A long period where rugby had been disrupted. The aftermath of a global pandemic. The unresolved issue of the club’s long term future at Cardiff Arms Park. The strange situation where for a time two XVs had been branded as the first team of Cardiff Rugby.
Suddenly the 1920s don’t seem like such a long time ago. Many of the challenges Cardiff Rugby faced then are similar to those it faces now.
As the decade dawned, Cardiff Rugby had existed for almost half a century. The original generation of Cardiff rugby men had either passed on or were in their dotage. Bill Phillips, the man known as “the father of the club” had passed away in 1918. Charles Arthur, the club’s first historian, was still around to offer a word of encouragement or a memory of his 1880s exploits. But he too would pass in 1925.
The players that had followed them, the history making generation of the turn of the century, were long retired. The Cardiff players and supporters of the early twenties will have had memories of Percy Bush’s moments of genius and the Gwyn Nicholls inspired thrashing of the Springboks. But as the decade wore on, more and more players and supporters will have had no first hand memories of those days. The golden early years of Cardiff Rugby were already passing into folk memory.
In the meantime, Rugby football had been on virtual pause. The world was recovering from a period of chaos. First a world war, then a global influenza pandemic had taken the lives of millions of people (including pre-war Cardiff rugby greats like Johnny Williams). Trivialities like rugby football were largely sidelined with normal fixtures suspended. When rugby was able to resume, Cardiff Rugby would find itself in a world and a city that was much changed.
At the start of the decade, the rush of prosperity brought about by the industrial revolution probably felt like it would never end. There had been a war to fight, and that war had an insatiable appetite for coal from the world’s greatest coal port. The city’s population had grown by almost 25% in just 10 years.
But even before the economic chaos of the 1920s set in, Cardiff was changing. In 1919, race riots broke out in Butetown and Grangetown between returning soldiers seeking work and the multi-ethnic communities that had settled in the docks. In 1923 Cardiff elected it’s first Labour MP as trade unionism and class politics came of age. The famous 1926 UK General Strike was the product of a steady fall in coal prices and therefore wages. This had a direct impact on the valleys towns north of Cardiff and on the docks at the heart of the city.
This economic pressure inevitably led to workers and their families leaving to find more reliable employment elsewhere. And, more rugby players than ever would leave for rugby league. The historian Tony Collins has calculated that an average of 25 Welsh players would “go north” each season of the first half of the decade.
Cardiff wasn’t immune to this flood of players heading north and several big talents would leave the club over the decade. None was a bigger loss than Jim Sullivan who had made his debut at 16 and would go on to become an all-time great in the league code (More discussion of Cardiff and rugby league can be found here - The Cardiff Rugby League XV). Sullivan had been an apprentice boilermaker but with employment lacking and Cardiff making it clear that any job they could offer him would equate to the dreaded professionalism, the young Sullivan had little option but to leave for Wigan.
It’s noticeable that many of the Cardiff players of this time, particularly forwards, were Policemen. The police force offered steady employment for working class men when other trades had suddenly become less reliable.
Another great challenge for Welsh rugby union at this time was a new competitor for the public’s ticket money and sporting affections. This pressure was felt nowhere more than in Cardiff. At Ninian Park, professional association football had arrived.
Cardiff Rugby had for many years had an almost unchallenged grip upon the city’s sporting psyche when Saturday afternoon came around. The turn of the century teams of Frank Hancock and Percy Bush could justifiably claim to be among the finest club teams assembled to this day. The crowds had followed.
But the 1920s were the decade of the growth of Cardiff City. In 1920, Cardiff City were first elected to the Football league. With fixtures against the big name clubs of the top two divisions, their crowds averaged over 28,000. Winning promotion to the first division at the first attempt, Cardiff City were suddenly attracting attendances of 50-60,000. Less than two decades earlier they had been playing on an unenclosed pitch at Sophia Gardens. By 1927 when they famously won the FA Cup, Cardiff’s sporting loyalties had clearly shifted toward association football.
What was the reason for this shift? Football has become the global game and it's appeal is clear. But Cardiff had already been well established as a rugby city attracting some of the biggest attendances in the country. It had a start of over two decades on Cardiff City and it can hardly be accused of wasting that time.
Two interlinked things seem crucial. Professionalism, and competitions. Rugby Union was a strictly amateur sport and cups, leagues and trophies were all considered vices likely to open the door to the mortal sin of being paid to play. A Welsh Cup competition had been formed, and it’s immediate impact on attendances and public interest in rugby had been dramatic. But it had been scrapped in the 1880s almost as soon as it had begun. Cardiff wouldn’t play in a cup competition again until the creation of the floodlit alliance in the 1960s and wouldn't play league rugby until the 1990s. No matter the big names on Cardiff’s fixture list, fixtures were only ever one off matches with no points or trophy on offer.
