It says a lot about the dazzling brilliance of the late David Duckham that while the 1970s may have belonged to Wales, even their most ardent supporters regarded Coventry’s greatest son as their own.
It was a testament to both the character and stature of a man who won 36 caps for England between 1969 and 1976, scoring a total of 10 touchdowns, that the outpouring of tributes following his death on Monday night at the age of 76 came from both sides of the Severn.
Duckham’s dazzling steps and vision not only lit up a largely dismal decade of English rugby internationally, but made him such a favorite of Welsh fans for his outstanding performances for the Lions and Barbarians that he was dubbed ‘Dai’.
Duckham was the only English player selected in the famous Barbarians team that tore the All Blacks at Cardiff in 1973, dominated by star-studded Welsh teammates, famously misplacing a cameraman with a scandalous dummy in one of many breathtaking counter-attacks.
He had already impressed the Welsh faithful when his swashbuckling style made an even greater impact on the Lions in a famous series victory against the All Blacks in 1971, playing in three of the four Tests and finishing the tour with 11 tries in 16 appearances, including six in one mid-week game.
And it was under the tutelage of the great Welsh coach Carwyn James on this tour that the Coventry player was imbued with an attacking freedom that brought out the best of his extraordinary talent.
Equally comfortable playing on the wing or in the centre, playing alongside the likes of Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, JPR Williams and John Bevan and Ireland’s Mike Gibson, his talents as a world-class striker were most evident.
The pseudonym stuck too playfully in the title of his autobiography “Dai for England”.
If he had the misfortune of playing for an English team more known for their conservative approach, Duckham, who was born in Coventry and educated at Coundon Infant and Junior School and King Henry VIII Grammar School, nevertheless had some memorable moments for the red rose. .
His few touchdowns in a 14–6 win over France in 1973 lit up Twickenham before being remembered as arguably the greatest try ever scored at the old stadium. the same move, rushing down the left wing and eluding several Scottish defenders only for the referee to rule that he had come close to grounding the ball in the days well before TMO.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, was the key role he played in persuading the England team to travel to Dublin earlier in the Championship, at the height of the Troubles, to play Ireland a year after Wales and Scotland refused to play.
England captain John Pullin is rightly praised for his leadership in the decision to travel despite the deaths of 18 people in the first four weeks of 1973. He was also a major influence.
Ireland won an extremely emotional 18-9 but the show was stolen by Pullin who famously remarked “We may not have been very good, but at least we showed up” at the post-match dinner which received a standing ovation from everyone.
But watching a tearful Duckham look back on the backdrop of the story many years later shows how much the match meant to him, a moment that transcended the game.
It was during a telephone conversation with Willie John McBride, captain of the Republic of Ireland and his Lions teammate, that Duckham pledged to come.
“Willie John said, ‘You have to come, don’t let the terrorists win,'” Duckham later recalled. As England’s best player of the era, McBride feared that if Duckham stayed home, so would the rest of his teammates. But McBride knew the character of this man.
“Many of us cried when we realized what it meant for the people of Ireland,” Duckham later said.
As a boy who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and loved to watch his magic again and again on the grainy footage of the iconic rugby movie ‘101 Best Tries’, I can attest to that.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but it was a precious moment to finally meet him years later at a charity dinner, when his warmth and humility stood out in equal measure.
He may not have been the greatest Lion of all time, but the fact that he will be remembered as arguably Welsh fans’ favorite Englishman speaks for itself. He will be remembered not only as a real great, but also a real gentleman.
SPEAK OUT: What are your memories of David “Dai” Duckham? Send us your tributes in the comments section below