Following in the Footsteps of 'La Terreur' Harry Owen Roe; When Mike Phillips Makes His Debut for French Club Bayonne, He Will Continue a Long History of Trade and Rugby Links between South Wales and the South of France. Could He Too Have a Street Named after Him like One of His Famous Welsh Predecessors, Asks Prof Gareth Williams?

Article excerpt

* HE years ending in the figure eight are significant in Welsh-French rugby relations. In 1908 Wales played France for the first time. As a special treat the French visitors were taken on a tour of the Cardiff docks.

This was something the Welsh took seriously; Cardiff was the main funnel-port of the greatest coal-producing region in the world.

In 1928, France beat Wales for the first time, 8-3, in Paris. In 1948 France won in Wales for the first time, in Swansea, 11-3. It was a rough match with the two giant locks, Robert Soro and Alban Moga, still remembered with awe and affection.

Ten years on, France won at Cardiff Arms Park for the first time. I was there, a schoolboy in short trousers, to see great players like Michel Vannier, Henri Rancoule, Maurice Prat, the halfbacks Labazuy and Pierre Danos, and at forward Alfred Roques, Lucien Mias, Michel Celaya and Michel Crauste - and a 16-6 victory for Les Bleus.

With seven players from Lourdes in the side, a miracle was only to be expected.

In 1968, France won their first 'Grand Chelem' with a 14-9 win at Cardiff, with Jo Maso in the centre and the diminutive Camberabero brothers - the performing fleas of French rugby at the time - at half back.

In 1908, a young man called Harry Owen Roe, 23, first appears on the Penarth rugby club's team-sheet.

Born in Taibach, he had moved to the expanding port of Penarth which had in a few short years mushroomed to a population of 20,000, thus reflecting the dramatic rise in population that Wales itself, especially the industrial and urban areas of the south, had experienced in the last decades of the 19th century.

Penarth was prosperous.

From the Pierhead in Cardiff you can see Penarth across the bay and evidence of its former prosperity. There were several millionaires living there who had made their fortunes in shipping.

The Custom House is still there overlooking the quay, a classical baroque construction with pilasters, pediments, ornate doors and gables topped by a massive clock.

Penarth pier opened in 1895, a fitting venue for Penarth's finest citizens to promenade of a summer's evening. It wasn't all genteel of course, the docksmen who serviced the busy port were spoilt for choice when it came to public houses to slake their thirst, and many of them played rugby.

Penarth produced players at international level. It was a time of great success for Welsh rugby.

In 1905 Wales, alone of the five nations, had beaten the supposedly invincible All Blacks. The national team won the Triple Crown six times between 1900 and 1911, playing a style of rugby that was as confident and innovative as the optimistic economy and society that existed in South Wales in the years before the Great War.

Enterprise and innovation were to be seen in all areas of national life, from education to the economy, in politics and on the rugby field. The key to all this was the Welsh coalfield with its quarter of a million miners, and rapidly growing port of Penarth one of its key outlets.

When Penarth rugby club were invited to the south of France in 1910, they were following the route of the coal trade. …