HOW CULT RUGBY STAR BECAME CRAIG BELLAMY’S BEST MAN
Delme Parfitt talks to David Bishop about the day one of Wales’ greatest ‘never was’ scrum-halves met football legend Craig Bellamy – and sparked an unlikely friendship which has lasted decades...
WHEN you ask David Bishop what actually became of the solitary Wales jersey and cap he won playing against Australia in November 1984, nothing can prepare you for the answer.
“Mounted in a frame and hanging on a wall in Craig Bellamy’s house,” Bishop explains. “It’s in between two framed football shirts. One belonged to Lionel Messi, the other to Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Once that startling information is processed, and the former dual code scrum-half opens up about his relationship with ex-Liverpool and Wales striker Bellamy, the location of his most prized sporting possessions doesn’t seem so random.
Bishop struck up a close friendship with Bellamy almost two decades ago, to the extent that he was best man at Bellamy’s wedding.
One day, out of the blue, the now Cardiff City academy boss asked Bishop if he would give him what, by any Welsh rugby standards, are collector’s items. Bishop was happy to oblige.
“All my stuff, including my boxing vests and my Great Britain rugby league jersey, are housed at my club, Old Illtydians,” he explained.
“The Wales cap and jersey I gave to my daughter but when Craig asked for them I cleared it with her and then popped down to the clubhouse and just asked for them. You could say they have gone to a good home.”
Bishop is not the type of man to entrust such memorabilia to anyone, but then to him Bellamy is not anyone.
Their rather unlikely double-act has set many a tongue wagging on the Cardiff social scene and yet a more circumspect observer probably wouldn’t see them as that odd a couple.
Leaving aside an age-gap of 19 years, both were outrageously talented in their chosen sports and both hailed from tough suburbs of the Welsh capital, Bishop from Adamsdown, Bellamy from Tremorfa.
Bishop recalls vividly the first time the pair’s paths crossed, a moment which very nearly ended in a fight in the toilets of a nightclub on Cardiff’s Mill Lane.
“I was in a cubicle in the toilet and all of a sudden there’s a loud banging on the door,” said Bishop. “I opened it up and there was Craig – who I didn’t know at the time – with some other bloke. I was annoyed at his interruption, so I got hold of him, dragged him up against the cubicle wall and told him I was going to smash his head in. He didn’t know me either at the time, but he soon did.
“Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and a few of the other Wales boys had to come in and calm everything down. It was different times. That sort of thing would have been captured on someone’s phone these days.”
Once hostilities had ceased, Bishop and Bellamy ended up sharing a drink that night and the rapport developed to the extent that they now speak two or three times a week by phone.
But while there are clear life parallels between them, the now infamous extent to which Bishop was ostracised by his country sets him well apart from Bellamy, whose international football contribution in leaner times was often talismanic.
Bishop’s punchy reputation – he actually boxed for Wales as an amateur and was a Welsh schoolboy champion – went before him in the eyes of the selectors.
He was 24 by the time he got his cap against the Wallabies, but despite scoring Wales’ only try in a 28-9 defeat and acquitting himself well on an otherwise hugely difficult afternoon for the host nation, there were to be no more chances. An 11-month ban and suspended jail sentence for breaking the jaw of Newbridge lock Chris Jarman while playing for Pontypool the following year sealed his fate. Bishop, once allowed to play again, continued to wow everyone with the quality and ferocity of his displays for Pooler, but the closest he got to another Wales chance was a place on the bench in a Probables v Possibles trial match in early 1988. Nobody from the WRU ever saw fit to explain the stance to his face. By the end of that year, so disullusioned had he become that Bishop accepted an offer to move to rugby league with Hull Kingston Rovers. His parting gift to the great Pontypool coach Ray Prosser was a brand-new colour television. When he handed it over, Prosser wept. But for all that Bishop’s union legacy is tinged with frustration, the memories of November 24, 1984 will not fade easily. Even now, when Australia come to town – virtually an annual event in the modern era – minds inevitably turn to Bishop’s all-too fleeting breakthrough. Listening to him speak now about what would become a one-off experience triggers ruefulness. A stellar talent went under-used for sure, but also a warriorlike appreciation of what it meant to go into sporting battle on behalf of not just your club, but your country.
“The squad was staying at St Mellons Country Club before the game and I remember playing golf with Mark Ring on the Thursday,” said Bishop.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep in the nights before the game and then when the day arrived it seemed as though it was over in a flash.
“I remember walking into the dressing room before kick-off, seeing my jersey. I lifted it off the peg and kissed the badge. Whether it was baseball, boxing or tiddlywinks, if it was for Wales I always kissed the badge.
“Then you put that shirt over your head, you let it slide down your back and you just think, ‘hey, I’m representing my country today.’ There is no feeling like it in the world. Throughout the whole of the national anthem before the Wallaby clash, I cried.”
