Dai Never-Say-Die Jenkins! What matter lungs were near bursting, fainthearts around him already wilting, and his own legs beginning to buckle, he would give his last ounce right up to the final whistle, filling each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. Surrender? Never!
Born at Treherbert in South Wales, Dai wanted to be where the action was from the start. Making his mark initially as a 10-year-old hooker at Penyrenglen School, he was eventually switched to the base of the serum, in which position his all-round reliability as vice-captain helped clinch the Welsh Schools Championship and won him a place in the schoolboy international versus England.
Schooldays over, he turned to association football for a couple of seasons, starring at centre-forward with a local junior team, but love for the oval ball lured him to Treherbert Old Boys, thence to Pontypridd, and finally to Cardiff, by which time he was knocking hard on the international door. Yet, for all he was chosen as stand-by serum-half for Wales v England at Cardiff in 1934, and would dearly have loved to don the famous red shirt, he no doubt became increasingly aware that the now legendary Haydn Tanner, also waiting hopefully in the wings, was being groomed as first favourite.
At all events, in 1935 he crossed the ‘great divide’ and signed professional forms for Acton & Willesden, whose ill-fated pioneering venture in the Metropolis was to peter out after just one season through lack of support. Nor did a transfer to neighbouring Streatham & Mitcham bring him a change of luck, for within four months they, too, were flying the same distress signals. Then it was, on 30th December 1936, that Secretary-Manager George Ibbetson dashed to London with the intention of making a bid for second-rower McDonald, but returned instead with Dai’s signature, and that of his pal, Welsh R.U. international hooker Con Murphy, for a total fee of £600. Talk about New Year Sales at knock-down prices!
Mind you, having signed Cliff Evans from Salford only ten weeks or so earlier, the Football Chairman, Mr Edgar Alcock, was at pains to point out that the Club’s latest half-back recruit would be ‘on reserve’ until such time as he won his spurs in the ‘A’ team. Some reserve! Of the season’s twenty remaining 1st Team matches, 22-year-old Dai missed only four, his lightning service, tactical variations, relentless cover tackling and tireless backing up, reflecting the very form that had merited Tour Trial selection, during his spell with Acton & Willesden.
Disappointed as he naturally was to miss out on the Yorkshire Cup Final triumph over Huddersfield in October 1937, his selection for Wales some three months later called for an extra-special celebration at Wigan’s expense, with ecstatic Leeds supporters in the vast Headingley crowd of 32,300 responding to his every move as the shell-shocked cherry-and-whites were routed by 27 points to 4 in the 1st Round of the Challenge Cup. A constant source of inspiration, he scored one try, made another and had a hand in two more, cleverly switching the point of attack to send Vic Hey scorching past gaping opponents like an express train thundering through a wayside station.
What’s more, tackling with tigerish ferocity as though it were a matter of life and death (which, of course, it most certainly was!), the little pocket Hercules from Treherbert toppled almost every man in the Central Park side at least once, from full-back Jim Sullivan to Woods, the blind-side prop. Arthur Binks, ‘Juicy’, ‘Chimpy’, Evan Williams, Jeff Stevenson, Barry Seabourne. Down the years, surely none ever played better than this.
Fair weather or foul, to Dai it mattered not! Ten weeks later, when the chips were down in that traumatic Championship Final at Elland Road, there he was, doing two men’s work in defence and whipping up his pack for one last desperate assault as he battled on defiantly to the bitter end.
Reference has been made earlier, in the section on stand-off halves, to the Hey-Jenkins duo and their fringe-of-the-serum moves in particular. Suffice it to say that they opened the 1938-39 campaign in devastating form, running in no less than 26 tries between them by the turn of the year, before injuries to first one and then the other intervened in the second half of the season.
Came the war, came a sadly all-too-brief vision of what might have been, Dai’s partnership with Oliver Morris being a key factor in the Challenge Cup Final victories over Halifax in ’41 and ’42. Moreover, joined by Cliff Evans in’ 43, he went within a whisker of a remarkable hat-trick, Dews bury surviving by the odd point in a two-leg Final.
Peace, indeed! It was sheer torture, for players and supporters alike, the Loiners suffering one indignity on top of another to end the first season after the war with a meagre tally of nine wins from thirty-six league matches. All the more creditable, therefore, was Dai’s selection, along with Ike Owens, as one of Gus Risman’s ‘lndomitables’, yet only to be dogged by injury during the Tour and consequently unable to make a real bid to oust Tommy McCue from the Test teams.
For all he was 32 by the time he returned, to resume his partnership with Dicky Williams, his application over the next three years was total, his love for the game undiminished, despite the buffetings of heartless Fate in 1947, a Wembley defeat by Bradford Northern, all the more shattering because it was so unexpected, another at the hands of Wakefield Trinity in a tense Yorkshire Cup Final replay at Odsal. Then, just three days later, to score a try at Swinton on the one occasion he was to wear the Great Britain jersey, yet still finish on the losing side against New Zealand! A hat-trick he could well have done without! Even so, his sterling service over thirteen seasons did not go unrecognised at Headingley. Honoured with the captaincy in 1948-49, he was also granted a joint-benefit match with Dai Prosser in that same season, the proceeds from the Castleford game on 18th April being in excess of £865.
A one-time Licensee of the Town Hall Tavern, Dai gave both Keighley and Bramley the benefit of his vast experience before retiring in 1952, with the proud record of seventeen Welsh appearances to his credit, the last of them against England at Wigan in 1948.
A Loiner by adoption, who continued to live little more than a couple of blind-side bursts from Headingley, until his death in 1979 at the age of 65, Dai was once described by Jim Sullivan as the ‘Peter Pan of Rugby League’. And why not, for his Never Never Land was a two-acre field with posts at either end, where a 10-year-old boy who wanted to be where the action was, played, and played, and played, in all for twenty-eight years or more; and never, never gave in, never, never gave up.