The Six Nations tournament requires a formidable Welsh team. It is a reflection of our nation’s prowess.
This week, there was a clear example of life imitating art in a tragic way. In the morning, disaster struck when a worker, Ron, accidentally shattered the solid gold mold that was used to create a statue of Barry John, a renowned Welsh rugby player. The remaining legends of Welsh rugby are dwindling in number, and traveling up the Rhondda Valley to visit the beloved poet Max Boyce feels like a meaningful journey for the entire country.
Glynneath’s beloved son has beautifully captured the emotions of being a fan of Wales. Only two Welshmen have been honored with statues, and even the legendary Sir Gareth Edwards humbly acknowledges his place in comparison. During a special tribute show for his 80th birthday on BBC Wales, actor Michael Sheen accurately described him as an essential part of understanding Welsh identity.
For example, here’s a still-perfect snapshot of the atmosphere in Llanelli before the 9-3 victory against New Zealand in October 1972. The stores were closed as if it were Sunday and the streets were eerily quiet. Those who chose not to attend were either deceased or unwell. And who can forget the iconic words spoken after Wales defeated England in London in 1999. We bid farewell to Wembley and this foreign climate. Next year, we will be back in Cardiff – as long as they finish the construction on time. Rumor has it, the stadium will have a retractable roof that can be opened. They will slide it back when Wales is on the attack, so even God can witness our game.
If Max declares it, it must be unquestionable. During the peak of his popularity, he held the top spot on the UK album charts in November 1975, surpassing Elton John and Roxy Music. It is highly probable that he will have another successful concert series in Cardiff this year. Therefore, it is quite unexpected to see him waiting in his wife’s car at Glynneath RFC, ready to give a ride to a nearby restaurant, as he had previously mentioned the Neath Guardian in his writing.
Having lunch with Boyce in this area is comparable to entering a cafe in Liverpool with Sir Paul McCartney. Before the menus have even arrived, he begins to share his stories. For instance, he once told me about the late and great JPR Williams, who played for Tondu in his 50s and got a bad cut that needed stitches. It is said that he took the sponge used to clean his wound and framed it at home.
On a Saturday, the person underwent a quadruple heart surgery that was necessary to save their life. This happened to be the same day that Wales was playing a Test in South Africa. When the person woke up from the eight-hour operation, their South African surgeon informed them that Wales was losing 14-6. However, the good news was that they were playing better in the second half.
Ah, the classics. Even those of us who were raised in England have his words ingrained in our minds. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, lies his renowned Outside-Half Factory, with flags lowered to half-mast. With England approaching at Twickenham this Saturday, however, its leader is not willing to disclose the factory’s current efficiency. “It’s confidential. We are unable to reveal too much at this time.”
Currently, his chicken wings have been delivered and we have been transported to a different era. Boyce’s father passed away in a mine explosion one month before his birth, and his own son also spent a significant period of time working in the mines, which greatly influenced his character. However, one night, a producer from EMI witnessed him impressively performing as the opening act for Ken Dodd, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nowadays, Max is a big admirer of Peter Kay, praising him as a talented storyteller. However, in the 1970s, Peter’s style of comedy was just as beloved. Max recalls that at one point, their show had 20 million viewers, surpassing even the popular soap opera Coronation Street. In a time when there were only two TV channels available, Max jokes that if the other channel didn’t have anything good on, viewers were stuck watching him.
During the Covid pandemic, he unexpectedly gained popularity with a poem titled “When Just The Tide Went Out.” I vividly recall one dream as the stars started to fall, where Banksy was painting Alun Wyn on my neighbor’s garage wall. It’s no surprise that the Welsh Rugby Union wants him to bring more nostalgic joy to the Principality Stadium. Let’s all sing together: “Hymns and Arias,” “Land of our Fathers,” and “Ar hyd y nos.”
Twenty-five years ago, at the opening ceremony of the 1999 World Cup or on the memorable afternoon at Wembley, the unofficial national sporting anthem was sung louder than ever before. “I recall the English team warming up and the ball bouncing near me. Matt Dawson approached to retrieve it, glanced up, and said: ‘My mother is a fan of yours’.”
Max remembers seeing the replay of Scott Gibbs’ unforgettable try on the large screen in Cardiff six years after it happened. “The entire stadium fell silent, anxiously awaiting Neil Jenkins’ conversion,” Max recalls. “The woman sitting next to me said, ‘I can’t watch.’ I reassured her, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t miss.’ But she replied, ‘You never know.'”
When it comes to new content, there is potential in Louis Rees-Zammit’s transition to American football. Max has already experienced the sport, having trained with the Dallas Cowboys for a Channel 4 program in the 1980s. Despite being 42 years old at the time, he was not spared from physical contact and faced a challenge in marking an opponent nearly 7 feet tall named Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones. Max recalls being lifted by Jones as if he were a child.
What are LRZ’s odds of success? “I believe he will succeed. He possesses speed, courage, and good hand-eye coordination. His departure is a loss to not only Welsh rugby, but to the sport as a whole. If he needs any guidance on American football, he can call me.”
Max is deeply devoted to the dragonhood and expresses his love for the Six Nations. He admits to experiencing withdrawal when the tournament ends and proudly boasts of witnessing five Welsh grand slams. Max maintains his position as the president of Glynneath RFC and eagerly anticipates the club’s upcoming WRU Division 1 Cup semi-final against Mountain Ash. He acknowledges the special bond of brotherhood in rugby and highlights the club’s five junior teams, which hold immense potential.
Is he of the belief that rugby still holds the same strong attraction in his home country? “It will return. It’s ingrained in our DNA. And the Six Nations requires a formidable Welsh team. It represents our nation… maybe it holds more significance for us than we realize. It sets us apart.
The rugby club is the central and essential part of our village. This is true for all the other towns in the valley as well. While pubs and banks may have shut down, the rugby club has remained a constant presence. It plays a crucial role in the social life of the village.
After lunch – en route to pay homage to his statue – we drive back past the former local cricket ground. His career highlight came in a charity game when he found himself bowling (“I didn’t come off my full run initially …”) to the incomparable Vivian Richards. His first delivery went into orbit – “They found bits of the ball later … apparently it broke up on re-entry” – but he had the last laugh via a blinding catch by another much-missed Welsh fly-half, Phil Bennett. IVA Richards c Bennett b Boyce. Feed me ’til I want no more.
Before departing towards Pontypridd and beyond through the grey and damp valley, there is a chance for one final playful inquiry. Can he now contact the WRU and ask for as many tickets as he desires? “I attempted once before, but they told me six Max Boyces had already called.”
Thank you, Max, and may the legendary Welsh rugby players always be remembered.