The Big Interview: Sir Gareth Edwards on tries, trophies, fishing and friendships

It’s not the fact that everyone seems to know him. That is hardly surprising. He is Sir Gareth Edwards after all.

It’s not the fact that everyone seems to know him. That is hardly surprising. He is Sir Gareth Edwards after all.

It’s more the fact that he seems to know everyone as well.

At least half a dozen times in the hour or two I spend in Edwards’ company, someone wants to say hello.

Each of them is accommodated with a smile and a wink, Edwards greets them all like long-lost friends.

We might be on home territory here at the Vale resort, but these interjectors simply cannot all be Edwards’ personal acquaintances. There are too many of them! And yet they are all made to feel like it.

For those of a certain generation, Edwards is unimpeachable – and it’s not hard to see why.

A man universally beloved and unilaterally accepted as Wales’ greatest ever exponent of their national pastime, their religion, their rugby.

In 2003 there was a vote for the greatest rugby player ever, not Welsh rugby player, any rugby player. And Edwards won. Handsomely.

But for all of his majesty on the field, that was over 40 years ago now. Edwards is now 71 and yet still on the greyest of Welsh mornings, the sun starts to shine when he walks in a room.

“Oh that fellow Edwards. Who can touch a man like that.”

Thus spoke the great commentator Cliff Morgan, as Edwards danced his way down the left touchline to score THAT try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

The Baa-Baas won that day at the Arms Park. Indeed, any team with Edwards in it invariably won. To the tune of three Grand Slams, five Triple Crowns and historic British & Irish Lions series wins in New Zealand and South Africa.

But it was not just the wins that cemented Edwards as the world’s greatest, it was the panache of those Wales and Lions sides of the Seventies and the way they won.

“We realise that a lot of people remember our team for more than just the record,” he admits with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s only on reflection that you can say we played in a certain sort of style, if you can win and also play in a sort of classical style that is just a bonus.

“It was a great era to play the game, it had opened up a bit and the TV cameras were far more interested.

“A lot of people liked the way we played and we certainly enjoyed it.”

Those great Welsh teams of the Seventies are never far from the topic of conversation west of the Severn Bridge, especially with a Guinness Six Nations ongoing.

But this year has seen the great sides of Edwards, Barry John and JPR brought up in pubs and clubs all over the valleys.

And that is because Warren Gatland’s class of 2019 are currently in uncharted territory.

On a record winning run of 12 games – Edwards’ sides never managed more than seven in a row – a Grand Slam is rounding into view.

Finish the job against Scotland and Ireland, and Eddie Jones’ ‘greatest-ever’ jibes might start to look a little foolish.

And Edwards would be happy to give this Welsh side the title if they can make it 14 wins on the spin.

“If they took a Grand Slam on top of this run they are on, you cannot argue with that,” he adds.

“And to be fair, their win against England has raised their status still further.

“Nobody can say they didn’t play strong teams, fashionable teams, they will be out there on their own.

“Of course, it is difficult to measure teams from generation to generation.

“When you think about that 1908 team (who won 11 in a row), I think they only played France once, but again I don’t want to detract from them.

“I have looked back on some of our records, and there is a match here or there, that blemishes our run.

“This Wales team have been very consistent and tough to beat, not to detract from them and say they haven’t played well, there is a real art to making yourself hard to beat.

“They are grinders but you have to acknowledge the professional game and the changes that has made from our era.

“It is a bloody fine run these boys are on and they should be proud of it. Now they need to finish the job.”

Part one of the job is this weekend in Scotland.

Edwards knows that danger better than most. His first-ever Test cap as Wales captain came against them, when the scrum-half was still only 20. Wales were victorious that day.

But they weren’t so lucky in 1973 and again in 1975, Edwards’ side were sent packing from the Scottish capital with their tails between their legs.

“There are plenty of trapdoors and I have my own words of caution to pass on to Warren’s side,” adds Edwards, warming to his task now.

“When I look at our losses against Scotland. Those were games when the world was expecting nothing but a Welsh victory.

“We didn’t just lose, we didn’t deserve to win. It was just a point here or there but it still rankles with me today.

