Wales has produced many world class players during it’s history, particularly, during the golden era of the 1970s. Furthermore, in recent decades under the tutelage of southern hemisphere coaches, Wales has again flourished as a rugby nation winning the Grand Slam in 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2019. Below is listed eleven of the most famous Welsh rugby players.
Position Number 8
Nickname Merv the swerve
Merve the Swerve was an intelligent rugby player and an inspiring captain. He dominated the back of the line out and was always fast to the breakdown. He was athletic and a great passer of the ball. He played for London Welsh and later joined Swansea. He only played six first class club matches before being called up for Wales in 1969. He won 38 caps and played in the 1971 (New Zealand) and 1974 (South Africa) Lions tours. The All Blacks believed he was the main reason behind the Lions famous 1971 test series win. In 1976 he was forced to retire. During a match playing for Swansea against Pontypool in the semi-final of the Welsh cup he was stretchered off the field with a brain hemorrhage and stopped breathing on two occasions. In a poll in 2002 he was voted as the greatest Welsh captain and no. 8.
Position Outside Half
Bennett was brought up in the small village of Felinfoel near Llanelli. He spent his playing career at Llanelli RFC and played during the golden age of Welsh rugby in the 1970s. He made his debut for Wales in 1969 against France at just 20. Following the retirement of Barry John it was Bennett that stepped into the vacancy and proved a truly great replacement. Benny was known for his attacking prowess and his ability to read the game. He would dazzle crowds with his box of his tricks, as well as the opposition, leaving them stupefied as he swerved past. He was versatile and played for Wales at fullback, wing and centre before settling at outside half. He won 29 caps for Wales, captaining them eight times as well as captaining the Lions on the 1977 tour to New Zealand. He also played in the Llanelli team that beat the All Blacks in 1972. It was Bennett that instigated what is widely regarded as the greatest try of all time by sidestepping four all blacks and then passing to JPR Williams. He retired from international rugby in 1978.
JPR Williams was known as a tough, brave, tackling and running fullback. As one example of his courage, in 1978, JPR Williams played for Bridgend against touring New Zealand. Lying at the bottom of a ruck during the game, he was stamped on by New Zealand prop John Ashworth. After leaving the field with blood all over his face, his father a doctor gave him fifteen stitches. Unbelievably JPR returned to the field to carry on. Famously, JPR’s father
brought attention to the incident at the post-match dinner during a speech to which ten all blacks walked out of the room. JPR played for Tondu, Bridgend and London Welsh. He made his first appearance for Wales in 1973 and went onto earn 55 international caps. He helped Wales to win three Grand Slams in 1971, 1976, and 1978, 6 Triple Crowns and 6 Five Nations Championships. He played in two triumphant Lions tours to New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974. Though he retired internationally in 1981, he carried on playing club rugby in his 30s, 40s and even 50s. He later went on to become a consultant orthopaedic surgeon.
Alun Wyn Jones
Nickname Alun Gwyn boots because in his youth he unusually wore white boots.
Alun Wyn Jones is the most capped lock in the history of test rugby and is known for leading from the front, giving everything and possessing a great deal of humility. His integrity is impressive with examples including trying to stop the referee from sending off opposition players unfairly. Wyn Jones is a second row that can pretty much do everything in the game to a high level from carrying, tackling, passing to line out jumping. He started his rugby career at Bonymaen RFC near Swansea. He then went on to play at the regional side Neath Swansea Ospreys. His first international cap was against Argentina in 2006 and he started in the position of flanker. He helped Wales to win the Grand Slam in 2008, 2012, the six nations in 2013 (only losing to Ireland) and was captain during the 2019 grand slam winning campaign. He has played for the lions in three campaigns and captained them to victory over Australia in the third test in 2013. He has in recent times been hailed as Wales’s greatest ever player, an accolade made by amongst others Jonathan Davies and Will Greenwood named him as the greatest northern hemisphere player so far of the twenty first century.
Nickname – Dubbed Merlin by Bill McLaren
Probably Wales’s greatest ever finisher Ieuan Evan’s pace and sidestepping magic was crucial in a period when wins were not easy to come by. Started playing for Carmarthen at a young age and later signed for Llanelli despite strong interest from Neath. Throughout his career he had repeated trouble with a dislocating shoulder. He was approached during his international career as were a lot of his teammates such as Jonathan Davies to move to rugby league. However, Evans turned the offer down and stayed at Llanelli. In 1997 he left Llanelli to play for Bath and helped them win the European Cup. Evans won 72 caps for Wales and captained the side 28 times. He also won seven caps for the lions.
Shane Williams was known for cutting defences apart, sidestepping left to right with dazzling feet, and fitting through gaps nobody thought was possible. A real crowd entertainer! He started his career as a youngster playing for Amman United (north of Swansea) – this was despite previously taking up football due to him being told he was too small for rugby. He then moved to Neath from Amman where he spent five seasons before the club merged with Swansea to form the Ospreys. The issue of his size did rear it’s head again during his international career and he was told by Steve Hanson that he wasn’t physical enough (he was largely ignored during Graham Henry’s reign). Trying to build himself up Williams paid a toll and he suffered muscle tears and injuries. However, Williams didn’t give in and changed direction forcing himself back into the team in 2003 and never looked back. Williams won 87 caps with Wales and four with the Lions. In 2008 he won world player of the year beating Dan Carter. He scored 60 international tries in his career and remains Wales’s leading try scorer.
