The great maverick, David Bishop of Pontypool. Pic: Getty Images.

David Bishop . . . The Maverick Who Was Never Welcomed In From The Cold

By Luke Upton

There has been even more nostalgia than usual in Welsh rugby this year.

The national team’s largely disappointing performances sent many minds (including those of the Welsh Rugby Union) back to the era of Warren Gatland, a golden era to many, but not always viewed as one at the time.

The passing of Phil Bennett in June gave us all a chance to see clips of those wonderful Wales, Llanelli and Lions teams he was a part of, as well as, of course, his role in ‘that try’ for the Barbarians.

Then, in September, came the shock news of the death of Eddie Butler, a man whose words and voice was the soundtrack of so many of our most cherished rugby memories of the past decades.

He was a beloved figure, and in the many warm obituaries and video clips made about him, some might have been surprised to see him as a player, and a fine one at that, captaining Wales and becoming a Lions tourist.

Butler was a key part of the great Pontypool team in the late 70s and through the 80s, an erudite and hard-working No.8 in a team packed full of characters.

Probably the biggest character in the squad, Dai Bishop, was the subject of one of my favourite chapters in Rugby’s Greatest Mavericks (Y Lolfa).

He was a supremely talented player, but with a complex and at times destructive personality.

The late John Billot of the Western Mail called him “the best scrum-half in Welsh rugby since the Second World War”.

Ex-Neath rugby supremo Brian Thomas called him the finest player in the northern hemisphere. Former England scrum half Richard Hill said he was, for a period in the 1980s, not just the best in the British Isles, but in the whole world.

The chapter features plenty of great stories to tell about one of the truly great characters of Welsh rugby, but perhaps my favourite takes place on 23 January 1988, at Pontypool Park for the Schweppes Cup third-round fixture against Swansea RFC.

Bishop lines up alongside another livewire, Mark Ring, in the half-backs, with Butler – not yet fully swapped from pitch to commentary box or newspaper pages – also part of a fearsome Pooler pack.

The visitors have brought a typically strong line-up, with two Moriarty brothers among the pick of the forwards and a Lions axis at 9 and 10, where Tony Clement and Robert Jones are pulling the strings for the All Whites.

The world of professionalism and regional rugby is still years away, and the rain-soaked ground is packed with around 12,000 fans.

Eddie Butler in action for Wales against England in 1984. Pic: Getty Images.

Golfing umbrellas, shell-suits and moustaches abound as the camera pans across the packed bank. Many of the sponsors don’t exist anymore – whither Hunter’s Bitter? And some of the men watching would still have done a shift down the pit before a quick shower, a splash of Old Spice and heading straight up to Pontypool Park

It’s a big game, and with the Five Nations approaching, the commentator makes a point of highlighting by name some of the Welsh selectors in the crowd.

Re-watching the game, it’s a tight, physical, slightly niggly affair – with the mud soon rendering the kits useless, making it near impossible to see who’s who, particularly during some of the frequent dust-ups.

Bishop is at the heart of everything creative for the home team and, one long-distance penalty in the bag, gets another chance late on.

The kick is awarded after Bishop scoops the ball up one handed and as he tries to circumnavigate the Swansea defence, is clattered in the throat and barged off the pitch by Paul Moriarty.

Today, it would be a red card, but then just a shake of the head from the referee, a bit of lip from an irate ball boy towards the Swansea man and the indication of a penalty.

Ray Prosser learnt the lessons from his 1959 tour to New Zealand with the Lions to help make Pontypool a rugby force.

The pitch is by now an absolute mudbath: there’s no grass to be seen, let alone any markings.

Just inside his own half, Bishop points towards the post and then starts digging into the sodden ground with his boot.

He must do this a dozen times to find a solid-enough nest for the ball. He takes around 10 steps back, and then runs full pelt at the ball, mud splashing as he does, and thwack, he bangs the ball high into the darkening sky and down between the posts.

The Pontypool fans go wild as this makes the game safe for the home team, and a mud-splattered Bishop, the black and red of his kit barely visible, runs over to the grandstand (where the selectors are seated), puts both hands in the air and wiggles his backside as he does a little dance before triumphantly clenching his fist in jubilation.

Post-match, Bishop is asked by the TV reporter about the dance: “That was just a little thing for the supporters… it’s all enjoyment in the game, we play for the enjoyment, and if the footballers can do it, so can we.”

Asked if he had a point to prove, following speculation as to whether he would be selected for Wales ahead of the Swansea scrum half that day, Robert Jones, he answers: “No, that’s not true, the press have been building it up all week about me and Jones, and I wish him all the best.

“It’s not his fault. I’m playing my rugby – I’m enjoying every minute of it.”


However, he goes on to add moments later: “I think the boys wanted to prove a point as well, because as far as the East of Wales is concerned, there’s no players getting selected.

“And, deep down, it’s hurting the boys. And I think they had a point to prove to the selectors and West Wales as well, that we can still play rugby here.”

The skills may have been undeniable, but the attitude would prove irrevocable, and the Welsh selectors would remain unmoved.

Jones would be the Wales scrum half for that year’s Five Nations.

Bishop would later recall that after the cup win over Swansea, “Coach Ray Prosser went up to two of the Little Five, as I call them [they were actually known as the Big Five: the panel who picked the Wales team] to ask about me.

“He was told that while they were in charge, I’d never play for Wales again. It broke Pross’s heart when he came to tell me.

“Let me tell you this: at one point I said to myself, ‘If I play as well as I can, they cannot not pick me.’ But they just kept leaving me out.’”

Although the 1987/88 season was the most successful in Pontypool’s history – they lost only two games all season – at the end of it, Bishop would turn his back on Welsh rugby and head to league and Hull Kingston Rovers.

In an era of poor international performances, one of Welsh rugby’s few world class players was gone.

Rugby’s Greatest Mavericks (Y Lolfa) by Luke Upton (@MrLukeUpton), with a foreword by David Campese is now available from all good bookshops and online, for help finding it click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *