An examination of Lyn Jones’ rugby CV suggests no one could ever accuse him of going with the flow.
He is the Cwmavon boy who ended up playing for Neath rather than Aberavon, then at the height of The Gnoll club’s success he switched to Llanelli. There, he provided much of the on-pitch intelligence as the West Walians swept to a memorable treble made up of cup and league triumphs and victory over Australia in 1992-93. “He was the brains of that side,” contended the much-respected Norman Lewis, the late South Wales Evening Post writer. Then Jones left for Treorchy and being part of their ‘dream’.
His coaching career has also seen more than its share of twists and turns, from exiting Neath just months after they won a Welsh league title to departing the Ospreys weeks after they lifted the EDF Energy Cup. There have been jobs in England, Namibia and Russia.
Read more: Star named above Gareth Edwards as Wales’ greatest player
Through it all, Jones has been an independent thinker. He has long considered Shane Williams a special player. But, growing up, Terry Holmes was an inspiration for Jones and he is old enough to remember Gareth Edwards and the assortment of Welsh rugby greats from the 1970s. He also played alongside Jonathan Davies.
Williams is the one he favors as Wales’ greatest-ever player, though. It may well be a view that finds favor with many because the little left wing was a marvelous player who thrived in an era when bulked-up powersauruses increasingly became the norm in rugby. Sidestepping maestro Williams took them on, and more often than not came out on top. To watch him in full flight, creating something out of nothing, was always a treat to be savored.
It’s all subjective, though, and no two lists on this topic are likely to be the same. It’s in that spirit that we select the 10 greatest Wales players of the past 50 years. An impossible task, for sure, but one worth taking on.
10. Jonathan Davies
They would be much higher on this list had they not chosen to decamp the rugby league at the age of 26, with so much more still to achieve in union. “Rugby league saw the best of Jonathan,” a celebrated international once contended. Blessed with searing pace which could open any defense, Davies had a step and could win games with moments of brilliance. At one point, the Western Mail’s JBG Thomas branded him, not particularly flatteringly, as an “individualist.” But Davies had a fierce rugby intelligence and was an excellent game manager.
9. Mervyn Davies
Struck down by a brain haemorrhage at the peak of his powers, he had already banked two Grand Slams with Wales and been an integral part of the Lions series victories in New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974. Davies had iron resolve, defensive steel – it’s been estimated he saved 40 tries for Wales with his tackling – and uncommon skill, especially at the line-out. If he played today, the battery of conditioners, nutritionists and dieticians who frequent the modern game would have built him up to the point where he would still be world-class.
8. Graham Price
A front-row master who could do pretty much anything he wanted at scrum-time. But the set-piece was just the start for Price. He was also a force around the field, making tackles and handling at a time when it was unheard for props to do such things to serious effect. In that respect, Pricey was decades ahead of his time.
7. JPR Williams
He never took the field expecting to lose, and didn’t make a habit of tasting defeat with Wales – finishing his 12-year Test career with an 81 percent win record in the Five Nations. For the avoidance of doubt, that’s a useful success rate over 44 games.
Williams may not have been the quickest, but he could compete with any rival for the honor of being described as the bravest. Rarely did he miss a tackle or drop a high ball. He earned the respect of the All Blacks as a 20-year-old by demonstrating extraordinary courage on a tour with a Wales side who were roughed up physically. Look up the meaning of the word ‘winner’ in the dictionary and this guy’s picture may be alongside it. Here’s a bit more of a JPR.
6. Alun Wyn Jones
It is easy to forget amid advancing years and a succession of injuries how much Jones has contributed to Wales over the years. Of course, his world record 150 caps offer hard evidence of his central importance to the cause over an extended period, but numbers can easily count for only so much in some eyes. Maybe we should recall, as well, during his peak years his absolute failure to understand the concept of going missing in action, his galvanizing influence on others, his inspiring leadership and unerring ability to put an imprint on games. Wales have been so lucky to have him for so long.
5. Shane Williams
“Has any rugby player from any country more truly epitomised his nation as it likes to see itself?” asked Huw Richards on ESPN rugby back in the day. “The little guy, whose wit and speed and thought of movement take him places larger, more cumbersome men cannot go, making flat-footed fools of powerful adversaries in the process.”
