The memory drifts back to Mark Ring producing a spellbinding performance for Pontypool against Llanelli in the 1990s.
It was close to the end of his playing career and one of Welsh rugby’s all-time great entertainers had a leg problem which hampered him, but there was nothing wrong with his brain or his instincts.
Thinking on a different level from anyone else on the pitch, he kicked the ball just five times, instead spreading play via honeyed distribution that created time and space for those outside him. An otherwise young Pontypool back line was made to look special by the general wearing No. 10 that day.
Newspaper reports later spoke of the ‘sorcerer finding his apprentices’.
Read more : Mark Ring savours memories of Cardiff Arms Park
For sure, you would have gone overdrawn at the bank to watch Ring play in his pomp.
Part of the appeal was his unpredictability and not knowing what he would do. On occasions, he could frustrate, but he would always be worth watching.
The sport has changed hugely since he played, of course, but the recent Lions series, with ultra-conservative tactics to the fore, has left plenty lamenting the state of the modern game. During the Tests in South Africa, some were even threatening to switch off from the sport altogether. Ex-Wales full-back Paul Thorburn said this week he hadn’t watched the last 20 minutes of the final Test because he’d lost interest.
What are Ring’s thoughts?
“I think there’s a huge concern about the next generation and whether they’ll want to play rugby,” he said.
“Reading all the stuff about head injuries in the game and dementia, their parents are going to have a huge influence.
“Do youngsters really want to play a game that’s becoming so dangerous and so physical — but also so boring and predictable?
“You look at the mini and junior sections in Wales and they are thriving, but when you get up to youth level a lot of the kids have fallen by the wayside.”
The question comes up about how Ring would like to see Wales play this autumn, but for the former Wales, Cardiff and Pontypool player it’s not enough to talk just about Wayne Pivac and how he should approach the November Tests.
“I’d go way beyond Wales,” said Ring.
“There’s a concern for the entire game of rugby union.
“Unless we have a change of approach, the game will be dying on its feet because of World Rugby, Billy Beaumont’s outfit. They seem to be rudderless and clueless. I know Joe Schmidt is on there, but I don’t know who else of any sort of worth is in that group and involved in the way the game is shaping.”
Let’s go back to the Lions against South Africa.
By any measure, the series didn’t prove a great advert for the 15-a-side code. When the tourists had the chance to nail matters after taking the opening Test, rather than go all out for victory, they seemed to hope South Africa would simply oblige them by losing it.
If history tells us anything, it is that Springbok teams tend not to work on such terms.
“As soon as I saw the Lions squad, I pictured the way the Test series was going to play out,” said Ring.
“The centres — Bundee Aki for heaven’s sake, (Robbie) Henshaw, ball tucked under one arm, really physical. Even Owen Farrell in midfield, not offering much that was different. Dan Biggar and Farrell playing at 10 over the tour.
“We all know Finn Russell has more of an expansive game, but the question always was whether he had the tools outside him.
“The back three had a lot of strengths in terms of finishing and flair, but there was nobody to get the ball to them and bring them into the game.
“To think we could outmuscle the world champions at their own game, a really physical game, defied belief.
“To be honest, I thought they would lose the series 3-0, but the Springboks were a bit undercooked in the first Test and the Lions took the lead.
“But I don’t understand the thinking.
“When Japan came over to play Ireland, they were challenging the defence with tip-ons and loops. They were winning rucks with a maximum of three players and then making the first two opposition defenders in the line redundant.
“So when you add it up, and factor in that the opposition had four men in backfield, Japan were creating space and numbers. With those two defenders redundant, it was 15 against nine. Even if three players are needed to win the ruck, it was still 12 against nine, and then they use the backs.
“What could be simpler and more easily thought-out?”
Despite the Lions having a blunt attacking game in South Africa, Ring has time for Gregor Townsend and believes he’ll be in the mix for the head coach role in Australia in 2025.
“Scotland have come a long way in recent years,” he said.
“They were making progress even when the results weren’t there and went forward again last year even though they finished only fourth in the Six Nations.
“But they are ahead of Wales in the world rankings and Townsend has learned a lot from their former head coach Vern Cotter, someone I rate highly.
“If you were picking a Lions head coach for 2025 you’d have to think about Townsend.
