It’s nearly 50 years since the player deemed to be the greatest rugby player of all time – Sir Gareth Edwards – first laced up his boots for Wales.
The teenager may not have been on the winning side when Wales played France on April 1, 1967, but the scrum half went on to prove he was no April fool’s joke.
Fifty years may have passed since the then teenage scrum half, less than a year out of Millfield School, made his debut against France at the old Stade Colombes in a 20-14 defeat, but a star was born.
In an 11 year international career he went on to play in 53 consecutive internationals for Wales, win three Grand Slams, five Triple Crowns and five outright Championship titles. In the Five Nations he won 32 and drew four of his 45 matches for a 75% success rate.
Add on two series wins on three tours, and 10 Tests, with the British & Irish Lions and you start to see why the Welsh selectors wanted to get him into their side sooner rather than later. And why he has been consistently voted the world’s greatest player of all-time.
His elevation to the ranks of Test rugby came after he had played the Welsh Schools Senior Group, Cardiff College of Education, featured in six games for Cardiff, played in two Welsh Trials and been a reserve against Scotland. Wales had lost to Australia, for the first time, Scotland and Ireland before they turned to the untested 19-year-old in what turned out to be a stroke of genius.
“It was a very special occasion, and it is still very vivid in my mind, although I can’t believe it was that long ago. It was the biggest occasion of my sporting life and something I had always dreamt about achieving,” said Edwards.
Gareth Edwards in action against France in 1974
“What I remember most of all is just how quickly it all went. I couldn’t believe it when the referee blew the final whistle – and Dewi Bebb shoved the match ball up my jersey.
“It was a wonderful memento of a wonderful day in my life and I’ve still got the ball in my house. I can remember the disappointment of the defeat, although nobody expected us to win. Wales had lost to Australia, for the first time, Scotland and Ireland before I got the call to play in France.
“I was less than a year out of school, I’d only played a handful of games for Cardiff and a few others for Cardiff College of Education. So nobody was more surprised than me when I got selected.”
Although picked for the Probables for the two Welsh Trials, Edwards had to wait for his turn to play for Wales. The selectors went with the 1966 British Lions scrum half Allan Lewis against the Wallabies, turned to Billy Hullin in Scotland and then back to Lewis for Ireland at home. Then came another change when they chose Edwards to go to France.
“When Wales lost that game I thought I might get a chance to play against Ireland. But I wasn’t picked and I wasn’t even the reserve. So, when the team to play France was due to be announced I didn’t think I had a chance of playing,” recalled Edwards.
“On the day of the team announcement I was in college I got one of my friends to telephone the Cardiff club to ask what the team was. I can still see him now, listening and nodding his head, and then all of a sudden he turned towards me and gave me the thumbs-up. I was stunned – I couldn’t believe it.
“He put the phone down and I started to grill him – ‘who did you speak to, what did they say’. IN the end I asked him to change his voice and ring again.
“He put another 4d into the coin slot on the old telephone and rang again. He gave me the thumbs up for a second time and I was stunned – you could have flattened me there and then.”
The great Neath flanker Dai Morris and Coventry No 8 Ron Jones would join Edwards in winning their first caps in Paris and the young scrum half wanted to ensure he linked well with his captain, Watkins. So the youngster suggested to his senior partner that they might meet up for a ‘throw about’.
Gareth Edwards caked in mud during the Five Nations clash against Scotland in 1972
“There was no squad training or preparation, so I arranged to meet with him at the Arms Park a few days before we went to France. I was a bit late because of traffic and, when I arrived, Dai wasn’t changed,” added Edwards.
“Dai said the groundsman wouldn’t give us a ball. I knew Dai played for Newport, but I thought this was ridiculous. I told the groundsman ‘I’m playing for Wales on Saturday, can we have a ball please’.
“His answer was ‘I don’t care who you’re playing for, nobody told me about this’. He wouldn’t budge, so we wrapped up Dai’s coat in a ball and practised with that. He gave me all the confidence I needed and was a brilliant help to me.”
Before Wales got to Paris, Edwards had picked up his blazer, trousers, shirt and tie provided by the WRU, and also used the voucher given to him that allowed him to buy two pairs of boots. “And we also got a duffle bag!” he added. He also ensured he packed “a heavy sweater”, as suggested in his selection notice, in order to stay warm in training.
“The whole occasion was just an unbelievable experience. Gerry Lewis presented me with my first Welsh jersey and he really did make it a moment to cherish,” he said. “Before the game I went out to have a look around the ground and I had the shock of my life when I looked at the terraces and saw a girl in a red coat – it was Maureen, my girlfriend and now wife, who had travelled over with her cousin.
“Denzil Williams caught the first line-out, tucked the ball in and then gave it to me and I kicked it to touch. It wasn’t the greatest kick in the world, but it made me feel that there wasn’t much difference between this game and any other I’d played in before.
“My first pass got to Dai Watkins after two bounces, but it got there and went to hand. There was a bit of physicality from the French and I remember Dewi Bebb running away and scoring a great try and Terry Price not having a great day with his goalkicking.
“Dewi was my hero and my first game watching Wales play at the Arms Park was when he scored the match-winner against England in 1959. Imagine the thrill for me to play with him on my first cap eight years later – I simply couldn’t believe I was in the same team as him.
“And then I was the one who passed him the ball to score his last try for Wales on my home debut against England in my second cap – in exactly the same corner as 1959!”
As well as Paris being the venue for his first cap, it was also the place where he quaffed his first glass of wine at the post-match reception.
“We had ‘dinners’ in Wales, but they had ‘banquets’ in France. We went to the magnificent Grand Hotel in the centre of Paris after the game and I had my first glass of wine before heading off into the night with some of the senior players,” he added.