Sir Gareth Edwards: 50 years since scrum-half made debut for Wales
When Gareth Edwards stepped onto Stade Colombes in Paris on 1 April, 1967 he was a lean, lithe and largely unheralded scrum-half – junior partner in Wales’ half-back department to fly-half Dai Watkins.
It was 50 years ago, he was 19 years old and considered too young by many critics of the time.
11 years later he was carried shoulder high from the field at the National Ground, Cardiff after Wales had secured a third Grand Slam of the 1970s, and by then Edwards was the player against whom all others were judged.
It was the last time we saw him in a Wales shirt.
In those 11 years – bookended by matches against France, one defeat, one win – he had played 53 consecutive times for his country.
He had been a key architect of British and Irish Lions Test series wins over New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974.
He had scored that try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks.
In the age of the round-ball game’s Boys from Brazil and Total Football, Edwards was rugby’s Pele, its Cruyff and its Beckenbauer.
In the half century that has followed Edwards’ debut in a 20-14 defeat by France, he was voted the greatest Welsh rugby player of all time.
Former England captain Will Carling named him as his best player of all time and in 2003 a poll of international players in Rugby World magazine came to the same conclusion.
Not bad for a miner’s son from Gwaun Cae Gurwen in an offshoot of the Swansea Valley.
At school in Pontardawe in the 1970s there was a challenge for sporty types. It was called the 100 steps.
Pontardawe Technical School, which Edwards attended years before, had been consumed by Cwmtawe Comprehensive School by then.
But the steps running from a road alongside the school in a crooked concrete switchback remained, snaking through the woods to Pontardawe Golf Club on the mountain.
They were the steps that Edwards – we were told – used to run up under the tutelage of sports master Bill Samuel.
They were the steps all-comers had to conquer in one lung-busting, leg pummelling effort. There were a lot more than 100, by the way.
Imagine being able to play football where Pele practised or drive the same track as Jackie Stewart. It was that special.
Question of Sport
After his playing career ended – because he had taken money for writing an autobiography, strictly forbidden in rugby union’s amateur days – Edwards remained a public figure.
He was as a captain in Question of Sport alongside Emlyn Hughes, a bilingual television pundit on the BBC or the Welsh-language channel S4C.
Edwards even once caught a British-record pike at Llandegfedd reservoir near Pontypool. He’s on record as saying angling – and fly-fishing in particular – was his true sporting love.
But it’s rugby that defines most people’s view of Edwards, and being part of some of the truly great teams in the sport’s history that cemented the legend – alongside equally revered half-back partners Watkins, Barry John and Phil Bennett.
Speaking on the BBC’s Welsh language website Cymru Fyw, Edwards recalled his debut with fondness and amusement.
Steak and kicks
“Things are different today, the preparations are so precise – what you eat, when you eat it and things like that,” he said.
“The game was at three o’clock and about one I had a steak – a fairly big one – and I’m not sure if I had a second.
“Jerry Lewis, the team masseur and kit man presented me with my shirt – it was a nice touch.
“I’d had red shirts before – for Christmas – but only one red shirt has the three feathers on it and the first thing I did was kiss it.”
In those days the match was preceded by the French national anthem and God Save the Queen – not Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – and Edwards was concerned with getting his first touch right.
“Brian Price won a lineout, Denzil Williams fed the ball to me perfectly and I got the kick away,” he said.
“And I thought ‘thank the Lord for that’, I got the kick in.”
So started one of the great sporting careers of its era. Two steaks, a lineout and a kick.
Many kicks followed, many passes, breaks and 20 tries for Wales – some of them classics, replayed to this day.
The athletic youngster turned into the cunning, barrel-chested tactician and ruthless exploiter of other teams’ weaknesses.
If you get the chance, watch that last match from 1978. Wales were up against the formidable France side of Jean-Pierre Rives, Jean-Pierre Bastiat and Philippe Skrela who scored an early try in Cardiff.
Bennett’s first try settled Welsh nerves and then Edwards took over. He dropped a goal – off balance and on the run – to edge Wales ahead.
From the restart he pinned France back with one of his trademark angled kicks and then shrugged off France hooker Alain Paco to set up the attack for Bennett’s second try.
A masterclass to sign-off on a memorable career.
Many call him Maestro. Officially he is Sir Gareth, after receiving a knighthood in 2015.
In Wales they just call him Gareth. There is no greater compliment.