|Place Of Birth||Swansea|
Born on 2nd March 1871 in Swansea, William John (“Billy”) Bancroft was one of Welsh rugby’s first superstars. In a time where rough forward play predominated, Billy Bancroft entered the fray as a short but very confident back. He stood only 5’ 5 ½” tall but his stature on the rugby field was immeasurably taller.
A cobbler by trade, Bancroft grew up living in the groundsman’s cottage at the Mumbles end of the St Helens ground in Swansea, where his father was the incumbent groundsman. W J Bancroft senior was a keen cricketer and played for Swansea Cricket Club as had his own father. Billy junior was a good all-rounder and in his teens, turned out for the cricket club. He also loved rugby and it was in this sport that he was to establish his reputation in the town, country and internationally. As a youngster he played for the Swansea Excelsiors and Brynymor clubs in the District League.
His first game for Swansea RFC 1st XV was a tough initiation against arch rivals Newport at the Rodney Parade ground on October 5th 1889. Billy played at full back, a position he was to dominate for well over a decade for club and country. His debut, however, in the drawn match in Newport, drew scant praise from the Cambrian newspaper’s recently appointed sports correspondent “Argus” who, though “pleased at the way he did his work”, was “doubtful” as to Bancroft’s abilities as a tackler.
This was a criticism during the youngster’s early career (he was 19 years old on his Swansea debut) that was to stay with him, somewhat unfairly, as he improved this aspect of his game very quickly. Being such a diminutive custodian of the goal line, he was forced to improve defensively and later reports that season note his sureness in defence. When Newport came to St Helens on 16th November that same year, “Argus” noted that ‘Banky’ saved a near certain try by the Newport back George Thomas when he “brought him to earth in fine style”.
This was typical of the approach to his game. Practice was an integral part of Bancroft’s sporting life and he used his proximity to the St Helens ground to hone his passing and especially his kicking skills. He was said to be able to place a kick from the corner flag and bend it between the posts with startling regularity.
It was Billy Bancroft’s prolific points kicking that saw him gain his first Welsh cap. Newport’s full back Tom England had been selected to play in the first international of 1890, which was against Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park on 1st February. He withdrew as injured and W J Bancroft, as the reserve name, was duly selected at full back, this after just 17 senior matches for the Swansea 1st XV. Wales, under the captaincy of the famous Arthur Gould, were beaten by a goal and two tries to a try from the Welsh captain. But Bancroft held his place despite a mixed contribution. He had failed to clear his lines in the first half and was “collared close to his own goal line, when he might well have got his kick in”. His performance in the second half improved, however, and his selection for the following match against England was confirmed. ‘Banky’ never looked back.
One of many highlights in his international career came in 1893, when England were the foe at Cardiff. Wales had only beaten them once (1890) and it was the first international of the season. With Wales trailing 9 – 11 and time running out, they were awarded a penalty and Bancroft told his captain, Arthur Gould, he would drop kick it. Gould refused to allow it and they argued while the crowd watched amazed at the disruption on pitch. Gould threw the ball down and ‘Banky’, without hesitation dropped the goal, turning before it landed to shout: “It’s there Arthur!” The final whistle blew shortly after. Bancroft had known, almost alone among those gathered, that the IRB had amended the points for drop goals the day before and while many Welsh supporters left the ground thinking the game was drawn, Wales had won and went on to their first ever Triple Crown. After the ‘Gould affair’ and Arthur Gould’s retirement from international football, Bancroft took the captain’s armband for Wales. He was to captain them eleven times. His last match for Wales was as captain against Ireland on his beloved St Helens ground in 1901. He had scored 60 points for Wales including 20 conversions, 1 drop goal, 4 penalty goals and 1 goal from a mark. In his tenure as full back in the red jersey he took every penalty Wales were awarded. A tremendous contribution.
Confidence was at the heart of his game. He always backed himself to get out of trouble and usually did. One of his tactics in a match was to run to a corner flag on fielding the ball, only to dart away toward the other home corner when nearly closed down by opposing forwards who would be tired out in their pursuit of the “Swansea imp”. This action he would repeat, leading opposing players back and forth across the pitch before letting fly a pinpoint kick for touch, often while running at full tilt to the delight of supporters and infuriation of his opponents. Of course there was risk in this and when he was caught, he was roughly handled by the other team, to the cheers of their own crowd. On one occasion, in the international of 1899 against Ireland in Cardiff, the huge crowd encroached onto the pitch and the Ryan brothers (Micky and John) caught Bancroft in his running game as he tried to avoid the legs and feet of the pushing crowd and threw him bodily into their midst, breaking his ribs. This meant he unfortunately had to miss the end of season match that Swansea had arranged in Paris against a combined French side. The team won comfortably without their injured captain.
Billy Bancroft became captain of the Swansea club where he played his whole career, during 1893-94. He took the baton over from the three-quarter Charlie Coke, who, though a popular player, had a rough season with injuries and the departure of prominent players. Bancroft had steadfastly supported Coke in his unenviable role of keeping the side together. His reward was the captaincy in the following season. Still a young player himself, he made way at season’s end for the experienced back Teddy Thorogood, having overseen a transitional phase in the club and captained a side that won 16 out of 35 games, losing 11 and drawing 8. The experience was to stand him in good stead as custodian of the “All Whites” captaincy for five consecutive seasons from 1896-97 to 1900-01. The Swansea side was transformed during this period, becoming Welsh champions (or ‘Premier Club’ in the speak of the day) first in 1898-99, and retaining the title for the next six seasons bar a runners up spot in 1902-03. When he retired from first class rugby at the end of 1902-03, Swansea were on the verge of greatness and the “Invincible” season of 1904-05. The club had myriad stars at this time including half backs the James Brothers David and Evan, Dickie Owen and Dick Jones, forwards Will Joseph, Fred Scrine, D J Thomas, three-quarters George Davies, Fred Jowett, Dan Rees, the great Billy Trew, Frank “Genny” Gordon and Billy’s own brother Jack Bancroft, who went on to fill the place of full back for Wales up to the Great War. But Billy Bancroft was the first name to win wider renown from the Swansea club and his record of 33 consecutive appearances for Wales stood unsurpassed till equalled by Ken Jones in 1954.
Following his retirement for first class rugby (he continued for a season to play when injuries required, for Swansea) Billy Bancroft continued his association with the club and continued to play cricket for the Swansea Cricket club. In his time he’d played cricket for West Glamorgan (becoming their first professional player in 1895), West Wales and the West of England as a right handed batsman, right arm medium pace bowler and wicket keeper of some note. He became a groundsman at St Helens as his father had been and was a regular face at the ground whether Swansea or Glamorgan played there. Billy Bancroft died in Swansea on 3rd March 1959 aged 88.
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