Rewind to 1975
The day the Viet Gwent were unleashed on France
Huw Richards
January 23, 2015
The legendary front-row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner © Getty Images
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These are sobering times for rugby fans, particularly Welsh ones, of a certain age. It takes some believing that Barry John was 70 a couple of weeks ago and that Gerald Davies will reach the same landmark next month.

And then there's the matter of a 40th anniversary. It was that many years ago this month that Wales went to the Parc des Princes in Paris for the opening match of the 1975 Five Nations season. They had six new caps, a radical move for a trip which was rarely easy. Indeed it was a time when no trip was easy. Wales had not won away for slightly over three years and there had been only one Five Nations away win - by Ireland at Twickenham in 1974, in the last 34 months and 23 matches.

Each of those new men was a player of substance - Trevor Evans was a fine flanker, Steve Fenwick a ruggedly effective centre who into the bargain kicked goals and outside-half John Bevan would go on to become national coach before a desperately early death from cancer. But it was the other names which still ring today.

Regular readers will know that a periodic preoccupation of this column is spotting the occasions on which selectors have launched two or three great players into the international game on the same day. The 1975 Welsh panel and coach John Dawes, in his first Five Nations campaign after succeeding the inimitable Clive Rowlands, did not quite manage that - their score probably comes out at one great player and five good ones.

But few selections can ever have had a greater impact on popular culture. This was the day when two legends were born. Accompanying Fenwick at centre was Ray Gravell, whose explosive bilingual volubility made him perhaps the greatest ever one-man incarnation of Llanelli's unique collective personality. And packing down either side of hooker Bobby Windsor were two Pontypool team-mates. They were Charlie Faulkner, a veteran whose precise age and baptismal name were still a matter of mystery, and a leonine 23-year-old named Graham Price. This was Wales' first ever one-club front row, soon to be immortalised in song by Max Boyce as the Viet Gwent.

 
"If Graham Price is in the scrum you know that if something happens it is almost certainly because of him, since he can do pretty much what he likes against almost any opponent."
 

All but Price had played for Wales before and would, under modern conditions, have been capped. Bevan, Fenwick, Gravell and Evans had played against Tonga in October while Faulkner, Evans and Bevan appeared the following month in a match against the All Blacks which was inexplicably, in spite of both teams being at full strength, declared not a full international. John Taylor is not alone in wondering, in his Decade of the Dragon, "whether it would suddenly have been elevated to test status if Wales had won".

All six had sealed selection with their performances for the Probables in a final trial which the senior side had won 44-6. The 15 chosen for Paris could be divided into three groups. There were the six rookies, a quartet of Valhalla-bound seniors - JPR Williams, Gerard Davies, new captain Mervyn Davies and displaced predecessor Gareth Edwards - whose careers dated back to the 1960s and a middle group of wing JJ Williams, Windsor, locks Allan Martin and Geoff Wheel and flanker Terry Cobner, all introduced in the previous two years.

The mix gelled instantly. Wales scored three times before half-time to lead 17-7. Fenwick claimed a debutant's try from a miscued Edwards drop-kick, Cobner completed a handling move and Gerald Davies' sheer speed of movement and thought bamboozled French Michel Taffary into an air-shot fly-hack which left him to pick up and score. Edwards, who had a magnificent all-round game claimed a typical try after the interval - as John Taylor has pointed out "most people score a few where they are put clear, but in most cases Gareth made his own" - before a final score which has gone into legend.

Cobner and Windsor had both scored tries on their debut and now their Pooler club mate Price joined them, in the last few minutes running nearly 70 metres to pick up a loose ball and plunge over.

"They'll never believe it in Pontypool", were Nigel Starmer-Smith's words on the BBC match commentary. Taylor recalls that after the initial triumphant hurling of the ball into the air, Price 'showed not a flicker of emotion'. It was evident that something fairly extraordinary in the way of props - if the Front Row Union had really existed, such a blatant display of athleticism would surely have been an expulsion offence - had arrived.

It was an astonishingly conclusive result - Wales' biggest win in Paris since 1909. And while they have twice since exceeded the margin, at 2008 and 2014 in Cardiff, on neither occasion were they anywhere near matching the five-try tally. It was the end for two fine French players, elegant centre Jean-Pierre Lux, destined for a long career as a European club rugby eminence and the Beziers flanker Olivier Saisset whose place for the following match at Twickenham went to a young Toulousain named Jean-Pierre Rives.

Wales' Ray Gravell, February 3, 1979
The great Ray Gravell © PA Photos
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For Wales it represented the resumption, after a two-year lull, of hegemony over the decade. Over the next five seasons Wales would win 17 out of 20 matches - in the process taking four outright championships, two Grand Slams and four Triple Crowns. The one fixture they could not command, ironically in view of the way the era was launched, was the biennial trip to Paris, losing in both 1977 and 1979. But the only other defeat was a 12-10 loss to Scotland at Murrayfield in 1975.

Faulkner and Windsor's international careers ended together in 1979. Faulkner's age was still something of a mystery - John Taylor speculated in 1980 that he was keeping it quiet with a view to a comeback - but we now know that he was 38. The combined record of the Pontypool front row in its 15 Five Nations matches as a unit was W13 L 2, a winning percentage of 86.7 per cent.

Price went on to fulfil the greatness promised by that spectacular debut. He played for Wales until 1983, a solid redoubt of past quality as decline began in the early part of that decade, retiring with a then record for a Welsh prop of 41 caps. He went on three Lions tours and played in every test match, his 12 appearances a record both for a prop and for a Welshman.

In my early days as a rugby journalist I interviewed referee Roger Quittenton for a Welsh magazine. Quittenton, with admirable frankness, explained that "Any decision about a scrum has an element of guesswork. You just hope that is informed guesswork."

There was, he went on, one exception to this rule: "If Graham Price is in the scrum you know that if something happens it is almost certainly because of him, since he can do pretty much what he likes against almost any opponent." In any discussion of Wales's finest post-war forward, Price makes the shortlist alongside Mervyn Davies, Bryn Meredith and Rhys Williams.

'Grav' never claimed to be a great player, but was undoubtedly a very good and pretty durable one, playing for Wales until 1982 and Llanelli until 1985. And there was never ever a greater personality. Impassive for almost the only time in his life, as the chauffeur in the Louis Malle film Damage, he was still unmistakeable. Telling Malle "I can only play myself", he was told "For an actor, there is nothing harder than playing yourself."

In Grav's case it was one hell of a part, as broadcaster, campaigner and all-round gale of warm bonhomie. When he too died much too young in 2007 he was hailed by academic Hywel Teifi Edwards (father of BBC journalist and newsreader Huw) as "a social lubricant, a tidal wave of good fellowship" and the heartfelt commemoration in Llanelli was akin to a state funeral.

Two legends at one go. Not a bad piece of selection.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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