How a journalist’s search for former Welsh rugby stars led to book
It all started with a question that kept on popping up in my head: “I wonder what happened to so and so?”
Now the identity of “so and so” would change from week to week and month to month, but there was a common thread.
They were all former rugby stars whose playing careers I had covered during my 30-plus years working for the Western Mail & Echo.
The more I pondered on the subject, the more I thought it would be a good idea to track down one or two of them to share their rugby memories and find out what they have been up to since they stopped playing.
So it began.
From there, the whole project took on a life of its own.
It soon moved on from “one or two” to “one or two a month” with the interviews proving very popular and readers asking for more.
Then came Covid. With all sport put on hold, there was no live rugby to report on, so what was I to write about?
Well, there was an obvious seam to keep on digging away at. I turned my attention to speaking to more and more former players and it became a veritable production line during the pandemic.
By the end of last year, I had interviewed more than 90 ex-Wales internationals for life and times pieces.
Some of them had remained in rugby, either as coaches, administrators or pundits. Those were pretty easy to get hold of.
But others were far more challenging to track down, having moved away from the game and relocated to destinations as diverse as Qatar, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Canadian Rockies.
It meant the interviews were carried out in very varying circumstances.
Some were done face to face. I went up to Tommy David’s house in Pontypridd to chat with him, surrounded by his collection of Groggs. With Bleddyn Bowen, the setting was Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, with Steve Fenwick, it was a pub in suburban Cardiff and for Steve Ford it was his beloved Arms Park.
I caught up with Alan Phillips at the Vale Resort, his long-time base as Wales team manager, I had a coffee with Lyn Jones looking out on Aberavon Beach and I spent a thoroughly entertaining afternoon in a Carmarthen cafe with Rupert Moon.
Other interviews were done over the phone or via Facetime, Zoom or other forms of video conferencing, as was the way of things during Covid, while those people in far-flung destinations were obviously contacted down the line, as it were.
I have particularly vivid memories of Mike ‘Spikey’ Watkins giving me a video tour of his Bangkok home while we chatted!
So it all took a bit of organising and arranging, but it was all worth the effort and a really rewarding enterprise.
In some cases, I was speaking to people I hadn’t interviewed for decades and there was a lot of ground to cover and a lot of catching up to do. I ended up with hours and hours of taped conversations and page upon page of shorthand notes.
What I found really fascinating was you never knew what the story was going to be until you picked up the phone or sat down for a cuppa and a chat. Everyone had their own tale to tell and some of the stories were pretty eye-opening.
There were cases of former players having gone through some very challenging times since hanging up their boots. What struck me was just how willing they were to speak openly about what they had been through and I hugely appreciated the trust they placed in me to tell their stories.
There were also plenty of laughs along the way, amid the inside stories from life on and off the field as a player, along with startling revelations of just what it was like in Welsh rugby back in the day.
Some of the people I spoke to were household names who represented Wales for years. Others had just a couple of caps to their name. Yet what united them all was just how much it had meant to pull on the famous red jersey and how much rugby had given to them.
I always felt it would be a nice idea to put a selection of the interviews together in book form, so when publishers Y Lolfa approached me with just such a project in mind, I was happy to work with them.
From my earliest times in sports journalism, I had always had a nagging notion of one day writing a book about some of the great characters of Welsh rugby.
Now here was the opportunity. I had done the leg work, I had the words in the bag and I had a publisher.
The toughest task was choosing around 25 interviews from the 90-plus I had done. That took some deliberating, I can tell you. Then it was a case of getting back in touch with the people involved and making any updates as required, while also sorting out images of what they look like today.
Some of the pictures that feature in the book were taken by photographers working for the Western Mail, others yours truly took, while there are also a few selfies in there.
As you will notice from the cover there are actually 26 players featured. It was going to be 25, but I heard back from Chris Wyatt just before I was going to press send and there was no way I was going to leave out the player nicknamed ‘One Man Riot’.
Former second row Wyatt is just one of the larger than life characters to leap out of the pages, with chapters on the likes of the aforementioned ‘Spikey’ Watkins, Tommy David, Rupert Moon and Lyn Jones, plus Craig Quinnell and Martyn Madden to name but a few.
It was, of course, also an opportunity for me to meet up with some of my heroes.
One such icon was Terry Holmes. He was a player who really helped ignite my passion for rugby as a youngster because he was just an incredible force of nature on the field.
So when he agreed to meet for a coffee, it was a real buzz.
However, the interview didn’t begin too promisingly.
When I explained that I wanted to talk to him about his rugby memories, he replied: “I don’t do nostalgia”.
I could feel the blood draining out of me as I sat over my flat white.
But, two hours later, we were still talking rugby, with the great man having gracefully indulged my fan-boy questioning.
They say never meet your heroes, but that certainly wasn’t the case with Holmesy or any of the other legends I got to spend time with.
One of the most surreal interviews of the lot was with Roy Bergiers, as he had been a teacher at my school in Carmarthen. I must admit I did find it hard not to call him ‘sir’ during the course of our conversation.
Once I had whittled the list down to 26, the next decision was how to order them. It soon became clear to me that the simplest option was just to do it chronologically, from the first to get capped to the last.
So the book starts with John Taylor, who made his Wales debut in 1967, and concludes with Martyn Madden, capped in 2002.
Those also happen to be two of my favourite interviews. Former Lions flanker Taylor is an absolute gentleman, someone who has been hugely helpful to me throughout my career as a fellow member of the media corps. He also has a fascinating story to tell, in particular over his opposition to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and how that cost him a place in the legendary match between the Barbarians and New Zealand in Cardiff in 1973.
As for Madden, well we basically didn’t stop laughing throughout the 90 minutes we had together. The former Scarlets prop, whose smiling face features on the front cover of the book, lights up a room with his personality.
I could go on and on listing the moments and stories that stand out from the interviews.
There was Mike Rayer explaining how he has a drinking session and a beer named after him. There’s Tony Copsey revealing how he went from having ‘Made in England’ tattooed on his backside to playing for Wales.
You’ve got Steve Ford recalling how he was banned from rugby union for life at 21 and Mark Brown talking about having been the first black player to be capped by Wales.
It’s also intriguing to go through the range of jobs people now have, with Peter Rogers a social carer and Shane Howarth a supermarket manager, while Richie Collins set up a school transport company and Martyn Madden runs a cleaning business.
Then there are the ex-players who have been through really challenging times. Lyn Jones and Bleddyn Bowen both talk about battling cancer, while former Neath No 8 Mark Jones opens up about the self-loathing he felt because of his stammer. And then there’s Andy Allen, speaking with graphic candour about the time he spent in prison.
So that’s the story of the book – so many characters, so many tales, so many revelations.
For anyone who buys a copy, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together and, who knows, perhaps there will be Volume Two to follow.
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