Six Nations interview: Wales legend Gareth Edwards

The legendary half'back pairing of Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett in 1974. Picture: Getty

The legendary half'back pairing of Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett in 1974. Picture: Getty

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AS MY train trundles through the Welsh countryside, on and on and never-ending, I’m remembering the words of my contact in the valleys. “It’s such a disobliging journey,” Magnus told me, “almost like they’d rather you didn’t bother.” When I finally get to Cardiff, disorientation takes immediate hold and I can’t find the Millennium Stadium, even though I know it’s been plonked slap-bang in the city centre. I ask for directions and a gentleman of leisure is bemused but sympathetic. “What’s on today then?” he asks. “I’m meeting the greatest rugby player there ever was,” I say. The man beams. “That’ll be Gareth Edwards then.”

Edwards isn’t actually at the Millennium but Cardiff Arms Park next door, which is kind of apt. The latter hunkers down low in the shadow of the big arena, as if it was a scrum-half crouched behind some ample Red Dragon gluteus maximus, and about to rocket for the try line. No one did that better than Edwards. Here, when Wales ruled the 1970s. In New Zealand and South Africa where the Lions won towering series. Oh, and he had a pretty regular habit of rocketing Scotland as well.

“I loved the games against your boys and I’m not just saying that because you’ve come all the way to see me,” he says, grey-haired but still twinkly-eyed at 67. We’re in one of the viewing boxes while, out on the pitch, academy kids practice their grunt ’n’ heave. As far as I can make out, this is Edwards’ office when he comes up from his home near Bridgend. The table is scattered with paperwork but I never get round to asking what it is because there’s so much epic rugby to discuss. In any case, just being Gareth Edwards sounds like a job in itself. And if today sometimes feels more like a performance than an interview, such as when he stands for an anecdote or consults a reference book, that’s probably our fault. He’s invariably “on”, being the legend. Rare is the day when he isn’t required to relive the events of 40 years ago to settle a pub dispute.

“The greatest player ever born, in any position, anywhere in the world” – that’s what Cliff Morgan said. So, if Edwards was to walk outside, how far would he expect to get before being politely waylaid? “Er, the door! And if there was no one at the door then up on the banking. And if there was no one there then across the street. ‘Who was the best stand-off to play alongside you – Barry John or Phil Bennett?’ That’s always a good one. Now I’m not complaining because it’s lovely to be remembered but, God alive, I’m sure some blokes are coming up for their fifth or sixth go at it!”

During our two hours together, Edwards says “God alive” a lot, dips into Welsh when he has to take a phonecall and fails to teach me how to pronounce his home village of Gwaen-Cae-Gruwen. But back to those Scotland games. In helping Wales win seven Five Nations, five Triple Crowns and three Grand Slams, he played against us 11 times and bagged six tries like he would trout from the Tweed, his favourite Scottish river – and one of these scores is still eulogised in doorways, on bankings, on street- corners.

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“It’s true I won a lot of games against your boys but I always had great respect for Scotland,” he adds. “First time at Murrayfield as a fan I was 12 or 13 years old, up on the train with my mates in the early 60s, and Ken Scotland won it for your lot. Wales were still being reminded of a black day that happened a decade before. We were overwhelming Grand Slam favourites and ended up getting splattered in Edinburgh.” For Edwards the fixture has always been special. “More often than not something dramatic happens.”

A couple of years after his schoolboy trip, again at Murrayfield, Clive Rowlands found touch 111 times. Thankfully, by the time Rowlands became Wales coach, he wasn’t ordering the players to kick every ball.

Dramatically, Edwards was appointed Rowlands’ captain at the age of 20, Wales’ youngest-ever. “And do you know who we played in my first match as skipper? Scotland, of course.” That was ’68, the Arms Park, a win for the Welsh. The following year, back at Murrayfield, Edwards plunged for a try, John touching down too. It’s written in legend that, when they were first paired together in trials, the stand-off said to the scrum-half: “You throw it, I’ll catch it.” “Perfectly true,” confirms Edwards. To this duo were added JPR Williams, JJ Williams, Gerald Davies. The valleys were really starting to empty for the biennial march north, and little wonder with those swashbucklers on show. And as the team got even more flamboyant, throwing the ball even further, so the trips got even longer.

