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Rugby hero David Bishop talks bravely about his addiction and depression

Fearless, confident and supremely gifted, David Bishop could take on the world as a rugby player.

The late Neath team boss Brian Thomas, who had seen a few top players in his time, called him the finest player in the northern hemisphere in Bishop’s 1980s pomp. The one-cap Wales international himself said: “Before I went north to join Hull KR in June 1988 I was not only the best Welsh scrum half, I was the world’s best.”

It says everything that the contention could not be dismissed out of hand. Nothing fazed him.

READ MORE: The best Lions XV they never picked including Bishop, Jiffy and Mark Ring

We must cut to the Cwmtawe Sevens in that era when a seemingly well-refreshed section of the crowd were goading Bishop. The taunts had reached the point where pretty much everyone around the pitch had become aware of them and most were wondering how the notoriously feisty chap who was wearing Public School Wanderers colours that day would react.

They didn’t have to wait long to find out. A lineout was called a few feet from where the boo-boys were standing. Bishop walked across so slowly, brimming with a purpose that might have made a small army run for the hills.

After what seemed like an eternity, The Bish stared at his tormentors before saying: “Who’s the big mouth?

“Come on. If any of you has something to say or wants a go, I’m here now.”

Silence enveloped the ground. Not one of the boozed-up brigade stepped forward. Bishop carried on playing.

He had an image as a hard-man and didn’t shy away from it. But even hard-men can struggle to face emotional challenges.

Bishop has now bravely spoken of battling personal demons after he finished playing in the 1990s. He has told of the damaging effects of drug addiction and of how depression had left him feeling “the lowest of the low”.

In a candid and typically honest interview with the Central Club Podcast, he said: “I’m supposed to be this big macho man, but I’m as weak as a kitten really. You’re put up here as Godzilla, if you like, but I’m like a unicorn or a pony, really.”

Bishop’s struggles took him to some dark places — “rat holes”, he calls them — and he warns of the perils of the combination of drug dependence and depression, saying starkly: “It could be a killer.”

“Drug addiction just rules and dominates your whole life,” he said. Unless you have been down that street it is difficult for people to understand. The lowest point was when I started begging for money off friends and good friends of mine were turning me down. My ex-wife left me with the kids and I just went on a worse pattern.

“You get so many lows. You turn up in places which are rat holes. And you know you shouldn’t be there. ‘What the f*** am I doing in here’, you know. But you’ve just get to get it [the drugs], got to get it, got to get it. And as much as you think it is a secret, everybody knows.

“You have to hit rock bottom to come up and there are only a few who make it.”

He is a man who has obviously found life challenging after playing, after the music stops and the team-environment camaraderie is no longer there, along with the supporter-adulation and all that goes with it.

He elaborates on his struggles when talking to Gist Vile on Wednesday morning, saying: “A lot of it started after I finished as a player.

“I just found life really difficult to deal with. You go from one extreme of being a superstar, if you like, playing in front of thousands every week and training in front of hundreds — you go from that to nothing,” he told us.

“I didn’t finish on good terms with Hull Kingston Rovers, and in those days once you went to rugby league, you were screwed as far as playing union was concerned. There was no way back as a player back then.

“I hit the depths. The next 10 to 15 years were the lowest of my life. It’s something you battle against all the time.

“You get reprieves, if you like, things that give you a bit of hope. You get some work on TV with S4C, say, and when Real Radio gave me a job on their sports phone-in, I found that brilliant. But those kinds of things are few and far between.



David Bishop

“I’ve had some tough times, with divorce and everything, which was my own fault. You think you are the only one who exists in the world.

“But it isn’t just me. Countless sports people encounter issues. My best friend, the footballer Craig Bellamy, has had a tough time, and Craig is a multi-millionaire.”

READ MORE: Craig Bellamy’s own battle with depression

Bishop had a stroke 13 months ago and is still dealing with its effects. When the news came through, it shocked Welsh rugby and beyond.

Many would have remembered Bishop the player and also Bishop the character, a force of nature who lived on the edge and seemingly could take on whatever life threw at him, but issues can strike anyone at any time.

