By Rob Cole
He fought back the tears, and vowed to return to rugby sooner rather than later, but Ceri Sweeney had every reason to smile at the weekend after bringing down the curtain on a great career.
More than 20 years after making his Pontypridd debut against Ebbw Vale, with his PE teacher Paul John as his scrum-half, the 39-year-old former Wales outside-half steered his side to a 47-19 win over Principality Premiership champions Merthyr.
It was the perfect way to bow out at Sardis Road and both teams formed a guard of honour to welcome him onto the field.
He kicked six conversions out of seven, went through 200 points for the season and picked up the man of the match award.
It was the perfect ending to a career that some may scoff at, but on closer inspection represents a huge achievement for a player who had to fight for everything he got.
There were many who said he was too old to play in the Premiership, and that Ponty were wasting their money on a ‘has been’, but the only negatives came from the ill-informed on the sidelines.
Coaches and players alike heaped praise on Sweeney’s professionalism, attitude, dedication and ability. If you want to know the real impact he had on his return to Pontypridd then just look at the way he helped to bring on Jarrod Evans and Ben Jones.
Where Neil Jenkins acted as the inspiration for the young Sweeney as he came through the Pontypridd Youth ranks, so the pupil turned into the master later in his own career. And his impact wasn’t just felt in Wales.
When Rob Baxter took him to Exeter Chiefs for two years it was with the express intent to get him to nurture the young Henry Slade. He did a pretty good job there as well.
So how should Welsh rugby remember Sweeney? Firstly, with the respect a man who played 35 times for his country at senior level truly deserves. Secondly, as someone who loved the game, gave everything to it and wants to give something back.
It’s the Last match of the season. and last match for Ceri Sweeney who is calling time on his illustrious career. Thank you Ceri and good luck for the future.@CeriSweeney10 @cardiff_blues @ExeterChiefs @dragonsrugby @PontypriddRFC @WelshRugbyUnion pic.twitter.com/axdLNR6cbG
— Mike Jones (@Mike_Replay) May 15, 2019
He earned every plaudit, back-slap and cheer he got on Friday night – and was back at Sardis Road the next day to play his part in honouring Chris Dicomidis in his testimonial match.
“I’ve been lucky and I’ve only had one injury in 20 years. A couple of boys I’ve played with have been a lot less fortunate. It is good to be able to finish on my terms on not be forced to retire through injury,” said Sweeney.
“It is hard to single out the best bits of my career. Playing for Ponty early on, winning the Cup and then the Challenge Cup with the Blues; my two years with Exeter and the Grand Slam with Wales in 2005. It was always my boyhood dream to play for Wales and I managed to do that.
“I was lucky enough to have a couple of good No10s to help bring me on and I think it is part and parcel of being an older player that you help others. I enjoy that – you’ve been there and know what it’s like being the youngster who needs some help and someone to look up to.
“It got a bit emotional there at the end with all the players around me and when it suddenly hit me I might not be playing here again.
“I am not retiring, I am having a year off! I will definitely be back in the future, it is just a case of in what capacity, because I can’t do without rugby.
“Pontypridd is a club really close to my heart and I’ve really loved it here – I think the world of the place. I was just 19 when I played my first game against Ebbw Vale.”
Sweeney played in the Wales side that faced New Zealand in the final of the IRB Under 19 World Cup at Stradey Park in 1999 and went on to make his senior Wales debut against Italy in Rome four years later. He played at the 2003 World Cup and played a part in three of the 2005 Grand Slam games.
He played 73 European games, scoring 358 points, for Pontypridd, Celtic Warriors, Cardiff Blues, the Dragons and Exeter Chiefs, including starting two European Challenge Cup finals – a defeat to Sale Sharks with Ponty in 2002 and a win with the Blues against Toulon in Marseilles in 2010.
His Celtic League / Guinness PRO14 record also speaks volumes with 151 games and 698 points. You can also add in helping the Blues win the Anglo-Welsh Cup against Gloucester at Twickenham in 2009 and captaining the Chiefs in an LV= Cup final against Saracens that ended in a last-gasp defeat to a late penalty.
He may have been pint-sized in appearance, but he had a massive heart and punched well above his weight in a game in which players got bigger and bigger over the 20 years he graced the game.
His is a career that will get better and better as people look closer and closer at it as the years roll on.