Haydn Tanner: Rugby union player celebrated as one of the best scrum-halves the game has known
Saturday 20 June 2009
One of the biggest achievements in Welsh rugby is to play in a team that beats the All Blacks, so imagine how Haydn Tanner must have felt when he notched two wins over the New Zealand tourists while still at school.
It was the start of one of the greatest careers in Welsh rugby history and led the captain of the 1935 All Blacks tour party, Jack Manchester, to coin the immortal phrase after his team had lost to Swansea; "Don't tell them at home that we were beaten by a pair of schoolboys."
For on that day at St Helen's, Swansea fielded two 18-year-old cousins at half-back. Tanner was at scrum half and Willie Davies, his Gowerton County School team-mate, was at outside half. The All Whites triumphed 11-3.
The impact Tanner had on that game earned him a call-up to the Wales team to face the tourists two weeks before his 19th birthday. The fairy tale continued as Wales won 13-12 at Cardiff Arms Park, despite losing their hooker Don Tarr with a broken neck in the second half, and Tanner became a teenage idol.
It was the start of what became the longest Welsh international career in history, a full 14 years, and one which earned Tanner the accolade of the greatest scrum-half in the world game. He won 25 caps, never being dropped, and captained Wales on 12 occasions.
During the Second World War he served in the Royal Corps of Signals and appeared in eight Service and four Victory internationals. Before the outbreak of war, and while still a student, he was selected for the 1938 British Lions tour to South Africa.
He was the youngest of three scrum-halves, 21, but was still expected to be one of the major stars of the tour, battling it out with the Springboks' Dannie Craven for the right to be seen as the best scrum-half in the world. He worked his way into the second Test in Port Elizabeth, but then was hit by injuries.
Born in Penclawdd, on the Gower peninsula, Tanner joined the local club at 17. It was a natural move given that his grandparents ran the pub that doubled as the village club's headquarters. At 17, he moved into the big time with Swansea. He studied chemistry and mathematics at Swansea University and, after graduating, switched clubs to play for Cardiff. He taught at Bristol Grammar School at the time. He captained Cardiff between 1947-49 and also led the Barbarians against Australia in 1948, the first of what became a long-standing tradition of matches against touring teams to the UK.
When he retired from rugby, he became an industrial chemist working in the wood pulp trade for Thompson and Norris. He later became a buyer for Reed International and travelled extensively. He attended the Harvard Business School and became purchasing director for Reed Paper and Board UK. He retired in November, 1980.
His team-mates swore by him and admired his immense passing ability and strength on the break.
"Among all the scrum-halves I have known and played with, he would reign supreme," Bleddyn Williams, the Wales centre who played with Tanner for Cardiff after the war, said. "He was a totally great player, a schoolboy international who grew into a master tactician. He had a superb pass, the best I ever played with. His service was even better than Gareth Edwards'."
Haydn Tanner (rugby union player); born Penclawdd 9 January, 1917; played for Wales, 1935-49, British and Irish Lions 1938; married (deceased, one daughter); died Leicestershire 4 June 2009.
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