UNLIKE SO MANY of his contemporaries in the Welsh team of the 1970s, ‘Merv The Swerve’ (apparently so named because of his surfboarding skills in Swansea Bay) had no pedigree of note as a rugby player, apart perhaps from being the son of a former Wales forward. He had played rugby as a three-quarter at Penylan Comprehensive School and was subsequently the star player in the Swansea Training College XV. There, his considerable height of 6’4” gave him certain advantages in the pack. In addition, his talents as a basketball player, which earned him selection for the Welsh Colleges basketball team, nurtured handling skills which stood him in good stead as a member of the back row. However his thin, gangly, rake-like appearance did nothing to suggest that in due course, he would become one of the greatest and most durable Number 8s in the world. It is said that one of the measures he took to try and belie the ‘wimpish’ appearance that he presented in the early days, was to grow a Mexican moustache!
While at college he was selected on one occasion by the All Whites, but made little impression and the club made no effort to retain his services. He moved to Surrey in 1969, to pursue a career as a teacher and turned out for the Old Guilfordians rugby team. After a few games he joined the London Welsh club and initially played for their third XV. Within a matter of months, he was selected for the first XV and took his place apprehensively (by his own admission) in the back row alongside Tony Gray and John Taylor.
That was the first of 38 consecutive caps for Mervyn Davies, a number which would have been considerably greater had he not been struck down by a tragic injury, at the age of 29 years
A more phenomenal advance was to follow and, after only 6 games for London Welsh, he was selected for the Probables team in the final Welsh trial. Two weeks later he made an impressive debut for the Welsh team that defeated Scotland 17–3 at Murrayfield. That was the first of 38 consecutive caps for Mervyn Davies, a number which would have been considerably greater had he not been struck down by a tragic injury, at the age of 29 years, when playing for Swansea at a time when he had become the world’s most capped Number 8.
Prior to that incident, he had captained Wales to eight victories in nine matches, a run which had started with a remarkable victory, by 25–10, against France in Paris, when six players had worn the red shirt for the first time. His last match for Wales was against France in Cardiff on 6 March 1976, when he captained the home side as they secured the Grand Slam with an exciting victory by 19–13. He had an inspired game despite having been steamrollered by the French pack in the opening minutes, with the ball nowhere near! One of the numerous studs that trampled him left a huge hole in his shin which would, in the case of some players, have ensured that they would not have been able to carry on. By the end of the game, the pain was excruciating. “There was a lot of internal bleeding going on: but it was important to the team to stay on. I dared not leave the field because we would have had only 14 men until a replacement arrived and that might have been time enough for France to score.” That story epitomised the ‘do or die’ attitude which Mervyn possessed both as a player and as a captain who led by example.
He retired having been a crucial part of a Wales team that won two Grand Slams, three Triple Crowns and four outright Championships during his career
‘The incomparable Mervyn Davies’, as described by J P R Williams, also played in eight tests for the British Lions, being on the losing side on just one occasion. At the time of his crucial injury in 1976, he had been unofficially asked by John Dawes, who had been selected as coach of the 1977 Lions for their tour of New Zealand, to captain the team, an invitation which Mervyn later admitted he would have proudly accepted, as it would have been his greatest honour in an illustrious career. There was universal agreement at the time that he would have been the ideal skipper. He retired having been a crucial part of a Wales team that won two Grand Slams, three Triple Crowns and four outright Championships during his career.
His attributes as a player were innumerable. Firstly, his defensive qualities were immense and manifested a durability and strength of character which far exceeded the usual demands on a Number 8. A former Wales coach stated that he had never seen anybody fall as bravely and so frequently on the ball as Mervyn Davies, which normally occurred in the face of flying boots that were intent on causing physical damage. In that connection, he was an expert at tidying up loose ball behind his forwards.
When asked what facet of the game gave him most satisfaction, he replied that tackling was his greatest pleasure. He was an expert at flattening midfield runners, in skilfully turning the opposition in the tackle and also in stealing the ball from opponents’ hands in ensuing malls. In his opinion he probably made 40 tackles for Wales which otherwise would have resulted in tries. In tandem with his devastating tackling in midfield was an ability to read the game intuitively and to close down potentially threatening spaces. His fellow team members in the first Test played by the Lions against South Africa in 1977 recall an early crunching tackle he made on Morne du Plessis, the celebrated Springbok Number 8. As a result of the sheer power of Mervyn’s tackle, the South African was knocked some yards backwards, bringing a gasp of disbelief from the partisan home supporters. They had probably never seen a ’Bok’s forward being tackled so hard in a Test match. The incident was considered as being crucial in setting the tone for the steel required by the Lions to ensure an invincible series.
