The last man left standing from one of the most revered team photographs in post-war rugby reached the grand old age of 92 last weekend. Courtney Meredith holds the distinction of being the sole survivor of the last Wales team to beat New Zealand, at Cardiff Arms Park in December 1953 – so long ago that the Queen’s coronation had taken place barely six months earlier.
Those of his contemporaries who checked into the celestial clubhouse long ago would not be one bit surprised that the Neath tighthead has outlived them all. The late Clem Thomas, an expert on the darker arts of the game, was fond of telling a story in gory praise of Meredith’s capacity for absorbing pain.
It happened during the third Test of the Lions’ drawn series in South Africa in 1955. “Courtney picked up one of the worst mouth injuries I have ever seen. He came up to me at halftime and with blood streaming from his mouth showed me his tongue which was almost severed halfway back to the root.
“He asked me: ‘How bad is it?’
“I said: ‘It’s bloody terrible but keep your mouth shut and stay on the field for the second half or we’re done for.’
“He was in great pain but, to his undying credit, he did just that. After the game he was rushed to hospital to have it stitched. It forced him to miss the last Test.’’
One of the few who scrummed with and against him and who is still around to tell the tale also speaks volumes for Meredith’s indestructibility. Ron Waldron, the former Wales coach, began in the Neath back row as a teenager and graduated to the front alongside Meredith.
“He was a hard man, very hard. The game then was completely different to what it is today. Going into the scrum back then was like going into a battle station.
“First and foremost you were fighting your corner and that was before you worried about playing any rugby. It was far more confrontational then. You’d often have two props belting hell out of each other. Courtney being a British Lion meant everyone was after him but he could look after himself. I used to almost scrum my head off against him in training, trying to twist this way and that. It was good experience and clean stuff compared to what went on in the game but it was physical.’’
Appropriately for a man of iron-like resistance, Meredith’s university education paved the way for an executive role in what was then the Steel Company of Wales. His memories of that famous day 65 winters ago would be worth recounting but whatever his thoughts, Meredith is keeping them to himself.
He has kept not so much a low profile as a subterranean one. “We never see him at the club,’’ one former Neath stalwart told me. “He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and never came. He seems to have become a recluse.’’
There has been only one public sighting of him, posing for a photograph at the Millennium Stadium five years ago alongside John Gwilliam on the occasion of the former Wales captain’s 90th birthday. Before and after he has given reporters the same polite response: “I don’t do interviews.’’
The 1953 team has acquired an almost mystical status, conferred upon them by subsequent Welsh attempts over the last seven decades to beat the All Blacks. The record stands at played 30, lost 30. The ’53 conquerors never played again en bloc and by the end of the Fifties the first of the few passed away.
Sid Judd (Cardiff, wing forward): Born August 14, 1928 in Cardiff. A schoolmaster, he captained the Arms Park club in season 1954-5. Died from leukemia, February 24, 1959 in Cardiff, at the age of 30.
Roy John (Neath, second row): Born December 3, 1925 in Neath. A quantity surveyor and Lions Test lock. Died September 30, 1981 in Neath, aged 55.
Clem Thomas (Swansea, wing forward): Born January 28, 1929 in Cardiff. Cambridge University-educated larger than life character whose writing matched his distinctive qualities in the back row. Died September 5, 1996 in Swansea, aged 67.
Rees Stephens (Neath, second row): Born April 16, 1922 in Neath. A Test Lion alongside Roy John, he served on the Big Five selection committee. Died February 4, 1998 in Swansea, aged 75.
Rex Willis (Cardiff, scrum half): Born October 25, 1924 in Ystrad. Captained club and country. A Test Lion, he owned a cinema. Died January 19, 2000 in Pontypridd, aged 75.
Dai Davies (Somerset Police, hooker): Born May 2, 1925 in Penygraig. A coalminer before joining the police. Test Lion. Died September 25, 2003 in Taunton, aged 78.
Ken Jones (Newport, right wing): Born December 30, 1921 at Bleanavon. All-time great wing who won silver in the GB 4×100 relay team at the 1948 Olympiad. Schoolteacher turned rugby correspondent. Died April 18, 2006 at Newport, aged 84.
Gerwyn Rowlands (London Welsh, full back): Born April 22, 1924 in Glyncorrwg. Amateur boxer who coached Cambridge University and Blackheath. Head of PE at Whitgift School, Croydon. Died February 10, 2009 in Clare, Suffolk, aged 84.
Bleddyn Williams (Cardiff, centre): Born February 22, 1923 at Taff’s Well. The Prince of Centres who captained club, country and the Lions. Tyre company executive, he wrote rugby for a national Sunday. Died July 6, 2009 in Cardiff, aged 86.
Gwyn Rowlands (Cardiff, left wing): Born December 19, 1928 at Berkhamstead. Played two trial matches for England before being capped by Wales. Died April 30, 2010 at Aylesbury, aged 81.
Billy ‘Stoker’ Williams (Swansea, loosehead prop): Born November 19, 1929 in Swansea. A steelworker, 1955 Lion and former club captain. Died April 4, 2013 in Swansea, aged 83.
Cliff Morgan (Cardiff, outside half): Born April 7, 1930 at Trebanog. Electrifying player who scaled the heights at the BBC as an eminent broadcaster. Died August 29, 2013 at Bembridge, IoW, aged 83.
Gareth Griffiths (Cardiff, centre): Born November 27, 1931 in Penygraig. Test Lion who began his working life as a schoolteacher and became a newspaper executive. Died December 8, 2016 in Penarth, aged 85.
John Gwilliam (Gloucester, No. 8): Born February 28, 1923 at Pontypridd. Double Grand Slam captain, he was headmaster of Birkenhead School. Died December 21, 2016 at Deganwy, aged 93.
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