I tell Edwards how, as my pals and I congregated at Bruce’s Record Shop in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, still too young for the rugby thoroughfare’s drinking-dens, it was tradition to spot the first red-and-white scarf of international week and log it. “Yes, and I bet you’d see them earlier and earlier every year. Thursday, then Wednesday, then you’d get guys down here telling their sweethearts, ‘That’s me just off to the rugby, love’ and, God alive, wouldn’t it be the Monday? I don’t know how they got away with that!

“Some headed for Glasgow and never made it across to Edinburgh, never saw a scrap of rugby. Others went to Midlothian and Fife, into the mining heartlands where their fathers had stopped over before them. They’d be well looked after then back down in Wales they’d return the compliment.” This was the era of glam-rock, wild hair – and the three-day week. The Welsh hordes, with hair wilder than most, would need the escapism of Edwards and his immortals more than most.

And he could have been that miner. Returning from school in the village we’ll call GCG, he found a new helmet and boots on the kitchen table. He assumed they belonged to his father Granville, known as Glan, but then the old man said: “They’re for you. You’re obviously no good at school. Try them on.” As distracted by football as he was rugby, the Swansea Valley boy had just failed his 11-plus.

“God alive, that frightened the life out of me. There were three pits nearby and they dominated the village. You wouldn’t want to romanticise that life. I loved fishing but the stream at the bottom of our garden was always black apart from the last week in July, first in August – the miners’ holiday. And every day you saw the men come back from work and they looked that bit more beaten. Dad had always said: ‘No son of mine is ever going down the pit’. He was a miner but he didn’t have a choice. His own father – from a silver band family, he played the cornet for the King – had died at 25. He’d been playing rugby, not had a shower, a few pints, no coat, caught pneumonia, then double pneumonia, no cure. So Dad, to help his mother, started digging coal at just 14 years of age. Was that to be my future? I had to buck up my ideas.”

His second chance came at Pontardawe Technical College where he became the protégé of the PE master, Bill Samuel. “I owe him everything,” he says. Samuel took the fitness of a boy who gamboled across coal bings and honed it. There were 196 steps cut into the hillside above the tech. Edwards ran up them in his lunch-hour, five times. “Then, after classes I might have been talking to some girls and he’d do his funny harrumph and I’d have to sprint the 220 track, six times. He also told me: ‘Gareth, stick to half pints.’ That was good advice for a lad, wasn’t it?”

Samuel, who encouraged Edwards to practise with a rugby ball filled with sand to lengthen his passing and flight it through a tyre swinging from a rope to improve accuracy, read about Millfield and thought the Somerset public school with the exceptional sports record was just the place for him. The snag was very few miner’s sons from South Wales could afford the fees.

The headmaster, Jack Mayer, was keen on Edwards, though, and eventually found a wealthy businessman to sponsor his new pupil. “This fellow, who I tried to find and thank but failed, had Welsh ancestry although he was actually English. Dickie Jeeps [whiteshirts’ scrum-half] used to joke: ‘Just let me get my hands on the traitor!’”

All-rounder Edwards, who ran as a youth for England, reckons he could have been a pretty decent pole-vaulter. Swansea Town (now City) thought he could have been a footballer, although his mum Annie Mary never showed him the letter hidden behind the clock on the mantelpiece offering him an opportunity until he was bound for Millfield. “Being a mum, she put education first.” But before we leave CGC, what’s the village like now? “Well, new people have moved in, which is good, but that’s meant the Welsh language has been diluted. There used to be three chapels – and I was at ours three times every Sunday – but the last of them has just been sold off, the pubs have been boarded up and everyone works someplace else. It was special to me, though. I had a wonderful upbringing.”

