From The Vaults

14 February 2022
The Wales tour of the Pacific Islands, 1986

Few rugby lovers would argue that the contribution of players of Pacific Island heritage to the development of the game over the last fifty years has been exceptional. And yet not since 1986 has a tour been undertaken by one of the major countries which has included full test matches for which players have been awarded caps in each of the three principal rugby-playing countries in that region - Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

With professionalism still almost ten years away and the first World Cup due to be played the following year in 1987, summer tours were still comparatively rare. The players were amateurs and were required to take time off work to play for their country so summer tours tended to be short in duration.

The fortunes of Welsh rugby fluctuated throughout the 1980s and Wales had suffered from the departure of numerous players to rugby league, but there were still some players such as the half back pair of Jonathan Davies and Robert Jones who emerged on the international stage as world class players in the middle of the decade. In the 1986 International Championship Wales finished in mid-table. They beat Scotland at home and Ireland in Dublin but suffered a narrow 21-18 defeat to England at Twickenham courtesy of a Rob Andrew drop goal in injury time and an emphatic 23-15 home defeat in which a vintage French backline scored four tries to none.

In the summer of 1986 the Welsh Rugby Union initially wished to tour Australia and New Zealand. When those countries declined to offer an invitation, they chose to send a touring party of 25 players under the captaincy of Llanelli wing forward David Pickering to the south seas to play six matches in Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa. Controversially the WRU decided to award full caps to those who played in the three internationals, a decision that did not meet with unanimous approval.

With the benefit of hindsight given the opposition, the touring schedule was punishing with six matches in just over three weeks. The tour began in Fiji on May 24th with a 19-14 win over Western Province in Lautoka which was followed by the only defeat of the tour on May 27th when, with most of the expected test team rested, the Welsh XV was overpowered by Eastern Province

Four days later, Wales faced Fiji at the National Stadium in Suva and, despite losing their captain Pickering with concussion after being kicked in the head, showed considerable resilience in the face of fierce tackling to win by 22-15 after being only a point ahead at half-time. The Welsh team moved on to Tonga and experienced Swansea second row forward Richard Moriarty took over the captaincy for the remainder of the tour. A narrow 13-9 victory over a Tonga President's XV at Nuku'alofa a week later set the stage for a tempestuous test match against the full Tonga side at the same ground on June 12th.

Tonga had not played a full test match against any of the UK home countries so the fierceness with which they played this test match was perhaps unexpected. Wales ultimately survived a rugged encounter in which the charismatic winger Glen Webbereplaced Adrian Hadley early in the first half after a brawl described by John Billot as "a fierce massed punch-up in the in-goal area". The Pontypool flanker Mark Brown also had to be replaced following this brawl. Wales led 6-3 at half-time but it was not until half-way through the second half that the wing forward Paul Moriarty, younger brother of the Welsh captain, scored a vital try which enabled Wales to pull away to a 15-7 victory despite the Tongan scrum half scoring a try in the final minute of the match.

There were just two days separating the tests between Tonga and Western Samoa so the Welsh team had little time to recover before taking the field against Western Samoa at Apia on June 14th with just one change from the team that had finished the Tongan test. The match was played in a temperature of around 90 degrees but the Samoans were unable to match the superior cohesion of a Welsh team that had been forged through the International Championship and a tough tour schedule. Despite leading 14-13 at half-time, the Samoans were blown away by an impressive performance in which Jonathan Davies and Malcolm Dacey playing at full back steered Wales to a 32-14 victory.

And so ended a much maligned and largely forgotten tour by the rugby public, and yet hints of the rugby-playing diaspora that was to dominate rugby over much of the next 35 years lay in the personnel of the teams Wales played against. The Fiji team contained Arcura Niuqila in the centre who went on to play for Australia in 1988-89 and Western Samoa selected the great Michael Jones in the back row for his first and only cap for the country of his mother's birth before he went on to win 55 caps for the All Blacks. Five years later Western Samoa would shock the rugby world by defeating Wales at the National Stadium in the 1991 World Cup. To this day, only Wales, France and Ireland have ever played full test matches in Tonga.


  • History of Welsh International Rugby - John Billot (2nd edition - Roman Way Books 1999)
  • Rothmans Rugby Yearbook 1987-88 (Editor: Stephen Jones)
  • Rugby Annual for Wales 1986-87 (Editor: xxx)
  • Welsh international Matches 1881-2011 - Howard Evans (2nd edition - Y Lolfa, Ceredigion 2011)
  • Western Mail

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.