Courtenay Meredith, last survivor of the last Welsh rugby union team to have beaten New Zealand – obituary

Courtenay Meredith: once played on with a 'horrendous' hole in his tongue in a Lions Test against South Africa
Courtenay Meredith: once played on with a 'horrendous' hole in his tongue in a Lions Test against South Africa - ANL/Shutterstock

Courtenay Meredith, who has died aged 97, was the last surviving member of the last Wales rugby union team to have beaten New Zealand, a victory that is now more than 70 years distant.

A prop forward ranked among the finest front-rowers to have played for his country, he featured in Wales’s 13-8 win against the All Blacks in Cardiff in late 1953, when Winston Churchill was still prime minister. There have been 33 matches between the two nations since then, and all have gone New Zealand’s way.

That 1953 triumph, which came through tries from Sid Judd and Ken Jones, arrived in only Meredith’s second Test match, but his contribution on the day helped to secure him a place at the international top table for the next four years, a period in which he played 18 Tests, 14 of them for his home nation and four for the British and Irish Lions on their 1955 tour to South Africa, a classic series that was drawn 2-2.

Packing down for the Lions in an all-Welsh front row with Billy Williams and Bryn Meredith (no relation), he was one of the biggest success stories of the trip, helping the tourists to a 23-22 victory in a nail-biting first Test in front of 90,000 spectators in Johannesburg before they went down 25-9 in Cape Town and then bounced back to win 9-6 in Pretoria.

Although the Lions lost the final Test in Port Elizabeth 22-8, an overall draw was a notable achievement against a strong home side, with Meredith’s efforts going a long way to countering the danger of South Africa’s props, Chris Koch and Jaap Bekker.

A mobile runner in the loose, Meredith was best known for his power and nous in the scrum, where he could play either at tighthead or loosehead, although he was most effective, and feared, in the former position. Nicknamed “the Iron Man”, he was renowned for his indestructibility.

The Welsh flanker Clem Thomas recalled how in the third Lions Test in South Africa his team-mate picked up a serious mouth injury just before half-time that began to bleed profusely.

“I took one look at Courtenay’s tongue and could see the hole in it,” he said. “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. He was spitting out blood for most of the second half and had to have a number of stitches after the game. If he had gone off we wouldn’t have won.”

Meredith: could play either at tighthead or loosehead, although he was most effective, and feared, in the former position
Meredith: could play either at tighthead or loosehead, although he was most effective, and feared, in the former position - ANL/Shutterstock

Courtenay Charles Meredith was born on September 23 1926 in Hopkinstown, a village near Pontypridd, but was brought up in Crynant, near Neath, where he learnt his rugby at the Crynant club and Neath Grammar School. After National Service in the RAF he went to Cardiff University, switching in 1949 from Crynant, where he had been captain, to Neath, originally in the back row before moving to the front of the scrum.

He made his debut for Wales in the Five Nations Championship at Murrayfield in a 12-0 win against Scotland in early 1953 with his fellow Neath forwards Rees Stephens and Roy John, and the three of them were together again later in the year when Wales beat New Zealand.

He proved himself to be a world-class prop over the next couple of years, so his selection for the British Lions came as a surprise to no one, and aside from playing in all four Tests against South Africa he also appeared in 10 other games on that gruelling 25-match trip.

Tiring as it was, he at least benefited from the fact that the 1955 tour was the first by the Lions to take advantage of air travel, cutting a month off the overall schedule. None the less, with stop-offs in Zurich, Rome, Cairo, Khartoum, Nairobi and Entebbe on the way to Johannesburg, the 36-hour journey by propeller plane was hardly conducive to a relaxed frame of mind on arrival.

Meredith, left, third from front, about to depart on the British Lions tour of South Africa, 1955
Meredith, left, third from front, about to depart on the British Lions tour of South Africa, 1955 - alamy

Meredith’s international career lasted for another two years after South Africa, when at the age of 31 his final game for Wales came at the scene of his debut, in Murrayfield against Scotland in 1957.

He continued to play for Neath for a further season, captaining them in the 1957-58 campaign before retiring after 250 appearances for the club. He had also played six times for Barbarians between 1953 and 1956.

In life outside rugby Meredith worked in the steel industry, first for the Steel Company of Wales and later for British Steel as a production engineer in charge of the huge rolling mill at Port Talbot steelworks.

Generally he chose not to maintain close ties with rugby in retirement, rarely taking up invitations to Wales games or functions, declining the chance to visit Neath when the club inducted him into its hall of fame and politely refusing all interview requests, even in relation to the famous match against the All Blacks in 1953.

With Meredith’s death, only one player from that game now survives – the New Zealand flanker Bill McCaw, who is 96.

Courtenay Meredith, born September 23 1926, died May 30 2024