Review: Rugby Lives by Simon Thomas
Simon Thomas is a superb writer about rugby and with his three decades’ worth of experience of writing for a range of papers comes the ability and quiet authority to interview some of the greats of the game and really get under the skin.
Some of the interviewees had long and successful careers, while others only gained a couple of caps, but without exception they all have an engaging story to tell. It’s like assembling a squad of storytellers such as Rupert Moon, Lyn Jones, Martyn Madden, Steve Fenwick and Terry Holmes.
Candour and frankness are very much on display in Rugby Lives, nowhere more so than in the account of the self-described ‘rugby sociopath’ Mark Jones. The former Wales No 8 who now lives in Qatar confesses he ‘ a lot of bad things’ on the field.
Jones locates the source of his violent rage in his stammer, and the bullying and berating he suffered as a consequence of it. Which, in turn, led to toe-to-toe brawls mid-game and an anger-filled habit of throwing punches indiscriminately.
The worst left a young Ian Gough requiring surgery on his eye socket and triggered a rare burst of remorse on Jones’ part, a feeling unfamiliar to someone who purged his demons on the pitch.
Even the most die-hard, well-informed rugby fan will discover a lot of things in this amiable, chattily-presented series of vignettes. There’s the cautionary tale of Andy Allen, who got caught drinking and driving in a lorry and ended up in Exeter prison, where he was placed on suicide watch, befriended a cannibal and saw sights he would later find very difficult to expunge from his memory.
Luckily this story of personal trials and tests has an upbeat ending, as he now describes himself as someone who is ‘loving life. I am the happiest man in the world.’
We also learn that Craig Quinnell could have won a silver medal in the London Olympics throwing the discus and how Christianity has empowered some players.
The 26 vivid pen portraits add up to a picture of a changed and changing game, with some of the amateur players recalling ‘having 50p a day to buy a cup of tea and a sandwich on tour’ whilst casting an envious eye over the cash rewards of the professional era, while others think that some of the fun has gone out of it all.
That fun often came in the shape of a pint or six, when a tour with Wales could seem to be ‘very much like an end-of-season tour’ with rivulets of beer flowing freely after a game and even sometimes before the kick-off.
The book also tells us how a pale ale called the ‘Mike Rayer All Dayer’ came into being and how the toper’s expression ‘I’m on a Mikey Rayer’ even ended up emblazoned on beer-flecked T-shirts.
We also see the brutal physical toll of playing Rugby Lives, as we read about broken backs, the torn ligaments and ‘a scratch’ that needed no fewer than 27 stitches.
That’s not to mention the glass eye that went missing during a match or the broken tibia and the complete dental cabinets of missing teeth.
Every reader will find a favourite story, but mine stands proud in its pages. It’s Bleddyn Bowen’s account of what happened after he punched the Tongan prop Tevita Bloomfield on a tour of the South Seas. To begin with it didn’t seem to hurt him at all. The big Pacific Islander quickly gave chase so Bowen ran behind the posts:
I got to where there were about two rows depth of people watching the game and I ran behind them. I’m hiding behind these people. I looked over them and he’s still coming at me, so I am running away behind the posts and there was somebody’s garden with a bit of fence…
Bowen managed to vault the fence and then get onto the pitch near the halfway line but ‘eventually it calmed down a little bit, with ambulances on the pitch and we won and we are still here to tell the tale.’
Brynmor Williams wasn’t so lucky when he was on tour in New Zealand when an irate All Blacks supporter tapped him on the shoulder before knocking off his feet with a blow to the jaw.
Not everyone is willing to tell all. Alan Phillips proves that if ever Wales creates a diplomatic corps then he’d be a shoe-in for the service, such is his zipped-lip approach to the secrets of the past. What goes on tour and what happens in the changing rooms is clearly very safe with him.
With memories of some of the great tries in the game’s history and bright recollections of marvellous characters such as Bobby Windsor, Ray Gravell and Charlie Faulkner, accounts of triumphant Tests and dark days when the national side was a laughing stock and loads of amusing anecdotes along the way, this is an ideal stocking filler for the rugby afficionado who enjoys revelling in the past and nothing better than a ripping good yarn.
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