Top Cat still car­ries the bruises from Meads’ knee

The Rugby Paper - - News -

Clive Row­lands woke up yes­ter­day with the same ache in his lower back, just as he has wo­ken up ev­ery Satur­day for more than half a cen­tury. One late hit from Colin Meads has lasted a life­time.

“I get pain ev­ery morn­ing,’’ said Row­lands. “I sup­pose the nat­u­ral process of get­ting older doesn’t help but I don’t have a prob­lem with Colin Meads, not re­ally. I’ve got no hard feel­ings about it.”

Ex­cept, of course, for the sore ones from a back that had to be re­paired af­ter Meads en­sured the scrum-half ’s first ex­po­sure to the All Blacks would end pre­ma­turely with the Wales cap­tain be­ing car­ried off, not aloft on the shoul­ders of ju­bi­lant team-mates but flat out on a stretcher.

What hap­pened on the last Satur­day be­fore Christ­mas in 1963 has been lent a cer­tain rel­e­vance if not top­i­cal­ity by an event at Cardiff Arms Park last Wed­nes­day night. Row­lands had re­turned to the scene of the crime, or as close as he could with­out be­ing soaked to the skin, to col­lect a Life­time Achieve­ment award from the Welsh Rugby Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion at their an­nual din­ner.

Even now, there is no­body in the world game to match his cv – cap­tain of his coun­try on de­but, coach, se­lec­tor, chair­man of se­lec­tors, man­ager, com­mit­tee mem­ber and pres­i­dent. Wales un­der his man­age­ment fin­ished on the podium at the 1987 World Cup and two years later the Li­ons, un­der the same man­age­ment, beat Aus­tralia.

All that tells only half the story of the man him­self. At 79, Row­lands still speaks of the game with all the mis­sion­ary zeal of a re­vival­ist preacher and re­calls the mo­ti­va­tional talks of yes­ter­year as if he’d given them last week which makes him a cross be­tween Evan Roberts and Bill Shankly.

He was, to coin Sir Clive Wood­ward’s maxim, ‘smarter than the av­er­age bear’ – so smart that the Wales team he coached from the late Six­ties to midSeven­ties nick­named him ‘TC’, as in Top Cat, then a pop­u­lar car­toon tele­vi­sion se­ries about an schem­ing pack of Man­hat­tan al­ley mog­gies.

Row­lands set trends al­most wher­ever he went. His mer­ci­less bom­bard­ment of the touch­line at Mur­ray­field in 1963 forced the game to out­law di­rect kicks to touch be­tween the 25s as they were re­ferred to in pre-met­ric times. His in­no­va­tive brand of team-talk made him fa­mous be­fore any­one on this side of the At­lantic had heard of Vince Lom­bardi and the Green Bay Pack­ers.

He may not care to be re­minded that in call­ing a mark against New Zealand and Meads in­flict­ing a more last­ing one, Row­lands, pic­tured be­low, un­wit­tingly ini­ti­ated the long­est-run­ning trend of all. Wales had never lost to the All Blacks in Cardiff un­til then and they haven’t beaten them any­where since.

“They launched an up-and-un­der and I marked it legally. Un­for­tu­nately I’d turned my back so I didn’t see Meads com­ing through from an off­side po­si­tion. His knee caught me in the back, I was paral­ysed for a short pe­riod and then years later I had an op­er­a­tion for the fu­sion of a lum­bar disc.”

A sim­i­lar in­ci­dent to­day would pro­voke calls for a red card. Meads’ ver­sion of what hap­pened cre­ated an im­pres­sion that he could play fast and loose with the laws know­ing most ref­er­ees would turn a blind eye rather than dare rock the Estab­lish­ment boat by send­ing him off.

“I didn’t punch the wee man,” he said. “What hap­pened was that Clive was yakking and kick­ing the ball, yakking and kick­ing. Wales had bug­ger-all backs in those days so they kicked it all day. “And then our man (Kevin) Briscoe put up an up-and-un­der. I had a five­yard start, Clive was un­der it and I got the lit­tle bas­tard. Ran right over the bloody top of him. He put on a good act, 80,000 peo­ple booed me and all I did was knee him up the arse. God, the mem­o­ries are good.” Not as good as Row­lands’, unique among Welsh coaches in that he re­ally liked the re­porters he worked with in his pomp. In his ac­cep­tance speech he sin­gled them out one by one, most no­tably the late Den­nis Busher then of the equally late Daily Her­ald. “I’ll never for­get his kind­ness on the night I first got se­lected for Wales. Den­nis had a tele­phone card which meant you could make a call with­out pump­ing coins into a black box. Thanks to him I was able to ring my mother and tell her I was in.” Imag­ine that hap­pen­ing to­day. Imag­ine, too, the cap­tain of Wales be­ing wo­ken up at two o’clock on the morn­ing of a match at Mur­ray­field by a few friends from back home. That hap­pened to Row­lands in Ed­in­burgh a few months be­fore Meads hit him for six. Row­lands’ pal, Idris Jones, had driven through the ice and snow of that Arc­tic win­ter of ’63 from Up­per Cwm­tyrch in the Swansea Val­ley to the Scot­tish cap­i­tal. Jones went straight to Row­lands’ room, apol­o­gised for the late­ness of the hour and as­sured him ‘we’ve just ar­rived, safe and sound’.

“That meant some­thing very spe­cial to me,” Row­lands said. “Idris al­ways said that what­ever the weather, we’d be there to sup­port you and five of them had driven all that way in aw­ful con­di­tions. Far from be­ing an­noyed I was de­lighted to know they’d ar­rived.”

For all the tro­phies he has won, there have been times when he felt badly let down, bad enough to re­sign, al­beit tem­po­rar­ily, as WRU pres­i­dent in protest at what he saw as be­trayal by col­leagues who de­fied Union pol­icy and ac­com­pa­nied a rebel group of Welsh in­ter­na­tion­als on their visit to apartheid South Africa in 1989.

There was the equally shame­ful sight of Welsh play­ers scrap­ping among them­selves in the din­ing room af­ter their 63-6 ham­mer­ing by the Wal­la­bies in 1991 and of Row­lands, the ap­palled man­ager, try­ing to im­pose some law and or­der.

The re­grets, as Frank Si­na­tra would say, are too few to men­tion and all rather triv­ial com­pared to the triple tragedy of los­ing your fa­ther, one sis­ter and brother by the age of ten fol­lowed decades later by the trauma of fight­ing can­cer. Row­lands is still go­ing strong.

Not so much a legend, more a na­tional trea­sure.

“Row­lands still speaks of the game with all the mis­sion­ary zeal of a re­vival­ist preacher”

Na­tional trea­sure: Clive Row­lands is chaired from the field af­ter Wales com­plete the Triple Crown in 1965

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