A great Cardiff Rugby tradition was continued last week as the British and Irish Lions named their squad for this summer’s tour of New Zealand with Sam Warburton selected to travel as captain, joining only Martin Johnson in the very select group to have received that honour twice.
Closer to home though he is part of a long line of Cardiff players to have represented the Lions, stretching back over 118 years. As club director Martin Ryan said at the recent CF10 Trust meeting, Sam is the 57th blue and black Lion, continuing a link to the touring side that is unrivalled by any other rugby club in the British Isles.
The 1899 tour of Australia was a first for the Lions as all four home nations were represented in the initial squad, rather than just Englishmen. The very first Welshman to don the jersey (mainly blue in those days), was provided by Cardiff in the shape of a true legend, Gwyn Nicholls.
The Prince of Threequarters was widely regarded as the best centre in the World at the time of the tour, and subsequently started in all four tests against the Wallabies as the Lions secured a 1-3 victory on their first official trip to Australia.
Despite suffering from suspected influenza, which later turned out to be a heavy cold, Nicholls scored in the first test loss before recovering to cross the line again in the series levelling second test victory. He went on to start the remaining two tests and became the first Lions series winning Welshman.
Nicholls played for Cardiff between 1893 and 1910, captaining the side for four of those seasons as he made 242 appearances in blue and black. His Arms Park performances lead to him captaining Wales and playing for the Barbarians, and he still features at CAP thanks to the Gwyn Nicholls gates, erected in 1949.
The man who opened those gates, Rhys Gabe, toured Australia in 1904 scoring a try in the third test, but it was his club team-mate Percy Bush who stole the show. The fly-half earning the praise of the Australian press as he scored in both of the first two tests, the first in a long line of famous Cardiff 10s.
Reggie Gibbs toured and scored in 1908 alongside Johnnie Williams, before the inter-war years saw Howard Poole become a Lion in 1930 despite never playing for Wales, and Ivor Williams toured in 1938.
However, the first post-war tour in 1950 was a huge moment in Cardiff’s relationship with the Lions, as five blue and blacks went to New Zealand and Australia, more than any other club that year. Prop Cliff Davies won a single test cap, while Rex Willis and Billy Cleaver won three each as the tourists lost 3-1 to New Zealand, before beating Australia 2-0.
It was the centre partnership that was the main talking point in 1950 though, as Jack Matthews and Bleddyn Williams converted their successful Cardiff pairing into a legendary Lions one. Dr Jack started every test, and is honoured with the Jack Matthews Bar at CAP under the South Stand, but it was his centre partner who made history.
When tour captain Karl Mullen picked up an injury in New Zealand, it came to Williams to take on the leadership for the third and fourth tests against the All Blacks, as he became the first Cardiff player to captain the British and Irish Lions.
The Prince of Centres was the ultimate clubman, scoring 185 tries in 283 games and was one of the famous seven Williams brothers to appear in blue and black. In 1947/48 he scored a then club record 41 tries, and led Cardiff to victory over the All Blacks in 1953. A true legend.
Williams retired just before the 1955 tour meaning it was a new generation of Cardiff players that toured South Africa with the Lions that year. Gareth Griffiths played three of the four tests, while Haydn Morris scored nine tries in eight tour matches, including twice in three tests, but it would be the third man adding to the captaincy record books.
Ahead of the third test in Pretoria tour captain Robin Thompson picked up an injury requiring fly-half Cliff Morgan to take on the leadership role. The South African newspapers would dub him ‘Morgan the Magnificent’ as he marshalled the Lions to a 9-6 victory, and with Thompson returning for the final test, Cliff finished with a 100% Lions captaincy record.
“Cardiff stood out as the best club in the whole wide world. Not just because its playing achievements, but because of what represented. It had standards and it had class”, Morgan was quoted as saying, and he would go on to personify that, both on and off the field, before commencing an equally successful broadcasting career.
The 1950s also saw Cardiff RFC make history as the first team to play the Lions outside of a tour. The 1950 Lions touring party reformed in September 1951 to play a one-off game at CAP for the club’s 75th anniversary. Billy Cleaver played for Britain and Ireland but the other four Lions played for Cardiff, with Bleddyn Williams scoring in a 12-14 loss.
