By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – There will be no split loyalties for Derek Morgan in Cardiff this weekend as the man whose Welsh accent makes Tom Jones sound like Hugh Grant but who won nine caps for England and became president of the RFU is firmly in the Eddie Jones camp.
Asked by Reuters how somebody sounding so clearly Welsh ended up wearing a red rose rather than a red shirt, Morgan settled down and delivered what would be become a familiar line as he looked back at his career: “I can tell you a little story about that…”
It is a twisted tale of an English father and Welsh mother, an upbringing in mysterious Monmouthshire, club rugby in Wales, student rugby in England and of friendships forged on both sides of the border.
“It was my first year for England, we were unbeaten and went to Scotland to win the 1960 championship,” said the former number eight.
“The tension in the dressing-room was amazing. Ron Jacobs, who was a very educated farmer, looked at me deadly serious and said: ‘Morgan, it’s not that we mind you playing with us, we enjoy it, but when the hell are you going to learn to talk properly?’. Everyone burst our laughing and it defused everything.”
England won the match and the title and Morgan went on to earn nine caps before a knee injury prematurely ended his international career the following year at the age of 25.
Morgan was born in Monmouthshire, which for centuries was technically in England but spiritually Welsh until finally being confirmed as part of Wales in 1974. He went to school in the undoubtedly Welsh Glamorgan – whose alumni includes iconic Wales and British and Irish Lions captain John Dawes.
He studied dentistry at Durham University where his performances for Northumberland in the then-thriving county competition caught the eye.
“I was told there was an England selector there but my team mate and England fullback Fenwick Allison, said: ‘If he asks if you have any England qualifications just say ‘yes sir’ and for God’s sake don’t mention Monmouthshire’.”
Morgan followed the advice and progressed through the trial system to earn selection for his debut at Twickenham – against Wales.
“I knew more guys in the Welsh team than in the English,” he said. “There was plenty of abuse I suppose, but I’d say it was in the right spirit,” adding that he never regretted his decision.
The RFU paid for his travel to London and provided a new shirt for each match – but only one pair of socks for the season.
“We could either have a cap or a blazer badge – you were allowed to buy the other. We were better off than the Scots though,” he said with a laugh.
“They got one jersey and if you changed position you had to unpick your number and stitch on a new one.”
Modern England players spend weeks in training camps but in Morgan’s day any tactics were discussed on the morning of the match, often by players meeting for the first time.
“Our captain Dickie Jeeps said: ‘Morgan will run at (Wales number eight) Haydn Morgan all day long and I’m not going to give the ball to (flyhalf) Richard Sharp until their Morgan is so sick of our Morgan that he’ll come for me instead and there will be a gap’. It worked too, winger Jim Roberts scored two tries and we won 14-6.”
Morgan said that with an English father, who moved to Wales to work in the mines, he never felt as if he was betraying his roots or his friends, partly because of the unique status Monmouthshire, where his mother came from, enjoyed at the time.
“In my day Monmouthshire could have been a separate country and would have done well in the Five Nations,” he said.
The 83-year-old retired dentist closes his eyes and drifts back to when he was a marauding international forward at the peak of his powers surrounded by friends and rivals united by the Welsh religion of rugby.
He reels off the names and their CVs without pause, fully expecting his audience to know exactly who he is talking about.
“David Nash – Ebbw Vale and the Lions, Abertillery had Haydn Morgan and Alan Pask, Newbridge had Dennis Hughes, Ken Braddock and me. Newport had Brian Cresswell Glyn Davidge and Geoff Whitson – they all played for Wales in 1960 but not together,” he said.
“I’m going to give your front row – not the famous Pontypool front row – they didn’t make the cut. Denzil Williams, Ebbw Vale Wales and the Lions; Bryn Meredith, Newport, Wales and Ray Foster, Pontypool, Wales and the Lions – amazing really.”
Morgan enjoyed an eventual return to club rugby after his cruciate ligament injury and rose to the top of the tree with the RFU.
He remains a passionate England fan and expects another win in Cardiff on Saturday, though his loyalties were sorely tested in 1987 when his daughter Rhian played in England’s first women’s international – for Wales of course.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)