Clive Rowlands at 80 — Welsh rugby legend with a taste for beating England

Rugby


And a very happy birthday indeed to Clive Rowlands, who turns 80 on May 14. That’s an achievement in itself, since he was diagnosed with cancer 23 years ago, but in his case merely adds to an extraordinary list, any one of which would be the highlight of most lives.

He was successively captain of Wales in all 14 matches he played, national coach in a golden era, manager of a winning British & Irish Lions team and president of the Welsh Rugby Union. He has a personality to match that list of achievements and is volubly articulate in both Welsh and English, with a capacity for inspiring anecdotes that makes that much-based description “living legend” for once meaningful.

Of the vicious playing conditions of his first Wales match, against England at Cardiff in 1963, fellow debutant Roger Michaelson recalled that “it was so cold, Clive Rowlands stopped talking.” Clive himself was upset at not being on the field for the anthems — depriving him of one of the great moments of any rugby career — as the match authorities tried to protect the players from the brutal cold.

That game was long recalled as the last time England won in Cardiff for 28 years, guaranteeing Clive a raft of media calls every two years in which he characteristically pointed out that “I also began the winning run two years later.”

His second cap also went into legend, as he kicked Wales to victory in the fabled match of 111 lineouts at Murrayfield. It fixed him in the game’s collective memory as a kicking scrum-half, unfairly underrating a smart and pragmatic tactician well capable of launching his midfield, a worthy link in the line of outstanding scrum-halves who represent Wales’ greatest tradition in any position.

The following two seasons brought a Five Nations title shared with Scotland in 1964 and won outright, complete with Triple Crown and numerous accolades for his leadership, in 1965, followed by a summary axing in 1966 which remains among the many historic mysteries of Welsh selection.

His caps were all won with Pontypool, convenient for his teaching job in Cwmbran. A move to Swansea for his final two seasons made him my first rugby hero, central figure of the first match I ever saw — a hard-fought victory over Neath just after Christmas 1967.

Retirement from playing in 1968 was followed almost immediately by election to the WRU committee, beginning the political ascent which led to the presidency 21 years later, and appointment as national coach — a job for which there were as yet few qualified candidates — when David Nash quit after not being taken on that summer’s tour of Argentina.

His six seasons as national coach would bring two outright championships, two more shared, two Triple Crowns and two Grand Slams — while the 1972 season was left unfinished due to the escalating political situation in Ireland after Wales had won their first three matches — achieved with some of the most brilliant rugby in the game’s history.

Clive had a ridiculously talented group of players and the assistance of national coaching organiser Ray Williams, a superb analyst. But his own innate understanding of the game and gifts as a motivator, invoking Calon [Welsh for heart] in famously heartfelt team talks, were a vital part of the story.

He resigned in 1974, ending as coach as he had begun as a player, with a defeat by England — although there were seven wins and a draw against the old enemy in between. As manager of the Wales team which finished third at the 1987 World Cup he would answer the post-tournament question “Where does Welsh rugby go from here ?”, with “Back to beating England every year.”

It was far from the wisest thing he ever said, but at least when he was involved had the virtue of usually being true.

And he formed a highly effective manager-coach partnership with Ian McGeechan for the Lions team who came from behind to beat Australia in 1989, the year of his WRU presidency.

The latter was blighted by the miserable, squalid saga of the tour of South Africa by a World XV team with a strong Welsh presence. Clive was one of the few to emerge with any credit, offering his resignation — which was declined — when he inadvertently misled journalists about the intentions of his son-in-law and fellow scrum-half Robert Jones.

He has since been a fine bilingual broadcaster and a tireless campaigner for cancer charities, continuing to personify the concept of “monarch of all he surveys” from his home above his native village of Upper Cwmtwrch.

Considered purely as a player he ranks as good rather than great, but when we add in the rest he ranks as one of the most significant figures, and greatest personalities not just in the Welsh game, but in modern rugby as a whole. Penblwydd hapus, Clive…



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