Interview with Mark Ring
Y Ddraig is delighted that Mark Ring of Cardiff, Pontypool and Wales fame has agreed to an interview with us to share his thoughts on his career an the game he loved today.
Mark was a player that delighted thousands of fans in his career, his skills were on another level and he was never afraid to try something different. A true entertainer.
1/ You made your full senior debut for Cardiff as an 18-year-old against Biarritz in France where a certain Serge Blanco was also playing. What do you remember about that game and that experience?
The game was not against Biarritz. It was against a regional xv from The Basque area, called Cotes Des Basques. I recall my delight and amazement at being called up for the Tour following Cardiff Youth’s Welsh Cup Final win v Newport Youth at Caerphilly, the previous Wednesday and I was on the plane on Thursday with all my idols. Glyn Davies started at full back but came off at half-time with an injury. Julian O’Brien moved back from fly half and I came on at fly-half. I felt confident and from my first touch, I decided to kick back against the grain over the head of their right winger. I ‘duffed’ the kick and it went straight into his hands. He ran 60m along the right touchline showing explosive speed. We scrambled across defensively to save the score! However, that same winger went on to score 3 tries.
His name was Serge Blanco who was about to embark on an incredible career as a world star. Perhaps I played a small part in sending him on his way! There was a lot of fighting during an ugly encounter, which they won something like 26–6. As I recall, the front row of Alun Edwards, Jose Souto and Bob Newman stood toe to toe slugging it out with the opposition for the vast majority of the game.
2/ You had many successes whilst playing for Cardiff including 3 Welsh Cup Finals and a victory against the fantastic Australia side in 1984. Is there only one particular game during your period with Cardiff that stands out?
That Australia game in 1984 has to be right up there. Despite gaining an incredible victory to maintain the proud (Cardiff RFC) record of never having lost against them in the club’s history, they went on to prove what a great side they were by winning every test match on the tour. I won my 2nd cap against them and they were quite magnificent.
At one point, Mark Ella was running towards me (Roger Gould outside him) but in between the touchline and the 5m line. There was no way he could draw me and create space in such a narrow area, as several Wales players were at my inside shoulder, so I could push across and take Gould into touch. What happened next left me astounded and in awe of Mark Ella! He switched the ball from 2 hands into his right hand, then grabbed my shirt with his left hand and dragged me towards him, whilst freeing Gould down the left touchline with a soft offload from behind my back! Pure genius!
3/ You left Cardiff to join Pontypool in 1987 after 4 years at The Arms Park, was there a particular reason why you decided to move?
I decide to move because I was a Junior Civil Servant (Clerical Assistant) in Companies House and earning very little money. Having gained my first Cap in 1983, I felt like I was being taken for granted, as other players from outside Cardiff appeared to be increasingly ‘well looked after’ by influential CRFC members, with free accommodation and well-paid jobs etc… I didn’t intend to join Pontypool. I was in talks with London Welsh. I spent a day there where I was offered a rent-free ground floor flat with a garden backing on to the River Thames. I spent an afternoon with a careers expert who informed me I fitted into a ‘Social’ bracket so there was an opportunity to go to University for 1 year to complete a 4 Year course, where I would qualify to run a Leisure Leisure Centre. This was possible because I would be assisted by the person who designed the original course for the University! Having pretty much made up my mind to move to London, on my return David Bishop approached me, having heard I was leaving Cardiff. He asked me to attend a training session at Pontypool Park. I just liked the place as it was filled with passion from a ridiculous amount of supporters who turned up just to watch training. They offered me the chance to play at fly-half which has always been my favoured position and teaming up with Bish who was a boyhood idol of mine proved to be too good an opportunity to turn down.
Looking back it certainly wasn’t the best career move but a great Rugby one. One thing I will never forget is when I met Ray Prosser for the first time. He said he was baffled as to why a Cardiff lad would leave a great Club like Cardiff to join a Valley club. When I tried to explain my reasons he just muttered some words from the Bible referring to…. ‘a Prophet hath no honour in his own land.”
4/ In 1983 as a 20-year-old, you made your debut for Wales against the old enemy England. What do you remember about your debut?
