Rugby Union internationals between England and Wales are often passionate and fiercely contested affairs, but Saturday’s Six Nations match between the old rivals at Twickenham, England, would have to go some way to match the excess of emotion that marred their 1980 encounter at “headquarters” and ensured lasting infamy for Paul Ringer after the Wales back-row was sent off.
During the 1970s, a largely miserable decade for the UK, Wales was the dominant force in the then Five Nations.
As the 1980s dawned, English forwards were determined to avoid fresh humiliation, while Welsh resentment at their treatment by the government of then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher spilled onto the rugby pitch.
“The atmosphere was evil,” Eddie Butler, Wales’ No. 8 at Twickenham that day, told the Mail on Sunday. “There was the Welsh steelworkers’ strike, which made it more of a social crusade than a game.”
Both sides had won their opening fixtures and right from the start, there were incidents of stamping, which in the modern professional era of television match officials would no doubt have led to immediate red cards.
As it was, Irish referee David Burnett — who would recall the game as the “dirtiest match I ever refereed” — warned England captain Bill Beaumont and Wales skipper Jeff Squire that the next act of foul play would see a player sent off.
With just 13 minutes played, Ringer became only the second Welsh player to be ordered from the field after bowling over John Horton, as the England fly-half cleared from his 22.
It was an innocuous clash by the standards of what had preceded, but Burnett was as good as his word.
“I was going like a bat out of hell and attempting to charge down the ball,” Ringer told the Western Mail last year.
“I had my hands up, but he [Horton] was too quick for me. I could not stop,” Ringer said. “It was nothing — he did not even go down. But there had been a warning and, I suppose, someone had to be sent off.”
“It was [England’s] Peter Wheeler who got me sent off,” Ringer added. “He came over [after the incident] and said: ‘Ref, there’s going to be a bloodbath here if you don’t sort him out!’ That made up his mind for him.”
Wales still scored two tries to none, yet lost 9-8, with England full-back Dusty Hare kicking three penalties — the last in stoppage-time.
It was a win that formed part of a Grand Slam for Beaumont’s men, England’s first Championship clean sweep since 1957.
The following day an international disciplinary committee banned Ringer for eight weeks and he only played one more game for Wales.
Butler said that the incident led to Wales losing a vital edge at the start of a decade far removed from their glory days of the 1970s.
“It was like we were being told to get back on the horse, but they’d taken away our spurs,” he said.
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