By Craig Muncey
Dafydd James was a prominent star in rugby union. 48 times capped for Wales, three test appearances for the British and Irish Lions, a Grand Slam winner and at the time, the try-scoring record holder in The Heineken European Cup is just some of the highlights over a career that spanned 15 years. Then through injury, his career came to an abrupt end. What would he do next? Dafydd James would have trials to overcome, but as in his rugby career, Dafydd would overcome those tribulations, and this is his story.
I started the interview by asking Dafydd about the start of his senior rugby career, and did he feel pressurised by coaches to become a professional rugby player? He responded, “At a young age I always aspired to play at top-level and had a visualisation of myself playing for Wales on many occasions as do most young children. It was never a thought until I was 16/17 years old that I could and would like to play in a first-class team. I never felt any pressure growing up playing rugby, just the thought of playing gave me a sense of excitement and huge enjoyment. I just loved playing the game in every spare moment.”
Dafydd started playing senior rugby for Kenfig Hill before moving to Bridgend in 1995. How did the move to professional rugby transpire? “I had a season playing for Kenfig Hill. I was restricted from leaving the club by Alan Phillips and denied by the club management to join Neath, who were a strong side, this was a real disappointment for me. However, it was a blessing as it gave me a firmer understanding of senior rugby and it was a great apprenticeship in which I relished playing all across South Wales learning the tricks of the trade so to speak. The summer of 1995, I was allowed to leave Kenfig Hill for my childhood team Bridgend. Initially, I was on the bench and was awaiting my chance, and within a few games things fell into place, and I had a few games under my belt and became a fixture in the Bridgend backline.”
After just one season with Bridgend, Dafydd was selected for the Welsh tour to Australia and was selected for the second test, coming on as a replacement to make his international debut. I asked him to talk me through his memories from his first appearance for Wales in an international. “I played in Blackwood one year, and within a space of a year, I was playing in Sydney, Australia for Wales. It was a surreal experience,’ Dafydd pronounced. “On the tour, I was told by various people from the media that I would be a backup player for the tests. However, the games leading up to the tests allowed me to continue on a good vein of form. The debut was with me starting on the bench and being a bag of nerves, it all seemed a bit of a haze” Dafydd confided, “However, Ieuan Evans said he would come off for me in the latter part of the game, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Nigel Davies was replaced, and I took the field in the midfield which was a dream come true and a very nerve-racking experience, immensely proud and huge buzz and sense of fulfilment. It capped off a great year and one which will be etched in my mind for a lifetime.” Dafydd said proudly.
During his international career, Dafydd played under several Welsh coaches, starting with Kevin Bowring and ending with Gareth Jenkins. I asked where the coaches very different in styles, and was there one, in particular, he enjoyed working with? “As with most businesses, when a new executive comes into the fray, then they have their own ideas and game plan they wish to adopt. Each coach I had was different from their man-management styles down to their preparation and attention to detail. Kevin Bowring was a good coach and very structured; however, he couldn’t get the best out of players regularly, perhaps due to the players we had at the time.” Dafydd admitted. He then went onto say. “Graham Henry was the most expansive coach and the one I enjoyed playing under the most, purely as he wanted a high tempo game where the intensity and ball in play time were higher and all-round a more enjoyable brand of rugby. I also have huge respect for Mike Ruddock, he was meticulous and diligent in allowing Wales to have our first Grand Slam in many years through grunt and team ethos.”
At this stage, we discussed the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2001 which Dafydd played in all three tests, scoring a try in the first. The Lions played some sparkling rugby on that tour, but ultimately in the test series came up just short. What is Dafydd’s recollections of that time? “The tour was the pinnacle, and certainly a lifelong dream fulfilled, albeit I never really focused on playing for the Lions it was more so for Wales.’ He added, “The tour was exciting, and it was a huge opportunity to meet and begin friendships with the three other nations, respectively. The intensity and professionalism were something I relished and enjoyed immensely. The squad that was assembled and toured Australia was fantastic and really was something to behold. The rugby was scintillating, and our attention to fine detail was shown by the first three matches that showed we meant business. The buzz, excitement and euphoria of such a great and prestigious rugby team was something exceptional.”
