The extraordinary rise of Anthony Buchanan from miner to Wales rugby star
Former Wales prop Anthony Buchanan was one of the last working colliers to play for Wales, answering an SOS call to play in the Triple Crown decider against Ireland in 1988 whilst in the middle of a shift underground.
Wales won the game 12 points to 9 to secure the title for the first time in nine years.
In an extract from his new autobiography, entitled The Buck Props Here! written by Anthony and journalist and writer Geraint Thomas, he recalls the stresses of that late call up and a desperate last minute search for a ticket for the game on Friday night in Dublin.
There was a real feeling of optimism around the Wales team going into the next game, against Ireland in Dublin, as we were in with a chance of a Triple Crown – awarded to the team that beat all three of the other home nations in the same season – for the first time since the golden years of Gareth Edwards and Co.
My hopes were raised when I was summoned to training with Wales on the Monday, but they were soon dashed when they announced the team and Staff was named ( loose-head Staff Jones).
My good friend Phil May, who had been capped against England (I was really pleased for him – Laurance Delaney would go on to win his first cap the following season – as we had come through together in the pack when Gareth Jenkins had set about building his Llanelli side) tried to console me on the car journey home from training, saying, ‘Don’t worry, a lot can happen in a week.’ Those words turned out to be prophetic!
News then reached me that Staff had injured his calf and that I might be playing after all! That led to a tense, emotional few days where I wondered, ‘will I or won’t I?’
But the speculation ended when Staff passed his fitness test. It was a case of back to work once more, where I took a lot of stick from the boys who took great delight in saying, ‘Buy a ticket like the rest of us!’
People are only too happy to pat you on the back when you have been picked, but equally happy to have a go at you when you are dropped.
A large group of around 70 Ystradgynlais boys from the rugby club were going over to Dublin for the weekend but I couldn’t join them as I had left it too late to book my place.
However, opportunity comes along sometimes when you least expect it.
On the Thursday before the game I was back at work underground repairing a pump when my name was called on the tannoy system (everyone in the colliery can hear what is being said). I spoke to the control room and was told that somebody from the Welsh Rugby Union was on the telephone and wanted to speak to me. As you can imagine, everyone listening started giving me some good-natured ribbing, shouting, ‘Get a ticket, Buchanan!’
My immediate reaction was that someone was playing a joke on me here, so I said, ‘Don’t take the p*** or I will come up there and see you.’
Viv in the control room replied, ‘I’m dead serious. Get to a telephone.’
I got to one of the telephones underground and it was true, it was one of the secretaries from the Welsh Rugby Union. She said, ‘You’re in the team to play against Ireland. Can you get yourself to Cardiff Airport by 3 o’clock this afternoon?’ This was at 11 o’clock in the morning.
Now I would never laugh at someone else’s misfortune, but Staff had gone to stretch his leg and raised it on to one of the barriers around the national ground and pulled a hamstring in his hitherto uninjured leg. You couldn’t make it up!
Roy of the Rovers
I arranged for someone to come down and take me back to the surface. As I made my way through the washery it was a bit like Roy of the Rovers, with everyone shouting and clapping. It was a wonderfully exciting moment that I will never forget.
I believe that I was the last working miner to play for Wales – Garin Jenkins was also a miner but he had changed jobs at this time – which is quite an honour when you think of how the industry once dominated south Wales and provided so many players.
I made my way to the lamp room, where you are booked in and out of the mine, and was approached by the lampman, Gary. He said, ‘Look, before you go, you must go up and see the manager.’
‘You can tell the manager to F-off, I haven’t got time! I’ve got to be at Cardiff Airport by 3 o’clock. And I have to go home and pack first.’
‘Now listen to me,’ he said firmly. ‘Do yourself a favour and go and see the manager before you leave.’
I had a shower and changed. My heart was beating like mad with the excitement and I ran upstairs to the big office.
I knocked on the door and it was opened by the manager, Mr Jones. He looked at me with a sort of relief on his face and said, ‘Come in.’
I replied, ‘Mr Jones, I really am pushed for time.’ He just turned and so I followed him into his office. Inside, sat at the large oak table, were three very important, dour-looking gentlemen who, as it turned out, were mine inspectors.
Mr Jones gestured towards me and declared proudly, ‘Gentlemen, this is Anthony Buchanan. He has just been selected to play for Wales against Ireland on Saturday in the Triple Crown match!’
The three gentlemen looked at me and said half-heartedly, ‘All the best.’ I turned and started walking towards the door when Mr Jones pulled me back and whispered, ‘No stay, don’t go.’
These inspectors were from Yorkshire. They had no interest in rugby; they were there to inspect the mine. Mr Jones must have been under pressure because he was trying to change the subject and talk about me, which they weren’t having.
It was quite farcical. I was trying to get out of the door and he was holding on to me. ‘Just give me five minutes,’ he begged in my ear.
This also reminds me of a moment regarding Mr Jones on my return from the World Cup. I had a phone call from the colliery secretary telling me that Mr Jones wanted to present me with a watch before the day shift on Friday.
I turned up at 7 o’clock to find that all the day shift were in the canteen waiting for the presentation. As you can imagine, this didn’t go down well with the men who were eager to get underground and earn money.
I could feel the emotion of everyone in the room, and several comments were made, like, ‘Just give him the bloody watch!’ An uncomfortable presentation.
As I was driving home, I detoured to pick Alana up from school. She was teaching at Maesydderwen and I would have to go and get her first to pack for me. As I ran into the school, I couldn’t help but smile when I thought of my old PE teacher, Gareth Thomas, who had given me the ‘dap’ when I refused to play rugby all those years ago, and yet, here I was, about to play for Wales.
