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Welsh rugby: Mighty oaks from oval acorns

25 October 2019

As the Rugby World Cup is held in Japan, Ted Harrison looks at the roots of Welsh love of the sport

Dominic Strange © www.misericords.co.uk

Misericord in Gloucester Cathedral, c.1350

Misericord in Gloucester Cathedral, c.1350

RUGBY has been described as Wales’s second religion: the heroes of the game have been elevated to the status of secular saints.

As the Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan, it is worth remembering the crucial part played by the Church in introducing rugby to the nation.

Rugby football was first played in Wales in the small, mid-Wales market town of Lampeter, where, in 1822, a university college had been established to train young men for ordination. The Bishop of St Davids had realised that Oxford and Cambridge were too distant and expensive for most young Welshmen to attend, and that a university was needed nearer to home.

In the early 1850s, the Revd Rowland Williams was appointed Vice-Principal of the college. He is reported to have “lamented” the lack of any sporting facilities, saying that “such things appear to me most legitimate appendages of every place of education.”

Williams had been educated in England, although not at Rugby School, where the game that bears its name was developed. Williams was an Old Etonian; in 1838, he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, to study theology. The following year, as the pamphlet Lampeter: Birthplace of Welsh rugby relates, Arthur Pell — an old boy of Rugby School — arrived at King’s and started a “football” team that played according to the Rugby School rules, in which players were allowed to run with the ball.

Williams clearly developed a preference for this form of football; for, when he came to introduce sports to the young ordinands at Lampeter, it was the Rugby rules of football which the college adopted. In the Lent term of 1850, the college authorities ruled that “whatever time a student may require for relaxation should be spent in healthy exercise, rather than in clownish lounging about in shops or market-place.”

The first game of Rugby football played in Wales was played between teams of Lampeter scholars sometime in the early 1850s (the exact date is not recorded). The first written account of Rugby football being played in Wales dates to 1860; by the time Williams left Lampeter in 1862, it was recorded that his college had a “good XV of football”.


IN MANY ways, this 15-a-side form of football resembled a game that had been well established in rural Wales for centuries, although one that was considerably less organised.

Cnapan was an unruly form of football that could be traced back to medieval times. There is a misericord in Gloucester Cathedral which has a carving showing a game of its kind being played. By the 19th century, cnapan was little more than a rough and chaotic brawl involving men from neighbouring parishes, traditionally held on the New Year holiday.

The wooden ball was about the size of a modern-day cricket ball — and greased, by being boiled or soaked in oil, tallow, or fat, to make handling unpredictable. A 1603 account describes hundreds of men stripped bare “saving a light pair of breeches, bare-headed, bare-bodied, bare legs and feet”.

In the case of the cnapan game between Llandysul and Llanwenog parishes in Ceredigion, the goals were their respective church porches, five-and-a-half miles apart. The playing area may have been considerably longer. An 18th-century record describes a game being played alongside the River Teifi, which meanders some 13 miles between the two churches.

This particular fixture became so unruly that, in 1833, the Vicar of Llandysul, the Revd Enoch James, decided that something had to be done. He introduced a new church festival to celebrate the New Year. It came to be known as Calan Hen (“Old New Year” in Welsh), as it was held annually at New Year according to the old, pre-Gregorian calendar. It brought together 12 parishes, and became a day-long event, which continues to this day, although now held on the nearest Saturday.

It is a unique celebration, with recitations of scripture from memory, the singing of hymns and anthems, and an opportunity to display and impart knowledge and understanding of the Bible.


CNAPAN is no longer played. It was replaced by the Calan Hen festival, and, subsequently, an enthusiasm for a new game: rugby football. The newly trained curates, who had left Lampeter to take up posts around Wales, took the Rugby rules with them. Parish life in the expanding mining towns of the Welsh Valleys was challenging. Many of these new curates organised sports for the young men and naturally introduced them to the football they knew best, which involved “running with the ball”.

By 1871, a Rugby Football club had been established in Neath by a consortium of ten enthusiasts. Another club was formed in Llanelli in November 1875, when a group of gentlemen met at the Athenaeum in the town. On 12 June 1881, representatives of 11 Welsh teams met in the Castle Hotel, Neath, and the Welsh Rugby Union came into being.

By the end of the century, Wales — especially in the newly industrial south — had taken to the game in a big way, and the national team bestrode the world.


WILLIAMS died in 1870, at the early age of 53. Even by the time he left Lampeter for the living of Broad Chalke, in Wiltshire, he had become a rather lonely and isolated figure. In 1860, a contribution he had written for Essays and Reviews (promoting modern ideas in theology) was the subject of a notorious trial in the Court of Arches. He was charged with heresy by the Bishop of Salisbury, and found guilty, although the verdict was later overturned by the Privy Council.

Nevertheless, his legacy lives on — currently in the most unlikely way, in the cheers and singing in the World Cup stadia of Japan.

Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.

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