Edwards, who married childhood sweetheart Maureen and has two sons and three grandchildren, can fish cleaner streams now but, when I ask about his passion for angling, it prompts a sad story. “Jock Turner died in my arms,” he says of the Scotland back. “I got the chance to fish the Tay and I’m daft enough to drive all the way up there for a day. On the way back down I looked in on Jock who was a great pal. We were soon where we always were together, on the Tweed having a grand time. ‘Let’s go to the house for some tea,’ he said, ‘and we’ll come back out later.’ He had a heart attack. His widow Pat said he died doing something he loved in the company of a friend. I looked in on her just a few weeks ago.” Edwards composes himself. “I’ll tell you what Scotland always had when I played against them – the pride of the Borders clubs which were the mainstay of the team. Great players and a great sense of occasion in Edinburgh with all those blinking pipers and always massive crowds which paid at the gate.” At least until ’75 when 104,000, maybe more, crammed the terraces, spilling onto the grass. “What an occasion that was. There must have been 50,000 Welshmen. That’s too beautiful and scary to contemplate!” Then he namechecks some non-Borderers: “Rodger Arneil: I growled at him once before a game, trying to psyche him out. Just daft. Sandy Carmichael: He grabbed a ball I couldn’t reach to score in the 18-19 game [’71, Murrayfield], one of the greatest ever played. Mighty Mouse [Ian McLaughlan], Broonie [Gordon Brown]: They conned the French referee when your boys beat us in ’75. Don’t forget, I’d seen them do that on Lions tours!”

So here’s another puzzler, the kind they didn’t ask on A Question of Sport where he was a team captain: Which Lions triumph was greater, New Zealand ’71 or South Africa ’74? “That’s difficult. The All Blacks had never been beaten before but, playing on the high veld, we went the whole tour undefeated. That was intense, it took me nine months to fully recover. One thing I do know, though, the support of the likes of John Spencer and Bob Hiller, England guys who didn’t really make the Test sides, was vital. Bob was a Harlequin whose manner on the pitch was almost pompous but there wasn’t a better mucker. He was always being denied by JPR and, on the bus, in South Africa he used to read out his letters home: ‘Dear mum, haven’t got in the team again and I’m playing great.’ Had us in stitches, so he did.”

The New Zealand expedition had been rugby of the imagination for the folks back home who had to squeeze hot ears to crackly radios. Wellington, third Test, was maybe Edwards’ greatest 80 minutes. Barry John had been pretty spectacular alongside him but would walk away from the game soon after. “Selfishly, I was disappointed. I thought we could have gone on from there.” The adulation had become too much. “After that tour, back into Neath off the London train, there was a fantastic Lagonda to take me and Maureen to the village and the whole 15 miles there was bunting and people lining both sides of the road. Barry would have had something the same and, poor fellow, he just felt like he was living in a goldfish bowl.”

So which was Edwards’ greatest try? If it was his thrilling kick and dash against us at the Arms Park in ’72, then he wants it known there was luck involved. “I thought Dai Morris – Shadow we called him – was coming with me. ‘Now Shadow,’ Clive Rowlands used to say, ‘make sure you follow Gareth.’ For once he wasn’t there. I was sure Rodger Arneil was going to stop me but one of our guys must have tugged his shirt. That left Arthur Brown, but he was a bit flat-footed. I just kept going. The red shale all over my face as I walked back was from the dog track. Mum thought I’d cut my head open.”

Then he says: “God alive, is that the time?” I haven’t had the chance to ask him about the greatest try of them all, the one featuring the entire Barbarians team, Winston Churchill, Nye Bevan, Morecambe & Wise and most of the Beatles, but decide to offer much thanks and let him go. For once he deserves to walk out the door, up the banking and across the street unfettered. Though there will be an urgent inquiry round the next corner, I expect.

Get a fans’ eye view of the action at the BT Murrayfield Stadium this weekend with Your Nations. View fan photos from the ground and the views from fans on Twitter at home.

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