WHEN I was 15, Just Rentals, a TV rental place in town, were the main sponsors of Pontypridd and Neil Jenkins used to work in the shop as the public face of the company. One day I plucked up the courage to go in and ask him if he’d help me practice my goal-kicking.
He was a Welsh international at the time and I was a bit star-struck, but he was brilliant. The next morning he picked me up and we went goal-kicking. That happened two or three times a week…what a brilliant bloke he is.
To learn off Jenks was great; I went on to be his understudy for the first team at Pontypridd in the very early days of professionalism. But he never seemed to lose form or get injured, so game time was limited, and I moved to Cardiff where I spent three enjoyable seasons.
We had some big games in the Heineken Cup – notably against Bath in the quarter-finals in 1997, when they had Jason Robinson and Henry Paul playing for them and I came off the bench and kicked a couple goals to win us the game. It was quite an exciting time as Cardiff and Swansea went ‘rebel’ and joined forces with the English clubs for a while.
Then, me and Jenks switched over: he went to Cardiff and I returned to my hometown club as the first-choice. Some great friendships are made in rugby and I’m still mates with Lewis Moody, Leon Lloyd and Geordan Murphy from the time we beat Leicester down at a sold-out Sardis Road, 18-11. I kicked all our points that day. It never hurts to remind them over a beer!
I made my one and only Test match appearance for Wales in August 1997, aged 20. It didn’t last long as I only came on for the last five minutes but playing for Wales was always something I’d set out to achieve and having been involved in every Wales age-group side and the A team, it was a dream come true to get capped.
If I remember rightly, I managed to throw a long overhead pass out to Nigel Walker to score. My parents came up to Wrexham to watch the match and gave me a lift home afterwards. We woke to the news that Princess Diana had died, and I remember stopping off at a newsagents on the journey back and all the women behind the counter were in tears. Very sad and surreal.
I’m not sure why I didn’t get another crack, maybe I just wasn’t good enough or the coaches didn’t like what I was about.
I never wanted to leave Ponty but when Mike Cuddy put a bagful of cash down on my kitchen table and said he wanted me to sign for Neath, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. My pay doubled overnight!
As much as it was a wrench to leave my mates, that first season at Neath worked out brilliantly, for me as an individual and for the team. I scored a club record 446 points, but the forwards have to take the credit for laying such a good platform. I had some pretty good backs outside me too in Shane Williams, Dave Tueti and Allan Bateman. All I needed to do was run behind those guys and I was bound to get my fair share of tries. Lyn Jones was a flamboyant coach and encouraged us to go out there and give it a go, so that helped too. In one game against a very good Munster side I scored all 30 of our points.
When we signed Allan, I remember telling him how to ‘hit and miss one’. He looked at me and smiled as if to say, ‘I’ve been doing that move for the last 20 years, I know what I am doing’. Afterwards, I thought what have I said, this guy is an absolute legend and here am I telling him how to hit a running line!
We had a very good side who enjoyed each other’s company on and off the pitch, and we reached the inaugural Celtic League final, losing to Munster at the Millennium Stadium.
Lyn told me he was going to go with Gavin Henson as his 10 at the Ospreys when regional rugby came in, so I moved to Newport Gwent Dragons. Again, I enjoyed my time there, but the group wasn’t as close-knit because boys were spread all over the place. Even so, we managed to get some decent results under Mike Ruddock and Clive Griffiths.
From there I left Wales to try something new, playing in the English Championship with the Cornish Pirates. It’s a tough old league with some long trips but I enjoyed the change of scene and stayed on in Penzance for a couple more years, playing part-time rugby with Mounts Bay while starting to get my coaching qualifications at Truro College alongside Ricky Pellow, the current Exeter skills coach. We won the Intermediate Cup at Twickenham which was a great day out.
After returning home, Cardiff won the Welsh Premiership when I was assistant to Phil Davies and then Merthyr did the same, after coming up through the leagues, in my first role as a head coach.
It was a special time, but I knocked it on the head two or three years ago; it had run its course and now I’m focusing on my new job as a signaller in the railway industry.
Looking back on my career, I wish I’d done more to prepare myself for life after rugby. When you get wrapped up in the professional bubble it’s easy to only think in the here and the now. I didn’t use my time off wisely. I was riding the wave of being a pro rugby player and never thought about preparing for the day when you do have to hang up your boots – unlike Ceri Sweeney who started doing an electrician’s course in his early 20s, and now has a very successful business.
At the time I remember thinking why are you going to college, you’re a professional rugby player, you’ve no need to do that. In hindsight, he was very clever.
– As told to Jon Newcombe
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