Estimated time to read: 9 minutes
From the ‘early years’ of the late 19th century to the modern day – Welsh rugby has always captured the passion and pride of a nation.
Ahead of this weekend’s 6 Nations Championship, we look back at some of the greatest rugby players to have donned the famous red jersey…
A former painter and decorator’s apprentice, Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies is a man with admirers and fans from both codes of rugby. Born in Carmarthenshire, he began his playing career in rugby union at Trimsaran RFC as a teenager. In 1982 he signed for Neath after falling short in a trial at Llanelli.
It was at Neath that Davies began to gain the attention of rugby managers and scouts across the UK, including the international manager who picked Davies to play against England at Cardiff Arms Park in April 1985. Davies was named man of the match – scoring a try and a drop goal against the English to set up a memorable Welsh victory.
Davies was key in Wales’ 1988 Triple Crown in the five nations and became captain of his national side the same year. He was brought to rugby league by former Widnes coach Doug Laughton – signing for Widnes, for £225,000. He played in the centres for Widnes’ stunning win in the World Club Challenge over Canberra Raiders at Old Trafford in 1989.
As a rugby league player, Davies picked up two player of the year awards and scored a memorable try for Great Britain against Australia to clinch an exciting victory for the side in 1994.
After the sport turned professional Davies returned to rugby union in 1995, signing for Cardiff. He retired in 1997, the same year his wife Karen tragically lost her battle with cancer.
As an international rugby union player, Davies played 32 games. He scored 5 tries, scored 6 penalties, 2 conversions and 13 drop goals.
In rugby league, he played 13 times for Great Britain and 3 times for Wales. He also played 23 games in total for Canterbury and North Queensland at club level.
He was awarded an MBE in 1996 for services to rugby and an OBE in 2015 for his voluntary and charitable work.
At 5ft 7in tall Williams was not blessed with a size advantage on the rugby field, but he made the most of his low centre of gravity – displaying blistering acceleration and an iconic ability to drop his shoulder, side-step opponents and score tries. He was one of the most captivating and exciting rugby-football players of the modern era.
Born in 1977 in Morriston, Williams was told that he was too small to play rugby and was regarded as a “superb goalkeeper” by his former football coach Alun Rees. Williams later moved back to rugby with Amman United RFC, which proved a successful transition from the start, as Williams scored five tries on his club debut.
The iconic welsh winger has 87 international caps to his name for Wales and an additional 4 test appearances under his belt for the British & Irish Lions. He is best known as a club player for the Ospreys and as a winger, although he could also play scrum-half.
A key member of the Welsh team that won the 2005 Grand Slam, Williams scored the decisive try against England to clinch the championship. Williams scored 6 tries for Wales in the 2007 World Cup, including a classic run and try against Fiji.
Williams is the record try scorer for the Wales rugby union side and is listed, impressively, as the fourth highest try scorer of all time, in union test matches. In 2008 he was named the IRB International Player of the Year after he helped Wales win a second Grand Slam in four years.
As a club player he ran out for the Mitsubishi Dynaboars, Amman United, Neath and the Ospreys. He played 141 games for the Ospreys, winning 9 Heineken Cup finals and 8 League titles.
Regarded as one of the greatest fly-halves to have donned a rugby jersey, the former steelworker Phil Bennett represented Wales’ rugby union team from 1969 to 1978.
Bennett is famously remembered for being dropped by the national side. He was left out of the squad for what was then the 5 nations in January 1976 as Wales faced England in their opening game. After a dramatic public outcry (including a song by Max Boyce) and harsh criticism in the national newspapers, 2 players pulled out with injuries allowing Bennett to be restored to the side. Wales won 21-9 and Bennett was never dropped from the side again. Wales went on to win the Grand Slam, with Bennett a pivotal player.
As well as his fantastic ability to sidestep and penetrate opponent’s defences, Bennett is also well known for his part in the British Lion’s unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1974, scoring 103 points including a 50 yard try; as well as his part in a try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks, fondly recalled by many as “the greatest try of all time”.