We had long since ‘made up’, as it were. He was a lovely person, along with his wife Ann. Often in life, when you come across people you encounter them later again; he was a real gent. Being a former All Whites player and myself playing for Llanelli, it was like a red flag to a bull and we often crossed swords good-naturedly.
Whether Gareth thought I would have been an even better player had I played at school, I will never know, but he did say to me once, ‘You should have gone to the All Whites. You would have won more caps if you had!’
After my first Welsh cap the school recognised the fact and invited me back a few times for presentations or to speak to the pupils. It’s still a huge honour for a school to have just one person go on and represent their country in sport, and it’s a heck of an achievement for Maesydderwen to have had myself, Alun Donovan, Kevin Hopkins, Huw Richards and, more recently, Adam Jones, achieve that in rugby.
I found Alana in the middle of a lesson. I knocked on the door and she hurried out and said, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’ve been picked to play on Saturday,’ I said.
‘Give me a minute and I will get someone to cover me and come home with you.’
You may think I was useless not being able to pack on my own, but there is so much involved. You must have your tuxedo, your dickie bow tie, all the Welsh gear, the whole shooting match. It was a mad rush but we got everything packed, although it wasn’t until I arrived in Dublin that I realised I had brought everything – apart from pants and socks!
I finally made it to Cardiff where I faced a barrage of questions from media crews before joining the squad for the short flight across the Irish Sea.
When you are a player, on the Friday you get a limited number of tickets for the game. After our morning training session, I took mine over to the hotel where the Ystradgynlais boys were staying, to give my allocation to my brother-in-law Kevin and some of the boys.
After your team run-out on the Friday morning, you then try to relax for the rest of the day. Traditionally you go to the cinema in the evening.
When I was at the hotel my mother phoned me to say, as my father wasn’t well enough to travel, my Uncle Peter was coming over on his own, and could I get him a ticket? My uncle was a lovely man. He was an All-Whites supporter but, despite that, he always supported me whenever I played. I was dismayed and said, ‘I’ve given all my tickets away.’
Remember, this was the Triple Crown match, the first in almost a decade, and tickets were as rare as rocking horse manure.
This was playing on my mind. I felt terrible, and I couldn’t concentrate on the film. Then I realised that the Ystradgynlais boys were in a hotel just around the corner from where we were and, as we were leaving the cinema at around 10 o’clock, I asked Derek Quinnell if I could have a word.
I said, ‘Look, I’m in desperate need of a ticket for my uncle and I’ve asked everyone and there are none spare. Do you mind if I just nip to the hotel and get one of my tickets back from my mates?’
Fortunately, he said yes and told me to make it quick.
Now, I didn’t really think this through. It was late at night, on the eve of a massive international, and the supporters had been out drinking all day. Can you imagine the scene as I walked into the hotel?
The vast majority of the supporters couldn’t say bread, they were so intoxicated, and there’s me asking for a ticket.
All I can say is that the experience of seeing Welsh supporters out on a Friday night in Dublin is something I will never forget.
As soon as I was spotted, I faced a barrage of questions. ‘Buchanan, what the hell are you doing out at this time of night?’
‘Don’t you dare let us down tomorrow!’
I explained I was looking for a ticket I had.
‘Why do you need a ticket? You’re playing!’
Stone cold sober
I soon realised that I was never going to get any sense from anybody in there. It was absolutely pointless. Anyone who has been with people who are drunk while you are stone cold sober will know how I felt – you see the most ridiculous things and hear absolute rubbish.
I decided to leave but, as I approached the door, one supporter, who could hardly stand, decided to punch me on the arm and tell me not to let them down tomorrow.
‘No problem,’ I said, and I tried to walk away but he followed me and punched me again. I made the mistake of turning around and saying to him, ‘If you punch me again I will drop you.’
‘You wanna fight, do you?’ he declared. ‘Come on then!’
And he started taking his coat off. I thought to myself, the Wales team are outside waiting for me. I’m playing against Ireland tomorrow. This guy wants to fight me, and I haven’t got a ticket for my uncle. What am I going to do?
I left and climbed on the bus and went back to the hotel with the team. I was worried sick because I realised, come Saturday morning, getting any ticket would be out of my range. All my focus would have to be on the game. I felt terrible because I knew how much of an effort my uncle had made to come over to support me.
Once back at the hotel I sat down with Phil May. I was particularly close to Phil and he was always great company and a fantastic captain to play under. I could never make out how, for someone who always put his body on the line, he never seemed to pick up cuts on his bald head when he always had cuts everywhere else!
I said to Phil, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is really starting to affect me now. It’s taking my thoughts away from the game.’
Phil turned to me and said, ‘Go and see the Big Five and tell them your problem.’
I decided to take his advice, but I failed to take into account, once again, that it was 11 o’clock on a Friday night in Dublin before an international game.
I steeled myself and went upstairs to the room where I knew they were and knocked on the door. John Dawes opened the door in a cloud of cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey.
Now John was a nice guy and he said to me, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I need a ticket,’ I replied.
Once again, I was greeted with, ‘Why do you want a ticket? You’re playing.’
‘My uncle is travelling from Wales overnight and I can’t let him travel without getting him a ticket. Whatever it takes, I have to find a ticket for him. I want to start focusing on the game and my head is all over the place.’
He disappeared into the smoke and returned a few minutes later with a ticket. I have seldom felt so relieved.
The next morning, I took the ticket down to reception and left it in an envelope for my uncle to collect – finally I could turn my attention to the game.
The Buck Props Here! is published by Y Lolfa and you can buy a copy here…
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