It was Max Boyce who introduced the concept of Welsh rugby’s fly half factory in his famous poem from Live at Treorchy in 1974. At the time the production line had been going through one of its most prolific decades of operation. Cliff Morgan, Carwyn James, Dai Watkins, Barry John and Phil Bennett had all rolled off the mythical conveyor belt.
Whilst those names are familiar to most Welsh rugby supporters of a certain age, there are many others in Lynn Davies’ list of “Great Welsh Number 10s” which may not be so easy to recall. Roy Burnett? Glyn Davies? Billy Cleaver? No, me neither! Many of these forgotten men were victims of the success of their more illustrious contemporaries. Let’s call it the “Chico Hopkins” factor. Players who in any other era would have dominated their sport, instead had to make do with playing second fiddle to the likes of Barry John and Cliff Morgan.
It’s a shame that the story stops at 1999 with Neil Jenkins, world record points scorer and all-round Ponty legend. Perhaps that’s when the romantic notion of the feather-light jinking, gliding fly half gave way to the six-foot powerhouses of modern rugby.
In Barry John’s day, the ability to tackle was a “nice-to-have”, of secondary importance to the core skills of the fly half, the side step, the drop kick and the dummy. These days players like Jonny Wilkinson will think nothing of getting through more than 15 tackles in a game, and their battered bodies are testament to that.
Davies’ book is a nostalgic treat. He defines two types of old fashioned fly half: the first is the “high church” model, who glides through defences and has the softest of hands and a subtle change of pace. The second is the “chapel” model, more workmanlike, employing the side-step and quick acceleration to breach the defence. Can you guess which types Barry John and Phil Bennett conform to?