“Ronan O’Gara, I suppose, could come into the picture as well.
“I listened to his analysis during the Lions series and he comes across well. That said, he’s still very basic in the way he thinks. He didn’t enlighten me much in terms of what he said.”
What of Warren Gatland’s potential fourth stint as Lions head coach? “I wouldn’t have had Gatland anywhere near it in the first place,” said Ring.
“I respect him for what he’s achieved, but I’ve never seen anything… put it this way, as a coach I picked up lovely snippets of coaching ploys and plays from coaches leading the way — how they see the game and all the rest of it.
“Let’s take, for example, when teams kick the ball and the opposition run across the running lines to almost protect the catcher. They call it an escort policy and Wayne Smith was using it with the All Blacks many years ago.
“In the northern hemisphere it took some sides, including Wales, about eight years to properly use that policy.
“I can remember Dan Biggar shoving the ball up in the air against Scotland, running after it and catching his own kicks. Scotland couldn’t deal with it, but when you kick the ball in the air to New Zealand you couldn’t get near the catcher.
“I can go back to South Africa sticking the ball up to Israel Dagg up in the high veldt and Bryan Habana steaming down the wing, then Richie McCaw runs across and so do others.
“Habana had to weave through about three players to get anywhere near Dagg and pretty much every South African forward was in the same channel when he caught the ball.
“Meantime, about four New Zealand forwards had gone to the other side of the pitch while everyone else was ball-watching. It meant that All Blacks had numbers on that side of the field.
“I didn’t see much of that kind of invention from the northern teams.
“I have footage on my laptop of plays from the All Blacks which leads you to think that someone like Wayne Smith is light years ahead. People like Gatland get all the plaudits, yet Wayne Smith is the quiet man in the background who’d leave them all wondering what the game’s all about.
“There’s just a huge gulf in rugby knowledge from him and people who are leading the way to the rest.
“We watch the Lions against South Africa and everyone is moaning about the basic style of play, and then we watch New Zealand and it’s a different level. If they do things differently, why can’t people figure out what they are doing differently?”
Ring is a huge admirer of Smith, the coaching genius who did so much for the All Blacks. For the 32-cap Welshman, though, the jury remains out on Wales under Smith’s countryman Wayne Pivac.
“We’ll see about Wayne Pivac,” said Ring.
“I was disappointed how things panned out under him at Llanelli. He started so well with the Scarlets
“Then suddenly, just before he took over with Wales, the Scarlets couldn’t win a game. They had a few departures and injuries, but such things are part of professional sport. Everyone had worked out how the Scarlets were playing.
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“I was looking forward to seeing how Pivac had moved on in his thinking, and moving the Scarlets forward, but I didn’t see it. They were in trouble just before he got the Wales job. Where was there Plan B? I didn’t see it.
“I would imagine if you put Wayne Smith at the top of forward thinkers in New Zealand, Pivac would be some way down in the pecking order.”
Does Ring see any bright young Welsh coaches coming through? “No.”
In fact, he has some trenchant views on the way some young players are being coached in Wales.
“I have watched coaches turning fly-halves into pivots,” he said.
“When I played I was always taught to count numbers. I was taught to count defenders in front of me, on my inside shoulder, on my outside shoulder, behind me and in the opposition’s back field.
“Then, if I was facing four guys, I’d have three team-mates outside, and I could call one from my inside to come outside to make a five on four.
“That’s where the vision comes from and that’s how you are taught.
“Now, they’ll just use the word ‘scan’.
“It’s a bulls**t word, a coaching word — scan, scan, scan.
“Telling someone to count defenders would strike a chord with me but ‘scan’ is another typical coaching buzzword for bulls**t coaches.”
Above all, what the old maestro wants is to be excited and inspired by rugby.
The assumption is many would feel the same way.
“How many people have you spoken to about what made them play rugby? he asked.
“For many of a certain age, it would have been the great Welsh teams of the 1970s. Even though they had a lot of success, they didn’t win all the time, but people enjoyed the way they played the game and were excited by it.
“It’s critical for the future of the game that we make rugby more enjoyable for people to watch.
“The more people in positions of influence who realise that, the better.”
It’s hard to disagree with that last comment.