The death of Ray Gravell last week was not only a stunning shock to all who knew and admired him but brought a sense of perspective to a rugby scene that has been full of bickering and backbiting.
A mighty centre for Llanelli, Wales and the British Lions in 1980, no one played the game more passionately than "Grav", yet he always had the utmost respect for those he played with and against. He would not dream of slagging off anybody. He had a good word for everyone, and the esteem in which he was held was clear in the emotional reaction to his sudden death at the age of 56. I was not the only one who choked up when paying tribute to him on the radio on Thursday. It was a very personal loss for so many. We came from the same area of West Wales and I had known him since I was a boy.
I was a fervent Llanelli supporter, and his was the first autograph I ever collected. My mother and I used to bump into him when we went shopping down the Co-op on a Friday, and he used to take an interest in how my rugby was going.
When I was invited to train with the Llanelli seconds as a teenager, Grav would give me a lift to Stradey Park. Despite the fact he was one of my heroes, getting into the car with this mad, ginger-haired man who always had Irish rebel songs blasting out of the cassette was one of the most frightening experiences of my career.
After I failed to make the grade with Llanelli I eventually joined Neath, and one of my first games was against Llanelli, so I came face to face with my idols – and Grav was among them.
In one move I cut inside him but before I could get past he caught me high with a short-arm tackle. I went down like a sack of coal. Grav picked me up and dusted me down, saying : "Sorry, sorry." Then he ran to the touchline and shouted pleadingly to my mother in the stand: "I'm sorry, Diana, I'm sorry."
That was Grav all over: a fierce competitor but courteous and caring with it. Whatever he was doing, he never held back.
He was a great centre to have outside you and he acted as a tremendous foil for Phil Bennett. To be able to send someone like him crashing through the opposition was a major advantage. But his strength on the charge and in the tackle tended to obscure his many other talents. He would have been an exceptional player in this day and age too.
He stayed close to the game as a broadcaster when he finished playing so I was lucky enough to see plenty of him. He was an accomplished actor, appearing with stars such as Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Irons, and lit up any activity he undertook.
He did not have an easy ride through life. His father committed suicide when Grav was 14 and it was he who found the body. He lost a leg through diabetes six months ago but was dealing with that setback as cheerfully as he did every other. He was a marvellous man and a great credit to his game andhis country.
Grav would be the first to agree that however passionate we get about rugby, it is still only a game, and one that should engender respect and loyalty among those who are involved in it at any level.
It has been sad to witness all the bitter recriminations taking place in both the English and Welsh camps since the World Cup. The rush to get opinions into print is perhaps a sign of the times, but it has gone too far when careers and reputations are at risk of being damaged because of hasty criticisms from those still in the game.Reuse content