When Australia’s rugby players and coaches looked at who they were playing before heading off on their European tour in 1992, they could have been forgiven a jot of trepidation about meeting one team in particular.
Neath had shaken New Zealand three years earlier in a thunderous encounter at The Gnoll. To say the Welsh club had a reputation at the time for, er, vigorous play is akin to suggesting the Barbarians are known for wanting to run the ball.
The Welsh All Blacks played hard on and off the pitch.
One ‘game’ played on the team bus home from away matches involved slapping another player. Anyone felt to have dished out too soft a blow was slapped by everyone else. It was said at times some players left the bus virtually concussed.
They also trained with a session known as Murderball involving the squad being split into two teams for a session in the in-goal area. As someone said at the time, the emphasis was perhaps on the ‘murder’ rather than the ‘ball’.
It’s the way it was.
Anyway, word had reached Australia that Neath would be no routine opponents.
Matthew McCarthy, who featured at fly-half for the Welsh All Blacks that day, went on to tell WalesOnline: “I was up against Australia’s Tim Wallace at No. 10 and I met him again five years later when he was with Saracens.
“He was telling me they weren’t looking forward to coming to Neath at all as they viewed videos of the game we’d had with the All Blacks three years earlier and spoke to New Zealanders about the torrid time they’d had at Neath.”
It was to prove no different for Australia.
They won, but the match was blighted by fights and controversy. It was no one-way street, for sure. Brian Williams, the unyielding Neath prop, found himself badly trampled and required stitches in a head wound before rejoining the fray.
He finished the game with a battered and bruised face but never complained.
That wasn’t his style.
The Dwyer allegation
Australian players and coaches did protest, however, during and after the match. One of their allegations was to travel around the world at breakneck speed and make banner headlines.
Neath, reckoned the Wallabies’ then head coach Bob Dwyer, was the “bag-snatching capital of the universe”.
For those in any doubt, Dwyer wasn’t alleging a spate of thefts of holdalls in the Neath area. His claim was that the opposition that day had engaged in a spot of testicle grabbing.
Diversionary tactics after a nasty match in which Australia had not played with their customary fluency? Or were Dwyer’s comments justified?
A skipper speaks
Gareth Llewellyn, Neath skipper that day at the age of 23, subsequently told this writer: “It was a shock to me when Bob Dwyer said that.
“I don’t know if there was an incident, accidental or otherwise. But I do know nothing was said among the players after the game.
“There was no talk about who supposedly did what Dwyer claimed had been done. The question wasn’t even asked.
“I guess people’s thinking ran along the lines of ‘it’s just a case of a whinging Aussie’.
“There was never a plan beforehand to go out there and grab people by the nuts to put them off their game.
“No one else made that allegation against us in other games.
“We played as hard as anyone but we certainly weren’t cheap-shot merchants.”
Evidence from other Neath players suggests Australia were no angels all those years ago.
The way the Welsh All Blacks’ class of ’92 tell it, there was more sledging than on a cold morning at the Winter Sports Park in Wisconsin.
Throughout the game, Australian players looked to get under the skin of McCarthy in particular, not just by hoisting a series of up and unders the way of the then 21-year-old fly-half but also by making sure each one was accompanied by a few choice words.
“I felt I was being targeted by Australia that day,” said McCarthy.
“I had a bit of small-man syndrome but being 5ft 8ins you did feel a little small as there were so many massive men on the field.
“They didn’t stop sledging me throughout the 80 minutes.”
The 6ft 8in, 19st Andrew Kembery, who very much didn’t suffer from small-man syndrome, also recalls non-stop chatter from the tourists.
“I remember vividly the amount of constant barracking,” he said.
“Anything that went against them and any perceived infringement, the barracking and verbals were constant.”
Under-the- belt tactics not on Neath’s to-do list
But it was Dwyer’s post-match remark that attracted most attention.
Neath had played the game hard throughout the club’s history but under-the-belt tactics of the sort Dwyer alleged had never been on The Gnoll to-do list for each season.
“When I saw the allegations, I just didn’t have a clue what he was on about,” said McCarthy.
“We were all totally unaware of it. Nothing was said during the game by their players or after the final whistle.
“In those days if you went down on the ball you were fair game for a kicking and your legs and back were guaranteed a few bumps and bruises.
“The only unwritten rule was nothing on the head or the nether regions.”
He continued: “We knew we were at our best when it was getting tasty in the forwards.
“But the Aussies put it about as much as our forwards.
“The bag-snatching allegations were totally unproven.
“There was nothing underhand or sinister going on. That was just put out there as an off-the-cuff remark.”
Kembery agreed, saying: “I got the feeling we were supposed to show the Wallabies a certain amount of respect, and I’m not talking about dirty play, because I certainly didn’t see or have any feeling of any underhand nastiness.
“Australia certainly weren’t whiter than white and we went on the field that day to win, not to be deliberately violent.
“We didn’t take a step backwards but we certainly weren’t dirty.
“The bag-snatching thing seemed a childish statement.”
The strange postscript
The matter had a weird postscript, however.
Eddie Butler, then the Observer’s rugby correspondent as well as working for the BBC, was among those who’d been unimpressed with aspects of Neath’s approach and criticised them. He offered Neath rugby boss Brian Thomas the right of reply on BBC Wales.
But the showdown never made the TV screens.
Thomas is said to have turned up at the BBC Wales studios with Leighton Davies, the Neath coach, and Steve Flower, a former Newbridge forward Butler had previously punched in a club game while playing for Pontypool, a blow that saw former policeman Flower taken to hospital.
The Thomas v Butler verbal joust is said to have taken place off camera but was never aired.
Butler said at the time: “I was supposed to do an opinion piece in the wake of the Neath-Australia match.
“My overall impression was that Neath were a disgrace. Dwyer put all the blame on Neath and I agreed with him.
“I thought it not entirely fair that Neath should not get a right of reply. I thought that Brian plus two people would arrive at the studio but seven turned up.”
To Butler’s credit, when he met Flower at the television studios he said sorry.
“I apologised for what I did eight years ago,” Butler said at the time.
“I wasn’t proud of it then and I’m not proud of it now.”
Kembery was also critical of the coverage Neath received from the BBC commentator.
“As much as I like Eddie, I thought he had done a hatchet job on Neath,” he said.
“All I know is that there was nothing mentioned among our players after the game about having the Wallabies by the balls.”
The truth is out there somewhere.
A French referee who didn’t speak English added to the mix.
It’s hard to recall Neath being accused of bag-snatching since.
But it’s not hard to remember the uproar around the match.
Dwyer added to rugby’s lexicon.
To this day Neath still think he was talking b***s.
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