Rewind: 20 years since St Helen's last played host to a Wales Test

Rob Appleyard, centre, runs into the Tongan defence at St Helen's. Jamie McDonald/Allsport

It is 20 years this month since, with the modern autumn programme beginning to take shape, the last international match was played at Wales' first home ground.

At one level this extended the international lifespan of St Helen's, Swansea to just under 115 years, a record still exceeded only by Lansdowne Road. At another, it was something of a footnote.

Some will remember Wales's 46-12 win over Tonga. There were those us who had grown up on stories of St Helen's history, and the tellers of such tales like my late father. To see full international teams performing in the venerable seaside stadium tucked in between the beach and Swansea's hillside suburbs felt like something from a timewarp.

Tonga's New Zealand-born prop David Briggs will certainly remember it, since he captained his country on what proved both his first and last Test appearance. Scrum-half Sione Tuipolotu and hooker Viliami Ma'asi were by contrast launching international careers destined to last for more than a decade while veteran lock Kuli Faletau would leave a formidable Welsh legacy in the shape of his son Taulupe, who had turned seven earlier that week.

Prop Chris Anthony scored his only try for Wales, fullback Gareth Wyatt made a try-scoring debut and Neil Jenkins added 16 points.

But it was a foul day, and only the most committed -- around 6,000 -- saw a match played in conditions which showed that not even the famed sand-based drainage at St Helen's was proof against a frontal attack by the elements.

The real end, though, had come 43 years earlier with the cessation of the alternation of matches between Swansea and Cardiff which had held -- the entertaining of France at Newport in 1912 apart -- in the first half of the 20th century.

That day in 1954 was not the end for St Helens as a venue for sport of international significance, since Garry Sobers' six sixes, local hero Don Shepherd's demolition of successive Australian touring teams, the first ever one-day international at a non-Test venue, several league internationals and Swansea's overthrow in 1992 of the reigning world champion Wallabies were still to happen on a ground whose multisports heritage has few British rivals.

But it was always most famed as a rugby union venue, home to Swansea teams which were to the first Welsh Golden Age of the 1900s what London Welsh would be to the 1970s, and to 50 Wales matches, three Victory Tests and numerous wartime service internationals between 1882 and 1954.

That first match against England in December 1882 was a pioneer in numerous ways -- Wales' first home fixture and opening match of what has been recognised subsequently as the first Home Championship. It rained non-stop for several hours and Wales were, the Daily Cambrian recorded "beaten as a matter of course, but far from disgraced", the concession of two goals and four tries a vast improvement on the 14-score evisceration inflicted on their first meeting at Blackheath two seasons earlier.

The Welsh Rugby Union celebrated by nearly bankrupting itself with the cost of the post-match dinner.

Six years later St Helen's, by now recognised by the authoritative Football Annual as "one of the best grounds in the United Kingdom" staged Wales' first match against a touring team as the New Zealand Natives -- amid a stupefying Christmas programme which saw them play the 'big four' Welsh clubs and the national team in the space of 11 days -- were beaten by a goal and two tries to nil.

This was, though, to be the only time until 1997 that Wales won a full-cap international against a touring side at St Helen's -- South Africa [1906 and 1931], New Zealand Armed Forces [1919] and the invincible All Blacks [1924] all winning there.

But if Wales struggled to beat touring teams at St Helen's, it was a different matter for Swansea. The All Whites were famously the first club both to beat the All Blacks and to complete a set of victories over the southern trio in 1935.

Wales did rather better against more regular opponents, winning 31 of the 45 championship games played at St Helen's. Having launched the Home Championship in 1882, it hosted the first Five Nations match in 1910, a 49-14 mullering of a French team who had spent two days on the train and, one short on departing from Paris, had made up the numbers by press-ganging hooker Jo Anduran from his nearby art gallery.

"At St Helen's one meets the true West Walian and the experts down from the Valleys." Teddy Wakelam

For France, though, this memory has been long effaced by their first ever win in Wales, the 11-3 triumph amid the snows of early 1948 after which lock Robert Soro was known for the rest of his 90 years as "the Lion of Swansea".

