The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, was the setting last week for a very special Lewis family occasion, as the oldest living Welsh international referee, Ernie Lewis, marked his 90th birthday.
Father of London Welsh Director of Rugby Steve and grandfather of Exiles duo Rob and James, Ernie made a birthday visit to the Millennium Stadium to view the new international honours board erected for Welsh referees earlier this year.
Ernie officiated at the France v Australia international in Toulouse in December 1971 and last Tuesday (October 22) celebrated his 90th birthday.
“I am very grateful to Roger Lewis for allowing his 90th birthday to be celebrated this way and to Rob Yeman for organising the day. It shows the respect with which he is still held in the refereeing fraternity in Wales,” said Steve, who is also former London Welsh player and Oxford blue.
Steve played in Oxford’s 1973 Varsity Match defeat to Cambridge, 14-12, despite scoring all of his sides’ points – a converted try and two penalty goals.
He also played for Oxford against Major Stanleys XV captained by London Welsh and Lions legend John Dawes. Steve was invited to join the Exiles for rest of the season after the 1973 Varsity Match.
He added: “The creation of the International Referees Board in the Millennium Stadium to mirror the International Players Board is a great move by the WRU. Throughout the years Wales has consistently produced some of the finest referees in the world and I am extremely proud to see dad's name recognised on the board with other great referees and which will stand for the life of the game.”
A former teacher at Abertillery Grammar-Technical School, Ernie enjoyed a successful career as a top flight rugby player before turning to refereeing. He played briefly for Newport, but spent most of his career with his home town club Abertillery and Ebbw Vale.
Ernie was a prolific points scorer and during his time at Ebbw Vale set points scoring records in 1949-50, 1950-51 and his 198 points in 1951-52 (198), made him the leading points scorer in Wales in the season Ebbw Vale were Welsh Champions which he held until 1974-75 when it was broken by his son, former WRU Chief Executive Steve Lewis.
He became one of the leading outside halves in Wales and was a regular member of the Monmouthshire County side and was awarded his county "cap". He played against Australia (1947) and New Zealand (1953) for a combined Abertillery & Cross Keys side, both games at Abertillery Park.
He took up refereeing in 1956 and quickly established himself as one of the leading referees in the game, the highlight being the international cap.
He refereed many Barbarians games and was touch judge at many international games including the 1973 Barbarians v New Zealand game - he was the closest man on the pitch to Gareth Edwards when he scored 'that' try - and many other games involving touring sides.
His recollections of the France v Australia match are clear, and not all rosy: "It was the first of two Tests on the Australian tour of France. Unfortunately, there was a recent history of bad blood between the two sides and neither team wanted to play rugby on the day.
"It was not a comfortable place to be, and I had to deal with several unsavoury incidents. When I awarded an important penalty to the Aussies the crowd began to stir and when the game ended with France losing 13 - 11 I needed a police escort to get to the dressing room."
Mr Lewis believes that most of the advances in the game are for the better: "The game has changed for referees in many ways for the better, most obviously the technical advances and the assistance of, what were previously called the linesmen in getting decisions right - that's so important in the professional age.
"In my day the ref was on his own and the linesman was there purely to indicate where the ball had gone out of play and whose throw-in it was. Unfortunately, I think some of the fun has gone out of the game and there is little opportunity for some of the respectful and often humorous banter that used to go on during the game between players and refs. The law makers must protect the respect of the referee at all costs."
After retiring as a referee, Ernie went on to become a WRU referee assessor and President of the Welsh Society of Rugby Referees.