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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 November 2007, 15:59 GMT
Memories of an 'insecure giant'
Gemma Williams
BBC news website

Ray Gravell during a 1981 Five Nations match
Ray Gravell would nervously sing before matches
A rugby legend, an accomplished broadcaster and actor, a devoted family man, a true gentleman and a passionate Welshman.

There do not seem enough words to sum up the larger-than-life Ray Gravell.

Tributes have been pouring in for the Llanelli, Wales and British Lion centre after he died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 56.

At the centre of them all is the overriding sentiment that Gravell was simply unique.

As his former Lions team-mate and Wales captain Gareth Davies put it: "His personality and character were one in a generation characteristics."

The poignant irony, however, is that Gravell himself is not here to see how much he was loved, admired and respected.


For he was a man whose giant stature and prowess on the rugby pitch were underpinned by a deep-seated insecurity.

As a child, his father committed suicide and a young Gravell found his body - a moment that is sure to have contributed to his anxieties in later life.

Friends and former team-mates recall that he was always seeking reassurances about himself and his ability on the pitch and later during his broadcasting career.

JJ Williams, his team-mate with Llanelli, Wales, and the Lions, said he "was the most popular man on the rugby circuit". But he very nearly did not have an international career after becoming nervous before his debut game for Wales against France in 1975 while the pair shared a room.

"At about three o'clock in the morning, I heard a kerfuffle in the room, only to wake up and Grav was packed to go home. "I can't take the pressure JJ, I'm not cut out for international rugby, I'm going home'," he said.

Gravell working as a BBC broadcaster
Multi-talented Gravell also acted in the 1992 film Damage

"If I hadn't told him to jump back into bed his career would've been over before it started. He did get back into bed and of course the rest is history. But that was his strength. He was a bag of nerves but then when he stepped onto the field he just exploded."

John Dawes, the Wales coach who gave Gravell that first cap in Paris, recalled the immense pride - and nerves - the young player felt before making his international debut.

"I always remember we were in the dressing rooms before the game," he said.

"We lost Grav, we didn't know where he was and then all of a sudden we could hear a noise in the other room, the WC in one of the cubicles, and there was someone singing Welsh songs to Dafydd Iwan [the Welsh folk singer].

"And so Derek Quinnell took the mantle and went up and knocked the door and he said, 'Grav, is that you?' 'Yes.' 'What's wrong?' 'Ah, I'm nervous,' he said. 'Ah, come on, come on out.'

Taking on South Africa during the British and Irish Lions' fourth Test
Gravell was part of the Lions tour to South Africa in 1980

"With that he came out and I tell you that the man was 10ft tall because he was so proud of the occasion, nervous of the day but proud to be representing Wales."

BBC Wales colleague Roy Noble added: "I remember broadcasting with him in Dublin and we'd had a heavy night and about 3.30 in the morning the phone rings in my bedroom and I pick it up and he says, 'it's Grav' and I said 'What's the matter?'

"He said, 'tell me Roy, what do you think of me really?"

Former team-mates remember a shy, young Gravell joining his beloved Llanelli Scarlets, a team he would go on to captain and of which he would later become president.

Recalling the Scarlets' famous victory over the All Blacks in 1972, ex-team-mate Phil Bennett said: "I'm looking in the dressing room and I can see him opening the telegram from his mother... someone had kept it 'til last knowing it would wind him up.

"And he just read that and burst into tears."

Poignant moment

Off the rugby pitch, Gravell was a man whose pride in Wales and its language was shown in his role as a member of the Gorsedd of Bards and in his Eisteddfod duties as keeper of the ceremonial sword until earlier this year.

He was also one of BBC Wales's best-loved broadcasters on Radio Cymru, Radio Wales and on television as a rugby commentator and pundit.

He even gained success in the world of films, playing, among other roles, Jeremy Irons' character's chauffeur in the Oscar-nominated 1992 Louis Malle film Damage.

But his true pride lay with his family - wife Mari and daughters Manon, 11, and Gwennan, eight - with whom he still lived in his home village of Mynyddygarreg, near Kidwelly, in a street named after him - Heol Ray Gravell.

Mr Noble added: "I bought him this Welsh whiskey in a round bottle in a big wooden case and every time we met, somewhere in the conversation he'd say 'I haven't opened it yet.'

"'I tell you when I'm going to open it: I'm going to open it when Manon gets married.' It's a poignant moment isn't it?"

In Pictures: Ray Gravell
01 Nov 07 |  In Pictures

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