Derek Quinnell, Phil Bennett, Allan Martin: Wales and Lions stars on Christmas Day games – BBC Sport

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Derek Quinnell
Derek Quinnell made his Test debut for the British and Irish Lions on their triumphant 1971 tour to New Zealand – his Wales debut came a year later against Scotland in the Five Nations

Derek Quinnell’s Wales debut provided one of the most iconic moments of the nation’s glory years of the 1970s.

However, knocking a policeman’s hat off as he barged past in the dying moments of Wales’ win over Scotland in the 1972 Five Nations was not the only memorable debut for the Quinnell rugby dynasty.

The 71-year-old’s first game for his beloved Llanelli came on Christmas Day, 1967 at Stradey Park against the Universities Athletic Union (UAU), a combined team of students.

Such games are a long-forgotten tradition of the sport, but the former British and Irish Lions player says: “You couldn’t have a better Christmas present.”

Quinnell had combined being Llanelli Youth captain with Scarlets’ senior squad training throughout the season.

He had come close to a debut as a travelling reserve already, but in the era before substitutions in the game, the then 18-year-old had to bide his time to play for a team led by the Wales hooker of the day, Norman Gale.

“I was in and around the squad so when I was selected I was thrilled but it didn’t come as too much of a surprise to be honest,” says Quinnell.

“I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t played, let’s put it like that.

“I’d spent most of that season training with the Scarlets anyway. I was their sort of doormat – Norman would say ‘throw a ball on the floor, DQ [Derek Quinnell] will dive on the ball and then we’ll ruck him out of the way’.

“And that went on for about three quarters of an hour and it wasn’t much fun, but it toughened you up, there’s no doubt about that.

“We had obviously the Scarlets pack who were a big, experienced side and they would be running all over you in training and using you as a doormat, which you could do in those days in the games.”

Scarlets won 15-11 against UAU on a day when Quinnell partnered future Wales prop Barry Llewellyn at lock in a team led by Wales wing Robert Morgan.

Alan and Clive John – brothers of legendary Wales and Lions fly-half Barry – were the flankers.

‘Mam would always keep some turkey aside for me’

“I was courting their sister [Quinnell’s future wife Madora] at the time so she had a lift down to the game with Clive and Alan,” he says.

“But in the main the side that played, from recollection, from 53 years ago was mainly made up of the younger element of the Scarlets squad.

“It’s always nice to get the first one over and done with and you ask yourself ‘can you play at this level?’ and you think ‘yeah, I might be able to’. I think it was about 385 games later before I hung up my boots so yes, it was special.

“It was enjoyable, but there was always the case then of looking for a turkey sandwich straight afterwards.

“The Christmas lunch was not a big affair in those days so Mam would always keep some turkey aside for me.”

Records show that Llanelli’s history of playing on Christmas Day dates back to 1885, in what became one of the heartlands of rugby league, playing Batley on that day with festive tour games also against Dewsbury, Keighley and Castleford.

But even that tradition was not strong enough to persuade another rising Scarlets star of 1967 to line up against UAU.

Phil Bennett, now 72, had played alongside Quinnell at school and for Wales Youth and even now, more than 50 years later, the former Wales and Lions captain feels pangs of guilt about succeeding in his attempts to instead spend the day with wife-to-be Pat.

Bennett, then 19, had starred with a try as Gale-inspired Llanelli won at Bristol on 23 December.

On the journey home Bennett was named to face UAU two days later, but had hoped to feature in Llanelli’s traditional, packed-house Boxing Day encounter with London Welsh, rather than play the previous day.

Phil Bennet and wife Pat on their wedding day in 1970
Phil Bennett married wife Pat three years after side-stepping having to play on Christmas Day to be with her

The 1977 Lions captain in New Zealand recalls: “I think ‘oh my godfathers, how am I going to get out of this?’

“And I went to Ken Jones, the Llanelli club secretary, who was a great pal of mine and also from Felinfoel and said ‘I’m very sorry’ – and I was trembling saying it – ‘do you know the UAU game? I can’t play’.

“And he said ‘what do you mean you can’t play?’ I said ‘well do you know what it is Ken, I’m courting Pat [Bennett’s future wife] as you know – we’ve been courting four or five years – but Pat’s mother and father are taking us out for Christmas lunch and they’ve booked it and everything and I can’t very well play.

“And he just laughed and he just said ‘I’m from Felinfoel, you’re from Felinfoel. Felinfoel people don’t go out for Christmas lunch!’

“I said ‘well they booked it somewhere, Ken, honest to God’ and he was laughing and said ‘but you’ve been picked by the selectors’ as if it was the Big Five [Wales’ selectors at the time].

“I said ‘oh please Ken’ and after about a minute or two he said ‘Phil, alright, relax’.

“In the back of my mind I wanted to have Christmas Day off to be quite honest with you to have beer, to have lunch in the house with Pat and then get ready for the big game which was always Boxing Day, London Welsh.”

Quinnell and Bennett later became Wales and Lions team-mates of lock Allan Martin.

The rising Aberavon star had a more difficult Christmas Day meal issue to overcome than Quinnell as the then-teenager broke the news he wouldn’t be joining his family for their festive fare.

Instead a derby game against Maesteg was on Martin’s rugby menu along with near neighbour and school team second-row partner Steve Thomas.

Derek Quinnell and Allan Martin
Derek Quinnell and Allan Martin were two of Wales and the Lions’ leading forwards during their playing era

“We were both training with Aberavon and we were picked to play against Maesteg on Christmas Day,” said Martin, now 72.

“So not having played or done much on Christmas Day beforehand, we thought it was a bit strange, but it was an honour to play.

“So when you were selected, there were no objections. You just accepted it.

“I told my parents then that I wouldn’t be having Christmas dinner – and that didn’t go down too well because I’d have to have it afterwards and I didn’t eat it afterwards because I was too full of beer.

“It was different and not having played much for Aberavon at that time you didn’t particularly want it to turn it down and of course on the next day we played Neath on Boxing Day.

“So the Christmas holidays were full of rugby and these were amateur days. Nobody was forcing you to play – you didn’t have to play for money or anything like that.

“It was something you wanted to do.

“Maesteg then were a really good side. They had [future Wales and Lions scrum-half] Chico Hopkins and co and neither game was a pushover. They were flat-out 120% effort.

“In those games, everybody is out to prove a point and the crowd would like a little bit of ‘action’ as well, so they were great occasions.

“I can remember not being able to chew food afterwards. It’s not like now where you get the touch judges coming in and all the rest of it – you really did have to take what came and look after yourself.”

“And Maesteg was no different to Neath. The Maesteg game – there was plenty of dog in both packs and everybody wanted to prove a point.

“Each side had internationals so you knew that maybe one or two of the Big Five, who selected the Welsh team at that time would be watching.

“So it wasn’t just a holiday fixture. It was a fixture that you had to perform in.”

Martin adds: “I don’t think the professional players of today would put up with playing on Christmas Day – after all it is a holiday.”

However, the demise of Christmas Day games in Wales came about long before the advent of professionalism and came as little surprise amid falling attendances, crammed festive fixture schedules and reluctance among amateur players.

But perhaps another factor helped the demise of that particular festive tradition.

After Maesteg beat Grangetown on Christmas Day in 1908, the Western Mail report was less than complimentary about the players’ efforts, stating: “Rugby football and Christmas dinner should not be indulged in on the same day.

“For with the exception of Ackerman and Gilbert the Maesteg players gave a lethargic display in defeating Grangetown by 14 points to three.”

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