To win one's 50th cap remains a significant personal achievement, but it no longer attracts more than a passing notice. The player who reaches it can expect some pre-match attention and to run out first ahead of his team, but that is about the end of it. This is hardly surprising given that the next to attain this mark will be the 626th to do so.
It was very different 40 years ago when England played Wales at Twickenham. It was the away side's first match of the season while England had opened with a 15-6 loss to France in Paris, but all of this was submerged below the anticipation for Gareth Edwards' 50th appearance for Wales.
Part of this was that Edwards was already recognised as one of the game's all-time greats. But it was also a significant moment for Wales since he was the first player to pull on the red shirt 50 times.
Quite how many 50-cappers there were before Feb. 4, 1978 is a matter of definition, depending on whether one included British and Irish Lions appearances -- if one does, Edwards was playing his 60th international -- or acknowledged, as France did but other leading nations at this time did not, matches involving nations outside the eight Foundation Unions.
On the narrower definition, Edwards was only the seventh player to win 50 caps. He followed the Irish trio of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson and Tom Kiernan, All Black Colin Meads, France's Benoit Dauga and Scottish prop Sandy Carmichael, who had attained his half-century two weeks earlier. It was only just under eight years since the first, Kiernan, also at Twickenham, had reached the mark, pipping Meads.
Its significance was not lost on Edwards. He had the supreme self-confidence of the high achiever, but after the final Welsh trial "began to suffer a strange attack of nerves...afraid to get injured, terrified of a loss of form or failure."
He was beginning his 12th Five Nations campaign, making his 42nd appearance in the competition and had started every match for Wales since his debut against France in Paris on 1st April 1967.
The different world he played in is shown by comparison with Rhys Priestland, who became the 45th and most recent Welshman to win his 50th cap when he came on as a replacement against the All Blacks in Nov. 2017. Priestland took six years and eight months -- a period in which Wales played 85 matches. Of his 50 caps, 18 were won in the Six Nations matches and 24 as a replacement.
In an era when teams were allowed only two replacements, and that only for players certified by a doctor as unable to continue, Edwards always started and was rarely hurt, confining long-time deputies Chico Hopkins and Clive Shell to a single fleeting appearance [although in Chico's case lastingly memorable] apiece. While four Irishmen -- McBride, Gibson, Kiernan and Jack Kyle -- had exceeded his 41 previous Five Nations appearances, his 28 matches on winning sides were already the most in the tournament's long history.
Making his 42nd Five Nations appearance on that foul February afternoon, with rain deluging fans on the uncovered South Terrace, took him past Wales's previous tournament record holder, postwar wing Ken Jones. Overtaking Jones, something which rarely happened to the Olympic sprinter on the field, had become a habit after passing his all-time Wales record of 44 caps in 1976.
It was, though nobody else yet knew it, Edwards' last season. He was still only 30, but was feeling the pressures both of the amateur era -- balancing the demands of top-class sport with work and the need to start a proper full-time career -- and of the expectations of the Welsh rugby public. In his memoirs he remembered talking to Gerald Davies, a longstanding teammate for Cardiff and Wales, on the way to Twickenham. Davies was, he recalled "his usual tense self, whiter than white" and asked him: "Why do we keep on doing this, Gareth?"
In spite of losing their opening match 15-6 in Paris, England were optimistic. John Griffiths records that "many believed the game would decide the Championship" and that stand tickets priced at £8 were going for £200 on the black market.
That England had suffered three significant injuries in Paris, prop Robin Cowling playing half of the match with a dislocated shoulder because they had run out of replacements, played some part in them making four changes. But, rather typically of an era of erratic selection, neither of the players who had come on as replacements in Paris retained their place.
Cowling gave way to Barry Nelmes -- a Cardiff clubmate of Edwards -- while there were three new caps. Leicester centre Paul Dodge, replacing the injured Andy Maxwell [and replacement Charles Kent] and Bath outside-half John Horton, who replaced the strong-minded and assertive Alan Old, were to have significant international careers. The third newcomer, Rosslyn Park flanker Bob Mordell -- taking over from the injured Peter Dixon and Paris replacement Tony Neary -- remains to this day the only international rugby player born in Twickenham.
And they had reasons for optimism. Folk memory recalls this as an era of fearsome beatings by Wales, but that was only so in Cardiff, where Wales scored 23 tries to England's four in Edwards' six matches. At Twickenham only the 1976 match highlighted by JPR Williams' two tries fell into this category. Otherwise it was tight and England had won in 1974.
In an era of Welsh stability, 13 of their team survived from JPR's match two years earlier -- the entire back division, the Pontypool front row and the immensely durable second row partnership formed by Geoff Wheel and Allan Martin. Only the back row -- where Mervyn Davies and Trevor Evans had given way to Jeff Squire and Derek Quinnell -- had changed.
Edwards was playing his 12th match against England, equalling the Welsh record set by the great late Victorian full-back Billy Bancroft. He had won nine of the previous 11, a record for a player from any country, and scored four tries -- two each at Cardiff and Twickenham.
