“Inside ropes please, one for me and one for the boy”. With those words, spoken by my father, I first entered the Gnoll, to begin, like him before me, a lifelong devotion to Neath Rugby Club. In that first game (against Richmond of all people), we took what became our usual place at the Union End, away, my father reasoned, from the more raucous elements among the crowd. Thus, was I inducted.
After that first game I wanted him to take me again, to every game in any weather. I was smitten. He couldn’t get away with saying he was tired after a morning shift, because being an odious little fellow I demanded that we go.
At half-time there were the autographs. Too shy in the early days, I was soon leading the pack towards the half-time huddle, towards the Neath team of course. However famous and illustrious the opponents it was always the Neath signatures I wanted. As the years passed and he became too old and ill to accompany me, I started to go to the away games as well, eventually to every game, anywhere, often on my own, to all parts of the country, wherever the all blacks were playing.
One of my first favourites was Cyril Roberts, that most powerful of wings for Neath and Wales. I still see him in Neath these days, looking fit, healthy and tanned, a testimony to the way he has lived his life. In those days he was a coruscating runner who thrilled the Gnoll crowd with his touchline dashes.
Years passed, chiefly of mediocrity, until one day there came, for me, a seminal moment. It was the arrival of a full back, his name was G.T.R Hodgson of St Lukes College, Exeter and Neath – Grahame Hodgson – and he was the most complete player I had ever seen.
Everything he did was immaculate, even his kit seemed perfect, an unsubstantiated rumour had it that even his bootlaces were ironed.
For years, for me, he was Neath. There was, as ever, a fearsome pack, but it seemed to me then, that whilst he was there, as that last elegant line of defence that everything was going to be all right.
The history and traditions of Neath are known all over the rugby world, the list of achievements endless-first cup winners, first league winners, first treble winners, World Record holders (still) for tries and points in a season, among them. It was in Neath after all, that the Welsh Rugby Union was formed. Essentially blue collar, it has never been a club of glamour, thriving rather on a siege mentality, an esprit de corps which has been their enduring hallmark over the years.
None of this mattered to me then of course, nothing mattered much at all, as long as there was Hodgson at full back. He played fifteen times for Wales (it should have been thirty). He was a thorn in the side of whoever Neath played. Coming from the ground the opposition would bemoan the fact that they made him look good by “Kicking the ball down his throat”. The reason of course, was that with a sense of positioning that was uncanny, he was to be found wherever they kicked the ball. His catching was faultless and his screw kicking perfect (he was later recruited to coach J.P.R Williams in the art).
Years later, when, in rugby terms he was old and I was young I actually played against him.
I have always regretted not telling him on that day what an influence he had been on me, but a combination of shyness and embarrassment meant that I let the moment pass. It didn’t seem to me, in those days, to be the right thing to do.
When I recreate the scenario now, I wish I could have sought him out in a quiet corner, just to say how much I had enjoyed and appreciated his career. As it was he never knew he was my hero, and I lacked the moral fortitude to tell him.
He had spoken to me only once, in the showers after the game, “Hey mate, chuck over the soap”, it was the only pass I ever saw him drop.