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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 16:40 GMT
David Watkins: The long road home
In the second part of BBC Sport Online's interview with David Watkins, he tells of challenges and triumphs in league, the return to Wales, Newport's revival and the state of Welsh rugby.
David Watkins had enjoyed an explosive start to his rugby league career, but things were about to get a lot more difficult.
"It was a bit like the Iestyn Harris thing in reverse. It was so physical and so tough. There was resentment at my signing-on fee.
"In my first two seasons I broke my nose four times, fractured my ribs and broke my jaw and they were all off-the-ball incidents.
"I remember being pole-axed in a game against Leigh. I got up and asked the ref what he was going to do about it. He said 'Hey, son, you've been paid enough to look after yourself'!"
After three seasons of struggle, new Salford coach Cliff Evans decided to give him more time and space by switching him to centre. The move was an immediate success.
Watkins was also asked to take over goal-kicking responsibilities, and he did it so well that he broke all the club's scoring records. In 13 seasons in league he scored over 1,000 points, gained 16 Welsh caps and captained his country 14 times.
Watkins played six times for Great Britain, taking the ultimate challenge of the Ashes tour to Australia in 1974 - and repeating the feat as player-coach in 1976.
He switched to full-back in the final years of his career, finally finishing with Salford in 1979 before playing one season with Swinton.
Returning to Wales in 1981, Watkins was the driving force behind the Cardiff Blue Dragons rugby league club.
Playing out of Ninian Park, Watkins' influence helped attract the likes of Steve Fenwick, Tom David, Paul Ringer and Brynmor Williams, but in 1984 the experiment ended as the league code found it had shallow roots in the valleys.
"It was hard work. There was a 'them and us' situation between league and union and we had to bring a lot of players from the north of England.
"If people were seen training with the Blue Dragons and they didn't make it there was no way back for them in union.
"The Welsh public are finding it hard to empathise with the current league team as they don't know the players. I hope they can get behind them and support the boys, though - it's a big game coming up against New Zealand."
They were able to attract new players and investors, the coup de grace coming when they persuaded Tony Brown to take over the club.
There have been playing problems this season, but off the field the club is a remarkable success.
By advocating a community approach to rugby they have developed a family atmosphere at the club, with entertainment at the tented village on match days helping to attract full houses.
Through the Gateway scheme, rugby has been taken into the community, with 1000s of local children signing on with the club and gaining the chance to meet their heroes.
Watkins is confident that the traditional club game is the way forward for Wales and that talk of provincial rugby and super clubs should be dismissed.
"People who talk about that know nothing about the game. The truth of the matter is we don't have many good players and have lost our natural flair.
"Too many rugby players only think of how much they're being paid. We have to stamp out professionalism below the premier division. When we see the small sides like Oakdale struggling to raise teams you have to fear for the grassroots of our game.
"We should put time and effort into the clubs. The union needs to get up off its backside and make sure the finance is in place."
Watkins has also been an outspoken critic of Wales' recruitment of New Zealand coaches Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
"People at the clubs know what the Welsh game is about and you'd think that Steve Hansen would want to get them on his side. We should all be pushing in the same direction but that's not happening, there's no dialogue.
"We pay too much and the money should be put back into our game."
Perhaps the answer is in financing and the structure of the game, but many Welsh fans will fear that the country is just not producing the natural talent that used to flood out of mining communities like Blaina.
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