The historic Romanian Tour of 1954

The following article has been submitted by Josh David-Read, studying at Swansea university:

Mission behind the Iron Curtain: The Whites tour to Romania in 1954.

Swansea Rugby Club were the first western Rugby club to visit and play behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, in Romania, in 1954. On this tour they played two games, one against Locomotive and the other against Asociatia Sportiva Constructorul Bucaresti  Club. It is described as mission because ‘Missionary Games’ were used by established clubs to promote the game of rugby, and help other clubs become established. The ‘All Whites’ throughout their history have played numerous Missionary Games to help other teams, but on this tour in 1954 the missionary games were of historic significance. After a successful tour they returned and the Romanians came to St Helens the following year to replay The ‘All Whites’, exposing the West to Eastern Rugby and the East to Western Rugby. The Whites tour behind ‘The Iron Curtain’ happened three years before the Llanelli Rugby Club’s alleged “First western game behind the iron curtain” in 1957. The ambitious and pioneering trip to Romania is detailed in the following article.

How did the tour come about?

The event, in which Rugby was the most popular sport, was organised because of the Liberation Celebrations, marking 20 years of Romania’s liberation from German occupation in 1944. Other than Swansea, 8 other sports teams went to Romania (all representing different sports). Out of the 9 teams Swansea was one of only two to return with a win.

The idea of Swansea going on a Romanian tour came about when Welsh swimmer Dick Smale introduced Swansea Committee member Bruce Barter to the idea of a tour in Romania.

How Dick Smale came to ask Swansea RFC to travel to Romania. South Wales Daily Post 10th Aug. 1954

Both Cambridge and Cardiff were both also considered for the tour, however due to the ‘All Whites’ impressive record against touring sides they were chosen as the team to be invited behind the iron curtain.

Upon departure of the Swansea players from the Swansea High Street Station, where a leaving party attended, skipper R. C. C. (‘Clem’) Thomas told a reporter of the evening post; “I feel that this trip can do nothing but good… The game of rugby is obviously spreading throughout the world and we shall do our best to carry on this good work.” ‘Clem’ Thomas bore with him two pennants, made by his wife, as a present to the captain of each Romanian club.

In London, whilst waiting for their flight to Eastern Europe The ‘All Whites’ were entertained by the Romanian Minister M. Pavel Babuci and were toasted with  Romanian Wine. The gesture illustrated how Rugby could break down the strained barriers facing East and West during the time of the cold war. The flight to Romania was dogged by bad weather. Two of the three planes that carried the Swansea Squad and that of tour manager Rowe Harding, were diverted. Of the players on the plane that did arrive on schedule, Horace Philips, as the most senior player present was designated Master of Ceremonies and had to deal with all the formalities until the rest of the team were brought to Bucharest.  

South Wales Daily Post 14th Aug. 1954

The ‘All Whites’ squad from Paddington Station before leaving the country. Restored by David Dow (Swansea RFC Archives).

W.O. Williams, R.C.C Thomas (The Team Captain), W.D. Johnson, Horace Phillips  and Terry Davies were all Welsh internationals. Bruce Barter is seen in the back row, far left.

First Impressions behind the Iron Curtain

Bruce Barter and Co would have felt like complete strangers in Bucharest, Romania. Bruce Barter said in his diary of the tour: “Experience of slogans on walls and busts of Stalin everywhere”.

Excerpt from Bruce barter’s Diary (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)

This was far from what life in Britain and especially Swansea was like during the 1950s. There were military parades and shows of strength, coupled with the constant slogans and depictions of the dictator Stalin, reinforcing the message of who was in charge.  Vivian ‘Matty’ Davies, who played on the tour, said in an interview many years later, that he was sure that the Swansea rooms were bugged because the Romanians knew what they had discussed the previous night. But he also said they were not restricted, and they could go wherever they wanted. They went to a park called Banyata Park most days. An interpreter had been placed at their disposal and they had been allowed to go where they pleased although their hosts “did like them to have some kind of time-table arranged”.

