Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - The rugby tour

(December 01, 2016)

The rugby tour

Like many of the south Wales grammar schools, the school where I taught at the start of the seventies had a strong rugby tradition. You only had to walk into the vestibule to be struck by the number of framed international jerseys presented by past pupils of the school. At the start of my career the first fifteen was particularly strong and by the end of the Autumn term had won all its games. The spirits of the players were high and they wanted to show their talents outside of the Glamorgan area. They were eager to go on tour, emulating their heroes from senior clubs and international sides. It just so happened that Howard Jones, our senior history teacher, had recently moved from Harlech, Sir Feirionnydd (now Gwynedd) and he was keen to maintain his links with the school where he had taught happily for a number of years. He needed at least one other teacher to share the responsibility of leading two dozen seventeen and eighteen year olds away from home and I was happy to volunteer. The tour would take place over the first weekend of the February half term break. We were allowed to leave school on Thursday morning in order to play games on two consecutive days and to manage most of our journey in daylight.

We travelled by coach but a journey from south to north was no easy matter in those days. People complain about the A470 now but 45 years ago for much of the way it was no better than a modern B road. There certainly were no dual carriageway sections and just to get out of the valleys and on to Brecon took forever. This trip had been eagerly anticipated and there was a tangible sense of joy in the conversation and laughter that flowed back and fore. This was helped by the feeling the boys shared that they were escapees, even if they were only missing a couple of days of lessons.

The mood changed in an electric reaction to the realisation that we were passing through Aberfan. It had been only six years since the disaster that had brought an end to so many innocent lives. Our boys, in their sudden silence, showed an understanding of the meaning of cruel loss that was intuitively sharper than my Birmingham sympathy. This village could have been theirs, dominated by the coal industry and with dark tips looming on steep hillsides.

That was the time of the British Lions’ victories in New Zealand and the Barbarians' astonishing defeat of the All Blacks in Cardiff. As we escaped the streets of Merthyr Tudful one of the boys came up with the idea of beginning our games in the north with a Hakka to match the Maori tradition. The idea caught fire and fifty miles passed with choreography drafts and adjustments until they settled on a routine. Half a dozen boys lined up in the aisle between the seats and rehearsed. Again and again they tried out a sequence of steps and challenges modelled on the version many of them had seen first-hand at Cardiff Arms Park. Miles passed as they laughed at themselves while carefully tweaking the pattern of moves and adding to the calls which accompanied them. Their chanted challenges were in a made up language and were meant to entertain but the meaning was also clear. Their opponents were being told that they were doomed to fail against this group of valleys' warriors.

The long journey north continued with a commentary from Dave our driver on the superiority of roads in the south. He found the last miles most difficult. We had left the A470 and were following a winding coast road and it was now inky dark. This was a different kind of night to the urban darkness we knew. To the right was the blackness of the Rhinog Mountains and to the left was the emptiness of the sea between Wales and Ireland. Occasionally we crawled through tight streets of gloomy villages but finally we arrived. Surprise was our first impression because before us at the entrance to the school was a large crowd of teenagers and adults waiting beneath a welcoming banner.

We were ushered into the school and we piled our bags on the floor of the cloakroom in front of a notice board with the hosting arrangements itemised. The boys were claimed by their hosts and introductions continued noisily as we were ushered towards a generous buffet. While I chatted to members of staff, Howard was catching up on all that had happened since he had moved. As a Welsh speaker he was happy to be once again in a place where his first language had primacy. Meanwhile the youngsters gravitated towards the school hall where Harlech sixth formers had arranged a dance to greet the touring party. I looked into the dimly lit anarchy of the school disco and realised that barriers between north and south were already dissolving.

All too soon for many developing friendships, the dance had to come to an end and we all left for our temporary homes. Howard and I were staying with the family of his best friend on the staff of the school just a few doors from what had been his Harlech home. We had arranged for all of our boys to meet us next day at Ysgol Ardudwy in order to attend the school assembly and be formally welcomed. With that in mind there was little delay before we retired for the night.

Ysgol Ardudwy, geograph-4560695 © Jeff Buck
Ysgol Ardudwy
The view north west towards the Llŷn from the north wall of Castell Harlech

© Copyright Jeff Buck and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence  

We arrived at school the next morning as pupils who travelled by train were pouring up to the main entrance from the railway station and buses were depositing others. They mingled with those walking from their homes in Harlech excited to see their visitors from the south. We felt like visiting celebrities as youngsters pointed to our boys who were gathering together and sharing notes about their lodgings. Those who normally shared bedrooms with brothers at home were boasting about new-found, comparative luxury.

