Merv the swerve

Hugh Richards reflects on the life of the sweat banded, Zapata-moustached Mervyn Davies, a master of timing

If the soundtrack for memories of Welsh rugby triumphs in the 1970s is a mélange of Max Boyce, Bill McLaren and National Stadium renditions of Calon Lan, a single figure looms over the images. Sweat banded, Zapata-moustached, six foot five and with prehensile arms, Mervyn Davies, who has died aged 65, was the most visually memorable of the giants of the era.

And to argue that he may also have been the most important is not a case of de mortuis nil nisi. An age of brilliant back play would not have been possible without a forward platform. ‘Merv the Swerve’, was the vital, transformative element in those Welsh packs. All good players make their position their own, but Merv took being a No 8 a stage further. As with only the very greatest – men like John Eales and Michael Jones – he redefined his position.

Gerald Davies, the most literate and perceptive of his contemporaries, has pointed out previous number eights divided into two classes – they were either grafting scrummagers or marauding extra flankers. It was Merv’s genius that he combined the two. This allowed Wales to flank him with two smaller, faster men in Dai Morris and John Taylor, creating a back row whose dynamism added a vital attacking option to the defensive duties that had preoccupied their predecessors.

His 38 caps for Wales, then a record for a forward, were won consecutively between 1969 and 1976, a period in which Wales won two Grand Slams, four outright Five Nations titles and were never lower than second. It was, depending on whether you admit David Parry-Jones’s eloquent plea for the early 1950s, Welsh rugby’s second or third Golden Age, built on a quite extraordinary explosion of talent from industrial West Wales. Merv, born in Swansea in December 1946, was the mid-point of that greatest generation – Gerald Davies, Barry John, Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were all born within 25 miles and two years of him.

He was the gangling forward among vibrant backs, the city boy alongside products of smaller communities. His father, D. John Davies had captained Swansea, played for Wales and remained uncapped only because the 1946 Victory internationals were deemed undeserving of full status.

The fathers of these youthful beneficiaries of the welfare state were, or had been, industrial workers and wanted better for their sons. All, except Bennett, progressed via the classic escape route of the bright young working-class Welshman into teaching. Merv went into the profession well aware of its possible challenges. Being a pupil at Penlan School, Swansea was a training in toughness and quick wits. His first job took him to London to join the London Welsh club just as the inquiring mind of John Dawes was exploring the possibilities of a game transformed by organised coaching and liberating rule-changes.

Merv arrived, as Gerald Davies recalled “looking as though somebody had put a jersey on a coathanger” and his ascent in a few months from the Exiles third team to Wales debut was, like that of Dewi Bebb a decade earlier, attended by coincidence and good fortune. But, like Bebb, he arrived at the top as though he had always been there, and remained a fixed point from his debut until his final, Grand Slam-winning match in 1976, the last two seasons as captain.

He was just as indispensable to the Lions teams who won unprecedented victories in New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa three years later, playing all eight tests. Colin Meads, captain of the defeated All Blacks, reckoned him one of the two players – Irish centre Mike Gibson was the other – who contributed most to the Lions supremacy, recalling that:

“It was not just that he achieved domination for the Lions at the back of the line-out. He moved with quite startling speed and intelligence – an instinctive reaction almost – to trouble-spots, killing ball until the Lions could regroup”.

Dawes had already asked him to lead the 1977 Lions visit to New Zealand when Merv led Swansea on to the Arms Park pitch for the 1976 Welsh Cup semi-final against Pontypool. He had returned to Swansea in 1972, his arrival as an All White coinciding with a marked revival in the club’s fortunes.

During the first-half he suffered a brain haemorrhage that ended his career, and very nearly his life. The sheer terror of his team-mates, aware that this was far from the usual run of serious injuries, remains a vivid memory half a lifetime on.

Merv survived and recovered sufficiently to work, by this time as a sales rep for Norman and Len Blyth, businessmen who were also significant figures in Swansea Rugby Club. But as Merv’s second memoir In Strength and In Shadow admitted, the adjustment was tough, clouded by depression, drink and the antediluvian rugby regulations under which taking money for his first book No 8 made him a professional. He also worked as a journalist, and in time became a gruffly popular after-dinner speaker and president of the Welsh Former Internationals Association. In 2002 an online poll voted him Wales’s greatest-ever number eight and captain.

His death was announced the day before Wales emulated his 1976 team by clinching a Grand Slam by beating France at Cardiff and another young sportsman, footballer Fabrice Muamba, nearly died on the pitch. Like Merv surviving because of the rapid medical response possible at a major sporting event. That was Merv, a master of timing to the end.

Hugh Richards is a former rugby correspondent for the Financial Times. He has also written several books on rugby, including The Red and The White: The Story of England v Wales Rugby and Dragons and All Blacks: Wales v. New Zealand – 1953 and a Century of Rivalry.

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