Barry author breathes new life into Welsh rugby history

Barry author breathes new life into Welsh rugby history

An illustrated account of Welsh rugby’s past is set to provide a new look at the role the game has played in this country.  

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Due for release next month, An Illustrated History of Welsh Rugby: Fun, Facts and Stories from 140 Years of International Rugby promises to show the game “like you’ve never experienced it before”, including “tales of fighting clergymen, poisoned arrows and deathbed confessionals”.

Its Czech-based author, James Stafford, has already enjoyed recent success with a web-based graphic novel, The Sorrowful Putto of Prague, which won praise from none other than actor Samuel L. Jackson. Further kudos came in the form of The Cure keyboardist Roger O’Donnell composing a piece of music for its online soundtrack. Stafford has retained the talents of Romanian illustrator Raluca Moldovan for his new rugby book.

But first, how did a Barry boy end up living in Prague? Stafford initially moved to the city as a student on the Erasmus programme (“First I fell in love with the place; then I fell in love with a local, who’s now my wife”). After eight years in Dublin and a further six in London, he and his wife decided they wanted to raise their children in the Czech Republic.

Far from this being his first foray into rugby writing, Stafford has edited The East Terrace since 2004, and written rugby reports for the likes of the Irish Independent, the Telegraph and the South Wales Evening Post. “All this opened a lot of doors for me, along with the fact that I already had a book out in the Czech Republic, so when I went to the publishers with the idea of an illustrated history of Welsh rugby, it was a nice way of showing them I knew what I was doing.”

Stafford, who as a youngster played for Barry Plastics RFC (now Sully Sports), says the seeds of the book were sown during his childhood. “I got into rugby when I was about nine, and in my first season watching Wales they won the Triple Crown,” he says. “I was the sort of kid who, when I got into something, I wanted to read up on it. So my mum went out and bought all these books on rugby history. It blew my mind when I found out that Wales were playing international matches at the same time Billy the Kid was running around in America’s Wild West!”

Barry author breathes new life into Welsh rugby history

This image, by artist Raluca Moldovan, depicts Wales' first ever international rugby match in 1881.

Despite being an avid reader, the young Stafford recognised that most of the Welsh rugby tomes he was reading could be inaccessible, stuffy or scholarly (or all of the above). “I have young kids now who have grown up outside Wales, and there aren’t a lot of books about the game’s history for younger people,” says Stafford, who coaches Czech side Nyrsko RFC in his spare time. “The original idea was going to be solely for their demographic, but the idea now is that a ten-year-old will enjoy it as much as a forty-year-old.

“Every chapter begins with contextualising the different eras. In the 19th century, for example, it’ll explain the economics, culture and industrialisation of Wales at the time – but in a very accessible way. There hasn’t been a chronological history of the national team for a while, and nobody’s illustrated this kind of book before either. It allows you to have a bit of fun that you couldn’t have with photographs. A lot of the photos used in history books are from eighty or a hundred years ago – many of them the same ones, so if you’ve read one book on Welsh rugby history, you’ve seen most of the images you’ll get to see in every other book too.”

One thing the book underlines is how rugby and Welsh society are intertwined. “The 1920s was a really interesting chapter to write because the Welsh economy was decimated and people were leaving in droves,” Stafford recounts. “That meant the clubs were closing and people didn’t have money to spend to go to rugby matches. All that impacted on the players and it set off a chain effect. You can’t separate those two things.”

How the nation performed on the rugby field, then, is how Wales viewed itself as a people. “During the first golden era of rugby, some people saw the team’s performance as a sign that Wales could be an independent nation,” suggests Stafford. “Because the players were clever and creative. ‘Look at what great men we have’. I don’t think you can write about history and ignore sport.”

An impressive amount of detail has gone into the creation of the book. For example, every Wales kit ever worn has been illustrated by Welsh artist Anne Cakebread. In his exhaustive research, Stafford discovered that Wales had a small Umbro logo on their jersey for one game (against Australia in 1975). Such dedication to the little details can take its toll, he admits. “Two days ago I had a nightmare that I’d left a shirt out from 1995. It was 4am and I was stressed out about it. It turned out it didn’t even exist…”

Barry author breathes new life into Welsh rugby history

The cover for the book by Carys Feehan, who won a scholarship at the prestigious CalArts thanks to her exhibition on Welsh art and rugby.

The project has proved to be a family affair. The book is dedicated to Stafford’s father, Michael, back in Barry (as well as the aforementioned Sully Sports), who by his own estimation has put in over 100 hours of proofreading and helped create the stats in the appendix. Not only that, but the cover art was drawn by Stafford’s niece, Carys Feehan, a student at the famed CalArts university in California.

“Carys was born in Hong Kong to Welsh parents,” explains Stafford. “She’s really proud of her Welsh heritage and she did an exhibition at university on Welsh art and rugby that won her the Lillian Disney Scholarship. It’s been a nice little family project to work on.”

‘The Illustrated History of Welsh Rugby’, published by Polaris, will be released in February and is available to pre-order now.