Book Review: In Strength and Shadow, by Mervyn Davies and David Roach

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It was a fine spring morning in 1976 with the sun rising above Swansea Bay. A few miles up the valley at Pontlliw there were the usual bang and clatter as young Christopher was setting the Davies house in motion. Little did he realise that it was not only to be the final day of his father's rugby career, but very nearly the last day of his life.

Mervyn Davies had been earmarked for the captaincy of the 1977 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, an acknowledgement that the iconic Davies, who had led Wales to a Grand Slam in 1976, was the most inspirational and influential No 8 in world rugby.

Then the world changed for Davies - known to his team-mates and a legion of fans as "Merv the Swerv" - when he collapsed on the pitch in a Welsh Cup semi-final against Pontypool in Cardiff. It was the second time he had suffered what was later diagnosed as a brain haemorrhage. The first was four years earlier when playing for London Welsh against London Irish. Davies remembers being physically sick and, as he says: "It was as if the All Blacks pack were doing the haka inside my skull."

When he was rushed to hospital after collapsing the first time, the assessment was a form of meningitis. Had he been diagnosed correctly, surgery would have corrected the problem and he would have retired then. But he got four more years out of the game he graced so magnificently before succumbing almost fatally. From there his life spiralled downhill. After a period in a coma, Davies could not even trust himself to cross the road in safety, such was the paralysis down his left side.

In Strength and Shadow is no mere sports book, any more than it is a trawl through the part Davies played in a golden period for Welsh rugby. It is a tale of human frailty as Davies casts his eyes over the rubble of his ruined rugby career, how he was forced to come to terms with his incapacity, taking to drink and coming up short as a husband and father. It is a touching tale.

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