Testing times — How often have Wales won a rugby Test series?

Historically, Welsh sides are the owners of a poor reputation when it comes to touring. And when you thumb through the history books it’s hard to form much of an argument against the stereotype. Most of Wales’s great rugby exploits have tended to come on European soil.

So with Wales due to embark on a three-match summer series with the World Champions in their own backyard, The East Terrace wanted to take a look back at previous Welsh-tinged Test series and see what they may reveal about Wales’s chances.

For this article we are not looking at all summer tours by Wales, just tours that involve a Test series (a minimum of two games against the same international opponents on the trip). This means we ignore the horrors of Australia in 1991, the grimness of the 1998 massacre in South Africa and a multitude of other sporting disasters that Wales and the WRU seem to specialise in on foreign shores.

Total Test series record

Wales have played 21 Test series in total. Nineteen of these have been over two matches and two involved a three game format. Wales have won just six of the 21 series. Two of these successes have come against Argentina and the other four wins have come against Namibia, Zimbabwe, Japan and the USA.

Test series record in the professional era

Two of the Welsh Test series wins came in the amateur era: Namibia in 1990 and Zimbabwe in 1993. Removing those and the losses to Australia (1978) and New Zealand (1969 and 1988) leaves you with the following. 

Total Test series record against traditional ‘established’ nations

If we only look at Wales’s record against the traditional top nations (Japan are now ranked in rugby’s elite, but the 2001 and 2013 tours can be said to come before their breakthrough into the top tier), things get even grimmer. The men in scarlet have only tasted success against Argentina (but have lost just as often as they win against the Pumas).

Total Test series record by game

In all, Wales have played 44 games in Test series, winning a mere 14 of them.

With Wales hot off a home loss to Italy and looking rudderless under Wayne Pivac, things look pretty bleak this summer in South Africa. When you also take into account the history of Wales in Test series, things get bleaker than a Ken Loach film.

For those who want a trip down memory lane, read on.

1969 – New Zealand

Result: 2-0 win for New Zealand

Test series captain: Brian Price (Newport)

Coach: Clive Rowlands

Welsh form: Five Nations champions and Triple Crown winners

Wales’ first ever full Test match outside of Europe had taken place in 1964 when they visited South Africa. But that tour involved just one Test match (a heavy 24-3 loss in Durban). This tour to New Zealand marked their first ever Test series. The series defeat was followed by a 19-6 win over Australia in Sydney and an uncapped 31-11 triumph against Fiji in Suva.

1st Test match programme (image from Mullock's Auction)

Showing the WRU’s organisational abilities to the full, the trip was dubbed the Suicide Tour. Journalist John Billot recorded that it involved ‘three tests in seven games the first match four days after an unbroken journey round the world in 52 hours’.

Coach Clive Rowlands labelled the All Black forwards at the time as the greatest pack he had ever seen. This tour coincided with the start of what is now seen as the Second Golden Era for Wales. Players included the likes of JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Keith Jarrett, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Denzil Williams, Brian Price, Dai Morris, Mervyn Davies and John Taylor.

Game #1: New Zealand 19 Wales 0 (Lancaster Park, Christchurch)

New Zealand writer Terry McLean said after this thrashing on a ‘villainously glutinous pitch’ that no team could have lived with the Kiwis on this day. The forwards were outmuscled and outfought and Colin Meads broke the jaw of Bridgend hooker Jeff Young in response to some jersey pulling.

Game #2: New Zealand 33 Wales 12 (Lancaster Park, Christchurch)

Wales led 6-3 after 25 minutes thanks to the boot of centre Keith Jarrett. However, 24 points from Kiwi full-back Fergus McCormick helped restore order. This was a world record for a Test match at the time.

1978 – Australia

Result: 2-0 win for Australia

Test series captains: Terry Cobner (Pontypool), Gerald Davies (London Welsh)

Coach: John Dawes

Welsh form: Five Nations champions and Grand Slam winners

Golden Era Wales went to Australia as Grand Slam champions but could still not win the series. The tour was seen as another disaster. Wales won just five of nine matches (beating Western Australia, Victoria, NSW Country, New South Wales and Queensland), losing the rest. For all the difficulties of the tour, it is a black mark on the hallowed team of the 1970s.

