Max Boyce: ‘Six Nations needs a strong Welsh team. It’s a manifestation of the nation’ | Wales rugby union team
If ever there was an instance of life sadly copying art it came this week. Disaster struck this morning / When a fitter’s mate named Ron / Cracked the mould of solid gold / That once made Barry John. Welsh rugby’s surviving legends are shrinking in number and driving up the Rhondda Valley to meet the country’s beloved bard Max Boyce feels like a pilgrimage on behalf of an entire nation.
No one has described how it feels to be a Wales fan more lovingly than Glynneath’s favourite son. Two living Welshmen have a statue erected in their honour and even Sir Gareth Edwards – “He’s indoors, I’m out in the rain” – knows his place. Last year, when BBC Wales celebrated Boyce’s 80th birthday with a special tribute show, the actor Michael Sheen nailed it when he called him “intrinsic to an understanding of ‘Welshness’”.
How about this still-perfect snapshot, for example, of the matchday mood in Llanelli before the 9-3 win against New Zealand in October 1972. The shops were closed like Sunday/ And streets were silent still/ And those that chose to stay away / Were either dead or ill. Or the classic lines after Wales’s 1999 win against England in London. We said farewell to Wembley and to this foreign clime. Next year we’re back in Cardiff – if they finish it on time. They say it’s got a sliding roof that they can move away. They’ll slide it back when Wales attack so God can watch us play.
If Max says so, it must be gospel. At the height of his fame he was No 1 in the UK album charts in November 1975, above Elton John and Roxy Music. Another series of sold-out concerts are likely in Cardiff this year. Which makes it all the more incongruous to find him in his wife’s car at Glynneath RFC, waiting to offer a lift – “I’ve written about the Neath Guardian before …” to a friendly local eaterie.
Lunch with Boyce in these parts is like walking into a Liverpool cafe with Sir Paul McCartney. Barely have the menus arrived before his stories start to flow. Like the time the late, great JPR Williams, playing for Tondu in his 50s, suffered a nasty cut and had to be stitched up by Glynneath’s first aid man. “Legend has it he went home and framed the sponge.”
Then there was the Saturday he went into hospital for life-saving quadruple heart surgery. “It was the same day Wales were playing a Test in South Africa. I came round after an eight-hour operation and my South African surgeon says: ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’ I said: ‘Give me the bad news first.’ He said: ‘Wales are losing 14-6.’ ‘OK, what’s the good news?’ ‘They’re playing much better second half.’”
Ah, the golden oldies. Even those of us who grew up in England have his lyrics etched on our consciousness. Somewhere out there, just over the hill, is his famed Outside-HalfFactory, flags at half mast. With England looming at Twickenham on Saturday, though, its foreman is not about to discuss the assembly line’s modern productivity. “It’s classified. We can’t say too much at the moment.”
By now his chicken wings have arrived and we have been whisked back to another age. Boyce’s father died in a pit explosion a month before Max was born and his son also spent a character-shaping period down the mines. One evening, though, a producer from EMI saw him smashing it as the support act to Ken Dodd and the rest – ‘Oggy. Oggy. Oggy.’ – is history.
These days Max is a firm fan of Peter Kay – “He’s a really good storyteller” – but back in the 1970s his brand of comedy was equally popular. “We had 20 million viewers at one point … more than Coronation Street. There were only two TV channels and if there wasn’t much on the other side you got me.”
To his surprise he went viral during Covid, thanks to a poem entitled When Just The Tide Went Out. And one dream I’ll remember as the stars began to fall, Was Banksy painting Alun Wyn on my neighbour’s garage wall. No wonder the Welsh Rugby Union are keen for him to sprinkle some more nostalgic joy over the Principality Stadium. All together now: And we were SING-ing Hymns and Arias, Land of our Fathers, Ar hyd y nos.
Never has the unofficial national sporting anthembeen belted out louder than 25 years ago at the opening ceremony of the 1999 World Cup or on that unforgettable Wembley afternoon. “I remember the English team warming up and the ball bouncing right beside me. Matt Dawson came over to collect it, looked up and said: ‘My mother loves you.’”
Max also recalls Scott Gibbs’s epic try being replayed on the big screen in Cardiff six years later. “The whole of the stadium went as silent as a grave waiting for Neil Jenkins’s conversion. The women next to me said: ‘Oh, I can’t look.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘He won’t miss.’ To which she replied: ‘You never know.’”
When it comes to fresh material, you suspect Louis Rees-Zammit’s move to American football could prove fertile ground. Max already has the (shoulder-padded) T-shirt, having trained with the Dallas Cowboys for a Channel 4 show in the 1980s. “I was 42 years old. They didn’t hold back, I got battered. They had me marking a bloke called Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones who was nearly 7ft tall. He was picking me up like a child.”
So how about LRZ’s chances? “I reckon he’ll make it. He’s got pace, he’s a brave boy, good hands. He’s a loss to rugby, not just Wales. But if he wants any advice about American football tell him to ring me.”
For his own part, Max remains fiercely loyal to the dragonhood. “I absolutely love the Six Nations. I have withdrawal symptoms when it ends. I’ve seen five Welsh grand slams, I’m pretty happy with that.” He still serves as Glynneath RFC’s president and can hardly wait for the club’s WRU Division 1 Cup semi-final against Mountain Ash. “There’s a brotherhood in rugby that’s very special. It’s hard to hang on to it but we’ve got five junior sides and there’s some huge talent there.”
OK, but does he think rugby retains its same magnetic pull across his native land? “It’ll come back. It’s in our DNA. And the Six Nations needs a strong Welsh team. It’s a manifestation of the nation … perhaps it means more to us than we care to admit. It’s part of what makes us different.
“Our rugby club is the heart and soul of the village. All the valley towns are the same. The pubs have closed, the banks have closed but the thing that remains is the rugby club. It’s part of the social fabric of the village.”
After lunch – en route to pay homage to his statue – we drive back past the former local cricket ground. His career highlight came in a charity game when he found himself bowling (“I didn’t come off my full run initially …”) to the incomparable Vivian Richards. His first delivery went into orbit – “They found bits of the ball later … apparently it broke up on re-entry” – but he had the last laugh via a blinding catch by another much-missed Welsh fly-half Phil Bennett. IVA Richards c Bennett b Boyce. Feed me ’til I want no more.
Before heading away down the grey damp valley towards Pontypridd and beyond, there is time for one last tongue-in-cheek question. Surely he can now ring up the WRU and request as many tickets as wants? “I tried once. They said six Max Boyces had already phoned.”
Diolch, Max, and may Welsh rugby’s timeless greats never be forgotten.