Gravell, A Man Of Passion
Reviewed by Stephen Jones, Sunday Times, 4th November 2007
“Of all the stars that ever shone Not one does twinkle like your pale blue eyes Like golden corn at harvest time your hair Sailing in my boat the wind Gently blows and fills my sail Your sweet-scented breath is everywhere”
The first verse of Christy Moore’s Nancy Spain. It was Ray Gravell’s most recent entry in our long-running Christy competition. It is far more than a decade since we discovered each other’s affection for the songs of the radical Irish troubadour, an affection in Ray’s case that was fanned when he actually met our hero several years ago, and found his own warmth and firebrand passions reflected.
The idea was that each time we met one of us would perform one verse of one Moore song. Gravs would usually sidle up in some press room where I was tapping at the keyboard, put his mouth close to my ear and croon it. He had the advantage of me. I could manage a few bars of Ride On or Smoke and Strong Whiskey or the Cliffs of Dooneen. Gravs remembered all the lyrics, more than Christy usually can. Gravs could sing, he could perform, he had natural timing, he could hold an audience. He was an actor, a real one. As well as a wonderful player of the old school and the character of a lifetime. Frankly, he was the most compelling and popular man I ever met.
And despite the disappointment that I always lost the Christy competition, it was always fantastic to see him. He made a total nonsense of the word “ebullient” and even though to get to you across a crowded room, he had usually battered his way happily though about 90 meets and greets and bear-hugs and a fusillade of “Orright Gravs?”, he always made it seem when he reached you that he had been making deliberately for you. And the thing was that in the cases of all the scores of us in the room, he had.
It’s a funny old thing, this concept of passion. Gravs personified it. It had fallen into disuse as a playing philosophy, a means of stopping a team of technical superiority, in favour of meticulous planning, of playing in straight lines with everyone inch-perfect in their positions. Mechanical.
There is no shame is being passionate about playing the game, about loving those of any era who did. There is no shame about being passionate about your town or local club. It is a lesson Welsh rugby has forgotten, now that it has made its professional teams the representatives of amorphous slabs of the country, not of the great towns and cities.
On the field, to stop a thundering Ray Gravell charge was to learn far more about yourself than simply that you could tackle. He was a storming centre. There was also a gentleness of spirit about him that belied the rampaging power of his play for Llanelli, Wales and the Lions. He had a magnificent natural strength.
Some time ago, he led a party of supporters on a trip to Australia and at a stopover at Surfers Paradise, Gravs was socialising quietly in a nightclub. The bouncer was a mammoth of a man, with colossal muscles. He had a party trick. He could hold a magnum of champagne in each hand, and hold them out in front of him, arms parallel to the floor.
He challenged customers to a duel, to see who could hold the bottles longest. Gravs came up, not as the blustering contender but because others had put him forward, and eventually, he quietly agreed. Nor did he milk the astonished roar when, against a man twice as big and muscular as he, he held out the magnums for so long after the (dethroned) champ had collapsed that it seemed the dawn might come up because Gravs put the bottles down. Iron strength, iron will, iron resolve, human softness.
It is said that his excellence as an actor in all the fine parts he played was that he never put on airs and graces, but simply played himself. It is true. Only one actor, and only man ever born, could play Ray Gravell, in all his tapestry and friendship and power and fervency. That man died last week, in Majorca.
Club honours: 485 games for Llanelli (1970-85)
Internationals: 23 Wales caps (1975-82), part of two Grand Slam-winning teams. Four Lions caps
In 1991, he played a 19th-century farmer in a big-screen adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Rebecca’s Daughters, starring Peter O’Toole.