Brinley Richard Lewis was a speedy wing three-quarter of great skill who, for a variety of reasons, was never able to demonstrate his talents to the full at international level. He was highly regarded by English critics, some of whom were bewildered that Wales didn’t make more use of him. “He had splendid hands, true football pace, pluck, neat kicking ability … and he knew the game. He was the best wing of his day [yet] could boast only a couple of international caps”, wrote one.
Injuries and the coming of war restricted his international appearances and, because he played much of his best rugby for Cambridge University and occasionally London Welsh, many of his outstanding performances took place out of the sight of Welsh selectors.
Born in the Swansea Valley at Pontardawe in 1891, “Bryn” was not unknown, however, in Wales. Even at fourteen, he was already making headlines. He “played brilliantly” with the ball in hand when Wales defeated the English Schools at Leicester in 1905.
After captaining Swansea Grammar School, Bryn played for Pontardawe before going up to Trinity Hall Cambridge in 1909. There he won the first of his three Blues on the wing in December 1909. Unfortunately, Oxford were much stronger during this period and Bryn was on the losing side on each occasion. Although in 1910, his inspirational play almost gave Cambridge an unexpected victory. Just after half time, Bryn scored his second try to put his side into an 18-13 lead. However, he was then controversially tackled and badly injured while in touch. He took no further part in the game. Most observers agreed that the loss of Bryn, who was playing splendidly, was the turning point of the match. Reduced to fourteen, Cambridge struggled to defend against the Oxford attack and the peerless Ronnie Poulton struck twice, his second try sealing a 23-18 last minute victory.
Even though Oxford comfortably won the 1911 Varsity match by 19 points, Bryn was singled out for praise by the press for his “brilliant form”. He “alone grasped what was wanted in attack”. He made some good runs, cross kicked cleverly but “was handicapped by the poor play of his fellow backs”. In fact, Bryn had been demonstrating his blistering pace for Cambridge all season and he was now seriously being talked about as a future international. Had he been playing regularly for Swansea, one Welsh journalist believed, he would certainly have been capped earlier; but he was forced to wait until the final international of 1911-12 before being given his chance against Ireland in Belfast.
However, Wales selected a very inexperienced side which played poorly, particularly in the backs, who squandered many scoring opportunities. Bryn had a disappointing game. He seemed to be over anxious and he failed to produce anything like his Cambridge form. The 12-5 defeat was the first time in thirteen years that Wales lost two Championship matches in a season: selectors, press and Welsh public were not too pleased.
Bryn returned to Cambridge for a fourth year, but a late injury cost him a fourth Blue in 1912, when ironically Cambridge won for the first time in seven years. Previously, Bryn had turned out for Swansea during his vacations, but for the rest of 1912-13, he was now able to play regularly in Wales for the All Whites. This was a good time to be a member of the Swansea team, which went on to win the Welsh Club Championship that season. Such was the quality of his performances for the club that the selectors could not continue to overlook him and he was again picked for the final game of the season against Ireland. This time there was to be a complete turnaround in his fortunes. Playing with much greater self-assurance, he had a magnificent game. In a tense match, Wales just managed to hang on to win by 16-13. Bryn had a big hand in the victory, running with great confidence, defending courageously and contributing two of the three Welsh tries, one from half-way. He was the best three-quarter on the field.
Further honours followed over Easter 1913 when Bryn became the first Swansea player to represent the Barbarians. However, persistent injuries affected his play for much of the crucial part of 1913-14 and these ruled him out of consideration for further caps that season. He did eventually recover his old form but events unfolding in Europe would deny Bryn any chance of playing for Wales again.
He enlisted early in the war and, while still in training, he was selected for the Welsh XV which faced the Barbarians at Cardiff in April 1915. Wales fielded a strong side, but one lacking in match fitness. The Barbarians, captained by Edgar Mobbs, won comfortably by 26-10, but Bryn was one of the few Welsh players to come out of the game with his reputation intact. A few weeks later, he was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery.
He served on the Western Front with the 38th (Welsh) Division throughout 1916 and survived the Battle of Mametz Wood, which took the lives of fellow Welsh internationals Dick Thomas and Johnny Williams. By August 1916, Bryn had been promoted to major and was commanding a six-gun battery. In April 1917, the Welsh Division were holding part of the line in the Ypres Salient. On the morning of the 2thApril, Bryn was taking his breakfast behind the gun lines when he was killed by a high velocity shell.
His brigade commander later wrote: “he was such a splendid fellow … he was beloved by officers and men alike … he had great strength of character and was bound always to do well.”
Brinley Richard Lewis is buried in Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, near Boesinghe, Belgium.
This is an amended version of an article which originally appeared on 2nd April 1917 on the World Rugby Museum: From the Vaults blog on the centenary of Brinley Richard Lewis’s death in the Ypres Salient.
There is a much longer account of his life and rugby career in “Call Them to Remembrance”.