 October 1984 with a 28-9 defeat against England in Ebbw Vale in front of just 2,111 fans, the lowest crowd to ever watch a Wales game at this point in time. The national side wouldn‟t return until 1991 but when it – and professional rugby league – did return to Wales, it created shockwaves around the nation.
The Wales side played no matches from 1985-90 so when they returned in 1991, it was with a bang as former rugby union stars like Jonathan Davies, John Devereux and Allan Bateman returned to Wales but in the 13-man code. Their 68-0 win over Papua New Guinea in October of that year was just the start of one of Wales’ most successful decades in the full international game. The European Championships were revived in 1995 and Wales won the competition for the fourth time, beating England 18-16 on a memorable night at Ninian Park, Cardiff. Wales also reached the semi-finals of both the 1995 and 2000 World Cups, giving England and Australia scares in the respective semi-finals, and were firmly established as one of the top four international sides.
In the 2000s, with rugby union now a professional game too, the quality of the Welsh side began to diminish and they had to rely mainly on players who qualified as Welsh via family connections or residency. Wales reached the Final of the European Championship in 2005, losing to France, but the failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2008 led to the resignation of coach Martin Hall.
2009 saw a massive upturn in Wales’ fortunes. They gave a creditable performance against England before winning the European Cup for a fifth time, thanks to the coaching of new supremo Iestyn Harris and a bunch of new Welsh born players who gone through the academy system at new Super League club Celtic Crusaders. Nobody expected Wales to retain the European Cup in 2010, especially as France were playing all three of their games at home. But Wales defied the odds and defeated the French on their own turf to set up meetings with England, Australia and New Zealand in the 2011 Four Nations. Wales were finally back in the elite and recognised as one of the top four Rugby League playing nations in the world.
However Wales went through the 2012 Tri-Series and 2013 World Cup tournaments winless and realising that things needed to change, the Welsh Rugby League brought in a new coaching and representative structure for the Dragons, changes which have already paid off with the Welsh winning the 2015 European Championship and saw the Dragons qualify for 2017 and 2021 World Cups.