Mar 16, 2012

Merv The Swerve

Readers from Wales will be familiar with Grogg caricatures of rugby players down the ages. The one that adorned the cover of Mervyn Davies' biography, written by David Parry Jones, sits by the telly in my mother's house.

When I started watching going to watch Swansea RFC playing at St Helens in the mid 70s, the side featured three international back-row forwards. On the open-side was Englishman Mark Keyworth, while Trefor Evans of Wales played on the blind-side. Number 8 and captain was Mervyn Davies. Tall and slight, he was a dynamic player with ball in hand and workmanlike in defence. Merv was not a demonstrative man - he led by example. As a kid I always wondered why he always looked so sad.

I started going to watch Wales around this time. My father was wise to have bought a couple of debenture tickets when they built Cardiff Arms Park in 1969. They cost him £50. Even though I was lucky enough to witness the great Welsh rugby side at their best, my foremost memories of that time are following the All Whites, particularly in cup competitions.

In 1976 Swansea met Pontypool in the semi-final of the cup at Cardiff's club ground next door to Cardiff Arms Park. Pontypool had the most fearsome pack in club rugby. Whenever we travelled up there, the team would be greeted with ironic jeers by the home fans as they ran out in their pristine all-white kit to play in the rain and sludge. They invariably returned on the wrong side of a battering.

But on neutral ground Swansea outplayed the mighty Pooler. They scored a scored a try in the far corner of the ground. I think it was Roy Woodward who touched down, but my attention was drawn by one Swansea player who lay on the ground in a crumpled heap having failed to rise from the ruck that led to the try.

As my dad leapt to his feet to celebrate the score I can clearly remember pulling at the sleeve of his coat, saying: "Merv's down. Something's wrong." It didn't take long for the crowd to recognise that there something serious had happened to the Swansea skipper. It turned out that he'd suffered a brain haemorrhage. Doctors later explained that it was completely unrelated to rugby. Miraculously, he recovered from his trauma, but at 29 years of age his rugby career was over.

In the years that followed Swansea RFC become one of the strongest forces in club rugby. I followed them home and away, spending some of my happiest days on the terraces at St Helens. For the past three years I've wanted to make a documentary on that glorious time, interviewing the key figures, reflecting on their achievements during the last age of true amateurism in the sport.

It was all going to start with that fateful day in 1976 and the impact Mervyn Davies had on my hometown club. Now he's gone, but the urge to mark his contribution before it's forgotten is greater than ever before.