What made Carwyn James such an outstanding rugby coach?
During his time as a rugby reporter for the South Wales Evening Post, which appeared to span the early Ice Age through the beginning of the regional era, Norman Lewis, who passed away recently, was the subject of the question. Lewis was a man who knew almost everything there was to know about Llanelli RFC.
“How much time do you have?” I asked Norm in response.
“He was a cut above in almost every way.”
Having said that, few people actually knew James.
His depth and complexity could still only be gleaned from the phrase “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It was once said of this son of Cefneithin who crammed a lot into his tragically brief life—including working for MI5 as a spy on the Russians during the Cold War—that “he was the man everyone knew — and no-one knew.”
This week marks forty years since his apparent death from a heart attack in a hotel room in Amsterdam. He was only 53.
Despite the fact that he lived in less enlightened times, no one doubted that he was gay. A lot of people have settled on writing that he struggled with his sexual identity all the way to the end.
But what an avant-garde rugby coach he was, who encouraged players to use their minds as much as their muscles and compiled dossiers on opponents before it was fashionable to do so. He would follow us behind whenever we passed the ball down the line during practice, harassing us and yelling, Think! Think! Think!’,” Barry John wrote once.
James believed that the psychological aspect of rugby was the most important aspect of the sport, even though everything started with the fundamentals. He outlasted the All Blacks on the Lions’ tour of New Zealand in 1971 and against Llanelli in 1972.
He had an advantage because of the little things. Before telling Phil Bennett which direction to play if he won the toss.
He would sometimes call the Met Office before games to find out the expected wind direction for later that evening. He would encourage players to express themselves rather than instruct them, coaxing them. However, they were in the presence of greatness, and everyone would have known that.
Why wasn’t he in charge of Wales?
The coach had been given the role of chairman of selectors and the authority to select his own committee by Llanelli. James was said to have been prepared to be considered for the position of coaching Wales under those conditions. It did not occur. It is said that some members of the Welsh Rugby Union thought he was too much of an individualist. This intellectual from the west could speak Russian fluently, enjoyed poetry and classical music, and was just as comfortable talking about Dylan Thomas as he was about Delme Thomas. He also enjoyed Bach’s music almost as much as he enjoyed Benny’s play.
In any case, Alun Gibbard, one of his biographers, who conducted over a hundred interviews for the book Into The Wind: According to The Life of Carwyn, James was simply worn out by 1974 due to the success of that decade’s early years.
He was alone, without a shadow of a doubt.
The late Bennett often talked about a time when he and Gareth Jenkins dropped James off where he lived in Cardiff and he invited them to have a drink with him. It was 3 a.m. Benny reflected that Carwyn’s voice conveyed a sense of desperation, despite the fact that they had work in the morning. A man with a deep interest in literature, politics, art, history, people, and rugby clearly lacked companionship in his life.
The great fly-half thought he was the most lonely man in the world.
However, his spirit of generosity and wisdom were always with him.
Frank Keating, a Guardian writer who is sadly no longer with us, once recalled how he had conversations with James on certain trips during international weekends after Carwyn had entered the journalism field. The valuable pieces of information that had been shared would then be incorporated into Keating’s reports for the newspaper on Monday. When he phoned over the copy one time, he heard a subeditor commend him for his superior oval-ball knowledge, saying something along the lines of: Bravo, he knows what he’s doing, Frank. That tale would have delighted James.