My debut was a massive anti-climax! All I had ever dreamed of just wasn’t there. I only touched the ball on 4 occasions. I was caught ball watching and in the wrong position for an England try. We were losing the match until late in the game when we scrambled a draw and finished the game close to their try line with England clinging on to prevent the score which would have been the game clincher.
Just before the end Terry Holmes looked up and saw I was stood in the fly-half channel as a potential first receiver. There was only one thing on my mind, which was to attempt what would have been the match-winning drop goal. Terry changed his mind and played it to the short side. I often wondered what could (or could not) have been?? Holmesy probably thought I was too inexperienced and played it safe. He may have been right as I was not selected originally and came in at the last moment when Rob Ackerman was injured. I was 12st 4lbs and played my last International at 14st 4lbs!
I shared a room at The Angel Hotel with Terry and he told me how fast the game would be. That it would be over before I knew it. He was absolutely spot on. It was as if I’d blinked and the Ref blew the final whistle. The other thing I remember is I wanted to be inspired and motivated but the captain. Eddie Butler was more of a calm talker who chose his words carefully so that was another minor disappointment to me. The other thing I recall is Gareth Davies’ dad calling at my hotel room. Terry wasn’t there and he was surprised I answered the door as Gareth had always shared with Terry.
Obviously, the selectors had decided I could call on Terry’s experience on that occasion. Gareth’s dad had brought some homemade Welsh Cakes cooked by his mum, for Terry and Gareth to share, as they’d done so often in the past. I sensed his disappointment Terry and Gareth were in different rooms which made me feel guilty in a way!
5/ In total you won 32 caps for Wales, playing in 2 World Cup’s and also winning a Triple Crown in 1988. Is there one match in particular you felt was your best performance for your country?
Yes. I played against France at Parc Des Princes in 1985. We lost but it was quite close and I made several breaks from long range making significant yardage. Unfortunately, there was one occasion when my closest support player happened to be a Prop (who shall remain nameless) who failed to pick a pass to keep the move alive.
Something similar happened against the Australian tourists in 1984. The same prop turned up on my shoulder. A simple offload to his left and Gareth Davies would have cantered in. He didn’t look! I was pleased to be invited by the French players to one of the sponsors after match functions, which ran on until the early hours of Sunday morning. I must have played well as they only ever invited a few players from the opposition. It was a very select group. A few years later I went along with Jonathan Davies, Robert Jones and Ieuan Evans. Say no more!
6/ During your career, you played with many characters such as Alan Phillips, Chris Huish, Glen Webbe, Steve Jones and David Bishop. Was there one character you played with that stands out and why?
Glenn Webbe stands out not just for his ability but also his humour and loyalty as a Cardiff lad who stood close to me throughout our time with the various squads.
On one Tour to New Zealand, Webbey spotted prop forward Jeremy Pugh, leaving the changing rooms after the game with a patch over his left eye after we played Hawkes Bay. Pughey, not the best-looking prop forward, by any means, would often be wound up by the boys (even his own teammates), who would call him ‘Piggy” Pugh. Webbey quickly ran to Tudor Jones (Physio) and asked for the medical bag. Before you knew it he had me on his shoulders, whilst I carefully put a large white eye patch on the left eye of this huge stuffed Hairy Boar’s head which held pride of place in the main Clubhouse where we were eating.
Next thing I knew Piggy swung for me before Webbey intervened to cool things off. Webbey explained to Piggy this shouldn’t happen as it sets the wrong tone for a Wales Touring squad to be scrapping with each other in the confines of an NZ Provinces Clubhouse. So he asked us to shake hands and make up. As Piggy raised his hand to shake mine, Webbey said “I heard you call Ringy a Cardiff — — . Now I’m from Cardiff, so you shake my hand first. At which point Webbey offered his hand with 4 fingers (2×2) stuck together with a (V-SHAPE) gap in the middle to emulate a pair of trotters, at which point it all kicked off again!
7/ Have you been watching The British and Irish Lions on their current tour, and have you been surprised or disappointed by their performances?
