Phil Bennett last night led the tributes to Mervyn Davies, the former Wales captain who died on Thursday aged 65, saying Davies would have led the 1977 Lions if his career had not been cut short.
Flags at the Millennium Stadium flew at half-mast yesterday, while both teams in today's Six Nations match between Wales and France in Cardiff will wear black armbands, in addition to a minute's silence being observed. They will be honouring Merve the Swerve, who captained Wales to the 1976 Grand Slam. He could have worn the most prestigious armband of all, however. "I was captain of the 1977 Lions that went out to New Zealand," said Bennett. "Mervyn Davies suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1976 playing for Swansea in the semi-finals of the Welsh Cup. Without doubt he'd have been skipper of that '77 tour and thoroughly would have deserved it."
As it stands, it is hard to imagine Davies having a bigger reputation. He was voted by Welsh fans as the best Wales captain in history as well as the country's best No 8. Bennett, a close friend, remembers his will to succeed. He recalled how Davies was inspired to improve as a player during the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa by the presence of England's Andy Ripley, a rival for the No 8 shirt.
"Rippers was playing the rugby of his life, and Mervyn said, 'I'm going to step my game up,'" Bennett said. "And he started to play rugby football like I've never seen him play before. He was totally outstanding."
Davies made his Wales debut against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1969. He played for London Welsh from 1968, as did several top Wales players during the 1970s, and later joined Swansea, where he completed his playing career.
"His record speaks for itself and the legend will rightly live on," said his backrow colleague John Taylor. "But to those of us who counted him as a close friend he was much, much more than a great rugby player."
The Welsh Rugby Union's hierarchy – the president, Dennis Gethin, and the chief executive, Roger Lewis – also paid their tributes. "We have lost a great player, a wonderful ambassador for the game and a true gentleman," said Gethin. "I played against Mervyn many times and knew just how good he was, but I also grew to appreciate him as a true friend. In later life he also became an accomplished after-dinner speaker, so his loss will be felt in many ways by so many people."
Lewis added: "He stood out in one of our great Welsh teams, but remained a modest and gentle man off the field of play throughout his life." And Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones said: "Sometimes the word legend is overused, but when it comes to Mervyn Davies it was true. A true great Welshman, Mervyn was arguably the best No 8 we have ever seen."
Last night an internet campaign was growing for fans to don fake moustaches and wear headbands at today's game as a tribute to Davies.