It was the latest instance of fate dealing the ex-Cardiff and Pontypool scrum-half a difficult hand.

That said, today is a better day for him. He’s a bit out of sorts physically, but he’s not feeling so bad mentally.

“I’m fine,” he says when we ask how he’s feeling. “But, generally speaking, I do have my moments when I think it’s the end of the world.

“You think the whole world is on top of you. I have had some low points, especially with the stroke coming on.

“Like I say, I’m not the only one. It’s not a new phenomenon. These things happen. Addiction is like having a pint. You try something and it can take over your life. In my case it cost me my family — everything.

“The way you deal with it can send you deeper into the cave. You need something else after you finish, to try to get the adrenaline rush you’d get from rugby.

“It would be an understatement to say I was addicted to rugby. I broke my neck and I couldn’t wait to come back.

“That was my life and then you try to find substitutes. Unfortunately, nothing compares.”

He continues: “I’m lucky in some ways. Now and again, a journalist will phone me up. People want me to do podcasts but I really don’t know why.

“I’m doing a book and it has helped because for the first time in my life I’ve been able to sit down with someone, think things through and express my thoughts clearly.

“There are lots of ways of trying to deal with depression. I have to be honest, I found it shameful until I spoke about it. I had this image as a tough man, but it’s just an image.

“Depression is something I’ve found difficult to talk about, but I don’t mind doing so now. If well-known people don’t talk about traumatic times and keep sweeping them under the bed, the issues will never come out.”

After his stroke, Bishop was advised that as an ex-international he could apply to the Welsh Rugby Union for financial help with physiotherapy. Two payments came through. “It wasn’t an insignificant amount,” he says, “and I was grateful for it.

“Steve Cannon, the ex-scrum-half who’s a great friend from my playing days, is a physio and he would have helped me out for nothing, but that wouldn’t have been fair and so the money did help out.

“But then it stopped. My situation is ongoing, though.”

His sense of well-being varies from day to day: “There’s no in between. One minute you’re as high as a kite, the next you’re as low as can be. You think: ‘What prospects have I got? I’m 61 years of age — no-one’s going to come looking for me for a job. What does rugby do? It does f**k all. The WRU should set up some kind of helpline for former players, because I’m not alone here.

“I didn’t have a penny after breaking my neck while playing as a youngster, and whichever way you look at it, money does help.

“Depression is a lot to do with circumstances. It’s one day to the next. You just feel really low. What do you do? Who do you phone? Who do you talk to?”

“You can write a bit on it, if you want, but who wants to read about it?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but there was a time when well-nigh everybody in Welsh rugby wanted to read about David Bishop. He duly obliged them with stories and headlines, whether through his brilliance on the pitch or his antics off it, which occasionally didn’t please all at the time.



David Bishop in his hey-day, storming through to score a try for Wales against Australia in 1984. He was man of the match, incredibly it was the only time he was picked for his country

We must assume the Welsh selectors were among those who were among the less than impressed: how else to explain that he won just one Wales cap over his union career?

Staggering for a player of his unique and quite special ability.

But at least there were more possibilities for him then. “Even though it was an amateur game, people were looking after you — sponsors and so on. You were on TV and radio and things were rosy. You were in a much better place,” he explains.

“I just loved life and was on top of the world. I never forget what my late dad said to me: ‘Enjoy it now, because it’ll be over in a flash.’ At the time, it just seems life will be good for good. But it’s not.

“I go back to the point: maybe rugby can do more for ex-players. Football has committees and stuff who look after ex-players. Maybe we in Wales should go down that road a bit more.”

Rugby has moved on in that respect in the modern game, but there’s always more that could be done.

On a rainy morning, it was good to learn Bishop was having one of his better days. Tomorrow might be different, but the great scrum-half will do his best.

“You just have to keep working at it,” he says. “It can be tough.”

Only the individual truly knows. Let’s hope circumstances do improve for one of Welsh rugby’s biggest characters — and greatest players, whatever his cap tally says.

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