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Wales v England: 70 Years Ago, A Rivalry Resumed

09/02/2017 11:28 GMT | Updated 09/02/2017 11:28 GMT

2017-02-08-1486579144-3978703-1947EnglandvWales.jpg

England's team to play Wales, 1947. Picture courtesy of the World Rugby Museum.

It's January 1947, and 21-year-old veterinary student Micky Steele-Bodger has just found out he's been picked for England.

"I heard it on the wireless", he recalls. He would be playing against Wales - and it would be a match with extra special meaning.

Wales and England's game on Saturday is a hotly anticipated one, but 70 years ago, their contest at Cardiff marked the first time either country had played an official match since the Second World War had broken out in 1939.

Though some rugby had taken place during the war, mainly between services teams, the 1946/47 season marked the return of regular fixtures.

This was to be the first Five Nations championship - it didn't become the Six Nations until Italy joined in 2000 - for eight years. There had been a few ad hoc international matches in 1945 and 1946, but they weren't recorded as official games - and players didn't receive 'caps' for playing.

By 1946/47, though, the familiar structure was back in place. Each nation arranged the usual series of trial matches to select their teams. For Steele-Bodger, who had just captained Cambridge University against Oxford in the Varsity Match, it was a chance to win a first England cap.

"We had to travel third class"

"University players didn't play in the first trial", he recalls; "they regarded the Varsity Match as being a trial." Oxbridge students were a regular sight in England teams of that era, and four - along with three players from St Mary's Hospital - were picked in England's team for the match with Wales.

With the game approaching, players made their own travel arrangements for Cardiff. "We had to travel third class", remembers Steele-Bodger, though players did at least receive expenses. The rules were strict though; "you could only share a taxi if there were three or four of you. Otherwise it was bus." Not a sponsored Mitsubishi in sight.

There were no pre-tournament training camps, either. Back in 1947, when rugby union was still very much an amateur sport, Steele-Bodger recalls that preparation for the game took the form of some "passing the ball" and "a good chat" - all on the day before the match.

And so it was that a team who barely knew each other took the field at Cardiff Arms Park on a cold January day. Britain was in the grip of one of its worst recorded winters, but a pre-match covering of straw had done enough to keep the ground suitable for play.

While bomb damage to one of the stands meant the Arms Park couldn't quite pack in as many as usual, 43,000 had turned out in eager anticipation of a Welsh victory. For the raucous home crowd, though, things didn't go quite to plan.

"He couldn't run, but he could tackle"

"I think most people thought we were lousy", says Steele-Bodger, "and we were."

The game wasn't a classic. England's captain Keith Scott was injured early on, and with no replacements allowed in those days, he simply stayed on the field, virtually lame.

"He couldn't run, but he could tackle", recalls Steele-Bodger, who was moved away from his position in the back row to cover for his injured captain in the backs.

But despite this disadvantage, a try (then worth three points) from Northampton's Don White - who, in 1969, would become England's first ever coach - and a drop goal from Nim Hall (worth four) secured a surprise 9-6 victory for the visitors.

With the game done, the players headed almost immediately to 'high tea'. In an era of rationing the food was, as Steele-Bodger describes, "pretty miserable".

The players at least managed to fit a few drinks in afterwards - though it came out of their own pockets: "The Union would give you a couple of drinks after the game but then that stopped. You'd travelled a bloody long way in pretty awful trains, and you wanted to have a good old session."

"We were alive"

England would eventually share the championship that year with Wales after a late try secured a win against France in their final game. Fast forward 70 years, and much about the sport has changed radically - not least, says Steele-Bodger, the fact that the players are "far, far fitter". After all, he says, if a player had tried to pay special attention to his diet among the privations of 1947, "what was he going to eat?"

At that time though, in the shadow of the war, players had a different mindset. As Steele-Bodger puts it, with striking simplicity, "we were alive". With the war still exerting a profound influence over the everyday lives of Britons, the return of such events provided some cheer and a sense of a return to normality.

And though the sport and the society of which it forms a part have changed a lot over the past 70 years, here we are again: thousands of fans will pack into a Cardiff stadium to watch two rugby teams resume a great rivalry. For those like Steele-Bodger who played all those years ago, it may all - just about - seem quite familiar.