The greatest Lions: Sir Gareth Edwards

Date published: April 12 2017

In a series building up to the 2017 tour to New Zealand, we remember some of the greatest players to ever wear the Lions jersey.

Next up is the scrum-half widely regarded as the greatest to ever play the game, Welsh legend Sir Gareth Edwards.

For a player so greatly feared by opponents given his propensity to score special tries – 20 in 53 Tests for Wales – perhaps the most surprising thing about Edwards’ time in the red of the Lions is that he never crossed the whitewash for the British and Irish side.

That statistical anamoly is offset by his exceptional record as a Lions player. Edwards featured in 10 Tests across his three tours from 1968 to 1974 and lost just twice.

Markers for each of his three Lions tour neatly align with the rise of a promising young talent in 1968 to becoming the hub of the Lions success on that remarkable unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1974.

Edwards had made his Wales debut the year before the Lions went to South Africa in 1968, in a Test against France in Colombes, but such was his rise to prominence that he started his first-ever Test for the Lions the following year in Pretoria. More disappointment was to follow with a 6-6 draw in Port Elizabeth, as Edwards’ Test career with the Lions started off inauspiciously.

Fast forward three years however and there was plenty to celebrate, as Edwards started all four Tests for the Lions on their famous triumph in New Zealand.

Before the Tests however were a brutal run of warm-up fixtures, peaking with what has since been billed as the ‘Battle of Christchurch’. As Edwards recalled to the Irish Examiner back in 2013, the experience was a chastening one.

“I’ve been quoted as saying there’s only been twice when I’ve ever been scared in life playing rugby. Once, was playing for Cardiff against Neath,” Edwards explained.

“The second was that Canterbury match. It was just a week before that first Test match, and the press were getting the psychological warfare going saying this will be the Test to see what the Lions are really made of.

“It was the most brutal game that we played in on that trip.

Edwards continued: “About five minutes in, we had a scrum. The ball shot out at the back and I picked it up quickly and darted around the blindside and playing number eight for Canterbury that day was a guy called Alex ‘Grizz’ Wylie. He was a hard boy, but I got the better of him because the ball had shot out.

“I got tackled into touch and I remember as I was walking back feeling quite pleased with myself, he looked at me and said ‘hey scrum-half, you do that again and I’ll break your neck’, so I just turned around to him and said ‘p**s off’!

“Anyway, about three minutes in, I had another chance and I wish I listened to him. He tried to decapitate me and almost did.

“In the meantime, Ray McLaughlin, who looks demure now and is one of Ireland’s top businessmen, was an assassin on the pitch that day. Grizz Wylie was still making himself a nuisance and fair play, he went up to Grizz and caught him a real good one.

“I remember the blood spurting out of his cut eye onto my jersey but unfortunately for Ray, he broke his hand in the process so that was the end of the tour for him.”

No doubt all the better for the experience, Edwards and the Lions went on to win the first and third Tests in Dunedin and Wellington with Barry John playing a prominent role, before a draw in the fourth and final Test in Auckland put a seal on the Lions’ only ever series win in New Zealand to date.

Edwards now was a household name but the best of his career was still to come. 1973 witnessed him play his part in ‘the greatest try ever scored’ by the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park, rounding off that remarkable sweeping move and writing his name into rugby folklore.

It was Edwards’ vision however which won him worldwide respect, his crisp passing and sense of opportunism becoming the heartbeat of the Welsh and Lions sides of the 1970s.

Returning to South Africa in 1974 with a score to settle, Edwards delivered on the grandest stage. The Lions won 21 of their 22 matches, drawing the final Test, to return home unbeaten.

His first points in a Test for the Lions came in that Cape Town opener, not via a try but a drop goal, one of only four in his entire international career.

1968 might have ended in disappointment but in hindsight it gave Edwards invaluable experience of what to expect; the altitude, the physicality, only to be returning older, wiser and full of confidence, although not cockiness, stemming from that triumph in New Zealand three years previously.

“It was always physically tough and rough, whenever you played against the South Africans. What we did decide upon is that there would be no backward steps,” he told Sky Sports back in 2009.

“You either stood up and met it head on or you folded and I’m glad to say we had the guys who could stand up and it showed that we could be successful from that.”

The length of that tour, well over two months, would be inconceivable today, but thanks to the momentum of that first Test on the Lions rolled into an impressive 28-9 win in the second Test at altitude.

“You couldn’t wish for a better pack of forwards,” Edwards told the BBC reflecting back on that fixture in Pretoria, and after the ’99’ call in Port Elizabeth overshadowed a one-sided 26-9 victory for the Lions, Edwards was a back-to-back series winner with the Lions, the first winning tour in South Africa since 1896.

Strong, athletic, dynamic, combined with his vision and exceptional passing game it is no wonder Edwards is regarded as if not the greatest player of all time, then certainly the greatest scrum-half.

by Ben Coles