Position Prop Forward
Nick name Melon due to the size of his head.
Gethin makes it known that he would have preferred to have played as anything else but a prop forward. He admits though that he was never mobile enough. Defensively he would regularly tally up a tackle count per match of a flanker. At eighteen and a half stone that was quite a feat! And just like a good seven he was also extremely good at stealing possession or winning penalties at rucks. He was known by his Cardiff team mates as having a grumpy temperament. He started playing rugby for Beddau from a young age and was later signed for Pontypridd. It was Cardiff though that he spent most of his career (13 seasons) and despite a brief period at Toulon in 2012 he returned to the blues where he played until the end of his career. He won 129 caps for Wales (currently the most capped Welsh player), won three grand slams and played five times for the Lions. He announced his retirement from the game in 2018.
Position Outside Half
Nickname: the King after the Lions win in New Zealand
Barry John retired at the age of 27, when he wrote an autobiography and became a newspaper columnist. This meant he could no longer call himself an amateur. The reason he turned his back on his rugby career was the rejection of his newly acquired fame – he couldn’t stand being the centre of attention.
John played for Llanelli initially and then joined Cardiff forming a partnership with Gareth Edwards. He was one of the key figures responsible for securing victory with the Lions in the 1971 test series in New Zealand. He played 25 times for Wales and 5 for the Lions. He was known for his very accurate kicking game and his drop goals. Though his fleet of foot, his ability to glide through gaps and his astute passing also made him one of the best outside half’s to ever grace the game, despite retiring at such a young age. As Max Boyce said about John, “he could run through a field of corn and only the corn would know which he went”. JPR Williams rated him as the best player he ever played alongside.
Position Scrum Half
Nickname the Prince
The next player is probably the most world renowned and famous Welsh rugby player on the list. In a number of different greatest rugby player lists compiled for magazines and other publications, Gareth Edwards has often made the top spot. He spent his playing career at Cardiff (twelve seasons) making his debut in 1966. He played for Wales in the golden era throughout the 70s and is regarded as the complete player. He won his first cap in 1967 at the young age of 19. In 1969 he was offered a contract by rugby league side St Helens but turned it down. He played 53 times for Wales and captained the side 13 times. He also helped Wales to win three grand slams.
Edwards played ten times for the Lions and helped them to seal victory over New Zealand in the test series of 1971 (the only time the Lions have won a series there). He also scored the try that is regularly touted as being the greatest of all time playing for the barbarians against the all blacks in 1973 at the Arms Park.
Nickname known as Gerald
Gerald Davies is perhaps Wales’s greatest ever winger. He was known for his amazing sidestep, speed and swerve enabling him to ghost through gaps in the defense. Davies spent most of his rugby playing career at London Welsh. He made his Welsh debut in 1966 against Australia. He started his international career playing in the centre until moved to the wing by Clive Rowlands in 69. He scored three tries in the famous Lions’ victory over New Zealand in 71. An international referee is known to have remarked to Davies’ father that Gerald had caused more problems for referees than any other player. Shocked Davies’ father asked for an explanation. The referee explained that the trouble was that everytime he got the ball he disappeared and there was nothing worse for a referee than losing sight of the ball.
Position Outside Half
Following a trial for Llanelli at 18 Davies was rejected for being too small. A short time later he was called up for Neath at outside half leaving his home club Trimsaran. Davies was named as Captain at Neath and also received his first cap for Wales against England where he scored an important try to help Wales clinch victory. In 1987 Davies left Neath and joined Llanelli much to the dismay of the Neath supporters. In fact in his first encounter playing for Llanelli against his old club just before kick off he distastefully received a photograph of himself with a noose around his neck with RIP written on it along with signatures from all the Neath players. Despite this Jonathan went on to win man of the match. In 1988 Wales won the triple crown only losing narrowly to the French in the their last game.
However, after a series of bad results which culminated in losing to Romania and being disillusioned with the Welsh rugby union setup, Davies switched codes and signed for Widnes (rugby league) in 1989 for a deal worth £300,000. At the first medical Davies was informed he had one leg longer than the other and curvature of the spine; something which Jonathan jested in response helped him have such an effective natural sidestep.
Moving from strength to strength in the new code Davies was called up for Great Britain to face New Zealand. He also played rugby league for Warrington and Australian side the Bulldogs (Canterbury).
In 1995 he returned to rugby union playing for Cardiff RFC just when the code had turned professional. He retired in 1997.
Thanks for reading our list of famous Welsh rugby players. At Gifts with Heart we take an interest in all things Welsh. We also offer Welsh rugby gifts at affordable prices so be sure to take a look.