For Ireland, though, St Helen's fell little short of inducing existential dread as they went down on nine consecutive visits separating their opening victory there in 1889 and Karl Mullen's team clinching the Triple Crown and championship 60 years later. Their brightest memory in that time may have been the crowd in 1930 greeting abrasive forward "Jammie" Clinch with demands that the referee "send the dirty bastard off."

Clinch, who promised to "make an orange" of like-minded Welsh forward Arthur Lemon, professed himself "delighted that they remembered me" after a four-year gap.

England won on their first two visits, and again in 1924 -- seeing off a Welsh team so disjointed that the crowd sang "yes, we have no threequarters" -- and in 1928. But in between came a trio of fearsome hammerings between 1899 and 1907 in which Wales scored 68 points to eight and seventeen tries to two, including four for debutant wing Willie Llewellyn in 1899 and a hat trick for Jehoida Hodges, a forward filling in for an injured wing, in 1903.

Yorkshire Post writer Old Ebor earned himself a footnote in the annals of graceless losers in 1907 by damning Swansea as "not an inspiring place at the best of times, but today it must be described as one of the dirtiest and most dreary to be found in the Principality."

And even good England teams had bad times there. They were joint champions in 1920, but not before starting their first postwar season with a 19-5 hammering at St Helen's in which Newport centre Jerry Shea -- a versatile individualist who within a month was fighting a title eliminator with Ted 'Kid' Lewis, seen by many as the greatest of all British boxers -- became the first player to score in all four possible ways in a Test, with a personal tally of 16 points.

This, and Old Ebor's gripes, notwithstanding, some of the warmest views of St Helen's came from English observers. Harlequins stalwart and pioneering commentator Teddy Wakelam found that rain often blurred the view from his broadcasting box, but reckoned it to have the best singing: "There one meets the true West Walian and the experts down from the Valleys," and recommended that anyone who wanted to understand rugby should "go down there on an international day and leave the rest to his own personal observation."

And, in contrast to Cardiff's serial mudbaths, it produced a decent playing surface in all but the foulest of conditions.

At the same time, it had its limitations. A pitch invasion towards the end of Scotland's tumultuous victory in 1921 was ascribed by a hyperventilating Western Mail to "followers of Lenin and Trotsky", but a far likelier culprit -- as in 1936 when a gate was broken down before England's visit -- was simple overcrowding.

It was overwhelmingly a ground for the standing fan -- another reason, perhaps, for the quality of the singing. But this had its costs, Dai Smith and Gareth Williams note that from the mid-1930s on, Cardiff matches generated an extra £5,000 on the gate. This was, they point out with characteristic even-handedness, partly the WRU's fault -- receiving £100,000 in profit from matches there between the wars, but investing only £7,500 in a new stand in 1927.

Pressures grew after the war, with building materials at a premium and the reconstruction of Swansea's bombed-flat town centre a higher priority. East Wales clubs began to press for a permanent shift to Cardiff and a motion proposed by Merthyr and seconded by Abercynon was passed by 136 votes to 110 at the 1953 WRU AGM. It was initially painted as a temporary measure, but once the WRU started spending serious money on redeveloping the Arms Park into the National Stadium in the 1960s, it was clear no return was likely.

The end came in 1954 -- as it happens also the year when Ravenhill Road, Belfast staged its last Five Nations match -- and there was a fine twist as Scotland were beaten 15-3 on April 10, and wing Ken Jones was honoured for receiving his 36th cap, a new Wales record.

The following year, when Cardiff first staged both Wales home games was also -- many West Walians felt uncoincidentally -- when it was declared capital city, beginning a national process of centralisation which continues to this day. St Helen's' role in the Welsh game has been among the collateral damage, as has its once-equal standing as a county cricket ground.

It survives, physically at least, thanks to a covenant which keeps predators at bay, the commitment of Swansea Rugby Club, cricket's Balconeers and recognition of its unmatched location, both physically and historically.

Few locations are richer in rugby ghosthood -- the James brothers, 'Banky', the ill-fated Owen, Billy Trew and doubtless a particularly rumbustious spectre answering to 'Clem'. Perhaps, as with the pleasures of the long tour, it was inevitable, but something distinctive was lost to international rugby when Wales' first home, the last of the great British provincial venues, dropped off the international circuit.