Think of a number that sums up the best of Welsh rugby players throughout history and most people plump for 10. Max Boyce would be among them. But Owen Morgan reckons that just doesn’t add up.
Max Boyce got it wrong!
Instead of celebrating the mythical Welsh outside-half factory almost 40 years ago on his iconic Live at Treorchy album, Glynneath’s finest should have been singing the praises of Wales’ scrum-half seams.
Fair play to Max, he isn’t alone. For decades, all we have heard about are twinkle-toed outside-halves – Welsh wizards, with hypnotic hip swerves and seductive side-steps.
When people think of the archetypal Welsh rugby player, they think of Barry or Phil, Jonathan, Dai or Cliff.
Again, to be fair, they have a point. But they are all wrong, too! I’m starting to make enemies here, aren’t I? But let me state my case.
Exhibit A for my defence: Gareth Edwards.
Now, having grown up in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen during the seventies, and worshipped the actual ground Gareth trod, I would quite happily rest my case here.
Edwards has widely been lauded as the greatest player ever to pick up a rugby ball. Job done. My argument wins.
Ah, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury I have more, much more.
Let’s go back to 1935 when the mighty All Blacks were taught a rugby lesson by two Gowerton schoolboys.
Scrum-half Haydn Tanner lined up with his cousin Willie Davies immediately outside him as Swansea welcomed the New Zealand tourists to St Helen’s.
The pair dazzled in an 11-3 victory which had All Black skipper Jack Manchester sending back a message to New Zealand: “Tell them we have been beaten, but don’t tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys.”
In December of that year, Tanner made his Wales debut aged 18 years and 11months.
Again, he was on the winning side against the All Blacks. He made 25 appearances for Wales despite his career being interrupted by the Second World War.
His Wales career spanned a hugely impressive 14 years and in 1938, he toured South Africa with the Lions and played in one Test, but was injured for the remaining two.
Born 100 years ago today : Haydn Tanner, second of Wales’s holy trinity of scrum-halves. https://t.co/RjIciOumGi
— Huw Richards (@huwrichards3) January 9, 2017
If making history is a claim to rugby greatness, then the Top Cat from Cwtwrch surely takes the cream.
In 1963, Clive Rowlands made his Wales debut against England as captain. It was a position he retained for his next 13 caps between 1963 and 1965, leading Wales to their first Triple Crown victory since 1952. He captained Wales in every game he played.
Unfortunately, perhaps, his playing career will be remembered for a match when he quite literally kicked Wales to victory over Scotland. He continually kicked for touch in a 6-0 victory, which included 111 line-outs. At least Wales won!
His greatest successes came after he hung up his boots. He became Wales’ youngest coach in 1968 and led Wales to a Grand Slam in 1971.
In 1987 he managed Wales to third place in the inaugural World Cup and the Lions to victory in Australia in 1989.
I have already mentioned the great Gareth Edwards, but there was another brilliant Welsh scrum-half on the scene during his golden reign.
Due to Edwards’ brilliance and consistency, Ray Chico Hopkins, of Maesteg, only played 20 minutes for Wales, but what an impact he made.
When captain Edwards limped off on the hour against England at Twickenham in 1970, his side trailed 13-6 and seemed destined to defeat, but understudy Hopkins took his chance in spectacular style.
The replacement made a try for JPR Williams and then crossed for a score of his own as Wales ran out unlikely 17-13 winners.
Hopkins was called upon to replace Edwards once again in 1971, this time for the Lions in New Zealand.
Despite having played just 20 minutes of international rugby, Hopkins was selected ahead of all the other British international scum-halves for the tour.
He proved his worth playing in 10 provincial matches and replacing the injured Edwards in the vital 9-3 First Test victory at Dunedin.
Another Welsh nine to shine for the Lions was Robert Jones. Despite being small of stature, the Trebanos terrier wasn’t averse to stepping on the toes of the big boys.
Just ask Australian legend Nick Farr-Jones. After the Lions had heavily lost the First Test of the 1989 series, they were determined to come out fighting in the second.
It was the usually mild-mannered Jones, who led the way. He appeared to tread on Australian skipper Farr Jones’ foot. The Aussie took exception to this, prompting Jones to astonish everyone by flying at his opposite number.
As they lay wrestling on the ground, forwards from both sides laid into each other. Jones had shown these Lions had teeth and they went on to win the match and the series.
Although that was a stand out moment in Jones’s career, he will always be remembered for his lightening-fast and silky-smooth service, which helped him win 54 Welsh caps and tour twice with the Lions.
He wasn’t a prolific try-scorer, but will be remembered for crossing to gain a vital score against England during the quarter-final victory in that World Cup of 1987.
You may notice a theme emerging here, and I must admit the fact that I am an Ospreys fan may be swaying my judgement ever so slightly.
But it’s hard to argue against the facts and perhaps it’s no coincidence that so many great Welsh nines come from the region which is now known as Ospreylia.
The third scrum-half from within the region’s borders to join the Welsh scrum-half 50-cap club was Bridgend’s Robert Howley, who reached the top of the tree at international and club level.
After an international career which saw him win 59 Welsh caps and selected for two, albeit injury-ravaged, Lions tours to South Africa and Australia, Howley reached the pinnacle of his club career by scoring the last-minute winning try for Wasps in the 2004 Heineken European Cup Final against Toulouse.
Howley, who captained his country 22-times, is rightly regarded as one of the all-time great scrum-halves.
He had a reputation for scoring spectacular individual tries for Cardiff and Wales, perhaps none greater than the last international try scored at the old Cardiff Arms Park in 1997.
Wales were trailing 34-6 to England, when Howley exploded away on a remarkable run bursting with speed, strength and skill. It may only have been a consolation try, but it will live long in the memory.
A similar combination of speed, strength and skill, supplemented by a healthy dose of self confidence, brings us to another top-class Welsh scrum-half with Ospreys connections – Mike Phillips. Granted, not Ospreylian by birth, but he was refined there!
And next season sees the return of another outstanding Ospreys scrum-half in the shape of Rhys Webb, who will surely be targeting a second Lions tour for the series against South Africa next season.
All these great Welsh number nines, and I haven’t even mentioned some of the Ospreylian outsiders!
The first international I attended at the old National Stadium was marked by the privilege of seeing the legendary Terry Holmes typically bursting through three would-be French tacklers to crash over in the corner in front of my vantage point on the vast East Terrace.
I was also there to see the incomparable David Bishop score a try on his one and only appearance for Wales against the great Grand Slam-winning Australian side of 1984.
And I haven’t even mentioned the likes of other Welsh Lions like Dwayne Peel, Brynmor Williams and . . . oh yes . . . the black sheep who wandered over to the dark side – Dewi Morris.
Then there’s the rest of the current crop of nines who will be battling the aforementioned Webb, not only for the Wales shirt, but the Lions jersey in South Africa.
Wales must currently be the envy of the world being able to call on the likes of not only Webb, but also the Scarlets’ Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams, of the Blues.
Davies has proved himself at the highest level, while Williams is emerging as one of the most exciting players in the country.
So, as much as I hate to disagree with the great Max, perhaps instead of “The Outside Half Factory”, he should have penned “The Rhyme of the Number-Nine Mine!”