Banyata Park outside Bucharest, where the ‘All Whites’ went to relax. (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com) Group shot of Swansea players by the lake in Banyata Park (L to R): Morwyn Morgan, Jim Rees, Owen Hughes, Trevor Petherbridge, Wyn Bratton, Glyn Rees, Viv (“Matty”) Davies, Teifion Williams, Ron Bolsh, Horace Phillips. (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)
A military parade in Bucharest celebrating Liberation Day. (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)

This indicates that the Romanians were careful with what the Swansea players saw. Although Romania was not under Soviet control in the 1950s, it was still controlled by the Communist party, under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who in 1948 implemented a soviet style constitution. This severed links with Western culture, jailed teachers and intellectuals, introduced the Russian-language and re-wrote much of Romania’s history to highlight Russia’s contributions and attempted to re-define the nation’s identity by stressing its Slavic influences and dismissing their Western roots. In the extremely brutal regime, a large number of people were executed or died in custody during communist Romania’s existence, most during the Stalinist era of the 1950s. While judicial executions between 1945 and 1964 numbered 137, deaths in custody are estimated in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Many more were imprisoned for political, economic or other reasons and suffered abuse, torture and/or death.

However, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Gheorghiu-Dej forged a “New Course” for Romania. They remained firmly Communist and stayed within the Eastern bloc but now Romania wanted to open itself back up to the Western world. The Liberation Games were used to redefine its identity and make a good impression to the Western world. This can be seen in how the Romanian Sports Federation treated the Swansea team, the sports federation showed itself to be concerned with the comfort and pleasure of the Swansea team. They had special seats of honour in the viewing of the Liberation parade. They also attended international contests in wrestling, soccer, boxing and basketball. In many ways The All Whites were treated by the Romanian government as more than just rugby players, but as ambassadors from the Western world.  

Game One: Swansea vs Locomotive Bucharest

Final Score: Swans 12 – 22 Locomotive Bucharest

Views of the Stadionul 23 August – capacity 80,000. (at least 50,000 watches Swansea’s first game) (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)

On Sunday 23rd August at 3pm ‘The  Whites’ walked out at ‘Stadionul 23 August’ against a Locomotive Bucharest side that had won the Rugby Youth Festival tournament held in Bucharest the previous year. ‘Matty’ Davies in an interview describes the Romanians as a strong team, stating; “They were a picked team. They loaded their team [with internationals].” Against strong opposition and 50,000 onlookers in attendance, Swansea began the game with the following line-up:

 Backs:

Terry Davies (1 Pen), Ron Bolsh (1 D/Goal), Morwyn Morgan, Horace Phillips, Gwyn Lawrence, Carwyn James (1 try), Goronwy Morgan.

Forwards:

Peter Stone, Clem Thomas ©, Bruce Thomas, Dil Johnson, Jim Rees, Dickie Dobbs, Trevor Petherbridge, Billy Williams.

Match programme from the game against the locomotive Bucharest team. The Swansea players are drawn as caricatures by “Gora”.  (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com).

The conditions of the first half did not suit the Swansea players, who were more used to a cooler environment. With a first half score of 14 – 0 to Locomotive it was expressed by most of the newspapers that “the heat affected the players”. ‘Matty’ Davies also states that it was a “fast game, beneath the hot sun” and that “they were better suited to the conditions than the Welshmen”. But the second half was cooler, and Swansea’s play improved considerably. Points were scored by Carwyn James and Morwyn Morgan (Tries). Terry Davies kicked a penalty and Ron Bolsch, a drop goal. However, there were injuries in the game; Terry Davies dislocated his shoulder and Horace Philips broke his hand and had a slight concussion. In the first game it was the speed of the Romanian backs and power of their forwards that told against Swansea.

Captain Clem Thomas leads out the Swansea team for their 1st game of the Rumanian tour versus the Locomotive club that was played in temperature above 100 degrees. This greatly affected Swansea who lost 23-12.  (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com). This is action from the game versus Locomotive on 21st August 1954. In the 2nd game 5 days later, which was played in the evening and in cooler conditions, Swansea defeated Constructor by 16-5.  (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com).
Game play of Swansea vs. Locomotive

After the first game [v Locomotive Bucharest] ‘Matty’ said the British Ambassador told him to bring four other Swansea players and himself to supper. He took Carwyn James, Dickie Dobbs, Gwyn Lawrence and one more player whom he couldn’t remember. “We were told not to answer any difficult questions [asked by the Romanians]”. After the first game Swansea returned to their hotel to eat and did not have an official post-match dinner with the Romanians. But they had all had a drink together after the game and ‘Matty’ Davies recalled that they had got on “very well. They [Romanians] drank like hell!”.

