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Camaraderie the key, says Lions great Gareth Edwards

Welsh legend insists bonding is essential if this team are to return from Australia triumphant

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 4:31pm

"I have been tipped off that when I meet the great Gareth Edwards to kick off the interview with the Welsh greeting "shwmae". It means "how are you?" and to make sure I get it right former Hong Kong flyhalf Martin Downey e-mails me the phonetic spelling - shoo my - and stresses I say it as one word and quickly.

Edwards' room on the 49th floor of the Island Shangri-La - he is an ambassador for British & Irish Lions sponsors HSBC - has such a magnificent view I'm momentarily spellbound and forget the greeting. But "shoo my Gareth" somehow slips from my lips and the smile on the face of the legendary scrumhalf assures me that it sounds plausible.

The Welsh greeting is more than enough to trigger Edwards' story-telling. This is no simple interview as Edwards is a raconteur whose words weave a spell, the same way his rugby cast a magical charm.

Described by the BBC as "arguably the greatest player to ever don a Welsh jersey", Edwards reels off 100 anecdotes of his life as a Lion and a Barbarian.

It is spell-binding, and it is a struggle to break free of his charm and focus on the task at hand, which is to find out what made the 1971 Lions tick and is there any lessons the Class of 2013 could take from them.

This storied team has accumulated many accolades over the past 125 years, but the 1971 Lions are the only side to have defeated the All Blacks. The Lions have toured New Zealand on 11 occasions and have only emerged triumphant once. Edwards was scrumhalf in that side.

So what was the secret? He has a simple answer - "bonding". But even the great man does not fully understand how it actually happens and says he is still searching, after all these years, to put his finger on the button.

"If I knew that I would copyright the formula, but it is uncanny how guys from different cultures and backgrounds actually did gel and bond and form a strong team spirit," he says.

"When you think that people who spent years pasting each other come together and have to bond and find a unique spirit and camaraderie that goes on to last a lifetime, it is just amazing. But this is what is needed and what happened to us. It is easier to feel it than to try to explain it."

He tries to enlighten me, however. "It might be a moment in the game when they are called to task, when they have to stand up and be counted, when their backs are to the wall and when they have to dig deep. That moment will come and they will have to recognise it and all of a sudden, there will be something different about this team and this will gel and bring them together. And the sooner it happens the better."

Edwards is small in stature but he strode the world of rugby in the late 60s and 70s like a colossus. It was a different time then, the days of Woodstock and free love. Rugby was romanticised by the likes of Edwards and Barry John, the other half of the famous Welsh halves combination which provided the fulcrum of attack for the '71 Lions, who won two tests, lost one and drew one.

Edwards reveals this triumph was forged in bitter defeat three years earlier when the Lions toured South Africa, the first of his three tours in the famous red shirt.

"My first Lions tour was in 1968 and most people didn't even know we went. We lost that four-test series 3-0 with one drawn game. On reflection, that tour was where we all first realised what it meant to be a Lion and how the spirit was born.

"There was a nucleus of guys like Gerald Davies, Barry John and myself who were first-time Lions. We lost the series, but only lost one other game on tour. The series defeat actually helped us and gave us a desire to win and we did it three years later.

"When you win tours you are remembered for obvious reasons, but the Lions tours where you lose, that is where a true spirit and camaraderie which stands the test of time is born.

"On this tour there will be guys who are elated at making the test team, and others who will be disappointed. But it's a fact of life that not all can make it, yet it is vitally important the guys who are disappointed still turn up and give their very best.

"When we won the series in New Zealand, a little-known fact is we went unbeaten in the provincial games, winning around 11. Not everybody played the tests, but everybody played in the other games on the Wednesdays and Saturdays. When you talk about spirit, it is about these guys who didn't play in the tests, but they never gave up hope and gave it their best shot.

"Everyone talks about how important momentum is these days. It was the same then as it created a situation that was self-perpetuating and where everybody supported and backed each other. We were successful in New Zealand because everyone pushed each other," Edwards says.

The long sideburns are gone today. But the gleam is still in the eyes of a man who former England captain Will Carling named as the "greatest rugby player ever" in his list of the top 50.

Edwards is emphatic that all 37 players in Warren Gatland's squad will have a crucial role to play and said the sooner the players forgot their nationalities, the better.

"One of the criticisms levelled at the 1971 squad was it had too many Welshmen and that the coach, Carwyn James, was a Welshman. People said he was a Welsh nationalist and he would have had a poor effect on the non-Welsh players.

"In the first week, Carwyn said, 'Boys, let me tell you a fact. Gareth Edwards, Barry John, myself are from the same part of the world and Welsh is our first language. There will be a moment in the day when I will greet Barry shwmae, what I can guarantee you is that will be the end of it as we know there are other people around and we will speak English.'

"He stated the obvious. He could easily have said there will be no Welsh spoken on this tour. But everyone embraced it, and they started to parrot us.

"Gordon Brown was a great mimic, anyway, and the more time we spent together, the more they wanted to know what's the word for this and what's the word for that. In the end it strengthened the bond, not weakened it. We even had signals in Welsh which, of course, we had to change next season when we played the Irish."

The story of "that try" is now part of rugby folklore. Yet I cannot finish this interview without asking him about the legendary score in the 1973 encounter between the All Blacks and the Barbarians.

The move starts with a deep kick from a New Zealand winger. The ball drops towards Phil Bennett who back-pedals to collect the ball near his goal line. Bennett sidesteps and evades three tackles, before passing to J.P.R. Williams. The ball is then passed through four pairs of hands before Edwards, slipping between two teammates and seemingly intercepting the last pass, finishes with a diving try in the left-hand corner.

Is such spontaneity leeched out of modern-day players by excessive coaching, I ask? "It can still happen and there are some great tries being scored. But the pattern of play is different now. What was exciting in those days is there was a tendency to try to turn defence into attack very quickly. Today defences are so strong it is quite difficult to break it down initially.

"There were a lot more opportunities to counterattack during our time and more flow to the game. Today set pieces and defences are so tight. What is wonderful about that try is that it has stood the test of time.

"There was a lot of emotion that day because there was a core of players who were Lions who were playing for the Baa-Baas, and also because we were up against New Zealand. Even today I still don't believe it when I see the replay.

"I was convinced that Phil Bennett was going to kick the ball into touch and I eased off, but when I saw him running towards me, I thought what on earth was I going to do. I had to turn around and change my thought process. I think it was rugby at its best."

That try has inspired many a youngster, including one Singaporean, Mike Huang. Huang was born in the 1970s and did not watch or know about the famous try. One day in school, he picked up a video of the match and was so blown away by the magic of Edwards and the Barbarians that when his son was born, he named him Gareth.

"He is travelling all the way from Shanghai with his son to watch the Barbarians take on the Lions in Hong Kong," said Downey, a close friend of Huang.

For once, Edwards is floored when I tell him this little gem. It is nice to know that even the great man can be stopped, once in a while.

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