Over the next three decades Cardiff continued to be a rich source of talent for the Lions, with at least one blue and black travelling on each of the nine tours over the 30 years. Keith Rowlands and Kingsley Jones toured in 1962, while Howie Norris and Ken Jones went in ’66, but it was the ’68 tour that was very special.
Although the results of the tour test matches were forgettable, Cardiff were able to send six players to South Africa, the most ever sent by the club on one tour, and only one short of London Welsh’s Lions record.
For a few of the players things didn’t exactly go to plan though. Keri Jones did not get the chance to play in any of the South African tests, John O’Shea did but became the first ever British and Irish Lions red card and was sent home, while Barry John was injured inside 15 minutes of the first test.
Maurice Richards made three test appearances before switching to Rugby League the next year, while Gerald Davies also made three appearances before moving to London Welsh, but the 1968 tour is perhaps most famous as Gareth Edwards’ first Lions appearance.
The third Prince to feature, Sir Gareth only turned 21 while on the tour to South Africa, but had to wait until the 1971 tour to New Zealand to make an impact as he started all four tests as part of the only Lions team to beat the All Blacks to date.
Edwards, alongside Barry John, were the first Cardiff players to tour twice while still playing at the Arms Park, and Sir Gareth went one better to tour in 1974 and start all four tests against South Africa as the Lions went the entire 22 matches unbeaten. The Prince goes down in Cardiff, Wales, Lions, Barbarians and World Rugby history as arguably the greatest scrum-half of all-time.
The heir to the Cardiff scrum-half throne, Brynmor Williams, was the sole blue and black representative in 1977, before 1980 was the year of injuries. Only hooker Alan Phillips lasted the full tour, but he was largely kept out of the side by Leicester’s Peter Wheeler.
Gareth Davies’ tour ended during the second test and he never toured with the Lions again, while Stuart Lane’s international rugby career ended after 55 seconds of the opening match, leaving him with the record for shortest Lions tourist.
Terry Holmes also suffered an injury before reaching the test matches in ’80, but had a second chance in ’83, this time making it to the first test before being forced home for medical reasons.
Holmes was joined by Bob Norster, the future club CEO, in terms of touring in 1983 and being a Lion twice while playing for Cardiff as the run of 30 successful blue and black years came to an end in 1989. The consecutive Cardiff representation finished in 1993 as David Young missed out due to playing Rugby League at the time.
The professional era signalled a change in terms of players’ ability to play at the top of their game for longer, allowing Young and Rob Howley to tour in both 1997 and 2001, while they were joined by Neil Jenkins and Martyn Williams in 2001.
Nugget would go on to join the three-time club as he was selected in 2005 and 2009, a rich period for Cardiff representation with Tom Shanklin and Gethin Jenkins joining him on both. Andy Powell toured in ’09, while Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts were tourists in both ’09 and ’13 and Alex Cuthbert made a try scoring appearance in 2013’s first test.
It’s back to Warburton for 2017 though, the solo representative for a club that Gerald Davies noted in 2009 had made a ‘substantial contribution to the British and Irish Lions’ as Cardiff were inducted into the IRB World Rugby Hall of Fame.
When you look back across all the Arms Park greats who have gone on to perform on the ultimate stage, a British and Irish Lions tour, they have two things in common. A reputation as top class on the pitch, and an unparalleled respect of it. It’s fair to say Sam has both in abundance.
It’s a mark of the man that just two days after being named the Lions captain again he was presenting to trophies to young players at Rhiwbina RFC. Despite losing the Welsh captaincy recently he is still the go to safe pair of hands for a leadership role, his off the pitch demeanour coupled with his on-field performance confirming that.
Bizarrely there are still people out there who doubt Warburton’s ability in the back row, but just looking at the recent Six Nations he made 78 tackles and won seven turnovers, never mind the amount of slowing down work her does at the breakdown, and all that from the blindside.
Wherever he fits into Warren Gatland’s plans this summer there’s no doubt that Warburton will be a credit to Cardiff Rugby and the British and Irish Lions, as the long and successful partnership between the two historic sides continues into the modern era. Good luck Sam!