Game #1: Australia 18 Wales 8 (Ballymore, Brisbane)

Wales threatened to boycott this match after the appointment of Australia’s Bob Burnett as referee (there were still home referees on many tours in these days). Burnett had been seen as less than fair by the Welsh in the match he refereed with Queensland. The Australians refused to back down and the WRU caved in. Burnett claimed to have been bumped by Wales’s second row Geoff Wheel during the game and wanted to send him off. Australian newspapers wrote that Welsh captain Terry Cobner threatened to take Wales off the pitch in response to this allegation and other refereeing decisions.

Game #2: Australia 19 Wales 17 (Sydney Sports Ground, Sydney, Brisbane)

JPR Williams was picked at flanker due to a Welsh injury crises. At this point in Welsh rugby history, Wales had never scored so many points and lost.

1988 – New Zealand

Result: 2-0 win for New Zealand

Test series captains: Robert Norster (Cardiff), Jonathan Davies (Llanelli)

Coach: Tony Gray

Welsh form: Joint Five Nations champions (with France) and Triple Crown winners

This tour still conjures up nightmares for Welsh fans of a certain vintage. Following on from the 49-6 humiliation to the All Blacks in the 1987 World Cup, this series confirmed that Wales were undoubtedly second-class citizens of the rugby world.

Game #1: New Zealand 52 Wales 3 (Lancaster Park, Christchurch)

Wales, fresh off third place in the 1987 World Cup and Triple Crown in the 1988 Five Nations, were butchered and battered on a tour that not only highlighted the gap between rugby in the north and south, but also showed the utter inability of the WRU to organise anything. The union agreed to a ridiculous and relentless tour schedule against New Zealand’s strongest sides. In fact, it is said the NZRFU were genuinely shocked the WRU accepted the proposed itinerary. The logistics were a shambles and players often slept in their tracksuits in damp hotels they were so cold.

It’s worth remembering that these scores were unheard of at the time in Test rugby between established nations and it was still the era of the four-point try.

Game #2: New Zealand 54 Wales 9 (Eden Park, Auckland)

Remarkably, Welsh captain Jonathan Davies was named man of the match in the second test for his rearguard action in defeat and glorious try. After the tour, the WRU undertook and route and branch reform, restructured every aspect of the game’s administration from top to bottom, several top officials stepped down and….only joking. They didn’t do anything of the sort.

Coach Tony Gray was sacked, the WRU ignored the request of tour captain Jonathan Davies to address the union about how to improve things and everything carried on as usual. Not a single lesson was taken on board.

1990 – Nambia

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Kevin Phillips (Neath)

Coach: Ron Waldron

Welsh form: Wooden Spoon in 1990 Five Nations (first ever whitewash)

This was an understrength Wales squad (ten players withdrew from the original squad). Anyone who knows anything Welsh rugby in the 1990s won’t be surprised that an understrength Welsh side was a particularly underwhelming rabble. Wales, however, claimed their first ever Test series win. But only just.

Game #1: Namibia 9 Wales 18 (South-West Stadium, Windhoek)

A narrow win. Wales could be grateful that Namibia full-back Andre Stoop was sent off after hitting Cardiff winger Steve Ford with his head.

Game #2: Namibia 30 Wales 34 (South-West Stadium, Windhoek)

Wales were somewhat fortunate that the home side missed multiple kickable shots at goal. Paul Thorburn at full-back for Wales bagged 15 points. The teams were level at 30-30 until Swansea winger Arthur Emyr got the decisive score.

1993 – Zimbabwe

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Gareth Llewellyn (Neath)

Coach: Alun Davies

Welsh form: Wooden Spoon in 1993 Five Nations

Note: Lions touring year

This was Wales’s first Test series while the British and Irish Lions were also away on tour. Before this year, tours that clashed with the Lions were uncapped affairs.

Game #1: Zimbabwe 14 Wales 35 (Hartsfield, Bulawayo)

Cardiff winger Simon Hill scored seven minutes into his debut.

Game #2: Zimbabwe 13 Wales 42 (Police Grounds, Harare)

Wales eased home and won their second ever Test series. The following week they beat Nambia 38-23 in Windhoek.

1996 – Australia

Result: 2-0 win for Australia

Test series captain: Jonathan Humphreys (Cardiff)

Coach: Kevin Bowring

Welsh form: Fourth in Five Nations

Wales’ first Test series in the professional era was car crash stuff. Wales lost five of seven games and both Tests on this tour.

Game #1: Australia 56 Wales 25 (Ballymore, Brisbane)

Wales conceded a try in less than a minute and let a further six in after that. The defence was as robust as Mr Whippy Ice-Cream in a microwave.

