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Rewind to… A Welsh debut to remember

Mon, Apr 17, 2017, Posted by   print

2007 World Cup

Prince Obolensky, Jeff Wilson, Willie Llewellyn. We can all think of remarkable international debuts, but none more extraordinary than the one which took place 50 years ago on Easter Saturday.

April 15, 1967 was the day on which Keith Jarrett played his first match for Wales, in the final round of that year’s Five Nations championship against England. Much more was at stake than the ambitions of a little-known 18 year old.

Wales were in jeopardy of their first ever championship whitewash. England, by contrast, were pursuing a Triple Crown and the championship. The match, moved from its usual place at the start of the tournament to accommodate that season’s tour by Australia, had longer-term implications.

John Taylor, who had made his debut for Wales earlier in the tournament, has wondered how many of a team in transition would have survived the shame of losing all four matches.

Given that other debutants that season included Gerald Davies, Gareth Edwards and Dai Morris — plus Barry John, who had already been dropped — the best guess is that most would have survived, but that judgment is inevitably influenced by knowledge of the giants they became.

On the morning of April 15 1967 they looked more like struggling novices. Jarrett was not yet even that. He had only left Monmouth School at Christmas and his rise represented a huge punt on talent by selector Cliff Jones, who had seem him playing in schools rugby against his son — then captain of Llandovery College.

Jarrett had played in the final trial in January on the strength of Jones’s judgment. He was a Newport player but his first senior experience had been for Abertillery, under-age status disguised under the alias of Keith Jones. And he was playing out of position.

Most of his previous rugby had been at centre, but the selectors had lost faith in full-back Terry Price — not long ago a shooting star in his own right — and at the same time needed to replace the goalkicking talents which had brought Price 45 points in eight matches, a formidable scoring rate by 1960s standards.

Wales’ Keith Jarrett (second l) shakes hands with HRH The Prince of Wales in 1969. S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Jarrett denies the famous story that Dai Watkins, his captain for Newport and Wales, had moved him from full-back to centre and told him ‘you will never make a full-back’ on his one previous outing in the position.

But, interviewed in 2008, he confirmed that Cliff Jones had told him to keep an eye on Watkins at outside-half and follow his movements so that he was consistently 30 to 40 yards behind him.

Jarrett was to end that day in Cardiff hailed as the newest thing in Welsh rugby geniuses, taking to the international game like a veteran.

And his recall of the occasion — initially wondering how anybody could play amid the cacophony from the crowd, but finding that the din seemed to switch off as soon as the match started — suggests a player who in more modern parlance was ‘in the zone’.

But he has admitted that there were two crucial turning points in his day. The first was his first kick at goal, a weak effort from around 30 yards which barely crept over after hitting a post.

His confidence rose after that, aided by England’s surprising failure to test him out under the high ball. And it was an English kick which gave him his second decisive moment.

Wales were leading 19-15 — already an extraordinary scoreline by the standards of the time, the highest aggregate in the fixture since 1927 — but England were pressing hard and their forwards were on top with 15 minutes to go when Colin McFadyean kicked at an angle towards the Taff End.

The ball bounced and rose vertically as Jarrett ran towards it.

Keith Jarrett from Newport lines up a kick at goal. Evening Standard/Getty Images

He has recalled: “I couldn’t possibly have timed it better. I took the ball going flat out between halfway and our 10 yard line. Keith Savage, the England wing, was the only player near me and because of the angles it was quite easy to brush him off — and then I just kept going.”

The din before kick-off was as nothing to the noise as Jarrett charged unopposed down the touchline, with England, committed to the attack, as helplessly wrong-footed as they would have been by an interception.

It was the first try by a Wales full-back since Vivian Jenkins, also a reluctant convert from centre, in 1934 and has gone into collective memory along with a few other spectacular long-range scores — notably Andy Hancock’s last-minute effort in the 1965 Calcutta Cup match — from the era.

McFadyean, who reckoned his kick ‘a decent percentage option’ has bemoaned that he gets asked more about this single incident than the rest of a career which incorporated the captaincy of his country and a Lions tour.

