Written Interview - Mark Ring

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Mark Ring interviewed by Craig Muncey 2016
You made your debut in 1981 as an 18 year old for Cardiff RFC, what do you remember about your debut and were you a Cardiff fan as a boy?
I played in the Welsh Youth Cup Final for Cardiff Youth (at Caerphilly RFC) where we defeated Newport on the Wednesday and I was contacted to say I had been selected to be a part of the Cardiff 1st Team Squad to play in Biarritz against Cotes Des Basques, which was a French Select XV made up of players from the French Basques Region.
I was a substitute but was lucky enough to come on at halftime when our full back (Glyn Davies) was injured. I played fly half because they switched Julian O'Brien to full back from fly half. I felt very confident but my first touch was poor, as I tried to kick back, against the grain, over the head of their right winger. I mis-timed a spiral which was caught by the wing who turned defence into attack and made a 60m run and almost scored. I found out later the winger's name was Serge Blanco, who was uncapped at the time but they thought he was a young player with a big future!
He scored 3 tries that day and we lost, around 24 points to 6, I believe. The other thing I remember was there was a lot of fighting during the game and then much later on I was rescued from falling asleep in a nightclub by Bobby Newman, who found me behind a curtain in the early hours! Bobby speaks fluent French and we helped with the clean-up operation, so one of the club's owners dropped us back to the team's hotel at around 6am.
In your early days at Cardiff you had some great players in the team; who, if any, had the greatest influence on your career in the early days?
Several players helped me along the way. I was lucky enough to have a pathway from Youth to Cardiff 'Rags' and then to the First Team. I played a lot with the likes of Terry Charles, Dave Barry, and Julian O'Brien who were all good enough to play 1st team but played lots for the Athletic too. They all helped me immensely, as I made the transition through the system, but I will never forget one day at Cardiff Arms Park, when I was practicing drop goals which were fading off to the right.
Gareth Davies called me over and told me I was striking the ball with a 'lazy' leg. He felt my strike was too slow and encouraged me to strike a split second after the ball touched the turf. I immediately knocked over 5 successive drop goals from around the 40m mark and never looked back. A few years later, the week before we played Swansea in the Welsh Cup Final, I related the same story to Mikey Rayer when I saw him going through a similar experience to me at practice.
In the final, he put us 2 scores clear in extra time, when he struck an absolute beauty from the right touchline after Tony Clement had missed touch from his own 22m. I have to say though that Gareth Davies was the master of the drop goal.
I once witnessed one of the best drop goals ever. Wales played Ireland in Cardiff and as Gareth received the ball and shaped for the drop goal, I anticipated the charge down, as Ireland's wing forward, Phillip Matthews, closed him down. I actually dropped off behind 'Majed' (as we used to call Gareth) but I was astonished to see him hold the ball as wide as he could before snapping at the ball, AROUND HIM!!!! He didn't time it, for obvious reasons, but it went over. "A little inebriated but it got there" as Bill McClaren would often say. I would ask anyone to try it. It is like dropping a goal off one leg as he bends it around the oncoming player, as his right leg would be a good metre or so away from his left leg as it made contact with the ball and hooked it around the player.
What was your most memorable match for Cardiff?
My most memorable match was when we played Pontypool one year when we drew 9 all. I think it was on a Wednesday early in the season in the mid 1980's but both teams were undefeated with an identical playing record, both teams having played 10 and won 10. We had won the Welsh Cup the year before whilst Pooler had won the Whitbread Merit table and the unofficial Western Mail Club Championship.
It was the most incredible atmosphere but sadly not the greatest game! I believe this was because there were too many spectators allowed into the ground. This affects the players as the atmosphere and the noise created causes many unforced errors, even from the most experienced of players. The speed of the game appears astonishingly quick. I have only experienced this once before at the former Lansdowne Road in Dublin, where the crowd seemed to be right on top of you. As I recall that was a poor game too, but Wales won the Triple Crown that day defeating Ireland by a point.