I’ve not been surprised by the Lions performances as Steve Hanson was correct in my view when he described Warren Gatland as predictable. Despite scoring 2 tries to nil in the second test, I thought the Lions got lucky. Beauden Barrett missed some straightforward kicks, which would have put them several scores clear before the Lions had any foothold in the game.
The inclement weather was very much in the Lions favour as this prevented the All Blacks from offloading as they had done in the 1st Test. Sonny Bill’s sending off would never have happened 3 or 4 years ago and slow motion replays often make the impact look worse than it was. Sometimes I think the game has gone soft! By the letter of the law, Vunipola’s use of the elbow was not too dissimilar to Sonny Bill’s use of the shoulder, in which case he should have seen red too!
The International lawmakers should be exposed on social media as the idiots who are killing our game, when you see penalty decisions (which ultimately decided the result of the game) awarded against that poor prop, found guilty of tackling in the air when his opposite number jumped into the air to readjust after a poor pass almost went behind him. Having said all that, I am really pleased the series is still very much alive for the sakes of all those fantastic supporters who have worked their socks off to save up for their trip of a lifetime to support The Lions. Their support has been unbelievable and they’ve been a real credit by providing so much vocal support in pouring out their passion by the bucket load.
8/ Has the game of rugby improved since professionalism, or are players now scared to try something different due to the pressure of winning and losing and the finances that come with that?
Yes and No!! The game in some parts has improved enormously. As a Coach, I have learned so much from striving to source the simple logic behind some of the New Zealand structures, which underpin their game plan. More so I startle at the simplicity of their running lines and pass accuracy and how NZ forwards have the same passing ability as their backs.
Sadly, in the Northern Hemisphere there are too many international backs who do not hold the ball in 2 hands, who can’t get their heads up early enough to see the space, who do not work behind the ball following opposition kicks and who don’t know how to hold the ball correctly when they decide to kick. Obviously they are all gym fit so the power and athleticism is there for all to see but as Barry John once said to me “Ringo, I just don’t understand it, all my life I tried to avoid the contact, yet all I see now are players running into contact as a first option!”……. before he left me with this classic one liner…….”Hey Ringo, have a guess what happened to me once?……”I dropped a ball in training!”
When I was 7 years old a former coach and mentor told me when I am first receiver to “count” I learned to look ahead and count their defenders, then glance over my inside shoulder, then my outside to count my attackers. Coaches use the term ‘scan’ today and think they don’t have to explain the logic behind their “coach speak!”
9/ Not many people may know but during the 1991 tour to Namibia, you captained Wales twice, who was the best captain you had during your career and why?
Undoubtedly the best captain I played under was John Scott. He was tactically astute, a great player and hard in his own right. He had time for the youngsters and believed in all his players. He also had fun with the crowd and his own players during the match and knew instinctively when to switch on and take up the intensity and when to relax in the game. He just gave me the confidence to try things and be expressive but I respected him when he felt I should be brought into line.
Once at Rodney Parade v Newport, he asked the players before we left if we were prepared to put the beer kitty (£200) on a racehorse which he’d been tipped off would win. The majority voted to go for it so Scotty placed the bet. We were losing at half time and not playing well. When Scotty called us into the halftime ‘huddle’ we were expecting a severe telling off. Next thing he says “ Lads, the fecking horse has won at 8/1!” We kicked off 2nd half and turned the game around completely. I can’t remember the final scoreline but we won comfortably enough, for sure.
10/ Who was the best player you played with and or against and why?
Probably the best player I played with would be a tight call between Terry Holmes and David Bishop. I’d lean slightly towards Bish because I combined with him at half back when I had the most enjoyable season of my life. I saw him do some incredible things that year. The Pontypool pack was on a slight decline, I’d say but Bish got everything out of them every game and carried them often enough. He had that knack of scoring an unbelievable individual try when we were under severe pressure.
I read in The Observer once, an article written by Clive Rowlands that Robert Jones’ service was much quicker than Bish and that’s why he should be selected ahead of him for Wales but having played fly-half to both, I had more time when receiving from Bish as he was such a threat to back rowers who had to stand still with half an eye on him, whilst they would fly early when playing against Rob as he could not mix his game up so well.