Jarrett completed England’s deflation by converting from the touchline to make it 24-15, then repeated the trick a few minutes later when wing Dewi Bebb, in the last match of a fine career, equalled the all-time record for the fixture [since beaten by Will Greenwood] with his sixth try against England.

His fifth and last conversion, of a try by centre Gerald Davies — who has admitted to remember neither of his tries on the day, even though they were his first for Wales — took his tally for the day to 19 points, equalling the all-time record for test rugby set in 1910 by an earlier Welsh full-back, Jack Bancroft.

England second row John Barton crossed for his second try as England fought back to cut the final margin to 34-21, leaving lines in the record books which survive to this day.

It remains Wales’s highest score against England, while the points aggregate of 55 was the highest in the championship since that same Wales v France match in 1910 which had seen Bancroft set his mark and Wales run out 49-14 winners.

Referee Nigel Owens awarded 12 tries when England faced France in 2015. Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

Under modern scoring values Wales won have won 44-27, but a truer measure of the score’s impact at the time is if we compare the 1960s average of 16.7 points per match to the 40.3 mean seen since 2010.

In equivalent terms Wales’s 34-21 win 50 years ago equates to a 83-50 scoreline, making even the England-France tryfest on the last day of the 2015 tournament looking pedestrian.

It was the final test for two genuine Welsh giants, Bebb and Watkins, the captain moving for a record fee to play rugby league with Salford. Yet all of the attention focussed on Jarrett.

Sadly he denies the legend that the driver of his late bus home was told to ‘get him a double-decker, since he might want to smoke’.

But he recalls that the fuss went on for months — including a summer when he played cricket for Glamorgan against the India and Pakistan touring teams — since it was the last meaningful action of the season in an era before leagues, cups, playoffs and summer test tours.

And he left a lasting impression on rugby historian Phil Atkinson, in 1967 a teenage spectator who dislocated his jaw in excitement at Jarrett’s try. As he told Jarrett on meeting him in 2007, ‘it clicks to this day’.

Anyone looking forward in 1967 who was told that Wales was about to enter its second Golden Age would certainly have tipped Jarrett for a starring role alongside Edwards, Davies, Taylor, John, Morris and the other heroes of the time.

He reverted to centre and was a regular in 1968, winning a Lions place, and in the championship-winning campaign of 1969. But this was still a time in which rugby league could pick off prime Welsh talent.

Wales’ Barry John (c) breaks through the Irish defence in 1971. S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

He went on the 1969 tour of New Zealand and Australia, where acerbic kiwi critic Terry McLean reckoned him one of the best Welsh performers, except as a goal-kicker, in two hammerings by the All Blacks.

Rating him ‘an uncommonly good prospect for the future’, McLean noted speculation about that future and asked ‘Would he go North? It would be a sad day for Wales if he did’.

Jarrett also played in the test against Australia, kicking goals which took his total for Wales to 73 points, only 15 behind Jack Bancroft’s all-time career record.

Approached by Barrow, Jarrett quoted a fee which he was sure they would turn down, only to have it accepted without question.

He did well enough in his four seasons, playing twice for Wales in 1970 before the team went into a five-year hiatus and earning a transfer to Wigan in 1973, only to be struck down by a career-ending stroke before playing a match for them.

There is no knowing whether he might have attained the league heights of other 1960s Welsh converts like Watkins, wing Maurice Richards — Salford’s all-time record try-scorer — and full-back Kel Coslett, who played more games and scored more points than any other player in St Helens’ remarkable history.

And there is, of course, a similar ‘might have been’ about his union career. His departure left Wales short of a regular goal-kicker — a job shared by Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams until Barry John took to the boot with striking success in 1971, inaugurating the modern era of instep-kicking goalkicking outside-halves.

Had he kept his Wales place for the four seasons in which he instead played league there is every chance he, and not Phil Bennett, would have been the Welshman who took Don Clarke’s all-time international scoring record of 207 points.

He could have been one of the key figures of Wales’s second Golden Age, instead of its shooting-star harbinger. To be ruled out of a sport he played so well at 25 was extremely cruel, but he made a greater collective on collective memory on that single day in 1967 than many fine players have done in their entire careers.

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Rewind to… A Welsh debut to remember
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