Rugby Legend Sir Gareth Edwards. Born 70 Years Ago Today.
There’s an old joke about Gareth Edwards which tells of an England versus Wales match, during which, one by one, the Welsh team are sent off. A Welsh fan who’s been removed for abusing the referee midway, is updated by an Englishman in the ground as he sits miserably outside. An hour in, only Gareth Edwards is left on the pitch for Wales. Suddenly, there’s a huge roar from the crowd, and the Welsh fan shouts “Gareth scored has he?”
Such was the position Edwards held in the hearts of Welshmen, a faith that, even by himself, he could beat anyone. In fact, he was held in similar esteem by rugby aficionados the world over. He has been deemed, consistently, the greatest player of all time. By people who know about these things. So what made him so special?
He was one of those people who naturally excel at any sport that takes their fancy. He played for West Wales Youth Soccer (sic) team, signing with Swansea at the age of 16. He excelled at gymnastics and athletics, and may have been famous as a hurdler had it not been for rugby — in 1966 he smashed the UK English Schools record for 200 yard hurdles, beating Alan Pascoe, who went on to be an Olympic silver medallist. Hell, he even set a British angling record in 1990, when he landed a pike weighing 45lb 6oz. For those of you watching in metric, that’s huge!
Coming from a very ordinary family, his abilities saw him gain a sports scholarship to the renowned Millfield School in Somerset, which also produced another legendary Welsh player of the era, JPR Williams.
Undoubtedly, Edwards’ physicality made him a success on the rugby field, along with superb skills and incredible vision: it was as though he was somehow able to see the game from above, where to make the breaks. He was supremely dedicated too: in the amateur days ‘you just turn up and do your thing’ was the mantra into the face of which he flew. Two of the many stories told about him underline both his own dedication and his cheeky confidence.
The first involves the legendary Barry John, already a star for Wales when Edwards got his first call up. John was visited by the nineteen-year-old Edwards, who wanted to practice the new partnership they were to forge. Famously, John on that day told Edwards “you throw it, I’ll catch it”, as if to underline his own supreme confidence.
John puts a different spin on it, relating that it wasn’t like that at all. It was a cold, wet and muddy day, and, tiring of Edwards’ obsessive repetitions, he exasperatedly said “Look, you just throw it, I’ll catch it” when asked how he wanted the ball this time. Nevertheless, John soon moved to Cardiff so he could play week in, week out with Edwards.
After Edwards became the established Wales scrum-half, the Welsh forwards decided that they needed to have some idea where this will-o’-the-wisp had gone when they emerged from a scrum and tried to find him. A signal was needed, they decided, so they could follow, rather than look like helpless chickens. The flankers were Trefor Evans and Tommy David. Evans played for Swansea, David for Pontypridd, so a simple code was used: If Edwards broke on Evans’ side he would shout a word beginning with ‘S’ and on David’s side, a word beginning with ‘P’. The system worked beautifully in training, as Edwards kept it simple, (“sugar”, “pint”), the forwards managing to follow their talisman each time. However, at the first proper international match, Edwards picked up the ball and shouted “Psychiatrist!” Some say Evans and David are still looking around helplessly to this day.
You simply don’t get these stories, true or apocryphal, attached to lesser players, only true legends. Edwards’ feats are many; he became the youngest player to captain Wales (20), the most capped (53) and highest try scorer for Wales, records that were only broken during the professional era when there are far more matches played.
Edwards retired in 1978, aged 30. Nearly 40 years on, he is still regarded by many as the greatest player ever, despite more recent players perhaps having a claim: how many of those will be high on lists 40 years after their retirements?
He will be remembered for many feats on the rugby field (and off them), none more so than THAT try, scored against the All Blacks for the Barbarians in 1973. So famous is it that you need only type ‘that try’ into Google to find it at the top of the searches.
For me though, I’ll always think of THAT OTHER TRY, scored just over a year earlier at the same ground, against Scotland. After scoring, drenched and muddied from head to foot, he looks exhausted rather than elated, and as he walks away he keeps looking back, as if he can’t believe what just happened himself.
Believe it Gareth. Because it was a truly wonderful try, as were they all.
Happy birthday Sir Gareth, thanks for the unbelievable memories.