Last week, I watched a rugby union match on You Tube. It was the memorable 1973 encounter between New Zealand and the Barbarians. Just minutes in, the famous Invitational side sweeps the length of the field to register an extraordinary try.
The BBC commentator, voice growing in excitement, hints at something special. “This is great stuff….brilliant….oh, that’s brilliant….this is Gareth Edwards….a dramatic start….what a score”.
It is fitting that Edwards completed “that try”, as, in the opinion of many, he remains the most outstanding rugby player of all time. A supreme athlete, demonstrating an irresistible combination of durability, power, skill, speed and savvy, he first played for Wales in 1967 at the tender age of 19. He went on to win a remarkable 53 consecutive caps for his country, in a scintillating eleven-year career. In addition, he represented the British Lions with distinction on ten occasions, spanning three different tours.
Yet, it was the buildup to his stunning achievements that really intrigued me. Why Edwards, and how did it happen?? How did a young boy from the tiny Welsh village of Gwaen-cae-Gurwyn become a global sporting superstar??
The answer lies in Edwards joining Pontardawe Technical School in 1961, at the age of 13. It was there that he first met the man who was to have a massive impact and influence on his life.
Samuel, a passionate Welshman and another product of the Swansea Valley, initially had seemed destined for life in the mining industry. However, at the insistence of his parents, after a stint as an apprentice blacksmith he took classes at night school. As his ticket out from the colliery, the courses helped propel him to degrees at both St. Luke’s College in Exeter and then Cardiff PE College. And, while a very capable athlete himself, who showed real promise in soccer, cricket and rugby, upon arrival at the Tech he decided to commit fully to teaching and coaching.
Samuel’s dedication and ability soon began paying dividends, as rugby became a religion at the school. Though hampered by shoddy equipment and poor facilities, he was adamant that every student under his care, through circuit and weight training, get physically fit. He invested huge amounts of time, adopting a multi-sport approach and focusing on developing the individual skills necessary for his charges to play well and safely. With a real eye for talent, detail and organization, he became a visionary of sorts, his “big picture” thinking preceding rugby’s coaching revolution of the late 1960s.
It was into this perfect storm that Gareth Edwards arrived. Brimming with raw talent, fit and naturally competitive, he excelled in gymnastics and, as a hurdler and jumper, in national athletics competitions. Swansea Town came within a whisker of signing him to a lucrative soccer apprentice contract, with potential offers by clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal also rumoured.
At the same time, his rugby career continued to gather pace. First, on Samuel's insistence, he shifted from centre to the scrum half position. Under his mentor's tireless direction, day after day, week after week, month after month, Edwards perfected his passing, kicking and game management. And, as he moved through the age grade representative ranks, he learned important life lessons as well, of discipline, humility and the importance of an education.
As Edwards’ time at the Tech neared conclusion, Samuel had one additional major contribution to make. With the soccer vultures circling, the devoted coach went considerable lengths to secure his star pupil a sports bursary to the prestigious Millfield School in Somerset.
In his two years at Millfield, in both rugby and athletics, Edwards won many more accolades. Next up was college, as well as senior rugby with Cardiff RFC and Wales. Then the Lions and Barbarians. He was on the road to glory.
If Edwards was fortunate to cross paths with Bill Samuel, so too was I. Over a number of years, I had the good luck to meet him on several occasions. Inevitably, the conversation would swing to rugby. I came to appreciate firsthand his knowledge, opinions and views, always delivered in good humour, though in their own way direct, blunt and uncompromising.
He was miles ahead of his time in recognizing, early on as a coach, that sound basics and intelligence would always trump brawn. That a fast, fluid, expansive game would captivate players and fans tiring of set piece dominated, static fare. That any decline in, or collapse of, PE and sport in Welsh school curriculums would eventually have far reaching, negative consequences.
And, of course, I asked him about Gareth Edwards. There were many stories. Several involved the importance of fitness. Once, while visiting the Samuel family, I was taken to the Tech, more specifically to the 196 steps that rise steeply from near the playing field to the Pontardawe golf club on the ridge above. I was tasked to run the steps as many times as I could. 29 years old at the time, I fancied myself in quite good condition. I managed five trips up and down before retiring, legs leaden, in a crestfallen state. To then be told that a teenaged Edwards would routinely complete the course twelve times over a school lunchbreak.
Now it is 2020 and a different age. Fewer and fewer schoolteachers invest significant time with, or make demands of, talented, young athletes. The tasks are increasingly left to outsiders, to supposed high performance programs and paid professionals.
In contrast, I am certain that Bill Samuel always treasured the era in which he worked. He certainly did not do it for the money. Instead, as he told a forever grateful Edwards, my reward is your success.