Review: The Gloves are Off is an entertaining, engaging romp
A loyal try scorer for Bridgend, grounding the ball almost 300 times in his playing career for the club, this autobiography of Welsh rugby’s first black icon helps explain that ready gift.
The natural speed quickly manifested in childhood, where he had to race his seven sisters to the bathroom. He would later run to school and thus pocket the bus fare. His running speed later increased even more through playing sevens’ rugby, especially when he started up an invitational team called The Welshmen, playing in tournaments across the UK.
And of course that mercurial pace was exhibited in the ten games he played for his country, most notable against Tonga in the 1987 World Cup where he scored three tries against solid opposition, against “really physical people. They had about four elbows each and six knees.”
But Bridgend was the place he put pace to best use, helped by the fact that they played a “nice, open, expressive game.” He scored four tries in his first game under coach Billy Griffiths. They had this theory. If some teams only open up and run the ball at the end of a game, when they’re behind, why not play that way from the start? That approach goes some way to explaining Bridgend’s historic win against Australia in 1981, beating them 12–6, although the typical Welsh rain also helped.
There were tougher teams than Australia to face, such as Pontypool with its fearsome, ferocious pack. Webbe suggests that opponents of the Poolers were encouraged to update their wills before facing the likes of Graham Price, Charlie Faulkner and Bobby Windsor. In one game against Pontypool he had his finger twisted back and a set of teeth planted in his arm. This was, of course, pre TMO and it was no coincidence that quite a few Bridgend players had to pull out before the game!
The son of Windrush-generation parents, Islyn Teresa Francis and Hugh Michael Webbe, Glennfield Webbe grew up in a household where money was tight. One day, in the era of the Bay City Rollers and glam rock he inherited a pair of shoes from his sister – red, green and blue platform shoes – which he proudly wore to school. In the changing room in the gym a friend spotted the “Modern Girl” label tucked inside a boot and Glenn was duly mortified.
Luckily it was another item of clothing that became synonymous with him, being the gloves he started wearing on the pitch, ostensibly to keep him warm on the wing while waiting for the ball. They also helped his grip, “especially on wet days. You could practically climb walls with them, like Spiderman!” They soon became trademark Webbe attire.
His career was peppered with testing moments. In 1980, with the Wales Youth team he travelled to apartheid south Africa, an abhorrent system he punctured in a quip after he returned: “They were so good to me those South Africans – they gave me a bus, hotel and cinema to myself!” After retiring he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which got him back training again and eventually putting on weight and even returning to rugby as a player/coach. It is testament to an inner steel inside this affable, gregarious man who obviously enjoys company, craic and banter as his team-mates attest in the closing section of the book.
He has, of course, seen the game of rugby football altering. He remembers a time when they would play the London Saracens and have to change in a little wooden shed in a park. It was then an amateur game, a time, officially, of expenses only, surreptitiously topped up with a bit of boot money, the brown envelope of cash slipped into the aforementioned boots in the changing room.
The game allowed him to travel and he is grateful for the opportunity. Webbe thrills at the memory of travelling on the bus to a French game with a police escort, all sirens and blue lights. He is not, however quite so pleased to recall a fight on a Bridgend tour to Canada, which ended with his being taken into police custody because of a case of mistaken identity. The real culprit never owned up.
Glenn Webbe recalls preparing for big games without any warm-up or drills, so different from today. He also remembers many a solid punch being thrown, with cheekbones being shattered, or noses broken. As he puts it: “We took a physical hammering which you never see today.”
It is a changed game and not always for the better, Webbe maintains. “Today there are too may structures in place, so many analysts saying this should be done here and so on, justifying their existence, all wanting their slice of the player. There seem to be about five or six coaches for every player. I don’t think that helps. I suppose they see it as producing players who are ready-made for the national side by the time they come out of the academies, but I think they are losing out on natural talent by the whole process – such a rigid coaching structure doesn’t allow them to blossom.”
Luckily Webbe’s own talent was spotted, nurtured and encouraged, delighting fans at the Brewery Field over a span of fifteen years, as well as on tour to the South Seas and New Zealand. This free-flowing account of his life is also a portrait of a time when team building happened over beers and practical jokes rather than Polish cryotherapy clinics and video analysis.
It is an entertaining, engaging romp and just the thing to read as we say farewell to a Rugby World Cup where we have witnessed the first black captain raise the Webb Ellis trophy. Glenn Webbe was, after all, the first man to score a hat trick of tries in such a competition, when the gloves, again, were most definitely off.
Glenn Webbe – The Gloves Are Off is published by Y Lolfa, costs £9.99 and is available to buy here.