There is great rivalry between these two countries, due to their proximity and shared history.
Their attitudes to each other were summed up by the fomer RFU administrator, Dudley Wood (an Oxford Blue in the 1950s), with the memorable words:
… the relationship between the Welsh and the English is based on trust and understanding … they don’t trust us and we don’t understand them.
Tongue in cheek perhaps, but another comment of Wood’s provoked the infamous “57 old farts” response from Will Carling, which led to his sacking as England captain in 1995 — although he was reinstated after a public outcry.
Both sides have experienced periods of dominance, and the fact that each country has beaten the other 56 times reflects this as an historically evenly-matched encounter.
Both countries have also provided the game with great and innovative players. People who introduced changes to the union game as it developed, which came to be adopted worldwide.
Frank Hancock of Wales (1859–1943)
In 1884, Francis ‘Frank’ Escott Hancock, one of the younger directors of the powerful Welsh brewing family, William Hancock & Co., joined the Cardiff first team as a centre three-quarter back. He soon became involved in one of the great tactical innovations of the era.
It had been customary to play just three men in the three-quarter line, two wings and a centre. Hancock decided to experiment with four, inserting an extra centre.
Using this system, which gave them greater flexibility in attack, Cardiff had an invincible record. Hancock’s vision was to encourage his forwards to release the ball to the half-backs, who in turn would move the ball out to the centres where, with low accurate passing, it was transferred to the wings who would take the ball on the run.
It came down to the innovation of winning through scoring tries instead of goals. In the 1885-86 season Cardiff scored a remarkable 131 tries, but not a single penalty or drop goal. Hancock’s single minded (even dictatorial) approach as a captain was extremely successful. Cardiff won all bar one game that season and saw just four tries scored against them.
Wales then adopted the two-centre formation in the national team and, after a few difficult seasons, this new format was accepted throughout the rugby-playing world.
Wavell Wakefield of England (1898–1983)
In the spirit of the Edwardian sports writer EHD Sewell, Wakefield once commented:
It is because of the freedom of rugger and its consequent risks that it breeds hardiness, which in these days of cocktails and lounge lizards is a quality to be encouraged.
His innovations helped to bring England great success in the 1920s and shaped forward play as we know it today.
Baron Wakefield of Kendal, as he later became known (“Wakers” to his teammates), saw the weakness of the haphazard way scrums were formed by throwing groups of forwards together in whatever order they arrived on the scene.
Wakefield decided that specialist positions for the forwards would improve the game.
His own athleticism enabled him to play a more dynamic role, increasing forward mobility to develop the art of loose play. Pressuring the opposition half backs in defence and supporting the attacks of the three quarters. Fly-halves have Wakefield to thank for the painful tradition of being flattened by a speedy open-side flanker if they take too long over a decision.
Both players feature in the IRB’s International Rugby Hall of Fame.
Photographs: Hancock, World Rugby Museum, Twickenham; Wakefield, Sportscaster card