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Dai Watkins

OBITUARY: Twinkle-toed Dai will never be forgotten in both codes

David Watkins, who died at the age of 81 at the weekend, was no giant, but he made it big in both codes of rugby and is recognised as one of the greats of union and league.

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He captained Wales at 15 and 13-a-side, he skippered the British & Irish Lions and coached the British Rugby League team. He was a bundle of energy, a twinkle-toed genius who could make something out of nothing, yet despite being only 5ft 8in tall he could also handle himself in the heavy traffic.

Born in Blaina, he played outside half for Cwmcelyn and Wales Youth, playing a few games for Blaina, Abertillery, Ebbw Vale and Pontypool, before joining Newport at the start of his first season in senior rugby. He marked his debut with a try in a 34-6 win over Penarth and never looked back.

The Black & Ambers obviously recognised his talent as he made 39 appearances in the 1961-62 season as he helped Newport to win the Welsh Championship. He had Bob Prosser as his scrum half that season and the two would link up against at Salford later in their careers.

Watkins went on to play 202 games over seven seasons at Rodney Parade, making his final appearance against Abertillery on 18 October 1967. He was the outside half when the All Blacks were famously beaten 3-0 in 1963 and also played in the drawn game with the touring Australians in 1966.

He appeared in the first and second Welsh trials in his first season, played in the 8-0 win by Wales U23 over Canada in Cardiff on 1 December 1962 and was paired with Clive Rowlands at half-back in the final Welsh trial in the 1962-63 season. Although they ended up on the losing side, they were both picked to play against England in the opening game of the 1963 Five Nations Championship.

Rowlands was given the captaincy on his debut, while Watkins was still only 20. Many thought he was promoted too early, but he came of age in the 1963-64 season with his mature and tactically superb performance in the Newport win over New Zealand.

It was his superb break in that game that created the scoring position from which John Uzzell dropped his goal to win the game. A dazzling runner, he had to add other elements to his game as he developed.

He was invited to play in the South African Rugby Board’s 75th anniversary matches in May 1964 and also played in the uncapped win by Wales over Fiji. Wales had ended up with the Wooden Spoon in 1963, but shared the title with the Scots in 1964 and had a Triple Crown and title to celebrate in 1965.

Watkins dropped a goal against England and scored the opening try against Ireland in the Triple Crown season. The Grand Slam dream went up in smoke in Paris against the French.

By this stage he was in the second of his four consecutive years as Newport captain and he helped them to take Bridgend’s proud three-and-a-half year ground record.  On the sevens front, he was in the victorious and glorious Newport sides that won the Snelling Sevens in 1962, 63, 65 and 67, earning him the title of one off the greatest players of all-time in the small-sided game.

He was picked for the 1966 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia, New Zealand and Canada and stood tall on a trip that kicked off in Perth on 7 May and ended in Toronto on 17 September. Watkins played in 21 (W14 L6 D1) of the 35 games, including all six Tests, and scored 43 points (3T 1C 1P 9DG). It was one of the longest Lions tours on record, with the team leaving London on 30 April and arriving back in London on 19 September.

When tour captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton dropped himself in New Zealand, Watkins led the Lions in the second and fourth Tests. Having beaten Australia in their two internationals on the first leg of the tour, handing out a record 31-0 hiding in the second Test in Brisbane, they were whitewashed 4-0 against a brilliant New Zealand team.

On his return, he was back in action as Newport captain within three weeks, leading the side to a win over Blackheath. He went on to meet up with the Wallabies twice more that season, drawing at Newport and then losing in Cardiff for the Barbarians.

The Welsh selectors surprisingly dropped him for the game against the tourists, instead picking Barry John. John stayed in the side for the opening game of the 1967 Five Nations, but after a loss to Scotland at Murrayfield, Watkins was reinstated as captain.

There was a 3-0 home loss to Ireland and then a 20-14 defeat too the French in Paris. It meant Wales had to beat England in Cardiff on 15 April in a game postponed from January to avoid a whitewash.

In what became known as the ‘Jarrett Match’, Watkins inspired his side to score five tries and stop England from winning the Triple Crown in an epic 34-21 victory. The teenage Jarret scored 19 points in the match playing at full back.

Watkins started the 1967-68 season as Newport captain once again, but after winning 21 Welsh caps he decided to turn professional with Salford at the age of 25 for a then whopping fee of £15,000 – £10,000 down and £1,000 at the start of each of the succeeding five seasons.

The signing ceremony took place at the Royal Hop Pole Hotel in Tewksbury on 19 October 1967. He had been offered £5,000 to join St Helens when he was only 18.

If Wales lost one of its most talented players of the sixties, rugby league gained one of the greats of the seventies. He went on to play 466 games as a Rugby League player, including more than 400 for Salford, 22 for Wales and 13 for Great Britain, scoring more than 3,000 points.

He remains Salford’s record points-scorer (2,907) and record goal scorer (1,241). He also kicked a world record 221 goals in the 1972-73 season and is the club’s highest points scorer in a season with 493 in 1972–73. He also holds the rugby league record for scoring in 92 consecutive matches for the Red Devils and in 1972-73.

In his 12-year stay at Salford he helped them to win the First Division in 1973-74 and 1975-76, take the Lancashire Cup in 1972-73 and capture the BBC 2 Floodlit Trophy in 1974-75. He was captain at Wembley in the 1969 Challenge Cup final, which they lost 11-6 to Castleford in front of a crowd of 97,939.

He played in all six games for Wales at the 1975 World Cup, captaining the side to wins over New Zealand, France and England. He then went on to coach the side in three games between 1977-84.

He played for Great Britain and was their coach at the 1977 World Cup when they lost 13-12 to Australia in the final in Sydney.

He has been included on the Welsh Sports Hal of Fame’s ‘Roll of Honour’, been inducted into the Salford, Rugby League and Wales Rugby League Halls of Fame and was made MBE in the 1986 New Year Honours list for his services to rugby league.

He was one of the founders of the Cardiff Blue Dragons RL club, coaching them for their initial two seasons in 1981-82 and 82-83. He later became team manager, Chairman and then President of Newport RFC.

The Welsh Rugby Union offers sincere condolences to the family and friends of David Watkins.

David Watkins: Wales 21 caps / Cap No: #681; B&I Lions: 6 Tests / Lions No: #455; B: 5 March, 1942 in Blaina; D: 3 September, 2023

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