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Remembering Mervyn Davies, Greatest of the Great Eights

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Mervyn Davies--a crucial member of the two finest rugby teams ever assembled, the 1971 and 1974 British Lions, and of the all-time XV of any rugby fan with sense--has died of cancer. To the special men who played with him in those legendary Lions sides, his death was not a surprise.

I saw David Duckham, the dashing English winger who joined Davies in the 1971 team, at a rugby dinner last month and he paused during his after-dinner speech to say, with awful resignation, 'Mervyn Davies is very ill. I may as well tell you. He doesn't have long to go.'

My friend Simon Uttley--son of the great Roger, Davies's back row comrade from 1974--told me he and his father recently met JPR Williams, who played with Davies both in '71 and '74, as well as for Wales and London Welsh. JPR said the same.

There is, I suppose, one blessing in this: Merv the Swerve's teammates were able to talk to him and say their goodbyes in private. They will never stop talking about him or saying their goodbyes in public.

Meryvn Davies's autobiography is simply named after the position he played. Colin Meads's autobiography could not simply be called Second Row, and Gareth Edwards's autobiography could not simply be called Scrum Half, but Davies is so synonymous with the position he played as no-one had played it before that his memoirs are simply called No. 8. Even without his name or image on the cover, there would be no confusion over whose memoirs they were.

Davies defined and dominated the No. 8 role so completely that he changed it forever. Since he retired, there have been a couple--but only a couple--of other No. 8s in his league, but they played as they did because Davies had played as he had.

In the springiness of his legs, which made him a force equal to any in the line-out, and in the slickness of his ball-handling skills, which reminded us of the basketball player he had been in his youth, there was the prototype for the style of New Zealand's Zinzan Brooke.

In his explosive aggression on the field and his calm affability off it, and in his inspirational leadership through his total refusal to retreat, there was the model for the best attributes of that other great New Zealand No. 8, Wayne Shelford.

In New Zealand, Davies's reputation was almost as formidable as it was in Wales. He was, many New Zealanders felt, the key forward in the Lions team that travelled to their country in 1971 and, before all-New Zealand crowds in games overseen by all-New Zealand officials, became the first team to win a test series there.

He made a similar impression in South Africa, where three years later he played for that best of all rugby teams: the unbeaten, unbeatable, 1974 Lions. His terminator tackles and relentless drives interrupted the offence and disrupted the defence of a Springbok side who floundered when they were confronted with him. They had no-one to match him. No team did.

Davies was very nearly the most important player in another legendary Lions team. He was captain of Wales and was to captain the 1977 Lions who returned to New Zealand--but in 1976 he suffered a brain haemorrhage in a game for Swansea and his career ended immediately.

Many of Britain's top players--Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams among them--were not able to join the '77 Lions, who lost their test series by three games to one. So many, in fact, that when the Lions returned to Britain and reassembled to play the Barbarians in a match to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the Barbarians were almost able to field an alternative Lions side.

Had those two teams combined to travel to New Zealand, and had Mervyn Davies led them there, the two great Lions sides of the Seventies would surely have been joined by a third.

It was a fine tribute that, at this weekend's international between them, the Welsh and French teams observed a minute's silence and the Welsh played in black armbands. But it was a better tribute that Wales responded to Davies's death by winning a grand slam against France, just as he did in last game in a Welsh jersey.

Although he was feted during his career, it was not until Mervyn Davies retired from rugby that those who followed the sport realised just how exceptional he was, and just how much he contributed to every game he played in and every team he played for.

So it will be for us now. Although we adored him while he lived, we will not appreciate how much he meant to us, and to our sport, until that dreadful time when the news of his death isn't news anymore, and we at last fully realise he is gone.