Twenty-five years ago, when the Millennium Stadium was still under development, Wales played its home games at Wembley. In the final Five Nations match they ‘hosted’ an English team chasing a Grand Slam, although a Welsh win would give the title to Scotland. Even with a spectacular 34-33 victory over France in the previous match, Graham Henry’s team were major underdogs in the home of English football.
Here, some of the key players of that day relive their memories.
Matt Perry, England full-back: The old Wembley was an interesting stadium. The changing rooms were almost below ground level and you had to walk up this huge hill to get to the pitch and it was all Wales. Max Boyce was there singing and there were goats in the field. You just thought ‘phew, wait a minute, we’re in England but this is a home game in Wales’. I was lucky enough to have played in some great stadiums around the world, but that was the most intense atmosphere I’ve experienced.
Dafydd James, Wales wing: There seemed to be celebrities everywhere. Tom Jones was sitting in the players’ box talking to all our wives and girlfriends. My parents sat right next to Prince William and Harry. It was an extraordinary explosion of color and sound, I wish I had enjoyed it more.
Colin Charvis, Wales winger: When you played as a forward against the English squad, you just didn’t participate in that carnival atmosphere. I know it happened, that Tom Jones, Max Boyce and Catatonia were there, but I just blocked out a lot of it.
James: Craig Quinnell had this ritual where he hit the goal post before every game. If I remember correctly, I think he broke his thumb doing that because Wembley had a different set of posts, but there was no way anyone was pulling out of that match.
Perry set up Dan Luger for the opening try after just two minutes and teenage wing Steve Hanley scored on his debut midway through the first half, but Neil Jenkins’ boot drew Wales level at 15-15. Just before half-time, Richard Hill takes advantage of a collision between Gareth Thomas and Shane Howarth to score a try that makes it 25-15, but another Jenkins penalty, his sixth, ensures it is a one-score match that sees the second half starts.
Charvis: The metaphor that has always been in my mind is that of a heron with a frog halfway down its throat and the frog’s hands squeezing the heron’s neck as he holds on for dear life. It’s just not giving in, not letting go. Neil Jenkins’ boot and a bit of resilience from the rest of the team, plus England not having a few shots on target, meant we held on. We held on to the heron’s neck until it finally coughed us up.
Neil Back, England flanker: Hats off to them for staying in the game, we could never get away. We had a lot of confidence in that match. We felt in control scoring three tries and Jonny was scoring points throughout, but so was Jenks for Wales.
James: Neil scored goals everywhere, which was important because I think it’s fair to say England played the better rugby and really should have been out of sight. Against the old enemy, you must believe in yourself. It’s a pride, it’s more than just a game. It is undoubtedly our World Cup final every year. You have that never-say-die attitude. There were moments in that game where you thought ‘crikey, this isn’t going to be our day’, but Neil Jenkins kept us in it.
Howarth’s converted try brings Wales level, but a pair of penalties from Wilkinson give England a 31-25 lead heading into the closing stages, when they get another penalty within kick range. However, Lawrence Dallaglio chooses to kick to the corner and Wales defend the driving maul.
Back: With two minutes to go we learned a very important lesson and with a six point lead Jonny could have put the ball between the posts with both feet. That would have meant Wales should have scored twice. We did not use that option and kicked to the corner, causing the lineout to go wrong.
Charvis: I remember thinking well of them because they took the death or glory approach.
Perry: It’s too easy to say we should have done this or that, but there were a lot of mistakes in that last quarter. You know when you’re on the back foot as a team when you start making really unusual mistakes.
That Scott Gibbs is trying
The match enters injury time when England back row Tim Rodber is penalized for a no-arms tackle on Charvis, allowing Jenkins to kick the penalty to the edge of the England 22.
Charvis: I hadn’t been out for long because of the penalty that led to the kick to touch. I’m pretty sure I still saw stars at the lineout.
James: It probably would have been a red card nowadays. We discussed the move before walking to the lineout, Garin Jenkins’ quick throw to Chris Wyatt, straight through to Rob Howley and then using Scott Quinnell’s foil. No one thought he would pass the ball, but he gave this beautifully timed pass and Gibbsy ran the perfect line so it went straight past Neil Back. Then he started to sidestep, which he rarely did.
Perry: I always supported myself one on one. I worked a lot on my positioning to get the right angle and technique. But on that day there was no way I could stop him. I tackled Jonah Lomu with one cuff, but Gibbsy’s energy and forward momentum meant that even if I grabbed his calf or even his shoelace, there was no way I could stop him. I tried, but next week he bumped into me. As quite a few people remind me, I missed the tackle that cost England the Grand Slam.
Charvis: It’s not that common in test match rugby to score tries in the first phase. It just needs that little bit of magic. All I remember is chasing after his running legs, thinking someone would tackle him and that I could make a career here if he let go. But he scores and the first person to throw their arms around him and shout for joy is me.
Neil Jenkins’ conversion gives Wales a famous 32-31 victory, denying England the Grand Slam and handing the final Five Nations title to Scotland.
Charvis: I don’t know if it’s true, but there’s an anecdote about Clive Woodward going up the stairs to pick up the trophy and Graham Henry telling him to sit back down. Why should the truth get in the way of a good story?
Perry: One of my big memories was that no one in the England team spoke after the match. We walked to our dressing room without anyone speaking. We’ve changed, but still no one is talking. We walked to the coach and there were white men with vans pushing all these boxes of English Grand Slam T-shirts into the back of their vans. We were like sorry guys, you didn’t sell any today.
James: We were staying in London and there were a few Welsh celebrities at our after party, like Cerys Matthews from Catatonia and Tom Jones. There were no cell phones or cameras in those days, which is probably a good thing, and we sang long into the night. The following week Scotland sent us all a bottle of Famous Grouse, which was a nice gesture from the Jocks.
Charvis: The next day we left around 11 am so we could go to the liquor store to stock up for the bus trip. When we returned there were flags on all the bridges and thousands of people there to greet us. It was such a glimmer of hope about how good we could be. We had a fairly mediocre tournament, but that was the start of a ten-match winning streak for us. The supporters always believed in us, but that gave us something tangible to believe in ourselves.
Back: Although it was very painful, we thank Wales for teaching us that lesson, because in future matches we took the three points and the opposition chased us. The following year against Italy I took that message about building up the score and dropped a goal for England when we were only six points ahead. It was painful, but we learned an important lesson that served us four years later at the 2003 World Cup.
Perry: It was devastating, but the same thing happened in 2000 and 2001 (losing the Grand Slam) before winning in 2003. I just think it was a great spectacle for rugby as a sport. I’ve spoken to a lot of Welsh people over the years and I have Welsh heritage myself and they call it a defining moment, but in a way it was a defining moment for both teams.