Game #2: Australia 42 Wales 3 (Sydney Football Ground, Sydney)

Wales had nothing to offer but a Neil Jenkins penalty as the Wallabies ran in six tries.

1997 – USA

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Gwyn Jones (Cardiff)

Coach: Kevin Bowring

Welsh form: Third in Five Nations

Note: Lions touring year

Wales may have won all six of their games on this North American tour (including a win over Canada), but both tests were tight affairs that were very uncomfortable at times.

Game #1: USA 20 Wales 30 (Brooks Field, Wilmington)

Fly-half Arwel Thomas grabbed two tries and Nigel Walker and Gwyn Jones the others.

Game #2: USA 23 Wales 28 (Balboa Park, San Francisco)

The hosts were level 23-23 in the final quarter. Winger Wayne Proctor got three of Wales’s four tries.

1999 – Argentina

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Robert Howley (Cardiff)

Coach: Graham Henry

Welsh form: Third in Five Nations

This was Wales’s first win against in a Test series against a major rugby nation (even if Argentina hadn’t quite the respect they have now in the world game). It was also the first time a Home Union nation had won a series in Argentina. The result was vital for Welsh confidence as they would face the Pumas in their pool in that year’s World Cup.

Game #1: Argentina 26 Wales 36 (Ferro Carril Oeste Stadium, Buenos Aires)

Wales came back from a 23-0 deficit, then a world-record in Test matches. One of Wales’s tries came from the not remotely Welsh flanker Brett Sinkinson.

Game #2: Argentina 16 Wales 23 (Ferro Carril Oeste Stadium, Buenos Aires)

This game is known for a huge fight. Wales, however, still got the job done in an incredibly hostile environment on and off the pitch.

2001 – Japan

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Andy Moore (Swansea)

Coach: Lynn Howells

Welsh form: Fourth in Six Nations

Note: Lions touring year

Not only did Wales have several players away with the Lions, they even had their head coach missing too. With Graham Henry attending to a scratch side, rather than his main team, Lynn Howells took control for this two-match series. Overall this was a five-game tour and Wales lost games to Suntory Sungoliath and the Pacific Barbarians.

Game #1: Japan 10 Wales 64 (Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Higashiosaka)

This was Wales’s 500th Test match. Gavin Henson was among the debutants and Shane Williams scored four tries. Unlike today, Wales would still wear red when playing Japan.

Game #2: Japan 30 Wales 53 (Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, Tokyo)

Tom Shanklin bagged a debut try.

2002 – South Africa

Result: 2-0 win for South Africa

Test series captain: Colin Charvis (Swansea)

Coach: Steve Hansen

Welsh form: Fifth in Six Nations

This was Wales’s first Test series in South Africa.

Game #1: South Africa 34 Wales 19 (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)

Wales, with five new caps, actually led 11-3 early on. It was a loss, but a lot better than Wales’s last Test match in the country when they had lost 96-13.

Game #2: South Africa 19 Wales 8 (Newlands, Cape Town)

Wales were tied 8-8 late in this Test, before the Springboks pulled away. A late South African score came from captain Colin Charvis having a kick charged down.

2004 – Argentina

Result: 1-1 draw

Test series captain: Colin Charvis (Swansea) (Second series as captain)

Coach: Mike Ruddock

Welsh form: Fourth in the Six Nations 

This drawn series was the start of the short, but dramatic, Mike Ruddock era.

Game #1: Argentina 50 Wales 44 (Estadium Atletico, Tucuman)

There were 10 tries in the second half of this bizarre match in which defence seemed optional at times. This was an under-strength Puma side. Gavin Henson kicked 19 points and the Welsh tries came from Dwayne Peel, Jason Forster, Colin Charvis, Sonny Parker and Hal Luscombe.

Game #2: Argentina 20 Wales 35 (Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)

Shane Williams conjured up a first-half hat-trick as Wales took a 25-0 lead and never looked back. A week after this match Wales played away in South Africa (losing 53-18).

2006 – Argentina

Result: 2-0 win for Argentina

Test series captain: Duncan Jones (Ospreys)

Coach: Gareth Jenkins

Welsh form: Fifth in Six Nations

Showing just how small the elite rugby world is, Wales were back in Argentina just two years after their last visit. Again there was a new coach in place as Gareth Jenkins began his disastrous reign as head coach.

