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Hard Men of Rugby

by Adam Howarth, Editor
Hard Men of Rugby book cover

John Upton “Hard Men of Rugby” – a book review by our regular contributor, John Morris.

In all sporting activities, there are individual performers who not only display high-level skills, but also belief and motivation. The best ones possess a determined mindset with an inner voice that drives them on and, of course, physicality. 

Lively and Fiery

Luke Upton

It is this final attribute that Luke Upton spotlights in his book “Hard Men of Rugby” as the key characteristic of rugby union’s hard men. And, largely free from the confines of the commitments the modern professional game demands, many were as lively off the pitch as they were fiery on it. One of the best examples is the frankly astonishing life story of Robert Mayne (there’s a further mention of him in a little while) – read more about him here and here.

These are players who never take a backward step or shirk a physical challenge. Luke has written an entertaining, enthralling and memory-evoking book involving his choice of the game’s hardest men. It will be interesting to see if readers of Love Wrexham Magazine agree with his choices!

Nigel Owens

I am sure that all readers, whether as players or spectators, will be able to conjure up names of local hard men who have played for Wrexham, Rhosllanerchrugog or Gogledd Cymru.  However, the level of hardness at international and representative rugby is at a far more fearsome level.  In an excellent foreword, Nigel Owens, the outstanding Welsh referee, draws a distinction between the “hard” player and the “dirty” player.

I am certain that before the increased use of technology and the citing commissioner, thuggery in certain games was rampant. To his credit, the author gives no credence to mindless thugs, cheats or cowards. His focus is only on those highly-skilled players who combined this with physical and mental toughness. In addition, of course, to a burning desire and determination to succeed.

The stories, taken from a range of eras, illustrate the physical strength and hardness of players at international level.    Many developed immense strength by toiling in their place of work. Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads (lock; 55 caps for New Zealand, 1955-71) was a farmer and Bobby Windsor, “The Duke” (hooker; 28 caps for Wales, 1973-9), a steelworker. Others were naturally physical warriors such as Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne, “The Irish Lion” (lock; six caps for Ireand, 1937-9), Brian Thomas (lock; 21 caps for Wales, 1963-9) and Sébastien Chabal (no 8; 62 caps for France, 2000-2011).

Nostalgic, Humorous and Thought-Provoking

The author contrasts these men with modern-day players such as Martin Johnson (lock; 84 caps for England, 1993-2003), Alun Wyn Jones (lock; 140 caps for Wales, 2006-?) and Scott Gibbs, “Car Crash” (inside centre; 53 caps for Wales). Contrastingly, they developed their physical presence in the gym using weight training and strength and endurance exercise.

In a well-researched and easy-to-read book, Luke takes the reader on a journey which is nostalgic, humorous and thought-provoking. The exploits of Trevor Brennan, Gerard Cholley, Weary Dunlop and the physical tackling strength of players such as Jerry Collins and Jaques Burger will stay long in the memory. Additionally, Sir Ian McGeechan talks about players such as Gibbs, who are never prepared to be second and have an animal instinct for “control”.

Championship Winning Tackle

Each reader will have their own special moment or incident that the mention of “hardness” will conjure up.  I reflected on Wayne Shelford’s tackling, Gibb’s battering-ram (and subtle) try against England and Willie John  McBride and his “99” call on the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. However, for me, the outstanding hard man was JPR Williams (full back; 55 caps for Wales, 1969-81). His tackle on Jean-François Gourdon in 1976 effectively won the Grand Slam for Wales!

In conclusion, read and enjoy this excellent book as it rekindles so many memories of “hard men of rugby”.

About the Reviewer

John T Morris graduated from Aberystwyth University. His thesis in physical education was on the relationship between aerobic and anaerobic power. He was also a fitness and weight-training instructor in Queens Park for 28 years, fitness coach for Wrexham Rugby Club, North Wales Under 21 squad and an advisory coach with the WRU.

John specialises in improving personal performance levels, motivation, determination and resilience.

About the Author of ‘Hard Men of Rugby’

Born and bred in South Wales, Luke Upton now works as a business journalist in London. He co-runs the rugby humour profile @notgavhenson on Twitter. This regularly amusing account has over 41,000 followers, including a large portion of the Wales rugby squad. Upton is also the author of the hilarious satirical rugby novel ‘Absolutely Huge’.

Bibliographic Information

Title: Hard Men of Rugby
Author: Luke Upton
Edition: illustrated
Publisher: Y Lolfa, 2020
ISBN: 1912631288, 9781912631285
Length: 224 pages

Available from Amazon, Waterstones and Google.

QR code for ‘Hard Men of Rugby’

About the Publisher

Lolfa was established in the mid-sixties, a period of fun and protest when a new generation of Welsh youth were demanding official and unofficial status for their language. Welsh books at the time were pretty dull and it was Y Lolfa’s vision to create a new kind of publishing that would be lively, colourful and provocative. All the while taking advantage of the artistic freedom provided by the new, small offset litho printing process.

The company’s name, Y Lolfa (‘The Lounge’ or ‘fun-place’), derives from Lol (meaning ‘fun’ or ‘nonsense’, the satirical magazine it published). Thereafter, the company gradually expanded from funny cards and political posters into more popular publishing. This publishing included light Welsh-language tutors (Welsh is Fun has sold over 250,000 copies!). It then ventured into contemporary novels, sports and factual books. It also features children’s books by original Welsh artists and authors.


Y Lolfa Cyf, Talybont, Ceredigion, Cymru SY24 5HE
Tel: 01970 832 304

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