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‘Iron Man’ Courtenay’s death is end of an era

Courtenay Meredith, one of the world’s greatest tight head props in the Fifties and the last surviving player from the Wales team that beat New Zealand in 1953, has died at the age of 97.

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The former Neath prop was as renowned a scrummager in his playing days, a precursor to Graham Price and Adam Jones in later generations of Welsh packs, and was the cornerstone of the British & Irish Lions pack that drew the Test series with South Africa in 1955.

He played in all four Tests against the Springboks, when he formed an all-Welsh front row with Bryn Meredith and Billy Williams. He was the oldest surviving Welsh international at the time of his death and the second oldest Lion after 1950 tourist Mick Lane.

Born in Hopkinstown on 23 September, 1926, he moved to live in Crynant at a young age and became one of the many great players to be schooled in rugby at Neath Grammar. He then went on to Cardiff University and after graduating he did National Service in the RAF.

It was only after transferring from Crynant, where he was joint captain in the 1948-49 season, to Neath that he moved from the back row into the front row. He was equally as good packing either side of the front row, but developed into one of the strongest tight-head props in the world game.

His Wales debut came in a 12-0 win over Scotland at Murrayfield in 1953 in the second round of the Five Nations. Wales, defending their second Grand Slam in three seasons, were beaten 8-3 in Cardiff by England and Meredith was drafted into the front row in place of the 1950 Lion John Robins.

Joining him as a new cap on that occasion was Pontypridd’s Russ Robins, who became a Lion with Meredith in South Africa in 1955. John Robins returned for the remainder of the 1953 Championship after the win in Edinburgh, but by the time the All Blacks arrived for their tour in 1953 Meredith was back in favour.

He found himself picked alongside Dai Davies and Billy Williams in the Welsh front row for the Test match on 19 December having been in the senior side in the two Welsh trial matches. It was the day that Wales went 3-1 ahead of the All Blacks in the series of internationals against New Zealand, adding to wins in 1905 and 1935, thanks to a magnificent 13-8 win.

He had a second crack against Bob Stuart’s tourists with the Combined Neath & Aberavon side that Fced them a week before them played England in January 1954. In what was said by the tourists to be one of their toughest games on tour, they were thankful to escape with an 11-5 win at The Gnoll in a game in which Meredith scored the home try.

He then played through the 1954 and 1955 Five Nations tournaments, helping Wales to finish joint top with six wins from eight games, and his consistent form earned him a trip with the 1955 Lions. He was one of the biggest success stories of the tour, bringing the giant South African loose head props such as Chris Koch, Jaap Bekker and Martines Bekker to heel.

He made 14 appearances on the tour and played in all four Tests. The Lions won the first and third Tests to draw the series, with the all-Welsh front row of the two Merediths and Williams appearing throughout, along with Rhys Williams in the second row.

In the third Test at Loftus Versfeld, Meredith bit through his tongue during the match and at half time asked fellow Welshman Clem Thomas if he thought he should go off the field.

“I took one look at his tongue and could see the hole in it. It looked horrendous, but he was playing so well, and doing such a good job on their front row, that I told him everything was fine and he should play on,” recalled Thomas.

“He was spitting out blood for most of the second half and then had to have a number of stitches after the game. If he had gone off we wouldn’t have won.”

The former Wales and Neath loose head prop, and ex-Wales and Neath head coach, Ron Waldron, was always full of praise for his former clubmate.

Courtenay Meredith

Courtenay Meredith (far right) at Principality Stadium in 2010

“He had it all, and he knew how to use it. He was a terrific scrummager and, in the phrase of the time, a vigorous forward. He trained very hard and was pretty mobile, as well as being useful in the lineout. I was glad he was on my side – he could be murder in training.”

The former England cricket captain, Tony Lewis, also recalled in the splendid book by Huw Richards, ‘Dragons and All Blacks –Wales v New Zealand 1953 and a century of rivalry’, about one of the games in which he played for Neath in 1958.

Neath teammates remember Meredith saying of opponents ‘this chap has got to go’. One such player was the Gloucester and England prop George Hastings, who decided to change sides in a scrum against Neath in 1958 when Meredith was captain.

“He had had enough of Courtenay, so he moved across the scrum. Our leader moved across the front row to follow him, grabbed the shirt of John Dodd, our loose head, and swung him across to the tight head side before turning to Hastings and announcing in cut glass English, ‘Oh no, George, you can’t get away from me as easily as that’. Wham! The scrum engaged and another Meredith victim buckled and groaned.”

He took his Welsh cap tally up to 14 with a win over England at Twickenham in 1956, a defeat to Ireland later in the same championship and then losses to England and Scotland in the 1957 Five Nations.

After completing university and National Service he worked in management as a production engineer at British Steel, running a rolling mill at the Abbey Works. Once he hung up his boots, he more or less turned his back on rugby, living out his life in Porthcawl, where he was an active member of the Royal Porthcawl Golf Club.

When asked for an interview for Huw Richards book on the rugby rivalry between Wales and New Zealand, he declined, but did send a cryptic note.

“All the members of the ’53 Welsh side were well motivated, technically competent in their positions, physically fit and spatially aware on the pitch. Charming, amusing and witty off it,” he wrote.

He captained Neath in the 1957-58 season, retiring at the end of that campaign. Nicknamed ‘Iron Man’ by the local press and supporters, he left a hug hole to fill in the Neath side.

He was the last survivor of the 45 Welsh players who have played in a winning side over New Zealand for their country. Others have done in with the Lions and Barbarians, but it remains the Holy Grail for the current and future generations of Welsh players.

The WRU passes on sincere condolences to the friends and families of Courtenay Meredith following his death.

Courtenay Meredith – Cap No: 589 (14 caps); Lions No: 362 (4 Tests). B: 23.09.1926. D: 30.05.2024  

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