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Game changer

It was cold that winter, a bitter and unrelenting cold.

In 1963, Scotland fans expected to beat Wales in a classic encounter, but wrong on both counts, they were left outraged by 111 line-outs
In 1963, Scotland fans expected to beat Wales in a classic encounter, but wrong on both counts, they were left outraged by 111 line-outs

As December 1962 gave way to January 1963, the country was in the grip of an almighty freeze and sport was almost at a standstill. There would be no horseracing in England for three months. In football, the pools panel seemed to be in permanent session.

But in Edinburgh there was one improbable oasis of warmth. A few years earlier, Dr C A Hepburn of Glasgow had provided £10,000 for the installation of an under soil heating system at Murrayfield, and the pitch was simmering nicely on the morning of February 2. So, too, the expectations of the Scottish public ahead of that afternoon's match against Wales. They expected a classic – and they expected Scotland to win.

But they got it wrong on both counts. Wales won 6-0, but the match would soon pass into legend as the most stultifyingly dull encounter in the history of the sport. With Wales scrum-half and captain Clive Rowlands directing operations, the ball was ushered into touch an incredible 111 times, a figure that caused outrage and, eventually, a fundamental change to rugby's laws.

Forecasts of a Scottish victory had been based on two factors. First, Murrayfield had become a bogey ground for Wales, who had been beaten on their four previous visits. Second, the young and inexperienced Wales had lost to England two weeks earlier, while Scotland, powerful and hard-headed, had swept past France in Paris.

The pundits' view was that the Scottish forwards would crush their Welsh counterparts. Rowlands saw things differently. The quick-witted, 24-year-old Pontypool schoolteacher had grown tired of hearing about the size of the Scottish pack, so he checked the statistics of his own forwards and discovered Wales actually had a slight weight advantage. In his hotel room on the night before the game, the shrewd Rowlands formulated his plan.

In short, he would kick the leather off the ball, ensuring the game would never stray far from the touchlines. In those days, there was no punishment for kicking directly to touch from outside the 22m line (or 25yd line as is was then), so Rowlands did just that. Again and again and again. Dai Watkins, the lively fly-half, received just two passes all day. It has since been claimed that R Evans, the Bridgend centre who was winning his first cap, did not touch the ball once.

Even with its electric blanket cranked up, the game had been in doubt that Saturday morning. A sudden overnight fall had deposited three inches of snow on the pitch. However, the Scottish Rugby Union mustered a small army of volunteers to clear the surface. The snow disappeared, but its legacy was an even heavier pitch than usual. Rowlands was all the more determined to stick to his plan.

Fifteen minutes into the game, Wales full-back Grahame Hodgson kicked a penalty. Early in the second half, Rowlands dropped a goal. In fairness, Scotland were scarcely any more adventurous than the Welsh, but Wales lock Brian Price ruled the line-outs and it was only in the last 10 minutes, and then only in desperation, that the Scots began to move the ball wide.

To no avail. Wales had the win they craved. Rowlands was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of some of the 10,000 Welsh fans who had made their way north for the game. "One or two snowballs from Scottish supporters, more in fun than in anger, hit him en route," wrote the former Wales captain Vivian Jenkins in The Sunday Times. "But Rowlands' broad victory grin showed that even an avalanche would not have worried him at that moment."

But others had concerns. The great Bleddyn Williams was one of the first to voice them. "What a thoroughly disappointing match," said Williams at the time. "As the end justified the means it is perhaps wrong to criticise Clive Rowlands' tactics, but as his pack was so much on top, why did he not bring his backs into action?"

Perhaps the answer lay in the memory of what had happened in Cardiff two weeks earlier. Then, controversially appointed captain in his first international, Rowlands had decided that Wales would move the ball at every opportunity against England, but his side's preparations had been hampered by freezing conditions and few of their strategies came off. England won 13-6 and Rowlands came in for savage criticism in the Welsh press.

So Rowlands was unrepentant about his tactics against Scotland. "What we were doing brought us two scores," he said defiantly. "Why risk mistakes which could have brought Scotland right back into the game? We were there to win."

Most commentators absolved Rowlands of responsibility for the dismal spectacle. At a time when rugby was dominated by lumbering forward play and low scores were far from uncommon, most of the criticism was aimed at the game's lawmakers. "Wales' win over Scotland was international rugby in its death throes," thundered Dennis Busher in the News Chronicle. "Wales won by carrying modern power play to its farcical conclusion."

Rowlands himself has cast doubt on the figure of 111 line-outs. John Griffiths, the eminent rugby historian believes it correct, as it was almost certainly compiled by trusted statistician Tommy Thomas on the day. It was certainly a credible number, and it quickly acquired emblematic status. Whenever the case for changing the laws was being made, those 111 line-outs would be cited.

Over time, the case became overwhelming. In 1969, the International Rugby Board bowed to worldwide pressure and adopted the so-called Australian Dispensation as law, after which there would be no territorial advantage for the side which kicked the ball straight into touch outside their 22. Rowlands, unwittingly, became responsible for perhaps the biggest single change seen in rugby's essential dynamic.

At least he could joke about it. Years later, and by now a member of the Welsh press corps, he arrived at Murrayfield and was asked for his pass at the gate. "Pass?" said Rowlands, with mock bemusement. "I never gave a pass at Murrayfield."

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