Bennett retired in 1978 with 29 international caps. He also played 16 seasons for Llanelli at club level.
Referred to by many as ‘The King’, the debate still carries on as to whether or not John was a superior fly-half to Bennett.
In 1967 John signed for Cardiff RFC from Llanelli, forming a now famous partnership with Gareth Edwards. They were selected to play together for club, country, The Barbarians team, as well as the British Lions.
Wales started the 1970s with a shared 5 nations Championship with France, capturing the title for themselves the following year with an emphatic Grand Slam. The partnership of John and Edwards formed the foundation of their success and in the same year John was a key member of the Lion’s tour of New Zealand, with the Welsh returning home victories and John boasting an impressive 191 points tally across the 17 games he played.
John retired in 1972 aged 27, stating that he felt as if he was “living in a fish bowl”.
Often referred to as simply “JPR”, this welsh legend played 55 times for Wales and 8 times for the British Lions. Williams was a disciplined academic as well as a physically gifted athlete. As a tennis player, he won a junior competition at Wimbledon in 1966 but opted to play the amateur sport of rugby so he could carry on studying to become a surgeon.
Although JPR was studious and of slight build for a rugby player, he was also known for his legendary toughness. In 1978 he had a hole torn in his cheek when caught at the bottom of a ruck – he pragmatically stitched up his own face before returning to the game.
He was part of a welsh side that won three Grand Slams in 1971, 1976 and 1978, and over his career he would captain Wales five times. He was part of the “Invincibles” Lions team that beat South Africa 3-0 in the test open series, in 1974.
He was over 50 years old when he eventually retired in 2003.
Wales’ highest ever points-scorer and the first player to score 1,000 points on international duty. He earned 87 caps for Wales tallying a total of 1049 test points and made 4 appearances for the British Lions scoring 41 points.
He made his debut for Wales aged 19 in 1990 and became Wales’ leading test points scorer after 28 games. He played fullback for the British Lions in the three test matches against South Africa, helping them to emerge victories with a 2-1 victory in the series.
He picked up an MBE in October 2000. Within the same day he flew back to Wales’ capital city to play for Cardiff and score all 24 pints in a 24-14 win over Saracens.
Jenkins retired as a player in 2002 and become Kicking Skills Coach for the Welsh Rugby Union in 2004.
Evans has 72 caps for Wales, 28 as captain and has 33 test tries to his name. He has 7 caps for the British Lions, having featured on 3 tours and 2 series wins.
Evans started his senior club career at Llanelli, aged 19, before joining Bath in 1997 – helping them to win the Heineken Cup in 1998. By the time he retired, he had won every piece of silverware possible for a British club.
He made his international debut in Paris in 1987 and went on to captain Wales to Five Nations Championships in 1993 and 1994. He scored an iconic try for Wales, outpacing Rory Underwood to help Wales beat England 10-9. He scored another memorable series-winning try for the British Lions in 1989 which helped secure a 19-18 victory.
Receiving his knighthood in 2015, Sir Gareth Edwards from Bridgend is a legendary scrum half, one of the greatest of all time to play in that position and to have worn a welsh jersey. Edwards played for Wales 53 times in a row during the golden age of Welsh rugby. With his pace, strength and intelligent play, he was a key player in the British Lions winning tours of New Zealand and South Africa. The 1971 tour remains the Lions’ only winning series against the All Blacks.
He made his international debut in 1967 at the age of 19. He captained his country at age 20 is famous for never having a dip in form or an injury during his international career.
Edwards, along with other dominant Welsh players such as Barry John, Phil Bennett and Mervyn Davies helped Wales win the Five Nations seven times, with three Grand Slams.
Edwards also scored what is regarded as the greatest try of all time, playing for the Barbarians.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t cover every legend, there’s too many! Other legends of welsh rugby include:
Please feel free to leave a comment and let us know if we have missed anyone out who deserves to feature on our list of legends.
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