Why is this medal so significant? Pivotal to the story of the medal is the time in which it was won – at a turning point of the game into an exciting, free-flowing sport which we would recognise today.
And Wales, in 1888, was where this revolution was taking place.
Wales and rugby union are now virtually synonymous. But until the 1870s rugby was not even played in Wales. The country was a ‘late adopter’ and it was probably former pupils at English public schools who brought it to the Principality when they returned home after their studies. Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Neath were amongst the first places to field teams.
That certainly helps explain the fact that the game was largely a middle class one during its early years: it was players like Dickie Garrett – Penarth’s captain in the 1888 team and a Wales cap – who best sums up this radical social shift: Garrett was a coal-tipper at Penarth docks by trade and he (eventually) lost his life when crushed by a coal truck.
The game played in the 1870s in Wales – and every other country for that matter – was a very different one than today. Teams of up to 20 were allowed, and forwards absolutely dominated the game: there was a lot of kicking for territorial advantage, very little passing of the ball and the ‘backs’ were there largely for defensive duties.
In the mid 1880s, an Englishman called Frank Hancock came to Cardiff and changed the way the game was played when he helped develop the ‘Welsh game’.
Hancock first played rugby in Somerset, and represented the county team. He moved to Cardiff to become involved in the family’s brewing company – and was soon scoring tries for them. Rather than dropping one of the other three regular backs to make way for Hancock, the club decided to play him as a fourth three-quarter and sacrifice a forward – which was unheard of then.
By the next season, Hancock was club captain and he took the tactical changes even further in the direction of the modern game – discouraging kicking and demanding a passing game of his players. That season, Cardiff recorded 131 tries for and four against: a massive vindication of his style of play. The tactic was then employed in the national side – but because not all of the players were acquainted with it, it didn’t succeed and this approach wasn’t to be used successfully for several years.
But soon, the ‘ Welsh game’ was being adopted by other clubs and, eventually, national sides too.
The Cardiff Football Union Cup, first played for in the season of 1886/87, also marked the coming of age of the game in south Wales in terms of participation too. In 1884, just 41 teams were recorded in the Cardiff area. By 1889, this had grown almost exponentially to well over 200.
This flowering was also explained by more and more working people taking up the sport. Consequently the game not only grew in popularity – but also in the size, speed and power of the players as colliers, dockworkers and labourers came into the game and made it a far more muscular sport.
Interestingly, the Cardiff Union Cup competition was effectively sponsored by a local sports outfitters, who paid for the cup to be made. It was a knock-out competition – first played for by around a dozen district clubs A body – the Cardiff District Football Union – was established to oversee it.
Cardiff Harlequins were the first winners, with Penarth, under the steely captaincy of Dickie Garrett, not only winning it in the next year – but in the subsequent two years as well.
Under the rules of the competition, this entitled Penarth to keep the cup – in the same way that the football world cup is now played. Sadly for the competition, this sounded its death knell and it was never contested again.
But it’s easy to see why this medal and this competition are so significant. In 1888 the game of rugby was at the crossroads, with Welsh tactics and Welsh ‘power play’ changing it forever from the game played by ex-public schoolboys. The team that won the medal – Penarth – would have been, for those days, an awesome side employing revolutionary tactics.
Arguably, these were as significant as the changes that marked it turning professional – perhaps even more so. This article has been made possible with the assistance of rugby historian Gwyn Prescott, who was responsible for identifying the medal and who is shortly to publish a book based on his research on rugby in Cardiff in the 19th century.