The best centre I played against was Warwick Taylor. He had the distinct ability to hold on to the ball for that extra split second prior to making a ‘killer’ pass. When I was very young Mike Murphy had that same flair when forming a unique centre partnership with Pat Daniels at Cardiff but Warwick Taylor took it to a different level. I’m not so sure there is or has been anyone as good since. He’d straighten or drift of a pass, and, later than the norm, could offload a disguised gentle ball to ‘Smokin’ Joe Stanley or Kirwan coming off his blindside wing or rip a flat spin pass to John Gallagher in the blink of an eye.
I learned so much from playing against him, I tried to emulate him when I played. His logic would be to hold onto the ball just long enough for the defensive line to reveal their defensive hand prior to him revealing his attacking hand. Players need ‘balls’ to play like that. These days many of them will ‘bottle’ it, run into someone, jump on the floor and set up a ruck!
The best all round player I ever played against, though would be David Campese. I thought he had the lot. He could probably be World Class in every position behind the scrum, should he wish.
11/ Currently you are coaching St Peters in Cardiff, do you still harbour hopes to coach at a higher level in Wales or elsewhere?
Yes, deep down, I suppose I do but probably in more of a specific role like skills and be there to provide support to the Head Coach re-attack. That said I really enjoy the game at a local level and find much of the top end Welsh game quite boring, Llanelli Scarlets being the exception during the second half of last season.
12/ Terry Holmes and David Bishop were two immensely talented scrum-halves who you managed to play with. Many rugby fans felt Bishop should have had more caps for Wales as was better than Holmes. As someone who played with both, what are your thoughts on the two players?
As previously mentioned. These 2 fantastic players were so hard to split. I used to look across the changing room at Cardiff, see Holmesy sat there and think we won’t get beat today. His vision around the breakdown was astonishing. Despite having the raw power to bust holes most of his breaks were clean, as he’d seen the gap early.
He would not just man handle his opposite number but their entire pack too. Terry was probably the hardest man in our entire squad. None of the forwards would dare pick on him! I often wonder how many times Terry was on the losing side in Cardiff? Not too many I’d have thought.
Bish was just as competitive. What an athlete. I’ve seen him chase down wingers with his sheer will. He could kick with power equally well with both feet and I don’t think I’ve played with any scrum-half with his ability to see things so early. This gave him a huge advantage over the decision-making process when providing the link between forwards and backs. I just consider myself lucky to have played with them both and consider them to be my friends.
13/ Who was the toughest player you played with or against?
The toughest player has to be Buck Shelford, hasn’t it? To have been raked so badly out in France (The Battle of Nantes) or something like that they called it, one of his balls was hanging by a sinew, outside the ‘sack’ only for him to have it pushed back inside, stitched up and return to play the rest of the match.
I played with Robbo (Ian Robinson)- God rest his soul-at the start of my career and towards the end of his. He used to tell me a few horrific stories back in the day when there were no linesmen or limited TV coverage. I always made a B-Line for Robbo in the downstairs bar when he was a Committee man and we used to see each other a lot at The Butcher’s Arms in Rhiwbina. A true legend and a gentleman off the field, it must be said.
14/ What is the funniest thing you have seen on a rugby field?
One of the funniest was when Clive Norling refereed us in the traditional Easter Fixture v The Baa Baas. He ran out with his new ‘Curly Perm’ hair do and as quick as flash the renowned Cardiff RFC ‘heckler’ shouted …”You can’t fool us, we know it’s you, Norling!’
15/ Finally, can you name a rugby 15 by a position of the best players you played with and or against?
15 Jean-Baptiste Lafond
14 Stu Wilson
13 Danie Gerber
12 Warwick Taylor
11 David Campese
10 Mark Ella
9 David Bishop
1 John Ashworth
2 Sean Fitzpatrick
3 Graham Price
4 Martin Johnson
5 Gary Whetton
6 Mark Shaw
7 Michael Jones
8 John Scott (Capt)
Thanks for your valuable time Mark and it has been an absolute pleasure and I am sure people reading this piece are going to love it.