As a player, Dafydd often played either centre or wing, and I was interested in getting his thoughts on what was his favourite position, and is it a regret to him that he was moved regularly between the two? Dafydd response was candid. “My favourite position was outside centre, and that is where I could have more time on the ball and cause as many problems for the opposition as possible. I loved playing rugby, so any opportunity to play was a great feeling however on the wing I did feel that there was not enough ball and it also depended on who was the partnership in the midfield. Graham Henry and Sir Clive Woodward wanted me to play in the midfield, as it gave me more time and to try to create space for my outside backs. Nevertheless, I enjoyed and had fun just playing the game.”
We progressed away from the playing aspect of rugby union. We moved into the subject of injuries cropping up and how, as an individual, you overcome these spells on the sidelines, and the pressure to return to playing as a professional rugby player. Dafydd detailed, “The nature of the game is that from time to time you will get an injury but hopefully not too serious. I had several big injuries in the course of my career and one which almost paralysed the left side arm was one that sticks out.” Dafydd shockingly advised, “I stretched a nerve in the shoulder and had palsy of the left shoulder which was extremely uncomfortable and restrictive. I was forced to play for the Celtic Warriors at the time or threatened that the then owner, Leighton Samuel would terminate my contract. It was horrendous and very worrying and needless to say I could not give my full 100%. Being injured as a professional player is no fun, and from a self-pride standpoint, you become very hard on yourself and crave to get back playing as quickly as possible.”
As Dafydd had brought up the Celtic Warriors, I felt obliged to ask him about the move to regional rugby in Wales in 2003, and his time in the now-defunct team. I questioned did he think the move was the correct one, and also about the demise of the Celtic Warriors. Dafydd openly expressed his views “I think there had to be something done as the game was not sustainable in Wales. We, as a nation, wasn’t able to compete financially with the more affluent nations of the game.” Damningly, he went on, “I think the handling of the Celtic Warriors was appalling and it saw the end of any sort of valley connections with the teams, which is a massive shame. 15/16 years on and the regional rugby game has not ignited any ambition.” He went on with is view on regional rugby, “Unfortunately, as we are very parochial in Wales it is reflected by small crowds, and unfortunately a lack of interest. I believe grassroots rugby has taken the hit since regional rugby began and we see many great village teams from various valleys struggling now to field teams or even disband. This is a huge shame for the game.”
We transferred our thoughts onto the end of his playing career due to injury at the end of 2010. A painful realisation for any rugby player. Dafydd recalled that miserable episode, “I was not ready to retire and still had a year and a half playing contract with a potential of another year and felt in great form. However, that decision was taken away from myself, and as a player that is not good.” Dafydd evoked his feelings, “Resentment and anger are all I can say, and it had a massive impact on my new life.”
Forced to retire from the game he loved had a considerable impact on Dafydd and his mental health. In early 2019 in some high profiled interviews, he courageously admitted the challenges he was facing. I asked Dafydd why did he disclose the details at that juncture, and how has he battled to overcome those fears? Dafydd revealed, “I’ve struggled with mental health and dark thoughts for years and only recently mentioned it in an interview.’ His passionate feelings continued, “The termination of my playing contract and being discarded like waste material certainly didn’t do anything for me and my health. There were and are several factors that maybe one day I will share through a book, but it was an accumulation of these reasons that led to the final straw that broke the camel’s back. I am fortunate that Hafal mental health charity reached out to me and have been the only organisation to do so.’ He continued, “Unfortunately, that also has left me questioning my former professional career and lack of support. I have now become an Ambassador for Hafal so that I can support other people across Wales who are struggling with their mental health and offer them some much-needed support.”
Dafydd’s upfront and honest answer to the question made me very thoughtful over others who might also be in similar predicaments. Clearly, Dafydd feels there is so much more that can be done to support people. People who are reading this who may also be facing similar thoughts and fears, should know they are not alone and that there are individuals and organisations who can assist. Thanks to Dafydd for his honesty and being so approachable for this interview. I wish him every success in the future and with his role as an Ambassador with Hafal.
Hafal’s website address is https://www.hafal.org/ if you need any support, people are there to assist you.