Morning assembly took place in a large hall lit well by late winter sunshine. This was a modern and spacious school, very different to our traditional, formal, red brick building. There were other differences our boys observed. At home there was a certain monotony to the architecture – lines of terraced houses dominated the valleys. But here everywhere was variety, from simple farm cottages to aged hillside dwellings and from Edwardian and Victorian splendour to a modern semi-detached housing estate. The everyday use of Welsh was a surprise as well – the boys had somehow imagined that English would still be the naturally used language even if they expected Welsh to be alive. Our boys had expected to be housed near to each other but the catchment area of Ysgol Ardudwy was huge and they were astonished at the distances travelled by boys and girls to get to school often by train. Morning assembly ended with a small group of girls singing 'cerdd dant' accompanied by a schoolboy playing the harp. It was a style of singing new to us all: “They sing to one tune but the harp is playing something else, crazy,” said one of our more musical tourists with eyebrows raised.

As pupils of the school filed to lessons, the visitors made for the changing rooms. Now the serious business began with a training session and discussion of tactics in order to be ready for the afternoon game. The boys had found out from girls they had danced with the evening before that Harlech's secret weapon was their outside half – a boy who could land goals from anywhere and whose kicking from hand meant opponents were always playing from their own half. They had been sure that his presence alone guaranteed a victory to the north. This was greeted with glee by boys whose sevens’ skills meant they were confident of running in tries from their own goal line never mind their own half.

The afternoon game was played in fine weather on a firm pitch. Many classes were allowed out to watch the game and the touch line was crowded with pupils as well as parents and members of the town's rugby club. The Hakka had been kept a complete secret until Gareth, our captain, spoke quietly to the referee. By this time his players had lined up in ranks facing the home team. The moves and the calls rehearsed on the journey north entertained the crowd as did the cheerful grins on the faces of our boys. The game began therefore with applause and this continued because of the entertainment that followed. In the style of Barbarians’ rugby the boys ran every ball they received. The prodigious kicking of the home team captain kept his side in the game and desperate tackling by the home team relieved constant pressure. Nevertheless, it was a one sided affair and our boys were victorious; the game ended with the score 67 – 3 in our favour.

It was the end of the school day and the end of half term. The sixth form had arranged a party in the village of Llanbedr for that evening and we looked in later to see that all was well. The new friendships between Glamorgan boys and Gwynedd girls seemed to be progressing well as did the camaraderie between players from both sides.

Next day we visited a spectacular feat of civil engineering – the Dinorwig hydro-electric power station near Llanberis and then LLechwedd Slate Caverns near Blaenau Ffestiniog. In the afternoon the boys were meant to play against Friars School, Bangor, the leading North Wales rugby school. While our boys were warming up for the afternoon game, after their morning as tourists, news came that Friars School had cried off. At the last minute Harlech Rugby Club put a scratch team together to play the schoolboys. The Hakka featured again but the game was a more dour affair, yet it ended with another victory to the tourists: 11 – 5.

Sundays were quiet days in the early seventies. Pubs were closed in Gwynedd as were all shops and businesses. Guests were treated to family days with their hosts but, as well, some of our boys accepted invitations to visit the homes of new found girlfriends. Time was passing rapidly and we planned to leave north Wales at 9.30 on Monday morning.

The last memory of the rugby tour to Harlech was a line of girls carrying nicely wrapped presents standing by our bus. In turn they called the name of one of our boys to Dave the driver and he turned with a wicked grin to call someone to the front for a chaste kiss and a present. Uproarious laughter broke out when the same boy was called for his third present – three days and three girlfriends: “Fast workers see, our boys from the valley,” Dave explained to this young teacher from Birmingham.

Steve Lamb, December 2016

Steve Lamb's new novel, Search, is serlialised in Cymru Culture.
Chapters 1 and two of Search are linked here.

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     The sponsored walk, September 2016
A typical day
, June 2016
The school eisteddfod, March 2016
The school play, December 2015

Corridor duty, September 2015
End of an era, June 2015
Teacher training, March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
The punishment, September 2014
The interview, June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.


Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016


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