Which Cardiff team throughout the years you played for them was the best team?
15 M. Rayer, 14 G. Cordle, 13 M. Ring, 12 A. Donovan, 11 A. Hadley, 10 W. G. Davies, 9 T. Holmes, 1 J. Whitefoot, 2 A. Phillips, 3 I. Eidman, 4 K. Edwards, 5 R. L. Norster, 6 O. Golding, 7 G. Roberts, 8 J. Scott (Capt)
You left Cardiff to join Pontypool, was this based purely on your desire to play regularly at 10 and to combine with David Bishop as the half backs or were there other factors involved?
No, there were other factors involved. In fact, I had no intention of joining Pontypool!
I was still a Civil Servant, a Clerical Assistant in Companies House, earning very little money and I had asked for some help, on several occasions, with a different line of work. I had seen players from outside Cardiff have lots of help away from rugby, without getting paid, shall we say. Cardiff had many well connected businessmen who were always willing to give some players work for example, usually in sales, with a company car and a decent salary. Following lots of requests for a different line of work, which kept falling on deaf ears, I decided I would move to London and play for London Welsh. I was shown around, offered a flat on the River Thames, but more importantly, I met with a man who’s business was designed to help people move into a career which suited their personality.
When I had completed a thorough questionnaire and a series of interviews, they put me into a 'Social' bracket which pointed me towards a career working with people. I then met a brilliant guy who designed a 4 year university course which, when completed, a student would qualify to manage a leisure centre, only in my favour he would help me complete this course in 1 year! Despite this being what should have struck me as a 'No Brainer', I returned after spending the weekend in London, to receive a call from Dai Bishop who had heard I may be on the move. He encouraged me to attend a training session at Pontypool Park where everyone made me feel a million dollars, so to speak, and I was excited by their plans to win trophies and dominate Welsh Rugby, with Bish and I in central midfield and Bobby Windsor as head coach. I signed there and then.
You made your debut for Wales in 1983 against the old enemy England, what do you recall of your international debut and were international rugby standards a lot different to club rugby at that time?
I shared a room at The Angel Hotel with Terry Holmes. This felt a little strange as Terry had shared with Gareth Davies pretty regularly down the years but Malcolm Dacey was selected to start at 10 and Gareth was on the bench. Gareth's dad knocked on the hotel door when Terry was elsewhere and was surprised I answered. He had brought some Welsh cakes for them to share, as he'd often done before and I felt I had broken a long tradition, which made me feel a little uneasy.
I was young and the selectors had obviously hoped Terry would play a key role in helping me settle before my first International. The game was an anti-climax. I only touched the ball around 4 or 5 times during the entire match. Eddie Butler was captain and I wanted to be motivated by him, inspired and fired up, but he was not that kind of motivational character. My inexperience showed when a clever set play, involving 4 Leicester Tigers players, ie Les Cusworth, Paul Dodge, Clive Woodward and Dusty Hare, caught me ball watching in mid-field as they created a try for John Carleton.
We came from behind to bring the scores level and we were in possession in the England 22m, left field towards to City centre end, it was pretty much the last play. Malcolm Dacey and Dai Richards were looking to probe the short side and I was stood in the fly-half spot as Holmsey caught my eye with the ball at the base of the ruck. Pass me the ball Terry and I will drop the winning goal with the last play of the match, I thought, but he just didn't fancy me at that moment and played Jeff Squire around the corner which came to nothing before the ref blew up. Now that will haunt me forever. I knew that was my moment but in the end it just added to my frustrations. I'd dreamt of that moment since I was 7 years old; to drop the winning goal in Cardiff for Wales against England. I still wonder today if it happens in another life.
