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21 April 2024

Treading the path of Legends

The soon-to-be-named British Lions players have a egendary role model in Gareth Edwards. (GETTY IMAGES) 

By Ahmad Lala

The 60 players that will be named in the initial British and Irish Lions squad by coach Ian McGeechan later this month will be following in the footsteps of some legendary players – none bigger though, than Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards.

In respect of the tradition behind the Lions, we pay homage to a man many consider the greatest rugby player in the history of the game.

"That's a nice compliment," says Edwards with a chuckle. "But, I don't take things like that too much to heart. It's nice that people think of you in that context, but it is only an opinion.

"The biggest pleasure I have is when people stop you in the street and say 'Thank you for the way you played the game' or, 'I enjoyed watching you play even though I'm an Englishman, Irishman or a Scotsman'."

The scrum-half made his debut in 1967 as a 19-year old and was Wales' youngest captain at 20. When he announced his retirement in 1978 he had collected 53 international caps without missing a game in his 11-year career. He won seven Five Nations Championships, including three Grand Slams, with his country.

And, not only does the 61-year old have the honour of being considered one of the best in the business, his try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 at Cardiff Arms Park has gone down in the annals of history for being a moment of supreme sporting brilliance.

Flyhalf Phil Bennett fielded a ball deep in his 22 and slipped through three New Zealand tackles before passing wide. The ball moved through five pairs of hands before Edwards collected, sprinted the final 30 metres and dived to score in the left-hand corner.

"There are DVDs and pictures of it now and so you are constantly reminded," says the former scrum-half, who scored 20 international tries. "Everywhere I go around the world, even here in Dubai, there is always a video clip to remind you and so thankfully I'm able to remember it, because it was a long time ago.

"It was a thrilling moment, probably one of the better moments in sport, and has given a lot of people pleasure. It was just wonderful to be a part of it and even when I watch it now I have the feeling that something will go wrong, but it never happened.

"It is a sporting moment like maybe Roger Bannister running the first four-minute mile or like England winning the football World Cup. A lot of people want to tell me 'I was there' or 'I saw it' and so many people stop me and say that, which is wonderful."

Edwards knows all about what it takes to be a British Lion as well. He toured three times with the side in 1968, 1971 and 1974 – two of those times to South Africa, which is the destination of this year's squad in June and July.

In 1971 the Lions beat the All Blacks, but it was the 1974 team in South Africa that would re-write history and set a precedent that has now become near impossible to follow. The Willie John McBride-captained side completed the tour unbeaten in the 22 matches, including the four Tests.

"To be part of a team that was victorious over both New Zealand and South Africa was really amazing," says Edwards, who was in Dubai recently as an HSBC Lions ambassador. "When I look back I think, did this really happen?

"To play during an era where the rugby was very exciting with so many talented players who played the game with verve, excitement and a wonderful attitude is something I will always remember."

To throw a squad of four fierce rugby-playing nations together, who only months earlier were battering each other in the Six Nations, and band them into a compact team capable of beating – in this case World Champions South Africa – is no simple task.

Edwards though can recount many a tale about incidents on tour that helped the team mould as a unit. Among his favourites is one that comes from the 1974 tour.

"I remember once training in South Africa," recalls the man, who was last year awarded a CBE for his services to the sport. "Chris Ralston, the England forward, was battered to the floor by some members of the Test team, who wanted to prove that they were the right choice to represent the Lions in the next Test.

"So there he was, left prone on the ground screaming in agony. 'Oh my God,' he said 'The pain, the pain – it's excruciating, it's excruciating!'

"Then Bobby Windsor, the Wales hooker and a man of relatively few words, said 'Get up, get up, it can't be that bad if you can think of a word like that to describe yourself.'

Edwards laughs then adds: "Even Chris Ralston had a wry smile. It's moments like that, which make everybody laugh, forget the moment and gels the side even tighter together."

Deciding destiny

British and Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan, Wales coaches Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards and Lions back-line coach Robert Howley will help finalise a 60 strong initial squad which will be announced on January 20.

The squad will eventually be whittled down to just 35 players.

"Individual performances were encouraging in the autumn," said McGeechan. "New players came to the fore that were quite encouraging.

"Now the challenge for us is to select what we think is the best group of blokes and then draw them together."