“There is no point saying we could have done this or should have done that when you look back on it. It is about the here and now and taking the moment in front of you.

“Warren gives these players such belief, so you can be sure they wont lack for focus or preparation.

“And in Alun Wyn (Jones) they have a man who could have played in any era. A work horse who leads by example.”

Trips to Edinburgh have long held a special place in Edwards’ heart.

Indeed, well before his glittering Championship career as a player, Edwards was a schoolboy making the pilgrimage north to Murrayfield on the train.

“We went up to Edinburgh back in 1959. We all jumped on the ‘Killer’ – that was what we used to call the train which went around all the little villages on the way picking people up,” he remembers.

“You would get into Edinburgh about 6 o’clock in the morning, then spend the day in and around the city.

“I can remember Ken Scotland scoring and that disappointment as Scotland won, but it didn’t take away from the sense of occasion. The pipes and the atmosphere.

“But the thing that will really stay with me is the camaraderie. A lot of the spectators in those days were miners, whether they were from Scotland or from Wales.

“The camaraderie and the friendship, a few pints off Princes Street, a lot of noise and a lot of backslapping.

‘Aye Ok Jock, don’t worry we’ll be waiting.’

“Whatever the result was that day, they were always thinking about the next one.

“That was my first memory and one that has stayed with me to this day.”

“The sheer magic of Gareth Edwards has brought the whole stadium to its feet.”

Rather than Morgan, this time it is Bill McLaren with the immortal call after another bit of Edwards’ excellence – a sublime solo score against Scotland in ‘72.

Edwards had a knack for scoring tries. 20 of them in all across his 53 Tests for Wales. That was a national record at the time, and also something of a novelty for No.9s whose job until then it had been to set up others and little more.

But Edwards was a new breed of scrum-half, a gymnast with the feet of a footballer – he was on Swansea’s books until the age of 16 – and he owed it all to his PE teacher at Pontardawe Technical School for Boys, a man by the name of Bill Samuel.

So important was Samuel in the forging of Edwards’ talent that he was one of the first people invited up on stage when the scrum-half went on This Is Your Life.

And it was Samuel who warned Edwards he was too small to be a centre, but ready to break the mould as a new-age try-scoring No.9.

“They were picking for the Dewar Shield when I was about 13 or 14, and I said I wanted to be a centre,” remembers Edwards.

“Mr ‘Samuel wasn’t having that: ‘Centre!’ he said, ‘You can forget that straight away. Your best pal Darryl Cole is the Welsh centre, and he is twice your size. You’re a good gymnast, a good footballer, I will teach you the fundamentals, but you’re a scrum-half.’

“‘Alright then Sir!’” I said. And that was that, I never looked back…”

It was the perfect storm. A supreme athlete reinventing the position in a game that had loosened up to accommodate him.

“The game had opened up a bit by the time I arrived. The rules about kicking direct to touch had changed, and with television coverage coming on as well it was pretty obvious that people wanted to be entertained, the game needed fashioning up. None of these games of 100 lineouts!”

And in that same way, half a century onwards, the scrum-half role is changing again and Edwards likes what he is seeing from one French No.9 in particular.

“What you want from a scrum-half is to put uncertainty into the defence’s mind,” he continued.

“But I like the look of Antoine Dupont, I haven’t seen much of him but what I have he looks athletic and very sharp, the sort of player who can look for their own try and also set up the game.

“I think we have been through a transition in the position, for a long time big has been beautiful.

“A scrum-half’s job is to get the ball away as quickly as they can and I love watching that.

“But defensively, teams have become so hard to break down through the middle, so if a scrum-half can create doubt, while still doing the basics well, then all the better.”

This Championship will always hold a special place in Edwards’ heart, although he gave up his tickets to Wales’ famous win over England in Round Three because his son called in a favour!

But with his commentary days behind him and after resigning his directorship at the Cardiff Blues in January, you are far more likely to find him fishing the River Wye or Usk than at home in front of the TV.

For it is the outdoor pursuits and spending time with his grandchildren that bring Edwards the most pleasure these days.

But for anyone who saw the great man play, the pleasure was all theirs.