Game #1: Argentina 27 Wales 25 (Estadio Raul Conti, Puerto Madryn)

Prop Duncan Jones led a side with six debutants. Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones made their debuts in the second row, with the former scoring a 60-metre interception try. The venue was Puerto Madryn, which was founded by Welsh settlers in 1865.

Game #2: Argentina 45 Wales 27 (Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)

This defeat meant Wales had lost a series in Argentina for the first time.

2007 – Australia 

Result: 2-0 win for Australia

Test series captain: Gareth Thomas (Cardiff)

Coach: Gareth Jenkins

Welsh form: Fifth in Six Nations

Yet another shambolic trip to Australia, this one marked by management dressing up as wizards and, apparently, both players and wizards management drinking plenty.

Game #1: Australia 29 Wales 23 (Telstra Stadium, Sydney)

Wales, amazingly, led with 1.07 left in normal time when, with Wales seemingly terrified of having the ball in a winning position and being in control of the clock, scrum-half Gareth Cooper aimlessly kicked away quality possession from a scrum in the Australian half. Minutes later, Wales had lost.

Game #2: Australia 31 Wales 0 (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)

Wales threw in the towel. Some said it had a whiff of alcohol. The game was also marred by a horror injury to Welsh winger Chris Czekaj.

2008 – South Africa

Result: 2-0 win for South Africa

Test series captain: Ryan Jones (Ospreys)

Coach: Warren Gatland

Welsh form: Six Nations Champions and Grand Slam winners

For the first time since 1978 Wales headed on tour as Grand Slam champions. South Africa were reigning world champions.

Game #1: South Africa 43 Wales 17 (Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein)

Less than 22,000 watched as Warren Gatland suffered his first defeat as Welsh coach.

Game #2: South Africa 37 Wales 21 (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)

Shane Williams, in the form of his life, scored another wonder try (having scored a sweet one in the first Test as well). Wales still fell considerably short.

2010 – New Zealand

Result: 2-0 win for New Zealand

Test series captain: Ryan Jones (Ospreys) (Second series as captain)

Coach: Warren Gatland

Welsh form: Fourth in Six Nations 

Game #1: New Zealand 42 Wales 9 (Carisbrook, Dunedin)

Dan Carter scored 27 points for the All Blacks, inclduing two tries. This was a farewell Test at Carisbrook with the stadium being replaced as a top venue by the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Game #2: New Zealand 29 Wales 10 (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)

This was a much improved performance by Wales, but was still a 19-point defeat. Which, incidentally, equalled Wales’s best ever effort away to New Zealand (the 19-0 loss in 1969).

2012 – Australia

Result: 3-0 win for Australia

Test series captain: Sam Warburton (Cardiff)

Coach: Robert Howley

Welsh form: Six Nations champions and Grand Slam winners

Before this trip, Warren Gatland fell off a ladder in his New Zealand home and broke his heels, so Robert Howley took over for this tour as coach. Although Wales lost the series 3-0, this was arguably Wales’s best series performance against a traditional southern hemisphere power.

Game #1: Australia 27 Wales 19 (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)

Fresh off a home loss to Scotland (!) the Wallabies defeated the Grand Slam champions. Wales rallied after falling 17-3 behind, but couldn’t do enough to get back in it.

Game #2: Australia 25 Wales 23 (Eithiad Stadium, Brisbane)

Wales led with 80:23 on the game clock when they conceded a penalty for collapsing a maul. Mike Harris, a replacement who had only just come on and was winning his second cap, nailed the penalty to break Welsh hearts.

Game #3: Australia 20 Wales 19 (Sydney Football Stadium, Melbourne)

Wales led with five minutes left on the clock. Berrick Barnes, following a familiar Australian/Wales script, broke Welsh hearts again with a late penalty.

2013 – Japan

Result: 1-1 draw

Test series captain: Bradley Davies (Cardiff)

Coach: Robin McBryde

Welsh form: Six Nations champions 

Note: Lions touring year

This summer saw Wales not only give their head coach to a scratch touring side, but an assistant coach too. With Warren Gatland and Rob Howley away with the Lions, Robin McBryde took over a squad with 15 players away on Lions duty. Traditionalists felt it was farcical to grant caps for this tour. Eddie Jones was the Japanese coach.

Game #1: Japan 18 Wales 22 (Kintetsu Hanazono Rugby Stadium, Osaka)

Struggling in 30 degree plus heat, Wales, thanks to a Harry Robinson try and Dan Biggar conversion in the second half, just hung on.