It seems logical to ask Bishop how he felt immediately after scoring the try. The way he responds is jolting.
Bishop explains how, running back after the touchdown, he looked up at the stand of the old Cardiff Arms Park national ground, to where his late father David Bishop senior was sitting, to see him openly sobbing with pride.
The thought prompts a sudden surge of emotion. Bishop’s eyes widen in an attempt to ward off a fresh batch of tears. He is briefly unable to talk.
It is a moment that reveals the sheer size and nature of the heart that beats beneath a tough exterior.
After composing himself, Bishop recalls how, as a breathless day turned into night, he wangled a ticket for his dad to get into the post-match function in the Angel Hotel on Westgate Street. Being able to pose for pictures with him after receiving his cap was something he saw as the perfect footnote to his proudest rugby moment.
Bishop senior, a renowned Cardiff publican, was keeping the Admiral Napier in Canton at the time and so later on, tired of the formality at the
Angel, Bishop strolled the halfmile or so to his dad’s pub with Aussie full-back Roger Gould to round off the evening.
“The locals gave us a great reception,” he recalled. “We just chilled out, talked to people, downed a few pints.
“I’d told the press earlier that the result clouded the experience of my first cap, and it did because I hated to lose. But I couldn’t really talk to them about how I really felt.”
It’s approximately two years since Bishop lost his father.
He says the death of his mother, Kathleen, in 1997 affected him more deeply and the large tattoo of her name on his right arm is testament.
But the influence of his ultimate male role model was nevertheless profound.
“I remember when I was six years old, kicking a ball around on a patch of green by our house and my dad would say, ‘kick with your left foot,’” said Bishop. “He told me to keep practising and that’s how I became able to kick with both feet. I see British and Irish Lions players now who can’t kick with both feet. Some of them can’t pass off both hands either.
“For me, players don’t work hard enough on their weaknesses and that’s what my old man drilled into me. It
meant that when I was playing senior rugby, if there was something I found difficult or didn’t like doing in training, I would do it first. So if it was fitness, I’d do burpees first.
“To be honest, I think I was naturally gifted when it came to fitness.”
What Bishop achieved in his career was all the more remarkable given the backdrop of a broken neck sustained at 21 years old playing for Pontypool against Aberavon, followed by medical advice to end his rugby days.
To this day he insists it was only a blessing from his local priest and a bottle of holy water, which he was instructed to dab on his neck before every game, that enabled him to defy doctors’ orders. The true extent of the risk he took will never be known.
But Bishop came out the other side. These days he admits to having struggled to come to terms with life after he stopped playing and openly admits his regret that elements of his lifestyle cost him his marriage to childhood sweetheart Kate.
One of his daughters, Samara, now lives in Australia, and there are three grandchildren to focus on as well, but you sense Bishop has enough time on his hands at present to enrich the rugby punditry landscape in Wales should fresh opportunities arise.
Typically for such a strong character, he has forthright views on the current game, which include the belief that Rhys Webb’s predicament over Wales selection is “an absolute disgrace”.
Bishop rates Toulon-bound Webb “probably the best scrum-half in the world” and says he cannot fathom how he will be unable to play for his country at the end of this season because of the WRU’s recent selection policy change. He also believes Warren Gatland has “done wonders” for Wales because he’s been forced largely to pick players who compete in PRO12/14 competition, which he believes does not prepare them adequately for the step up to Test combat.
Bishop was an outspoken opponent of the move to regional rugby and believes there is now an inexorable drift towards blanket WRU control.
“We can dress this up all you like, but the PRO14 is very poor,” he said.
“If I am a rugby coach I want my players playing in the best competitions, and that isn’t one of them.
“Wales used to be the only country where clubs would play against teams like New Zealand and Australia. Not even England did that.
“The WRU are already in charge of the Dragons and I think they will gradually assume control of them all – we’ve already seen the suggestion with the Blues.
“As for Rhys Webb, I’m sure there must be a case for restraint of trade. Players want to win silverware, play for the best teams. You can’t stop them from doing that. It’s rugby. It’s life. Webb has to look after his family financially as well. For that, what happens? He has to forfeit his Welsh jersey? It’s unbelievable how this could happen.
“I don’t know the kid, but if I was Rhys Webb I’d be heartbroken...but I’d also be sticking two fingers up to the WRU.”
Bishop, of course, knows what it’s like to do that.
Perhaps his biggest triumph is the level of respect he still commands for what he brought to rugby despite a cap tally that never got close to doing him justice.
Bishop only got one, Webb has 28. But if the Ospreys No 9 is as revered as this particular predecessor by the time he hangs up his boots, he will find any regret far easier to live with.
Former Wales rugby international David Bishop
David Bishop’s big moment of glory in 1984