The recent gnashing of teeth out of Wales, where champion fullback Leigh Halfpenny has been ruled out of the Rugby World Cup with an anterior cruciate ligament rupture, continues an unpleasant tradition of Welsh failures, stuff-ups, and plain bad luck at the showpiece event.
Wales supporters knew that they were a slim chance of making it out of their pool even before their sharpshooter was hit by a sniper. Now that he is out entirely, they can see their World Cup aspirations evaporating before their very eyes.
This is because there is a long and painful tradition of ignominious exits for Wales in the tournament. To be Welsh-born during the Rugby World Cup is to endure a month of acute anxiety brought on by eyelid horror movies of Welsh teams being monstered by the All Blacks, Samoa and Fiji.
Things mostly go bad for Wales at the World Cup, but it didn’t start out that way. In the first World Cup in 1987 the Wales team waltzed their way merrily through the pool stages, disposing of Ireland, Canada and Tonga with relative ease.
This despite a bizarre incident where an injury to Cardiff’s Jeff Whitefoot led to Wales summoning Newport forward John Rawlins to join the squad.
Rawlins hopped off the plane after some 20-plus hours in the air, dropped his bags at the hotel and went straight to training, whereupon he tore a hamstring after five minutes and was also ruled out of the rest of the tournament. Fullback Paul Thorburn stated the bleeding obvious some years later, saying of the incident: “It showed how little we knew of sports science at the time.”
In the 1987 quarters, Wales still managed to beat old foes England comfortably three tries to one, giving their fans a glimpse of a possible golden showing, before New Zealand put Wales back in their box with a devastating hammering. The All Blacks ran in eight of the old four-point tries, to bundle Wales out of the tournament 49-6. Game over.
It didn’t get better in 1991, when Western Samoa stunned Wales with a totally unexpected win at Cardiff Arms Park. Fielding then-obscure but soon-to-be-great names like Pat Lam, Peter Fatialofa and Brian Lima, Samoa defended with blunt physicality and threw in some adventurous running to shake up the traditional Welsh.
The record shows that the teams scored two tries each, however the Welsh got the rough end of the pineapple. Video replays later showed that the scoreline was bolstered by a Samoa try which was clearly forced first by Wales halfback Robert Jones.
The error by referee Patrick Robin kept Wales from making it to the quarter-finals – not the last time they would be stuffed by a Rugby World Cup referee.
The Welsh could have been forgiven for hoping that 1995 would move them on from the heartbreak of 1991, but it wasn’t to be. It was as if some sort of invisibility cloak shrouded opposition errors in Welsh matches.
At Ellis Park on June 4, 1995, in the 69th minute, Ireland led Wales 14-9 and packed a scrum just outside the Irish 22. Ireland No.8 Paddy Johns picked up from the back and ran, before switching back inside to replacement Anthony Foley, who spilled the ball in the tackle.
It bobbled forward at least a metre on the ground, clearly a knock on, before being dived on by an Irish player. Referee Ian Rogers gestured hypnotically, and inexplicably let play go on. Three phases later, Eddie Halvey scored for Ireland next to the posts.
Jonathan Humphries and Hemi Taylor scored a brace of comeback tries for Wales, and Neil Jenkins knocked over a conversion on full-time, to bring Wales to their final tally for the afternoon of 23 points. Unfortunately for them, Ireland scored 24. That single point, and the erroneous try from a missed knock on, once again relegated Wales to third in their pool and an early flight home.
According to Welsh tradition, if you go to a crossroads at Hallowe’en and listen to the wind, you will learn all the most important things that will befall you during the next twelve months. Had the Welsh XV been at that crossroads the year before, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the trip to South Africa.
Ever optimistic though, the doughty Welsh fronted up again in 1999 and topped their pool, with wins against relative lightweights Argentina and Japan. The scars of 1991 remained disconcertingly fresh however, when they again were again overrun by Samoa, led by Pat Lam. Lam was now an international heavyweight, onto his third World Cup and with an All Blacks cap to his credit, but the real architect of the defeat was flyhalf Stephen Bachop.
Bachop out-Walesed the Welsh, with a spectacular display of wily tactical kicking, dropping the ball on a penny just out of reach of the Wales back three. The despair on Welsh faces was palpable as the ball trickled into touch, time and time again. And just when it appeared that Bachop was content to simply kick possession away, he sliced through the line for two amazing tries which would have done credit to the great JPR Williams.
Escaping the pool by the skin of their teeth, Wales were unfortunate to meet the eventual champions Australia in the quarters and made little impression, being strangled out of the match by a clinical Wallaby outfit by three tries, 24-9.
Fast forward to 2003 and things were apparently different. It looked for all the world like Welsh rugby was back, baby. The final match of Pool D on November 2 in Sydney – Wales versus New Zealand – was one for the ages. A 53-37 epic in which both sides led at different stages, it marked what seemed to be a change in fortune for the men from the valleys.
As The Guardian put it: “The World Cup was waiting for a match of breathtaking intensity, virtuoso skill and epic cut and thrust, but this game was not expected to be it. Yesterday, though, Wales put on a show worthy of their glorious past in pushing the All Blacks to the extent that, at one point, the victory that has proved impossible for nigh on half a century was in sight.”
Despite losing in the quarter-finals to England, at least Wales could again say that they were put out by the eventual world champions. And they played some amazing rugby. Perhaps things were looking up?
