A History of Sport In Wales

This book review looks into the role rugby union has played in welsh culture and how it has become part of the country’s national identity. This will be achieved by comparing and contrasting the viewpoints on the subject in two different books, by leading historians, that look at both rugby and its impact on creating a stronger sense of nationhood in Wales as the sport grew increasingly more popular in the mid-twentieth century.

The reason the two books were used in this review is that one offers a view on the relationship between rugby, history and society in Wales, whilst the other gives an overview of the history of sport in Wales and is not totally dedicated to rugby union. The former is ‘1905 and all that’ which is a book of essays by Gareth Williams a senior history lecturer . In the book he describes key moments in Welsh rugby in the twentieth century and how it became the nation’s favourite sport in less than thirty years.

The other book being reviewed is equally as insightful on a broader scale, it is ‘A history of sport in Wales’ by scholar Martin Johnes. This book focuses social, economic and political ideologies that shaped modern sport and also the role of industrialisation in the forming of sports in modern day Wales as well as other topics. When considering Johnes’ book in comparison to Williams in order to make it a fair analysis, the on chapters that will be considered in the review are chapters two and three as they cover a chronological period from the late Victorian era until the mid twentieth century.

This is done because this is the main period covered in Gareth Williams book which does run until about 1975 but focuses mainly between 1905 to 1950. Chapters one is still taken into account and also chapter four of Johnes book which is entitled ‘the television era 1958-2000 will also be touched on as it does consider important aspects, such as the importance of televised sport, that cannot be ignored when comparing and contrasting the two books. It is clear from the book 1905 and all that what the author is trying to achieve.

Williams aim was to trying and give a view or opinion on key sporting events in welsh rugby history and also to make clear that identity in Wales revolved around rugby and also to prove ‘welsh national identity was the product of a specific set of historical, economic and demographic circumstances which were fuelled by Welsh success internationally’1. One key element that is pointed out throughout the text and is integral to William’s thesis on the national identity of Wales is the fact that England lost access to Northern Union Players

Johnes is trying to give an overview of sport in Wales and what role sport has played in Wales socially, economically and politically. In his own words Johnes states ‘This book sets out to introduce readers to ideas and themes prevalent within academic sports history’. By this statement it is clear that he is writing a learned book that offers a scholarly historical insight that is also accessible to the public. Johnes’ book is part of a pocket guide series, this has proven useful to his writing as it is straight to the point and gives very interesting and insightfully honest comments.

One extremely relevant argument that is raised in these books is brought up by John Nauright who is a historian from Australia who reviewed the book as part of his work for Queensland University he states ‘If one was pressed to answer the question posed by Gwyn Williams’ thought-provoking title When Was Wales? , the answer suggested in this book would be on 16 December 1905 at Cardiff Arms Park. ‘2 This is obviously talking about the book By Gwyn Williams that delves into when Wales was willing to stand up and be counted as an independent nation.

The date given in the quote is made clear to be integral in the book as it was the date of the game between Wales and New Zealand, which is suggested as being the start of the revolution that brought national identity and rugby to combine as one in Wales. Also the first classic Welsh International rugby match. Johnes does not dispute this point, but does suggest that in 1881, which was the year the first Rugby international was played Wales, the start of international rugby ‘coincided with an industrial watershed that inflicted huge economic, environmental and social change on Wales.

This suggests that this is the date that National identity and Rugby in Wales began to inter-weave. Johnes does however describe the 1905 match as perhaps Welsh rugby’s ‘greatest moment’ and goes on to say that ‘The game proved to be defining moment in Welsh cultural history and cemented the popular relationship between rugby and welsh national identity that has endured until today. ‘4 Williams accredits the 1905 victory over the All-blacks as being integral to Rugby unifying with national identity, This ideology is backed up in Johnes book.

This shows that both books that have a differing layout and objectives come to the same conclusions on what is integral to the influence Rugby has on Welsh culture. Williams also states that rugby became engraved in the national consciousness ‘more through geographical and industrial factors than ethnic or cultural affinity. ‘5 Another key point that should be discussed when reviewing the two books in question is the influence each book had on the other.

Johnes points out in his preface that he is grateful to a Gareth Williams for reading and commenting on various chapters of his book. This suggests that Johnes values Williams’ opinion on the history of sport in Wales. This is also shown by the amount of quotes from 1905 and all that and shows why the books are so similar in their viewpoints on why as Williams clearly had an influence on Welsh history and on Johnes’ book.

As Williams’ book is dedicated to rugby in Wales it is very useful as a source to historians such as Johnes who are looking at the entire spectrum of Welsh sporting history. This shows how Williams’ book is relevant within a wider body of literature. Williams is also the official Historian of the Welsh Rugby Union so has been held in high regard by his peers. Johnes has also received much acclaim for his book Aberfan: Government and disasters.

There can only be few withdrawals to the history of welsh rugby that is given in William’s book, the key argument against the usefulness of the book when using it for an insight into welsh rugby is that it is not a chronological history of the sport rather a collection of essays, this has some effects on how a historian could use this as a reliable source, however the topics that are covered that delve into rugby and its effect on culture in Wales capture the country’s heart extremely effectively.

The only area that can be critiqued in Johnes book is something that he had no control over when writing it and that is that the history of sport and society in Wales is dominated by males due to a lack of documentation and coverage of women’s sports. This point is suggested by Johnes in the introduction and he accepts these as shortcomings of the book ,as a complete overview of sport in Wales, that he is unable to remedy due to a lack of source material.

Also Johnes’ covers a large period of sporting history that spans from the late Victorian period up to modern day sport in Wales so therefore the detail is restricted by its broadness and also its selective nature. In conclusion the most important issue that must be considered when comparing and contrasting the opinions laid out in these two books is the the way in which rugby became the national sport of Wales and the factors that contributed to this.

The two books vary in structure as on offers a culturally insightful take on key sporting events whilst the other is a detailed chronological history of Welsh sport, however they both offer very insightful and compelling social and cultural histories of Wales and are very similar in their key objectives. Both books agree that Rugby is a national institution in Wales due to many different factors ranging from awe-inspiring matches such as the 1905 match against New Zealand to the fact that the Northern Union Game could not compete with the affection given to Rugby Union in Wales.


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