Game #2: Japan 23 Wales 8 (Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, Tokyo)

Japan claimed their first ever win over Wales and drew the series level. The tourists’ only try came from Tom Prydie.

2014 – South Africa

Result: 2-0 win for South Africa

Test series captain: Alun Wyn Jones

Coach: Warren Gatland

Welsh form: Third in Six Nations 

Along with Australia in 2012, this is perhaps the most frustrating of Wales’s Test series. It should have been a draw. Yet a moment of madness at the death cost Wales a famous away win.

Game #1: South Africa 38 Wales 16 (Kings Park, Durban)

Heading into this series, Wales had only beaten South Africa once in 27 attempts over 107 years (1999 in Cardiff). Warren Gatland expressed confidence Wales could win here, but despite a great opening after Dan Biggar slotted a third-minute drop goal, Wales’s defence fell off and they were down 28-9 by half time.

Game #2: South Africa 31 Wales 30 (Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit)

Wales held an unbelievable 17-0 lead until yellow cards to Dan Biggar and Luke Charteris helped the Boks get back into the game. Despite this, the visitors led 30-17 after 72 minutes and famous victory was in touching distance.

The Springboks had pulled it back to 30-24 when, in the 78th minute, Liam Williams attempted to prevent a try in the corner by leading with his shoulder. The resultant penalty try allowed for an easy conversion and Welsh glory was gone. The maddening thing for Welsh fans was a legitimate tackle from Williams may have stopped a try, but, if it hadn’t, it would have left the Boks with a very awkward conversion attempt from the touchline.

2016 – New Zealand

Result: 3-0 win for New Zealand

Test series captain: Sam Warburton (Cardiff) (Second series as captain)

Coach: Warren Gatland

Welsh form: Second in Six Nations 

This was only the second time Wales had played a three-match series (the other being the 2012 series in Oz).

Game #1: New Zealand 39 Wales 21 (Eden Park, Auckland)

Despite leading on the hour mark, Wales (as they have so often in this fixture) fell off in the final quarter. In the end, Wales let seven tries in.

Game #2: New Zealand 36 Wales 22 (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)

Wales were level 10-10 at the halfway stage. Fourteen minutes after the restart they had conceded four tries. It was game over.

Game #3: New Zealand 46 Wales 6 (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)

Wales went retro on the scoreboard with a score akin to the results from the 1980s.

2018 – Argentina

Result: 2-0 win for Wales

Test series captain: Cory Hill (Dragons)

Coach: Warren Gatland

Welsh form: Second in Six Nations 

This was the fourth time Wales had played a series in Argentina.

Game #1: Argentina 10 Wales 23 (Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario, San Juan)

This was a good result for a Welsh side that had made eight change from a win over South Africa in the USA the week before (don’t ask). Flanker James Davies and George North got the tries and Rhys Patchell kicked most of the points.

Game #2: Argentina 10 Wales 23 (Estadio Brigadier Lopez, Santa Fe)

Rhys Patchell kicked 20 points and Hallam Amos and Josh Adams added the five pointers to round off a solid Test series win. This was the first series win in Argentina since 1999.

2021 – Argentina

Result: 1-0 win for Argentina

Test series captain: Jonathan Davies (Scarlets)

Coach: Wayne Pivac

Welsh form: Six Nations champions 

Note: Lions touring year

Perhaps the oddest series of them all. The scratch British and Irish touring side deprived Wales of ten players and, due to covid complications, the tour was switched from Argentina to Wales. Adding to the oddness, crowds were finally allowed back in after covid restrictions had seen Wales win the Six Nations in empty stadiums. Spectator capacity was limited to around 8,000 people.

Game #1: Wales 20 Argentina 20 (Principality Stadium, Cardiff)

Argentina were reduced to 14 men after full-back Juan Cruz Mallia was sent off for a dangerous tackle. Jarrod Evans missed a chance to sneak a win with a last-minute penalty.

Game #2: Wales 11 Argentina 33 (Principality Stadium, Cardiff)

Wayne Pivac pointed to 27 missing players due to Lions and injury. Even still, this was an abject display for the ages.

Now, go forth and argue about all the numbers.

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An Illustrated History of Welsh Rugby: Fun, Facts and Stories from 140 Years of International Rugby (Polaris Publishing)

An Illustrated History of Welsh Rugby by James Stafford

How Wales Beat the Mighty All Blacks (Y Lolfa)

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