One thing Holmesy told me before the game was how quick the game would flash by. It did and to be truthful it probably took me 3 Internationals before I was able to find the pace of the game and to savour every moment. When I'd established myself as a Wales regular, club rugby felt so easy and even boring at times unless there was real importance on a particular match, like a big cup match, a local derby, an away fixture against one of the big English clubs such as Leicester Tigers, the Baa Baas at Easter or say Pontypridd on Boxing Day. So yes, there was a huge gulf back then between club and international rugby.
You played 32 times for Wales in your rugby career, which no doubt was hampered by injuries. You played in 2 World Cups in 1987 and 1991, what are your overriding memories of those World Cups?
It has to be said I only had 4 caps when I was seriously injured against Swansea. I was out of the game for 11 months and out for another 3 months with a lesser knee injury a few years later which caused me to miss another International season and a potential British Lions tour. It was the wear and tear which caused the cartilage injury 3 weeks before the 1991 World Cup but the knee was structurally sound during that ill-fated tournament, where we failed to qualify from our group.
I played fly-half in that tournament which was always a dream of mine to do so. However, despite receiving a lot of stick for my performances, which everyone put down to my not being fit since the knee injury, it was my lungs which let me down during the last 20 mins of the must win match versus Australia. It was not my knee. The fact was I hadn't been allowed to do any running at all as I rehabbed from the injury. I was stuck on a treatment table for 3 weeks. Looking back I was more than happy with my performances at fly-half during the group games. I think we only won 2 line outs in the entire match versus Australia and we were demolished in the loose against Western Samoa, despite dominating the scrums. One thing I was disappointed by was my goal kicking. By today's standards it has to be said it was not up to the requirements of an international goal kicker. I wish I knew then what I know now as a coach.
The first World Cup was very much the stepping stone to a more professionally organised and global tournament. South Africa weren't allowed to compete. I am proud to say Wales finished 3rd and the 3rd/4th place play-off match versus Australia in Rotarua was one of the most emotionally charged matches I have ever played in. I played off pure instinct that day and I had absolutely no idea they had a player sent off in the first 5 mins of the match until 2 weeks after I had arrived home. One thing that stands out though was the sub-standard hotel/motel accommodation we stayed at throughout the tournament. We had curfews set upon us most of the time and despite still being in the amateur era, there was very little time for enjoyment. The only time we did create some of our own fun was when Glenn Webbe and I arranged a pool competition for the whole squad. Glenn and I had a little giggle when Kevin Phillips beat me in the first round. I was struggling to throw that game. If I didn’t play a skilful shot to pot the white off the missed black, I'd probably still there trying to lose it today! We ran a book on each game you see and it was a big pay day for us when I lost that game to the delight of the Neath contingent. In fact with Glenn and I losing our 1st round games we could concentrate on the organisation of the tournament but essentially on making a killing on the book, which we did!
Do you wish you had been a player 10 years later in time so could have been a professional and had the opportunity to put all your time and effort into just being the best player you could and make a living of this?
Sometimes I think this would be a great life. To be paid for what you enjoy doing and I was always a good trainer so I would have not been put off by all the early hours in the gym. But we played so much more rugby than they do now, in front of much bigger crowds and we could express ourselves the way we wanted to without succumbing to the verbal bullies, who are coaches today, who have their own bills to pay so demand better performances to take the pressure off themselves.
Also we did not have Aussie Rules and Rugby League coaches infiltrating our game, bringing with them their own skill sets which, often, have little or no bearing on the Union Game. In fact I would go so far as to say the game is now more like Rugby League than it has ever been. It has become quite a bore as a spectacle, in my view.
Who was the best player you played with in your rugby career?
David Bishop is right up there, Terry Holmes too. I find it very difficult to split the two. If I was pushed Bish had a left side and a right side so strong you would have no idea which was the stronger. Both were guys I'd glance up at in the changing rooms and knowing they were on my side made me stop and think...."we'll win today!”
Who was the best player you played against?
I'd say David Campese because he appeared to be international class in every position behind the scrum and so exciting to watch too.