They had probably never seen a ’Bok’s forward being tackled so hard in a Test match
Mervyn’s contribution to the line-out was priceless. At his own team’s throw-in, he would guarantee possession at the back and could also be depended upon to regularly disrupt the opposition throw. One of the advantages of his dominance in that aspect of the game was that Wales, for many years, were able to play two other players, namely John Taylor and Dai Morris, in their back row who were slightly shorter than average but who, due to other qualities, were able to forge an amazingly successful partnership with their Number 8.
Mervyn’s attitude to the attributes required of an international rugby forward were significantly influenced by the Wales tour to New Zealand in 1969. The visitors were soundly beaten in two Test matches, during which the Welsh pack was completely overcome by the physicality of the All Blacks forwards. As a result, Mervyn came home determined to improve his upper body strength and the general standard of his play. When he returned there in 1971, it was obvious that he had succeeded in doing so.
His play during the series was inspirational. The Lions’ captain, John Dawes, named Mervyn as the second most important Lion of the Test series, after Barry John. The visitors won by 2–1, with the last Test being drawn. Indeed the All Blacks legend, Colin Meads, was so impressed with his performance at the back of the line-out (where he outplayed the celebrated Ian Kirkpatrick and denied the home team such vital possession), and in open play, that he named him and Mike Gibson, the Irish centre, as the two players who had contributed most to the All Blacks’ defeat.
His dominance in the back row was such that the Springbok selectors, for these matches, resorted to using four different Number 8s
Yet it is widely believed that he played his best rugby during the Lions tour to South Africa in 1974. His defensive performance during the four-match Test series was particularly effective. His dominance in the back row was such that the Springbok selectors, for these matches, resorted to using four different Number 8s in order to try and stifle his infuence, albeit without success. Mervyn’s achievements were all the more commendable since it was commonly believed at the start of the tour that he would be playing second fiddle to the English star, the late Andy Ripley.
Recognised as one of the fittest back row players of his era, he also displayed throughout his career seemingly inexhaustible stamina and remarkable resilience against sometimes fierce opposition. Coupled with an obdurate determination to never allow his spirit to weaken, he always gave one hundred percent. The manner in which his career came to an end was therefore all the more poignant.
During a Welsh Cup semi-fi nal match against Pontypool at the Cardiff Rugby Club ground on Sunday, 26 March 1976, when running in support of his three-quarters in open play, Mervyn suddenly collapsed to the ground from a brain haemorrhage. He almost died on the spot, but was able to draw upon the excellent medical facilities available at the stadium and the specialised care offered at the neurological unit of the University of Wales Hospital, where he underwent major surgery and remained on the danger list for a week. He recovered well, but was left with defective co-ordination and a deterioration in eyesight and smell.
The world of rugby was stunned by the tragedy in 1976, at a time when Mervyn was playing at the peak of his game
It appeared that the haemorrhage was the second that Mervyn had suffered. Following a match between London Welsh and London Irish on 1 April 1972, he collapsed in the shower. He was taken to a local hospital which did not specialise in neurological matters and where he was diagnosed with meningitis, namely inflammation of the membrane enclosing the brain. In retrospect, it is believed that if brain tests had been undertaken following that first incident, they would have established that there was a weakness in the nerve ends of the brain which manifested itself during the fateful match at Cardiff. If that had been the case, it is more than likely that Mervyn would have had to retire from the game in 1972.
The world of rugby was stunned by the tragedy in 1976, at a time when Mervyn was playing at the peak of his game and had established himself as probably one of the best Number 8s ever. In 2002, in a poll of the rugby going public by the Welsh press, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Welsh Rugby Former International Players Association, Mervyn Davies was voted the greatest ever Wales Number 8 and also the greatest ever Welsh captain.
The Hard Men of Welsh Rugby by Lynn Davies is available for £7.95 from Ylolfa
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