Embed from Getty Images

Top Cat . . . The Daydream Believer Who Came Closest To The World Cup Cream

Having beaten Australia last weekend, Wales are firmly in charge of their own destiny at the World Cup. Players, coaches and fans are brimming with belief that anything is now possible. And belief can be a powerful force as Owen Morgan recounts from the 1987 tournament, when Wales had the greatest defender of the faith ever to take change of a Wales team . . . the incomparable Clive Rowlands.

Sitting in the cluttered store room, surrounded by boxes of Adidas Flanker rugby boots and a myriad of other essential 1980s sporting kit, a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter asked the Welsh rugby legend his opening question.

“How far do you think Wales can go in the tournament?” enquired the young scribbler, kicking-off his first sporting interview for the local weekly paper.

The answer was flashed back immediately without a second’s contemplation and in a voice brimming with confidence, enthusiasm and no little incredulity that such a question should have been asked in the first place.

“We can win it!” replied the man charged with managing Wales’ campaign alongside coach Tony Gray at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and Australia 32 years ago.

Such was Clive Rowlands’ status in the game and the authoritative tone of his answer, any urge to raise an eyebrow – even a millimetre – was immediately resisted.

But inside, what I wanted to do was shake my head in disbelief and ask: “really?”

Just a few months before, Wales had finished bottom but one of the 1987 Five Nations Championship.

An undoubtedly talented group of individuals had failed to impress during the tournament, winning just once in a bad tempered encounter against a hyped-up English XV who subsequently picked up the dreaded Wooden Spoon on points difference from Wales.

Ahead, lay the challenge of taking on the greatest gathering of rugby talent ever assembled in one tournament.

They wouldn’t just be facing the best the Northern Hemisphere could offer – a challenge they had recently failed to overcome – Wales’ essentially amateur players would be facing the cream of the Southern Hemisphere . . . including players who were professional in every way imaginable except for official status

And at the dizzying pinnacle of that array of the planet’s best teams were the joint hosts – the incomparable All Blacks.

Embed from Getty Images

Even by their own high standards, this was a team of star players – John Gallagher, John Kirwan, Joe Stanley, Grant Fox, David Kirk, Sean Fitzpatrick, the Whetton brothers – Gary and Alan – Michael Jones, Buck Shelford . . . you really could go on and on.

If New Zealand were favourites, then co-hosts Australia weren’t too far behind. Three years earlier they had swept all before them on an all-conquering tour of Great Britain and Ireland and boasted the likes of David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh.

And then, there were the French, fresh from a Five Nations Grand Slam and featuring the stellar talents of Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella, Pierre Berbizier and all.

However, despite their disappointing showing in the Five Nations, Wales also had their stars in the shape of Jonathan Davies, John Devereaux, Ieuan Evans, Robert Jones and one of the men Rowlands felt was particularly key to their success – Robert Norster.

But, unlike today’s meticulous preparations featuring high altitude camps in the Alps and tortuous training sessions in Turkey, the 1987 team’s run up to the tournament featured a weekend away in Tenby.

No matter. The week before they took off from Gatwick, the man known as “Top Cat” was confident Wales could travel to the other side of the globe and return home as the first nation to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

The former Swansea and Wales scrum-half, acknowledged it was a huge task and New Zealand were the tournament’s firm favourites, but he had faith in the assembled squad and was more than comfortable talking them up.

“If the boys play as they can do and give it everything, we can win it. There is plenty of ability in the side,” he told me.

Embed from Getty Images

“I can see it similar to the seventies side, Robert Norster is similar to Delme Thomas, Stuart Evans is becoming as good as Graham Price and Paul Thorburn is the same type of strong player JPR was.

“If we get to the semi-final anything can happen, all the boys have got to do is believe in themselves, if they get that far they will have plenty of confidence.”

It wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it that made an impression on me.

By the time I left the cramped upstairs room of Rowlands’ busy Ystalyfera sports shop, I was every bit as confident that Wales could indeed be crowned champions of the world.

Despite his answers being punctuated by a sneezing fit, possibly aggravated by a sprinkling of dust on some of the older store room stock, Rowlands had convinced me Wales could win Down Under.

Generous, open, friendly and undoubtedly patient as I trotted through my journalism-for-beginners list of questions, Rowlands drew on his vast rugby expertise and experience as he outlined why, despite their recent form in the Five Nations, he believed Wales could challenge the best in the world.

As I exited the shop door, I felt like one of those customers who used to leave Arkwright’s shop in Open All Hours having been sold an item they never in their wildest dreams believed they would be leaving with when they entered the shop.

In this case, I had been sold the dream that Wales had a chance of becoming rugby’s first official world champions. As I walked back down Gurnos Road I felt a good foot taller.

Despite the pinnacle of my own rugby playing career having arrived less than half-a-mile away during a solitary appearance for Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera’s third XV, I would have quite happily taken on the combined ranks of New Zealand, Australia, France and all of the home nations after my half-hour chat with Upper Cwmtwrch’s Mr Motivator.

I had the strut of a six-foot-seven South African second row by the time I got back to my car. And when I arrived back at the South Wales Guardian office in Ammanford, I was telling everyone who would listen that Wales were going to win the World Cup!

Embed from Getty Images

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rowlands, of course, had form for inspiring those assembled before him prior to battle on the rugby field.

From being a record-breaking Welsh captain of the 1960s to coach of the Golden Era sides of the 1970s and manager of the series-winning Lions in 1989, Rowlands had the knack of getting the very best out of those around him.

Many of those who played under Rowlands have spoken in awe of his legendary team talks. Llanelli, Wales and British Lions outside-half Phil Bennett is quoted recalling the pre-match meetings held at the Angel Hotel in Cardiff.

“There would be players sitting on the bed, on the dressing table, on the floor, even perched on the wardrobe – anywhere they could find a seat in a small hotel room. It would be stuffy and overwhelming.

“Wearing his Wales tie and pullover, Clive would pace the room, fag in hand, ranting and raving.

“He would demand you performed not just for yourself, but for your father, your mother, your long-lost aunt, the miners, the steelworkers, the teachers, the schoolchildren – in effect the whole Welsh nation.

“You were their representatives and you owed it to them to deliver.

“By the end of this sermon, some boys would be head-butting the walls and others would be crying their eyes out.”

Embed from Getty Images

And it seemed the old Rowlands magic was as potent as ever in 1987 as Wales emerged winners of a group that included Ireland and then saw off the old enemy England in the quarter-finals.

Wales’ challenge ultimately came to a juddering halt when they met the all-conquering All Blacks in a one-sided semi-final in Brisbane.

But having subsequently beaten Australia in a thrilling third-placed play-off in Rotorua, Rowlands’ class of ’87 is still Wales’ most successful World Cup side more than 30 years on.

Reminiscing about that inspirational encounter with Rowlands – now a still sprightly 81 years old – all those years ago, added to last weekend’s win over Australia, has got me dreaming again.

Maybe, just maybe.

With the mixture of sheer talent, meticulous preparation, a healthy slice of fortune and some good old Top Cat-style motivation from current Wales coach Warren Gatland, perhaps the class of 2019 might just go a couple of steps further than those trail-blazing predecessors tipped for glory in an Ystalyfera sports shop store room all those years ago.


Leave a Reply

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