‘All Whites’ training at the Stadionul 23 August (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)

Game Two: Swansea vs Constructional Club

Final Score:  Swansea 16-5 Constructional Club

Stade Dynamo – capacity 30,000. (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com)

At the request of the Swansea team the kick off was delayed until later in the day because of how the heat affected the players in the first game.so the atmosphere was cooler. However, because of a national football game in the stadium on the night of 25th. It was moved from 3pm on 25th to 5.30pm on the 26th. 25,000 Romanians were in attendance at the “Stadionul Dinamo”. Constructional Club composed of men working in the Cement, Pottery, Brick making and building industries. The newspapers considered Constructional Club one of the youngest and one of the best teams in the country, alongside the Locomotive Side. The Swansea team is thought to have been:

Backs:

Wyn Bratton (2 Cons, 1 D/goal), Teifion Williams, Ron Bolsh (1 D/Goal), Morwyn Morgan, Gwyn Lawrence, Carwyn James, Viv ‘Matty’ Davies

Forwards:

Owen Hughes (1 try), Clem Thomas ©, Bruce Thomas, Dil Johnson, Jim Rees (1 try), Dickie Dobbs, Trevor Petherbridge, Billy Williams.

Swansea’s play was vastly improved in the second game compared to the first. Their first half was described as being full of “stylish plays and tries”.

The first try involved a Jim Rees exchange where lock Bruce Thomas opened second lock Rees up for a touch down between the posts. The second try occurred after a fine breakthrough by Teifon Williams on the wing allowing Owen Hughes to score a try. Wyn Bratton converted both tries. With seconds to go before first half ended full-back Wyn Bratton scored a long-range drop goal to end the half 13-nil to the Whites. It was reported that the chant “Come on Swansea” was heard throughout the stadium coming from the Romanians in attendance.

Pennant presented to Swansea RFC by the Constructor Club (Swansea RFC Archives)

The All Whites kept up the momentum in the second half when Ron Bolsch scored a drop goal after receiving the ball from a scrum; 16-nil. 18 minutes from the end Mladin for Constructional Club scored a try which was converted by fellow player Constatin.

Upon returning to Wales Judge Rowe Harding, the other Swansea committee man in the party said he had not expected the Romanians to be quite as good as they proved to be. He told the Evening Post, 30th August 1954 “They have a natural genius for the game and all the basic skill”. They knew all the technique for forward play, tackled hard and their covering defence was quite magnificent. Their passing was at top speed, but he would not say there was a great deal of subtlety about their play. Mr Barter said that Romania play Rugby as “a science and a business.” He also said that Swansea had no complaints with the French referee who was in charge of the two games, one of which they lost. He handled them quite well and they could not grumble. French was of course, the second language in Romania, which explained the choice of a Frenchman to officiate.

Two of the players were injured during the tour. Mr Barter said Horace Philips who had broken a small bone in the hand, was not expected to be out of the game very long. Full back Terry Davies, however, had sustained a recurrence of an old shoulder injury – a dislocated shoulder – and it seemed to him (Mr Barter) that he might require an operation to put it right, although it would depend on a doctor’s report. The reception of the All whites in Romania was very good, Barter saying, they had a wonderful time. Everyone had been very kind and match crowds were a “sporting lot.”

It was of the success of the tour, and the treatment of the Swansea team by the Romanians that motivated Swansea to invite Romania to Wales and play at St Helen’s

Romania at St Helen’s

Final Score: Swansea 3 – 39 Romania XV

Swansea went into the game strong, their warm up game, against a District XV ended in a 35-3 win for the All Whites at the University College grounds. The acting Skipper, Horace Philips, who played and got injured in the first game of the Romanian tour, said to the Evening Post he had every confidence in the side being able to overcome the Romanian challenge and that the All Whites were fitter than they had ever been. The All Whites changed their playing strategy for the game against the Romanians. They adopted an un-orthodox set-up called the inside-centre plan, which was designed to create openings and keep the opposition guessing.

Romania took the lead after 10 minutes when Penciu kicked a 35-yard penalty, 22 minutes later Prosser Harries kept the game alive for Swansea with a penalty. Ionescu for Romania gave Romania a 3 point lead just before half-time with another 35-yard penalty.

Match programme from Swansea’s game against the Romanian XV at St Helen’s on 3rd September 1955 (Swansea RFC Archives)

In the second half Romania turned up the pace of the game, Marcirache increasing the lead with a try, which Penciu converted. Luric put them further ahead with an unconverted try. In the closing minutes of the game Moraru, breaking from his own half, weaved through the “tiring” Swansea defenders to score a spectacular try which Penciu converted. Swansea lost the match to the Romanian XV by 3 – 39. The Evening Post described the Romanian side as having “speedy forwards, quickness into the tackle and superb goalkicking and fitness”. For the rest of their tour Romania played Cardiff (L), Bristol (D) and Harlequins (D).

Action from Swansea v Romanian XV at St Helen’s 3rd September 1953 (Courtesy of Magnus Bowles at www.sportpages.com).

Defection

An interesting story from the Romanian’s visit to Swansea in 1955 was largely unknown until ‘Matty’ Davies was interviewed about the tour in 2009. It concerned the defection of a Romanian player to the UK. Swansea player Dil Johnson (a serving policeman) came to ‘Matty’s house on the Thursday before the match at St Helen’s against the Romanian XV (played on 3rd Sept. 1955). He was accompanied by two MI5 officers. A Romanian player (either a centre or back-row player) wanted to defect to the UK and they wanted ‘Matty’ to help facilitate it. He was told: “Don’t say anything. Keep it quiet.” ‘Matty’ was to meet the player at the Rialto Café at the bottom of Wind Street after the match. Straight after the match ‘Matty’ sat next to the Romanian player to check he was the right man. ‘Matty’ arranged that his (‘Matty’s) wife would meet he player afterwards and go for a walk with him after the post-match dinner. The second language in Romania was French. ‘Matty’s wife was a teacher and fluent in French, so could converse with the Romanian. Then as planned ‘Matty’ went with the player along the Pier (Mumbles). At this point he inadvertently saw Swansea players Horace Phillips and Gwyn Lawrence passing. They did not know what ‘Matty’ was doing and ‘Matty’ recalled: “I couldn’t tell them.” He and the Romanian “walked along the front at Langland where two men were to appear and take him [Romanian] away, which they duly did, and I never heard any more from him.” It would be interesting to know where he ended up in the UK, what his life was like whilst he was here and if he is still alive. However, there is no knowing and all we have left are these anecdotal memories from ‘Matty’ Davies’s astounding memory. ‘Matty’ passed away in 2016.

Conclusion

The ‘All Whites’ tour to Romania, although they lost one of the two games, should be seen as a massive success. The purpose of the missionary games was to spread the game of Rugby and in this case, help the Romanian teams develop. The book “Danie Craven on Rugby 1953” given to the Romanian Rugby Federation by the ‘All Whites’ exemplifies this. Written by South African player Danie Craven who is remembered as being one of South Africa’s best scrum-half’s, the book included a wide range of new tactics and plays which would help the budding rugby nation of Romania. The Romania XV subsequently travelling to St Helen’s in 1955 and defeating the ‘All Whites’ should not be seen as a failure. The tour further enhanced the great reputation of Swansea as a rugby club. As the Romanians pointed out, they were selected “because of their fame and tradition”.

There is another side to this story however, in what it shows us about life in Eastern Europe. What became evident with the story about the Romanians defection to the UK in the 1955 tour was that life in Romania could not have been that easy or enjoyable for the inhabitants of Romania. Even with a political and cultural divide between East and West, the game of Rugby blurred that divide and brought the two nations together.

‘Matty’ Davies (right)  and David Price reminisce on past games. These 2009 aural recordings brought forth ‘Matty’s story of MI5 and the defection. (Club Archives).
TEAM P W D L PF PA PTS
Aberavon 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Bridgend Ravens 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Cardiff 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Carmarthen Quins 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ebbw Vale 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Llandovery 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Llanelli 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Merthyr 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Newport 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Pontypridd 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Rygbi Gogledd Cymru 1404 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Swansea 0 0 0 0 0 0 0