The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks

“Don’t tell them we were beaten by a pair of schoolboys” said New Zealand’s captain afterwards

Alan Hansen famously said you can’t win anything with kids, but perhaps his grandfather might have been able to offer a different take on that statement, especially if he’d bothered to follow a particularly memorable All Blacks rugby tour of Wales.

Step forward Haydn Tanner and Willie Davies.

At least that was the call from the Swansea RFC selectors as the two cousins and Gowerton Grammar School sixth formers were summoned to take on the might of New Zealand.

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks
Swansea v New Zealand match-day programme, 1935

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They responded sufficiently well to secure a place in history with performances that led the All Whites’ official history to later talk of a “pair of half-back gods”.

Some players strive for years in their quest to be considered club legends.

Tanner and Davies achieved the status in the space of a single afternoon.

After the duo had orchestrated the 11-3 home win, All Blacks captain Jack Manchester told the travelling Kiwi press: “Tell them back home we lost, but, please, don’t tell them that we were beaten by a pair of schoolboys.”

All this was on September 28, 1935, exactly 86 years ago.

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Undoubtedly, it was the most famous day in the Swansea club’s history, played out in front of 35,000 watchers at a wet and windy St Helen’s.

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks
Willie Davies

It wasn’t just about Tanner and Davies. The Whites had others worthy of gongs for gallantry that day, too.

All the points were scored in the opening half, with heavy rain requiring the home pack to step up and match the tourists in an attritional encounter which saw every inch of territory contested. Being a clash with New Zealand, there were also more than a few dust-ups.

Right up there with the heroes of the hour that day was centre Claude Davey, the scorer of two tries and a man who tackled with undiluted ferocity. It was said that when Davey stopped an onrushing ball-carrier lights flickered around Swansea and chandeliers shook in every stately home in Wales.

Years later one of Davey’s international jerseys ended up in the offices of the South Wales Evening Post. It measured just 36 inches across the chest. Clearly an awful lot of power must have been packed into that frame, for we are talking the Scott Gibbs of his day.

But it was the schoolboys who earned the headlines.

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks

Tanner, aged just 18, and Davies, who had just turned 19, controlled play and Davies expertly set up Davey’s first try.

The following morning, the Daily Telegraph described Davies as “a sprite with the touch of genius, that instinctive eye for the opening which marks the perfectly balanced, and with a change of pace and direction sufficient to carry him through smallest gap like an elusive ghost”. Fields of Praise, the Welsh Rugby Union’s official history, said of him: “Willie Davies carved his openings with a body swerve and a gliding motion, rather than the stabbing sidestep.

“The key to his deception was change of pace, so that his legs seemed to be going in a different direction from his body. He was also very fast.”

Yet he wasn’t included in the Wales side that faced New Zealand in the December of 1935, with the fly-half shirt going to the sidestepper Cliff Jones, of Llandovery, Cardiff and Cambridge.

The Guardian’s Frank Keating subsequently wrote: “Welsh newspapers were split down the middle — east or west, church or chapel: who was best? Cliff, the toff from Clare College, Cambridge, or Willie, son of the publican at the Ship and Castle at Penclawdd?”

Whatever, the side skippered by Davey won the match 13-12.

Five Whites players who had triumphed three months earlier — Davey, Tanner, Idwal Rees, Harry Payne and Don Tarr — were in the Wales team that day.

It was something to behold.

Authentically great players have gone their entire careers without tasting victory over the All Blacks.

But Tanner had got the job done twice by the age of 18.

He was to be remembered as the greatest player to have beaten the All Blacks while wearing the red of Wales.

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks
Newspaper clippings from the day after Haydn Tanner played against New Zealand

Davies wasn’t forgotten, though.

When he died in 2002, his wife Dorothy phoned the Evening Post in Swansea and said to this writer: “I don’t know if you’re interested, but my husband Willie has passed away and I thought you might want to record it.

“He used to play rugby for the Whites and for Wales.”

Modesty was evidently the way of the family.

Some years earlier Keating had phoned Willie Davies to ask of his favourite modern Welsh fly-half. “Phil Bennett,” he said, “brilliant, and without any ego.”

Dorothy then took the phone. “Precisely,” she repeated, “brilliant and no ego — Mr Bennett and my William must be kindred spirits.”

The day two Welsh schoolboys shook the rugby world as Swansea beat the All Blacks
Swansea defeated the 1908 Australian tourists

Swansea became the first non-international side to beat New Zealand and the first club team to defeat the three major touring sides, Australia and South Africa having previously been accounted for.

Days like the one 86 years ago are what made the All Whites great.

And a blow was struck conclusively for youth.

Times change, of course, but the next time anyone says a player is too young for top-line rugby, refer them to the events that unfolded all those autumns ago, the day two schoolboys beat the All Blacks.

Days like that don’t happen often.

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