Gerald on Rugby

Peter Williams, The Prospectory, 2002

Considering the many recent proposals for reviving Welsh Rugby, it’s easy to forget the lessons of 800 years ago. Gerald the Welshman, who qualified through his grandmother, produced an early report on Welsh strengths and weaknesses in the 1190’s, when Wales was undergoing a similar loss of confidence¶.  He praised Welsh courage, skill, fitness and agility, while condemning Welsh treachery, factionalism, and fratricide.  Then as now, it seems, we Welsh combined manly virtues with princely weaknesses.

On the Field.

Gerald lived in a period of Norman ascendancy.  In battle, Normans used professional soldiers, both heavy cavalry and infantry, and excelled at both set piece discipline and manoeuvre.  Saxons relied on conscripts, infantry, and set piece discipline.  The Welsh were volunteers who depended on speed, stratagem, and individual skill.

The Normans clearly played a 15-man game with excellent cover defence that you can still see all around Wales today.  The Saxons played a more forward-oriented game, favouring group discipline above individual skill, with linear defences (or dykes) that were vulnerable to chip kicks.  The Welsh relied on a faster, more fluid, game to defeat their opponent with individual skill and speed of movement and thought.  Gerald considered the Welsh masters of open play, but not so good at pitched battles, for which they were too lightly armed.  He thought they would be unbeatable if they could improve their set-piece and bulk up a bit.

Unfortunately, as Gerald recognised, winning battles requires political as well as military skill, and here 13th century Welsh princes, like today’s rugby administrators, were found wanting.


The Normans and Saxons of Gerald’s day developed a “structure” to support their national teams.  While the Welsh organised themselves into independent princedoms, Normans and Saxons adopted a strict political hierarchy, where each level supported the next higher, up to national level. When the Welsh finally joined the English hierarchy, they contributed leaders and critical back-line skills to England’s Two Nations campaign in the Hundred Years War, a series notorious for the amount of injury time played.

In Gerald’s time, each Welsh princedom was militarily competitive only with princedoms of the same size. There was concern even then about the quality of the Welsh domestic league, and whether it offered suitable preparation for international warfare. When it became necessary to assemble a national army to defend Welsh independence, the step up was so great that successes were rare.

Fortunately, the Welsh only fought other nations to defend their way of life.  They had no desire or ability to subdue other nations, and although reportedly aggressive and skilful, much preferred to fight each other.  They therefore had trouble agreeing the objectives of a national army, let alone assembling one.  National unity usually amounted to one prince declaring himself leader, and labelling any dissenting prince a “traitor” to Wales – an accusation that was all too often self-fulfilling.  This problem plagues the princedoms of Welsh rugby today – they are short on shared objectives, but long on suspicion of each other.

The Lessons of History.

The verdict of history may be that the Welsh failed, in the 13th century, to develop the right structure to be a militarily successful nation.  According to Gerald, this was a political, not a military failure.  A nation of skilful freedom fighters was subdued militarily by an army of mercenaries and conscripts, despite the advantage of playing at home most of the time.  This is not, however, the whole story.

Before writing off the 13th century Welsh as losers, we should ask what they were supposed to be defending, and what they actually lost.  They were not slaughtered, sold into slavery, driven from their land, or forced to adopt a radically different way of life.  They stayed where they were, and maintained their customs, their laws (for at least another 200 years) and their language.  They did not become English or Norman.  They may have lost their taste for perpetual civil war and their ability (except during Glyndwr’s brief reign) to compete internationally, but perhaps the national cause was not important enough to sacrifice local independence and a way of life to achieve.

So will 21st Century Welsh rugby follow the example of 13th century Welsh politics and 20th century Welsh soccer and cricket, and be absorbed into a wider British structure? Or will Wales’s rugby princedoms accept the subordination of their own sovereignty to a national cause?  Welsh rugby would undoubtedly survive as a semi-professional game even if England and France ceased to find Wales competitive enough to play regularly as a nation.  It might mean the best Welsh rugby players competing at the highest level only as members of English teams. This scenario, arguably that of Welsh soccer today, is likely if preserving its current way of life is more important to Welsh rugby than doing whatever it takes to make the Welsh national team consistently successful.  And this was the same choice Gerald presented to his countrymen 800 years ago, presenting many of the same difficulties today as it did then.

So, as we trek in our thousands to Twickenham for our annual thrashing at the hands of the Saxons (or is it the Normans?), we should reflect on what we would be willing to give up to achieve consistent success as a rugby nation.  Would we be prepared, for example, to lose a strong club – your club, of course, not my club – if it meant a strong Wales? Like our ancestors, we may implicitly decide that this is too high a price. Then, if we lose the game, we can carry on blaming other clubs for over-promoting their players, denying national opportunity to far better players from our club!  And if we win, why, what was the problem, again?

¶ Descriptio Kambriae c. 1194:  Giraldus Cambrensis 1145?-1223:  available as

The Journey through Wales & The Description of Wales:  Gerald of Wales [tr. Lewis Thorpe]:  Penguin Classics 1978

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