Game changer

Believe it or not, I’d only just finished reading Ross Reyburn’s biography of John Dawes when I heard that Cliff Morgan had passed away.

Dawes and Morgan are two giants of Welsh rugby, inextricably linked by this moment. Many people have said that it’s Morgan’s voice that makes “that” try so special, but without “Syd”, and the perfect dummy he threw the Kiwi defender, the try would never have been on.

dawesAs book titles go, “John Dawes, the man who changed the world of Rugby” is a bold statement to make. But the arguments the author makes are strong ones. Dawes was a modest chemistry teacher who happened to find himself in Surrey in the late 60s. As a talented rugby player from the Newbridge club, he was looking for a local side to play for. Naturally, he settled upon London Welsh RFC. In those days the old club was high on hwyl but distinctly lacking in commitment and quality.

Within a few months Dawes had changed all of that. He was made captain of the first XV and London Welsh were transformed into a real rugby force. Of course it helped that Syd had the likes of Gerald, Merve, JPR and John Taylor to help him, but Dawes was the architect of London Welsh’s transformation.

Soon even the clubs back in Wales had to take London Welsh seriously. They were no longer the “posh” exiles in England. London Welsh were beating Neath, Newport and Cardiff on a regular basis.

Like Carwyn James, Syd was never to make the impact on the international stage that he deserved, with two huge exceptions. However, in the stampede to lavish plaudits on Carwyn James, Dawes’ contribution to the British Lions’ triumphant 1971 tour of New Zealand is often overlooked. Sure, Carwyn was the arch strategist, but Dawes was the master tactician on the field. He may have lacked the eloquence of the Llandovery schoolmaster, but he made up for it with simple, clear-headed tactical thinking and encouragement.

London Welsh and the Lions shared the same philosophy when it came to rugby: play with your heads up and use your talented back line to run through (and more often) around the opposition. It was no coincidence that Dawes was the common denominator in these two teams.

Ross Reyburn has carefully recorded Dawes’ impressions and memories of that golden era, most of them written down just after the time they happened in the early 1970s. It is only now that they have seen the light of day. Several chapters have been added by way of post-script, with Dawes offering some very telling observations on the current state of professional rugby and its increasing reliance on power over skill. Dawes is not alone in bemoaning the negative influence rugby league has had on the mother code in the professional era.

When you watch that grainy clip of “that try” today, it’s easy to view it as an isolated moment, trapped in time, without context, without a before or after.

In fact, the rest of that match contained a number of other fabulous moments of skill from both sides, and it’s worth watching in its entirety. Cliff Morgan wasn’t even due to commentate on the game until Bill McLaren was taken ill on the morning of the match. As it turned out, the match will be remembered as much for Morgan’s voice as the events on the pitch. For me personally, Cliff Morgan was the voice of Radio 4’s “Sport on 4″ when I was growing up. Alongside Noel Edmonds, Chris Tarrant, Lenny Henry and Sally James, Cliff Morgan was my “Mr Saturday Morning” when I was a boy.

The other crucial thing to remember is the context of that game in 1973. Dawes was on the verge of retirement, and almost didn’t get selected for the match. Carwyn James had said a few inspiring words (notably to the relatively young Phil Bennett) before the game, so this match was very much the end of an era rather than the beginning. Carwyn’s greatest successes were behind him, as were Dawes’. Syd went on coach Wales and the Lions, whereas Carwyn was never asked to coach his country. It reminds you that rugby was as much about personalities as it was about talent and experience in those days. Some things never change.

John Dawes: the man who changed the world of Rugby is published by Y Lolfa.