Gareth Edwards knighted in Queen's Birthday Honours List
Huw Richards
June 12, 2015
Gareth Edwards makes a break with the ball against England
Gareth Edwards makes a break with the ball against England© Allsport Hulton/Archive

"And not before time" will be the reaction across much of the rugby world, far from all of it expressed in Welsh accents, to the news that Gareth Edwards is to be knighted.

It comes a month before his 68th birthday, 49 years after the first of his 53 matches for Wales and 37 after his last.

The title itself is a little tarnished. It can appear to put a great artist on the same level as court toadies, backbench timeservers, boardroom pillagers and worse. But in sport it remains largely reserved for the unequivocally great, a category to which the new Sir Gareth certainly belongs.

Among the relatively limited number of British rugby knights, his is the award that relates most clearly to playing excellence. Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Ian McGeechan won their awards as coaches - as in football, a likelier route to state honours. Carl Aarvold (law) and Wavell Wakefield (politics) won theirs in other fields, Percy Royds was an Admiral and even Rowland Hill, knighted for his service to the RFU in 1927, had a long history of party political involvement.

Edwards has achieved plenty since his retirement from the game, carving out a notable business career. On public service, a key factor in honours, he is probably shaded by great Cardiff and Wales contemporary Gerald Davies.

But if the award is to be for simple greatness on the field - giving rugby somebody to place alongside Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Bobby Charlton, Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton - it had to be Gareth.

'Greatest of All Time' debates - which Americans have given the handy acronym GOAT - are by their very nature subjective. It all depends where you are standing and how you define it. That Muhammad Ali is still the consensus pick as the greatest sportsman, while boxing experts reckon Sugar Ray Robinson the greatest practitioner of their art, tells you something of the complexities.

Proclamations of Gareth as rugby's GOAT tend to be most contested by New Zealanders of his generation, who point out that Sid Going often had the better of him head to head. Gareth himself acknowledged this point when he topped a Rugby World poll in 2003, while pointing out that Going was generally behind a stronger pack.

Yet he remains what Pele is to football, Wayne Gretzky to ice hockey, Don Bradman to cricket and Michael Jordan to basketball - when all the votes are counted, still the consensus GOAT.

That's a status that rewards an extraordinary range of talents, perhaps best expressed by those who suffered at his hands. England scrum-half Steve Smith has recalled that he and his team-mates were 'quite paranoid about him and their sole topic of conversation used to be how to stop might finish a game and be able to claim that had never made one break against you, only to concede that he had probably won the game with his kicking instead'. Prop Mike Burton admired his ability in adversity, saying 'His performances were superb on the days when it was hard to be good.'

Alongside the obvious highlight reels - the devastating conclusion to the length-of-the-field counter-attack by the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 and the 80 metre solo against Scotland a year earlier, of which Spike Milligan commented 'They ought to build a bloody cathedral on the spot' - are memories like the rain-sodden day at Twickenham in 1978 when he became the first Welshman to win 50 caps and celebrated with an extraordinary match-winning display of tactical kicking.

Alongside his brilliance for Wales must be counted his matchless contribution to the all-time peak in British Lions fortunes - the victories in New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974.

But this honour brings pressure in recognising not just a man - deserving as he is - but his context. It rewards perhaps the greatest single positional tradition in European rugby, the Welsh scrum-half tradition with Dickie Owen, Haydn Tanner and Edwards as its Holy Trinity.

He was central also to rugby's most remarkable local explosion of talent, which saw him, Mervyn Davies, Barry John and Gerald Davies born within 30 miles and 30 months of each other between January 1945 and July 1947.

He, Barry and John were all the sons of miners, whose greatest ambition was that their sons should not follow them down the pit, given greater hope of making this dream a reality by political developments around the time of their birth. In an inversion of CLR James's critique of the caution of the 'Welfare State Cricketer', these welfare state rugby players were to give their game an unprecedented injection of attacking brilliance.

They were given not only life opportunities largely denied to earlier generations - it is no fluke that all of them started as teachers, a fruitful route out for bright working-class Welshmen - but ideal rugby educations.

Their earliest games at school were played under the restrictive, claustrophobic conditions of the 1950s, but they came to maturity as rule changes were creating space and time, and creative thinkers like John Dawes and Ray Williams were working out how to use both to greatest effect. But opportunity means nothing if it is not grasped. They grasped it, and how, and none more firmly than Gareth. The result was rugby whose uninhibited brilliance will raise a reminiscent smile well beyond Wales and its diaspora.

And this honour, like the knighthoods conferred on West Indian cricketers and New Zealand rugby players such as Colin Meads and Brian Lochore (with Richie McCaw doubtless to come before much longer) reflects the role of rugby in Welsh life. If it is truly one of Wales's greatest means of self-expression, the 'pre-eminent expression of Welsh consciousness, a signifier of Welsh nationhood' identified by historian Gareth Williams it is right that our greatest player of the game should receive the same recognition as Tom Jones, Antony Hopkins or Shirley Bassey, entrepreneurs like Chris Evans and historians like Richard Evans.

As a fellow writer observed: "Sometimes even the honours system gets it right." This is one of them.

© Huw Richards

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