For sure, Lyn Jones’ choice as the number one Wales player can be defended, for Williams was among that special breed capable of fashioning match-winning moments out of thin air, who scored spectacular tries and adapted in a sport which was changing almost by the week. He became a decent defender despite more often than not conceding poundage to rivals, but it was for his sidestep and spirit of adventure for which he will be now remembered, allied to his willingness to venture off his wing and impose himself on games.
If he never truly cracked it with the Lions – it remains a puzzle how he started just one Test in South Africa in 2009, eight months after being named the world’s best player – we can put that down to questionable selections. Is Williams the greatest Wales player of all-time? The best of the professional era, perhaps.
4. Gerald Davies
Bill McClaren said this guy had a sidestep like a “shaft of lightning,” and, truly, it was a sight to behold, with Davies having the ability to execute it at top speed, making it almost impossible to defend against. “He was a magical man to have in your team because he could turn a game with one run,” John Dawes once said. “Some of the tries he scored were breath-taking.”
Davies, of course, played in an era when wings tended to stay at their touchline posts. But cut to Scotland v Wales in 1977 and the wonderful sidestepping run which launched Phil Bennett’s try for the ages: Davies was miles infield when it all kicked off – “what’s he doing there?” asked an incredulous Bill McLaren in commentary that day – highlighting how the former center went a long way to revolutionizing the wing position. He looked for work, scored memorable tries, could defend and was touched by class. All that and we haven’t even mentioned his four tries from a sea handful of touches of the ball for Cardiff against Pontypool. What a player.
3. Phil Bennett
People remember Phil Bennett for the jagged sidesteps for the Barbarians which took out a third of New Zealand’s team at the start of the move that finished with Gareth Edwards’ famous try in 1973. They look at the footage of a twinkle-toed Benny with the Lions in South Africa in 1974, or recall him destroying Ireland amid devastating running in the Five Nations two years later. But he was just as much at ease managing play in filthy weather in a Welsh Cup tie in the deepest west of Wales in the middle of January.
Benny knew how to get the job done. He was so good he cushioned the blow of Barry John retiring early. Maybe he should be above John on this list – plenty will believe so, and not all of them hailing from the west of the Loughor Bridge. And through it all, they remained one of the nicest blokes in rugby and beyond, without a shred of ego, comfortable in his skin and never needing to be reminded how good he was.
2. Barry John
There was a moment back in the day when Barry John and Graham Price were trying to access their seats in the Millennium Stadium press box. Room was at a premium and those already sitting down were obliged to stand up to allow two members of Welsh rugby royalty to squeeze across their bases for the afternoon. Barry swerved past a precariously-placed cup of coffee on a table; Pricey accidentally nudged it. Thirty-five years after packing in as a player, John still knew how to shimmy clear of potential obstacles.
There’s not much more that can be said about the great man that hasn’t been said. He was a sublime player whose sense of calm put others at ease. They could do heavenly things that were hell for opponents. He had lashings of flair but always put the team first and would tailor his style to suit the match: if opportunities were non-existent in a game they would bid his time or just content himself with managing play. Not for him the folly of trying to hit a six off every delivery. When he had finished at 27, he had won the Grand Slam, beat New Zealand on tour with the Lions and was known as The King. Job done, then? Something like that.
1. Gareth Edwards
“A couple of years ago, Gareth was voted one of the leading rugby magazines as the greatest rugby player of all time. Had there been any other result then I don’t think I’d been alone in demanding a recount. He was the one man every team would have killed for. ” So wrote Phil Bennett in his autobiography.
When Gwaen-Cae-Gurwen’s finest played for Wales they were able to take the field for the best part of a decade knowing they had the best player in the world in their team. Gareth Owen Edwards was a rugby player, an athlete and a gymnast rolled into one.
He scored extraordinary tries, bossed games with his kicking, developed one of the longest passes in the game and had the strength of a power-lifter. He also had a pace, having once defeated future Olympic medalist Alan Pascoe in the English schools 220 yards hurdles final. Opponents on the rugby field knew that at some point in a game, Edwards would strike, but stopping him was a different matter altogether.
Whether on the high veld in South Africa with the Lions in 1974 or in the rain at Twickenham with Wales in 1978, he reigned supreme. Perhaps if we all come back 300 years from now for another discussion there would be a better Welsh player. Perhaps not. Edwards remains the gold standard.