Gareth Edwards Rugby, Apartheid and Me

“Somebody tell me what’s happening in Johannesburg”

GARETH EDWARDS has been named as the greatest rugby player of all time and has been the subject of countless television programmes in Wales but the latest should have really told the story of one of his teammates.

Image: BBC iplayer

Gareth Edwards Rugby, Apartheid and Me followed the Wales and British Lions scrum half on a return journey to South Africa and retraced his steps with the rugby nation that throughout his playing career was shaped by the Apartheid state.

Before Edwards captained Wales in a 1970 international in Cardiff the “mighty South African Springboks” team boasted an unbeaten record against the host nation. An Edwards try meant the game was a draw and the first time the South Africans had ever failed to beat Wales.

That 1970 tour had proved a turning point in the British anti-Apartheid campaign which rugby union sought to ignore and the decade progressed to the 1974 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. This BBC Wales documentary, wisely, avoided romanticising the sporting result but the tour is usually seen by rugby purists as the game’s ultimate series and it is undoubtedly the defining event of British and Irish rugby’s collusion with the racist Apartheid system.

If the tour is an important chapter in Edwards’ story as the game’s greatest ever player it also defined the only British player, in 1974, to decline a (second) invitation to tour the white supremacist state.

Welsh forward John Taylor twice meets his old teammate in the programme. The first, on home soil, is, tellingly, the first time they’ve discussed Taylor’s decision to join the sporting boycott. Even between teammates it appears there is a truce that such controversies are best put to one side just as society, and rugby in particular, has turned a blind eye that maintaining sporting ties with South Africa was a collaboration in the horrors of the Apartheid system.

John Taylor Image: BBC iPlayer

The premise of the programme was Edwards’ journey of discovery as to his own feelings towards playing in South Africa and finding out what those who lived, whether as privileged white or oppressed black people, at the time felt towards him and his fellow tourists.

Edwards’ relationship with South Africa was almost portrayed as a destiny since his school days, another myth that adds to the legend of Edwards. But his return to South Africa also offered concrete evidence of his status in the game and how this “lovely man” is revered across the rugby world. Was he the greatest ever? A South African scrum half is able to throw a logical doubt on accepted rugby wisdom as Edwards begins to just scratch the surface of a country that could have appeared to be a paradise if viewed from the perspective of his hosts nearly 50 years ago.

But it was when Taylor and Edwards were reunited again in South Africa that the viewer discovered just what an impact Taylor had made on South Africa and the country had made on him.

A third interview was also conducted with Taylor in a room, presumably in his house, packed with rugby memorabilia. The toll discussing his principled stance against allowing himself to be used to endorse the Apartheid system and his on-going connections to black South Africa had taken on him were clear to see. It is interesting that Taylor had seemingly been at his most open when in discussion with the silent, behind the camera, interviewer rather than an old teammate from a macho world, also defined by camaraderie, where it had already been established, areas of conflict are best avoided as subjects of discussion.

Gareth Edwards with former rugby players from Cape Town, South Africa Image BBC iPlayer

Though the programme’s conclusion seemed to arrive where it started; that rugby players were just ambitious, determined young men, who wanted to test themselves against the best, it was while meeting non-white rugby players, of his own generation, that Edwards was confronted with the consequence of his participation. These players had refused to compromise so that they could have faced white touring sides.

“If you didn’t take on that tour our reunification, transformation would have probably come earlier,” one of the players Edwards and the Lions never got to face tells him. One of the old teammates, from a team who surely deserve their own full length ESPN documentary, states: “John Taylor, he is my hero”.

The 1970s golden age of Welsh rugby has thrown up many sporting heroes, and Welsh national and cultural icons, with Edwards the most enduring but this hour could have offered so much more focusing on Taylor a man who made the right call at the time and seemed to have learnt so much more while Edwards has still been playing catch up.

Gareth Edwards Rugby, Apartheid and Me can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer, for 29 days from September 25, 2019, by clicking here.

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