In football meanwhile, the Welsh Cup had an uninterrupted history going back to 1878 and by the end of the 1920s Cardiff City had won it seven times. But more importantly, Cardiff City were incorporated into the huge FA Cup and Football league competitions, offering not only big names for the city’s team to square off against, but the opportunity to become champions of England and Wales. Little wonder league football against Arsenal and Liverpool proved a bigger draw than one off rugby matches against Gloucester and Leicester.
Which isn’t to say that interest in rugby collapsed in Cardiff. Far from it. Clashes with Newport were a hot ticket regularly attracting big crowds into the Arms Park. At this time the two clubs played each other four times a year with apparently no one ever getting sick of it.
The Newport team of the early 1920s was dominant and among the greatest Cardiff’s neighbouring city has produced. On the second of April 1921, Cardiff won the derby for the first time since the war by 19-0 before a crowd of 35,000. It was a performance Cardiff supporters would talk about for many, many years afterward. Such was the power of the Cardiff vs Newport derby at this time.
But this “four games a season” arrangement itself perhaps tells us how the two clubs were reliant on big one off games to attract fans into their grounds. In the absence of the week to week intensity offered by league rugby, packing as many prestige fixtures into the season as possible was crucial.
Casting an eye over the Cardiff fixture lists of this period, there is still some of the charm of 19th century fixture lists. Guys and St Barts Hospitals were still regular fixtures. Clubs that have long since faded from prominence like Stroud and Torquay were played. Quaint looking select XVs like “Mr Rowe Harding’s XV” appear. But the meat of the fixture lists was now other big clubs that had themselves begun establishing their dominance and who remain big clubs to this day. Leicester, Bristol, Harlequins, the Scarlets of Llanelli. With no rugby equivalent of the mighty football league, Cardiff Rugby had to make do. And it made do by playing the best as often as it could.
The twenties was also the era when Leicester began rising to prominence and Cardiff’s 25-8 victory over them would have felt hugely satisfying after a series of losses to English rugby’s growing power.
Llanelli’s Scarlets also enjoyed a golden period in the 1920s, one that solidified their growing reputation. After an unbeaten season in 1925/26 they recorded four wins over Cardiff in 1927/28. As with Newport it seems to have been necessary to give the public the games they wanted and play the Scarlets four times a season. It would have been very satisfying for the travelling Cardiff support to have seen the Scarlets trounced 19-3 at Stradey Park on 9th February 1929 after a series of near misses.
But aside from the great Newport derbies, by far the biggest draws and biggest chances of grabbing the sporting headlines were against touring teams. These were few and far between in the twenties. Far and away the biggest was the 1924 clash with New Zealand.
A crowd of 40,000 crammed into the Arms Park to see if the blue and blacks could go one step further than 1905 and collect an All Black scalp. But this second All Black touring party were “the Invincibles” who would go on to win all 32 games of their tour. Cardiff gave them one of the closest games of the tour, losing 16-8 with Bobby Delahey scoring a superb try. Years later, club historian and outside half that day Danny Davies would recall with uncharacteristic bitterness the refereeing decisions he’d felt had gone against Cardiff. A case of so close but yet so far. The Invincibles would go on to hammer Wales the following week.
The other big tour games of the decade would come in 1926. The New Zealand Maori were on tour and Cardiff managed to negotiate not one but two games with them.
Both games were lost. On November the 6th the Maori managed to rise above the Arms Park mud and win 18 points to 8 a game the home crowd had expected to win. On the 28th of December a huge defensive effort led by Arthur Cornish and Ossie Male held back waves of Maori attack. But the tourists squeezed home 5-3 before a crowd of 22,000.
Despite the off field pressure from the economic slump and pressure from association football, Cardiff nevertheless remained ambitious. Two issues dominated business off the field. The purchase of Cardiff Arms Park and the “Two first XV” system. After decades of renting the ground at the pleasure of the Marquis of Bute, the purchase of the Arms Park was finally completed for £30,000 in 1922. It was an expensive undertaking and savings had to be made elsewhere. But full control and ownership of such a fantastic asset would pave the way for the club’s success in future decades.
More can be found on the history of Cardiff’s “other” team and the two XVs experiment here - The Other Cardiff Team: The Story of the Rags. But briefly the practice of also branding the club’s reserves as a first team was introduced as an attempt to raise much needed funds. It proved controversial and hurt the team’s prestige.
They say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to suffer it at first hand. What can we learn from this decade when Cardiff Rugby’s challenges were strikingly similar to those we are faced with now? The benefits of an abandonment of the notion that there are two first XVs playing at the Arms Park and a guarantee of the team’s future at the Arms Park seem like two good lessons to take into the present day.
The twenties can’t be described as one of Cardiff’s great decades. But they set up the great Cardiff Rugby decades which followed. The club faced a period of challenge and uncertainty it had never faced before. But Cardiff emerged from the decade with their status at the Arms Park assured in the long term, financial challenges met and a new sense of the club’s purpose. In that sense, it could be that the 1920s were in fact the most important in the club’s history. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to look back and say the same of the 2020s.