When the silver-haired, bespectacled England cricketer David Steele ambled in to bat against Australia back in the day — looking about 60 instead of his 33 years, someone said — he was greeted by a few words of welcome from the then fastest bowler in the world.
Jeff Thomson, a man who, all things considered, probably wasn’t at the top of every vicar’s tea-party guest list, could barely hide his contempt, hissing in Steele’s direction: “Who’s this then, Father f*****g Christmas?”
Someone else piled in: “Bloody hell, they’re bringing out the dead now!”
Sledging — it happens, especially in international sport.
And so to Twickenham in 2012, with England hosting Wales and Rhys Priestland leaving the pitch for 10 minutes in the sin-bin. As the fly-half went off, home lock Mouritz Botha: “Well done, mate, you’ve lost your team the game.”
History tells us it didn’t quite turn out that way.
And, indeed, after Wales had won 19-12, with Scott Williams scoring the decisive try, Priestland went on to Botha and asked: “What did you say again?”
The match sticks in the memory not only because of the verbals but also because it was fought with almost unimaginable levels of commitment, exemplified by Leigh Halfpenny racing 60 metres across field to somehow keep out David Strettle in the final minutes. No Halfpenny that day, potentially no Welsh win.
There was also an extraordinary try-saving hit from Sam Warburton just before half-time, when he chopped Manu Tuilagi to the ground, showing bravery above and beyond.
Warburton, Dan Lydiate, and Taulupe Faletau repeatedly cut down English ball carriers, but the home side were up for the challenge.
Farrell and all that
A lot of their aggression that day came from a new boy at fly-half.
Owen Farrell was making his first appearance at Twickenham and enjoying his first Test start at No. 10, but if he was plagued by self-doubt he didn’t show it.
Indeed, there was one moment that startled a Welshman who’d been playing international rugby for close on a decade at the time. Adam Jones had pretty much seen it all by then, but he still found himself taken aback by some of the stuff Farrell came up with.
In his book Bomb, he recalls: “I’ll never forget one carry when Alun Wyn (Jones) picked up from the base and charged forward, Farrell stood there shouting at him. ‘Come on, then! F*****g run at me, you c**t!’
“Language aside, I couldn’t help but be impressed.
“It was his first appearance at Twickenham, and he was deliberately provoking a Lions colossus who was twice his size.
“He backed it up, too, smashing into Alun Wyn with all his might — not knocking him backwards exactly, but certainly stopping him in his tracks.”
Farrell has spent his career since playing with similar combativeness. “ He’s feisty,” says former Wales prop Paul James, on the bench for that match in London.
“Whenever you’d come up against him, you’d know what you were going to get.
“But it’s Wales-England: there’s always an edge to it and a bit of banter. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to be there.”
Wales will be serious underdogs against the old enemy this weekend but if they are going to be competitive they need to find a way of frustrating Farrell. It isn’t that he has heavenly running ability or handling skills, but he’s tough mentally and provides a lead.
“I’ve spoken to boys who played at Saracens with him and they all say he’s a winner,” says former Wales hooker Scott Baldwin.
“They said after they won their first Heineken Cup, in the changing room after the game pretty much everyone was celebrating.
“But Farrell was stressing how important it was for the club to do it again next year.
“That says a lot about him. He has that relentless mindset to win.
“And he also knows how to win.
“Like Dan Biggar he has this ability to block out what the media say, that he’s one-dimensional and stuff, and he manages to get the best out of himself.”
Welcome to Twickenham
On Saturday, amid the coronavirus pandemic, TV sorts will hope fake crowd noise will drown out any on-pitch imprecations. Eight years ago at English rugby’s HQ, the cursing began even before Wales had entered the stadium.
In Ross Harries’ superb book Behind the Dragon, Sam Warburton recalls walking through the Twickenham car park and hearing an English fan shout, a few months after the Wales captain had been sent off in that fateful World Cup semi-final against France: “Warburton, you’re f*****g s**t, and it was a red card.”
Welcome to Twickenham, mate.
Then, when the game started, Wales players picked themselves up of the floor after the concession of a ruck penalty to be serenaded by a white-shirted chorus of ‘have some of that, you Welsh c***s’.
Deploying a touch of understatement, Warburton says: “I realised then that they did not like us, and they wanted to beat us badly.”
It wasn’t all one way.
Williams had stripped Courtney Lawes of possession before taking off on his surge to the line, and Lawes hadn’t properly risen to his feet when Adam Jones heard Ian Evans “abusing” — ‘engaging in a spot of heat-of-battle banter’ might be how Evans saw it — the England forward on the floor.
Scott's day to remember
Williams, meantime, just let his rugby do the talking.
He has been unlucky with injuries but he’s a player who can conjure unexpected moments and he’s also known among his peers as a hard man.
The centre’s strife over the past couple of years must have been hard for him to endure.
But in 2012 he experienced one of the high points of his career.
The campaign turned into one to savour for Wales, too, with Warren Gatland’s team banking a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Their win over Ireland in Dublin had set it all up but the Twickenham game double-underlined the squad’s courage and tenacity. Afterwards, a still dazed Halfpenny, sporting a battered lip and a bruised eye, explained in the mixed zone how he’d needed to be told Wales had won by physio Mark Davies. Even then, the news didn’t properly sink in.
Lydiate looked as if he was on day release from a war zone.
But Wales had their win over England.
‘Pressure you like'
“It’s just a class fixture to play in — the best,” says Scott Baldwin of the 139-year-old dust-up across The Severn.
“Yes, you get a bit of banter. Eddie Jones likes to fire it up a bit and so did Warren Gatland.
“It feeds through to the players, then, and they do the same.
“But you always want to be involved.
“The rivalry is there and so is the intensity and pressure, but it’s pressure you like as a player.
“I guess it’s about rising to the challenge.”
Wayne Pivac will no doubt remind his players of those words in Llanelli this weekend.