However, the one player I played against who I learned so much from was Warwick Taylor, who played 2nd 5/8 for New Zealand on the 1988 tour. What I learned from him (which incidentally I've not seen one Wales international player since, who has come remotely close to achieving his unique ability to do this) is he had the time to hold on to the ball for a split second longer than anyone else, to make the defenders choose their defensive option, before he showed his attacking hand. He could take the ball right up to my nostrils and still have an inside pass option, a long, a wide, a fat spin pass option, a disguised soft off load off the hip, an attacking kicking option, a half break or a physical carry. He rarely chose the wrong one!
Do you have any regrets in your rugby career?
I've no regrets but I often think how my life could have been made a little easier, from a financial perspective, if I had joined London Welsh for example. Also I have always felt someone in the WRU has prevented me from fulfilling my coaching ambitions in Wales, probably because I have openly, spoken of corruption from within the game, in the game. I have also regularly criticised the standard of coaching in Wales generally but more so at the younger levels of the game.
Who was the best coach you ever worked under?
I enjoyed working with coaches who believed in me and encouraged me to express myself and play without fear.
The late John Bevan, God rest his soul, gave me my 1st cap at 20 years old. Alan Davies gave me the No. 10 shirt for Wales; I just wish things had worked out better for him. And I thought Tony Gray, who won the triple Crown (we lost against France 9 - 10 for the Grand Slam) was a really good guy but started to listen to a lot of crap from some influential players, which disappointed me towards the end of his era. Bobby Windsor has only coached for a couple of seasons but his record in Pontypool's 1987-88 season was exceptional. Pooler under Bobby were unbeaten AWAY from home, winning around 25 matches if not more, against no mugs either, Munster, Gloucester, Bath etc. and only losing 2 matches all season playing around 60 matches in all competitions. Someone needs to check the records; it really is a phenomenal record!
What are your thoughts on current state of the game? Is there too much emphasis on strength and size and not enough on rugby skills?
Absolutely! I love coaching the game because I feel as if I have a responsibility to do my bit in making the game enjoyable to play and to watch. However, I hate watching any team other than New Zealand. I think the game has become boring and predictable. At least New Zealand are leading the way with simple logic behind everything they try to do. Wales still haven't caught up on some structures New Zealand were using more than 5 years ago!
A player everyone sees as a superstar, Dan Biggar, is very ordinary in my eyes. He has a good passing and kicking range and is a proud physical player but he is a ball watcher! He fails to create his own time on the ball and time for others because he can't get his head up quickly enough. I was taught as a youngster to count. At every breakdown count the defenders, look inside and count your inside support, then on your outside to see your outside support. This takes less the 2 seconds but forces you to get your head up and analyse your options in attack.
I touched on what Warwick Taylor could do in a previous answer to one of your questions, and where are all the evasive runners since Shane Williams retired? The game is dying as a spectacle. I saw an 11 year old persistently crashing up, Jamie Roberts style, only last week for Cardiff Schoolboys!
Bit of a random question this one, but is it true that you have a morbid fear of carrying loose change in your pockets?
I never carry loose change in my pockets for a morbid fear of losing it through a hole in the lining of the same trousers I've been wearing for the last 3 years. Mind you, you ought to be firing that question at Gareth Roberts, ex Swansea and Cardiff Flanker. He was a beauty!
Out of the players you played with, can you name your greatest XV?
 1. John Ashworth
 2. Peter Wheeler
 3. Graham Price
 4. Gary Whetton
 5. Bob Norster
 6. Mark Shaw
 7. Peter Winterbottom
 8. John Scott
 9. David Bishop,
10. Jonathan Davies
11. Bernie Frazer
12. Steve Pokere
13. Craig Innes
14. Stu Wilson
15. Mike Rayer
Object Status: 
Cardiff Rugby Museum
Reproduced by kind permission of Craig Muncey

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