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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 08:25 GMT
David Watkins: The long road north
In BBC Sport Online's weekly rugby union series, David Watkins takes us from his earliest rugby days to his decision to move north to rugby league.
Wales doesn't breed players like David Watkins any more.
A canny, darting fly-half from the mining community of Blaina in north Gwent, Watkins used his sport to expand his horizons and make his name known and respected worldwide.
He didn't start playing until he was 15, but quickly graduated from the Glan-yr-Afon school side to Wales Youth, and at the age of 18 he was playing for the great Newport side of the early '60s.
Brigadier Hughes, the President of the Barbarians Rugby Club, was impressed with the youngster and asked him to play in the Mobbs Memorial game. Players didn't receive the pampering they get in modern days.
"I had to get the bus from Blaina to Newport then find my way on the train to Northampton," remembers Watkins.
"After the match I went to collect my expenses and told the brigadier that I was owed about £2."
"I was asked whether I'd like a Barbarians scarf, blazer and tie, to which, of course, I said 'yes please.'
"The brigadier then informed me that I owed the club 17 and four pence! I didn't have enough money to get the bus back to Blaina and had to phone the secretary of Newport to come and rescue me!"
Watkins became captain of Newport in 1963 and in that season made his Wales debut against England.
He went on to mastermind the Black and Ambers' famous 3-0 win over the 1963 All Blacks.
"All the schools were given holidays and there were over 25,000 people in Rodney Parade," remembers Watkins.
"It was a momentous day, to defeat the best rugby nation in the world. What made it even better was that they went the rest of the tour unbeaten."
In 1964 Watkins was chosen for the world tour of South Africa, then in 1966 came selection for the Lions tour of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
First-choice fly-half for all six Tests, Watkins had contrasting experiences against the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
"Australia was beautiful, we had some great players and became the first Lions side to go through the country undefeated.
"Then we got to New Zealand and the management made a few mistakes. Our first game was in arctic conditions in Southland where we picked a weakened side and went down 14-6."
The tourists went into their shells, a game plan that didn't make best use of the talents of Watkins and Mike Gibson. They were whitewashed in the four-Test series.
Watkins captained the side in two of the Tests, but finished the tour by being laid out by Colin Meads.
"At the end of the tour the All Blacks went to a local grammar school to meet the children. One boy asked Colin why he - as a 6'4 lock - would attack little Dai Watkins.
"He furrowed his brow, looked up and said 'It was bloody self defence!' Colin was totally unrepentant. He just saw me as a little nuisance buzzing around the field and felt quite justified in swatting me!"
"I came back from captaining the Lions only to be unceremoniously dropped for Barry. I got back in later, but it hurt.
"Barry made a marvellous contribution to the 1971 Lions and played very well for two or three years. Without being sour about it, though, that's all he contributed. People like Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were there for 10-15 years."
For years there had been rugby league scouts prowling around Blaina, looking to lure Watkins to the professional ranks in the north of England.
When he was just 18-years old in 1960 he remembers being in the village when his brother came running with the news: "You'd better come home quickly - there are three men there speaking with funny accents!"
The young Watkins returned to his cottage to find an unusual scene: "There was an old Mark 10 Jaguar parked out front - bigger than the bus that used to take me to school!
"In the front room were three St Helens officials trying to convince my father that rugby league is an easier game to play, that it would take me out of the valleys and give me a career.
"Now my father had dreams of me playing for Wales so they weren't getting anywhere until the chairman went back to the car and returned with a briefcase.
"He opened it on the table and there was £5,000 in cash sitting there in front of us. Dad looked round the room before saying: 'Jesus Christ, where do we sign? We'll all come!'"
The offer that was too good to turn down finally came in 1967 when he was lured to Salford for £16,000.
He remembers his debut well: "Salford's average gate was 4,000, but 16,000 were out on the night. I think they came to see that I wouldn't make it! But I did drop two goals and score a try so it couldn't have been all bad!"
Things wouldn't always be so easy in the northern code, though...
PART TWO: Challenges and triumphs in the north, the return to Wales, the Newport revival and the state of Welsh rugby
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