Mervyn Davies: Rugby union player considered by many as one of the greatest from Wales

 

You know you've really made it as a rugby forward if you get praise from South Africa and New Zealand. In both countries they revered Mervyn Davies as if he was one of their own. And why not? The former London Welsh, Swansea, Wales and British & Irish Lions No 8, instantly recognisable from his trademark headband, wiry hair and gaucho style moustache, beat the Springboks and the All Blacks in their own back yard in an era when British rugby ruled the world.

"I've always said he was the one player who probably had the biggest impact on that 1971 Lions Test series," the former All Black Sir Colin Meads said. "For years so much of our play had revolved around throwing to Brian Lochore at the back of the line-out, but Mervyn dominated that area of the game for the entire series and stopped us playing. I met him several times in the subsequent years including a guest appearance on an episode of This is Your Life, in his honour. They kept me holed up in a hotel room in Llanelli for two days before the programme because they said everyone will recognise you and know why you're here.

"But I was happy to travel from New Zealand for such a great player and a marvellous man. He is one of the great players of Welsh and world rugby."

Davies' was a remarkable international career that was brimful of success but was cut short when he was at the peak of his powers. Having played 38 consecutive internationals for Wales, won three triple crowns and two Grand Slams, captained his country to eight wins in nine games and helped the Lions win Test series in New Zealand and South Africa, it all came to a shuddering, sudden end.

The venue was Cardiff Arms Park and the occasion was the Welsh Challenge Cup semi-final. Davies' Swansea side were taking on Pontypool when the giant No 8 keeled over after a line-out and lay prostrate on the field. He had suffered an intra-cranial haemorrhage.

It wasn't the first time he had collapsed on the rugby field. The first time was in 1972 when he was playing for London Welsh against London Irish. Davies remembered being sick and, as he says: "It was as if the All Blacks pack were doing the Haka inside my skull."

At that time it was thought to be meningitis, but had he been diagnosed correctly, surgery would have corrected the problem and he would have been force to retire then. Instead, he was able to get four more great years on the field.

After a period in a coma, he spent months in hospital and saw his life turned upside down. Having been one of the most physical athletes the rugby world had seen he found himself learning how to walk again. He couldn't trust himself to cross the road in safety, such was the paralysis down his left side.

"From competing against New Zealand one minute to not being able to beat my one-year-old son at tiddlywinks was a hard battle to come to terms with," he said. The fact he managed for a further 36 years before he finally had to give in to lung cancer spoke volumes about his character and fighting ability. Affable in appearance and outlook, he had steel coursing through his veins.

"He loved playing and you could totally rely on him – he was totally uncompromising. As a captain he led by example, was tremendously courageous and never opted out of anything," John Dawes, the captain who ld him into battle for club, country and the Lions said.

"Had it not been for his brain haemorrhage, he would have led the 1977 British and Irish Lions to New Zealand and I think we might have won the series. His would be one of the first names down on the team sheet for any greatest ever Wales and Lions XVs."

Born in Swansea, rugby was in his blood; his father had played for Swansea and for Wales in an uncapped services international. Even so, his first foray into the club scene wasn't auspicious.

"I remember being in a selection meeting at London Welsh shortly after he had joined the club when it wassuggested Merve should be elevated from the Dragons to the Druids," Dawes said. "The third team captain, Glan Richards, told us he had 'this big lad, long and thin, who will win you some line-out ball, but isn't very good'. By October he had made his debut in the first team and in January he was in the Welsh side."

"Merve the Swerve" also played eight consecutive tests with the Lions. He won three Triple crowns, two Grand Slams and two Lions Test series. He was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2001 and was regularly voted Wales greatest ever No 8 and captain.

"When people like Colin Meads point to him being the biggest thorn in the side of the New Zealand team in 1971, rather than Barry John, who was getting all the plaudits, you so how highly he was rated by his peers," Gareth Edwards, who played in all 38 Welsh internationals and Lions Tests with Davies, said. "His delivery of line-out ball from the tail was critical to the Lions' success in 1971 and revolutionised the game.

"He worked at the coal face in a way that maybe the players of today wouldn't really appreciate. Firstly, he had to fight for his life at the line-out, then it was a free for all at the rucks and mauls when anything could happen to you. But he was outstanding in all those areas. He was like an octopus in the way he used to use his long arms to somehow deliver the ball back from the line-out. He was only slight in stature, and a bit gangly, but he was a fine all-round player who ruled the roost at the line-out, was strong in the tackle and powerful at the mauls."

After his playing days were over, Davies became a highly regarded after-dinner speaker.

Thomas Mervyn Davies, rugby union player: born Swansea 9 December, 1946; played for London Welsh 1968-1972, Swansea 1972-1976, Barbarians, Surrey; won 38 caps for Wales 1969-76, eight caps for Lions 1971-74; twice married (one son, one daughter from first marriage); died Swansea 15 March 2012.

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