Or perhaps not. In 2007, drawn in a difficult, but not ridiculous pool, with Australia, Fiji, Japan and Canada, Wales campaigned with relative confidence, notching wins against Japan and Canada, and losing 32-20 to Australia, which was hardly embarrassing.
All that was required was a win over Fiji to sail into second place and a spot in the quarter-finals.
But things started badly when Akapusi Qera, Vilimoni Delasau and Kele Leawere all scored for Fiji. Nicky Little kept the scoreboard ticking over and Welsh hearts racing, before Wales awoke from their slumber and scored five straight tries, finally taking the lead for the first time in the 73rd minute with a try to Martyn Williams.
Welshmen everywhere breathed a sigh of relief, which lasted all of four minutes before Fiji prop Graham Dewes rumbled over from about 30 centimetres. Welsh hopes were again shattered. It was the Scarlets’ third World Cup loss at the hands of Islander sides.
The loss gave Wales an unwanted record of just six wins from their previous 20 matches, and showed that while Wales rugby might have reached its peak under previous coach Steve Hansen, it was now sliding down the bad side of the slope under coach Gareth Jenkins.
In any case, Jenkins was sacked less than 24 hours after the whole sorry saga – bringing down the curtain on a stint that included a loss to Italy in Rome, a drinking spree by players after a 21-9 Edinburgh defeat to Scotland, a record 62-5 humiliation from England at Twickenham, and a 34-7 drubbing by France at the Millennium Stadium.
Did I mention that Welsh supporters appear to have a mortgage on misery?
The final act in the tragedy that is Wales World Cup rugby, came in 2011 in New Zealand. Wales opened their World Cup with a hard fought single-point loss to South Africa 16-17. Prophetically, the man of the match was the inspirational Welsh captain, Sam Warburton.
They then put to bed any ideas of Samoa being a bogey team, by despatching them 17-10, with Alun Wyn-Jones, Taulupe Faletau and Warburton prominent. The new mental toughness engendered by coach Warren Gatland was obvious for all to see, and Wales loomed as a genuine threat.
An 81-7 practice run against Namibia soaked up some time and gave the reserves an outing, before the clinical Scarlets ground their erstwhile nemesis team Fiji into the mud, with a 66-0 drubbing. Rarely had Wales looked so ominous.
The quarter-final against Ireland was a classic. Both teams bludgeoned each other in defence for 80 minutes – Wales as the narrow runner-up in their pool to South Africa, and Ireland as winners of Pool C, having beaten Australia. Both teams were at the top of their game, and the Wellington clash showed it.
Even the partisan Irish Echo newspaper couldn’t deny the Welsh their victory, saying: “Brilliant Wales roared into the World Cup semi-finals after an epic clash against Six Nations rivals Ireland that showcased European rugby at its finest. A magnificent encounter, played with astonishing speed and lung-busting commitment, saw Wales triumph and clinch a semi-final place for the first time since 1987.”
And so it appeared that Wales were finally on the road to their rightful place in the rugby hierarchy. Most believed that a Wales defeat of France in the semi-final (France had lost to Tonga in the pool rounds) was a formality, and would pit the Scarlets against New Zealand in a mouth-watering final.
The pundits didn’t count on Alain Rolland – now public enemy number one in Wales for life.
Seventeen minutes into the match, with Wales leading France just 3-0, Vincent Clerc took a short ball close to the lineout and ran straight into Sam Warburton. Warburton drove his shoulder in hard and thrust with his legs, powering Clerc off the ground. At the top of the drive, when he felt Clerc begin to tip, Warburton let go of Clerc and put his hands out to stop himself falling on top of Clerc as he hit the deck.
Most thought it was a penalty and perhaps, at worst, a yellow card. The commentators’ conversation as the incident played out went like this.
“It’s a tough decision for Alain Rolland to make… well, there’s the decision… it is a yellow card. I think that’s very, very harsh to get a yellow card for that. As you say Nick, when you play rugby, it’s a very ferocious game… and it’s pretty hard to bring someone down with… ahhh…
“Oh hang on!… (long pause) … is that? Is that a red card! Is that a red card rather than a yellow card? For this! IT’S A RED CARD! Sam Warburton has been sent off! In a World Cup semi-final… the captain has gone… one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the World Cup…”
The consternation was shared by fans of all nationalities. Once again a promising Wales World Cup campaign was consigned to the scrapheap. France made their way bemusedly to the final against a devastated 14-man Welsh team who must have known that somewhere, sometime, the World Cup gods would frown upon them again. Welsh fans could have been forgiven for thinking that instead of a physio or a manager they maybe should have brought along a team exorcist.
And so to the latest heartbreak, even before the 2015 tournament has started, with the news that brilliant fullback Leigh Halfpenny and tough halfback Rhys Webb will miss the Cup.
It’s surprising, but not surprising. No other country seems to endure the same consistent disappointment at the World Cup as Wales.
It is fitting that the most important Welsh saint is St David, or Dewi Sant, whose most notable miracle occurred when he was preaching at the village of Llanddewi Brefi, and the ground upon which he was standing suddenly rose up to form a small mountain, with Dewi Sant standing at its apex.
Pretty much the same thing happens at every World Cup, the only difference being that, unlike Dewi Sant, Wales usually finds themselves standing at the bottom of that suddenly-appeared mountain, staring upwards in disbelief.