He was facing Malcolm Young of Gosforth, his ninth opposite number in those 12 meetings and, apart from Jan Webster of Moseley -- his opponent four times including the only defeat -- the only one to have made it to a second match.
There is little doubt what England will have been talking about. Steve Smith -- one of the nine, his tenure the briefest, as a replacement at Cardiff in 1975 -- recalled of Edwards: "The England players were quite paranoid about him and their sole topic of conversation used to be how to stop him."
Again there was reason for this. Edwards' statistics can now, after 40 years in which caps and career scoring totals have proliferated, look comparatively modest. But comparisons with his contemporaries and predecessors as scrum-halves show quite how extraordinary he was.
Scrum-halves had previously been creators, not a scoring threat themselves. Edwards was not merely a threat but he scored as frequently as the best wings of his time. His 17 tries in 41 Five Nations matches made him the leading Five Nations scorer since his debut, one ahead of Gerald Davies, with England wing David Duckham next on nine. He was third on the all-time list, trailing only Ian Smith's 24 for Scotland and Cyril Lowe's 18 for England.
Next on the all-time list for scrum-halves were two Scots, Alan Lawson and Bill Bryce, and an Irishman, Mark Sugden, with three apiece. Perhaps most extraordinary of all, Edwards' 17 tries represented more than one fifth of the 84 scored from scrum-half in the whole of Five Nations history. While that reflected long periods in which few scrum-halves scored, he had dominated his own era as well. His 17 tries in 41 matches compared to 13 in 173 by every other Five Nations scrum-half of this time.
The contrast with his Welsh predecessors is even greater. His 17 tries represented more than two-thirds of the total scored by Welsh scrum-halves in the Five Nations, at a rate of better than one every two and a half matches, compared to theirs of one in every 26.75, eight tries in 214 games. Of his two greatest predecessors, Dicky Owen crossed twice in 30 matches, Haydn Tanner not at all in 24.
Only his great All Black rival Sid Going, with 10 tries in his 29 tests, remotely compared. No wonder opponents were worried about him.
But there was far more to Edwards than spectacular tries. As England prop Mike Burton, yet another victim of English selectorial eccentricity who was playing his fourth consecutive match against Wales at Twickenham but was never chosen to play at Cardiff, wrote: "His performances were superb on the days when it was hard to be good."
This was to be one of those days. As the rain poured down, all the scoring came from penalties. Phil Bennett landed three for Wales, the last with eight minutes to go after Mordell, who did not play again for England, was penalised for handling in a ruck. Alistair Hignell kicked two for England, missing in the last minute with a kick which he recalls "was struck well, but didn't go straight enough and missed by a few inches."
But the central figure, from the moment he ran on to the pitch ahead of his team, was Edwards. Burton recalled it vividly: "Gareth Edwards controlled it like a conjuror, thereby rendering all our muddy efforts in our little twilight utterly useless and irrelevant. It didn't really matter who was on top, Gareth kicked the ball down behind us and broke our hearts. We could win two or three balls in succession, batter our way up field and be poised for an attack on the Welsh line, then Gareth would send the ball rolling....into our twenty-five and we had to start again."
One extraordinary moment, illustrating his exceptional power, awareness and footballing skills, saw him move laterally from a scrum towards the East touchline before rifling a kick 65 metres down field. Seen from the sodden South Terrace, it lives intensely in the memory 40 years on.
There was no try for him. Venerable Pontypool prop Charlie Faulkner, recalled a few weeks before his 37th birthday, scooped up a loose ball with Edwards about to pounce within range of the English line before apologising, "sorry Gar, didn't see you coming". His 18th and last Five Nations score came instead in a 22-14 victory over Scotland at Cardiff, with which he was otherwise dissatisfied. A third consecutive Triple Crown was clinched when Ireland were beaten 20-16 in a ferocious contest in Dublin.
The season came down, as it habitually did in a period when Wales were to win four consecutive Triple Crowns and France were unbeaten by any other opponent between losses to Ireland in 1975 and England in 1979, to the clash with the French at Cardiff.
As well as a Grand Slam decider it was billed as a contest between Edwards and France's brilliant new scrum-half Jerome Gallion, who had scored in his first three Five Nations matches. The old master had the last laugh as Wales won 16-7 with skipper Phil Bennett, also playing his last Test, scoring two tries in a purple patch before half-time which had one French commentator exclaiming: "Surely the greatest rugby ever played."
Edwards, in many eyes recognised as the greatest rugby player ever, departed with a drop goal, his third for Wales. He finished with 53 caps, 20 tries and 35 wins -- all Welsh records -- including five outright championships, four Triple Crowns and three Grand Slams, the 1978 edition the hardest won with a points difference of only 24 from the four victories. He had also played in every test for the only two winning modern British and Irish Lions parties.
Nor have the 40 years since served him badly, with a successful business career and a knighthood. But for all that he remains fixed in the mind most of all as a truly extraordinary rugby union player. 'Greatest ever' debates are by nature subjective. John Eales and Richie McCaw come immediately to mind as rivals from the years since. But 40 years on, Gareth Edwards remains the starting point for any discussion.