Sports

The ex-bouncer who became vital to the Wales rugby team, his dramatic dressing room collapse and why he had to leave

It’s fair to say I have never really met anyone quite like Steve Black during my 30-plus years in this job.

For much of his career, including his time with Wales and the Lions, his job description has read “conditioning coach”.

But that really doesn’t do justice to what this larger-than-life Geordie brings to the party.

He is a coach of the mind as much as the body, an expert motivator, someone who was ahead of his time in terms of sports psychology.

His ground-breaking approach came to the fore during his two years with Wales when he played a key part in the success enjoyed by Graham Henry’s team over a memorable 11-match winning run.

He was also a pivotal influence on Jonny Wilkinson, while he has worked with an array of teams in both football and rugby and still remains very much in demand today.

It’s more than 20 years since I last spoke to him, but within minutes of starting chatting it was just like the old days again as I sat back and listened to story after story.

When that familiar Geordie accent washes over you, it has both a calming and an inspiring affect and the world just somehow seems a slightly better place.

We started by talking about how he first came to link up with Henry’s Wales back in late 1998, making the move from Newcastle.

“At that particular time at the Falcons, we had Pat Lam, Inga Tuigimala and a guy called Ross Nesdale, who had all played for Graham at Auckland,” he explained.

“So that’s where it came from. Graham got in touch and said the guys had been speaking quite complimentary about how I did things.

“We met up just outside Bristol and just got on fantastically well straight away. We seemed to have so much in common and be so aligned in lots of ways.

“I am a dyed in the wool Geordie and I love the north east.

“But I loved the Welsh team of the 1970s, the Barry Johns, Gareth, Phil Bennett. It was just sensational stuff. I loved that swagger.

“I knew just how big rugby was in Wales and I thought it would be a marvellous opportunity to come and try and help them get back to where they should have been.

“So there was a pull from home, but also the ambition to go somewhere that was a real hotbed of the sport, an environment which had such potential. That was very special to me.”

Black swiftly settled into his new base.

“After a short period of time in Wales, three or four months, I felt like I was totally at home,” he said.

“I had a great relationship with the people down there. It was lovely.

Steve Black today, back up in the north east

“I remember so many times saying on the phone to my wife Julie ‘You are going to love this because they are lovely people and it’s just like home from home really’.

“Sometimes you go somewhere and you have to change the culture of how you are and how you live.

“But I found it particularly easy in Wales because I was embraced.”

Things didn’t go smoothly on the field initially, with Wales losing the opening two games of the 1999 Five Nations to Scotland and Ireland.

Black identified a dressing room that was too quiet and reserved. It didn’t feel right and, after that Murrayfield loss, he asked Henry if he could take the lead before the next match to try and spark something.

“So I did the dressing room for the game against Ireland at Wembley,” he revealed.

“I was like in, bang, go for it, honestly like a Hollywood movie. I had them really up a height to be fair.

“I needed to see if they had the fight, because this particular group of lads hadn’t won many games. Winning is a habit, but so is losing.

“Anyway, at half-time, we were something like 19-6 down.

“I remember Graham coming along the touchline with me and saying ‘Blackie, I’m not happy with this’.

“I said ‘Well, watch out, because I am going to get them even higher in the second half!’

“We got it back within six points by the end. We didn’t win, but what we had done was we had fought for each other. We had shown the fire in the belly that day and that was the turning point.

“It showed the fight was still there. From there, that’s where we went on the run and it was sensational.”

Indeed it was, as Wales turned the tide with a first win over France in Paris in 24 years and followed that with famous victories over England and South Africa, as well as a series triumph in Argentina.

Steve Black embraces Wales prop Ben Evans in an emotional moment following Wales’ win over France in Paris in March 1999

The Wembley win over England stands as a special memory for Black.

“That was massive. You had Tom Jones and Max Boyce there. It was a marvellous day,” he said.

“I remember not long before the end, Clive Woodward walked down and said to the steward quite loudly ‘Where do the winners go at the end of the game?’

“My face must have changed because Tony Underwood, who I knew from Newcastle, was on the bench for them and he said ‘I’m sorry about that’.

“I got up and ‘woof’ I was up and down that touchline non-stop, trying to provide some kind of spiritual intervention. It was like a non-league football match.

“I was right there when Scotty Gibbs went over. I was running alongside him on the touchline. It was unbelievable.

“My little pal, who I have now coached for 24 years and still work with, Jonny Wilkinson, sat with the Welsh team that night, next to Graham and me.

“That was really special for me because we had such a good relationship.

“He was obviously upset because he loved to win and I was upset that he was so upset.

Black has worked closely with Jonny Wilkinson for more than 20 years

“But, at the same time, I was so happy and proud for us.

“Coming back home to Wales, you would think we’d won the World Cup. It meant something special to the Welsh nation.”

The momentum then built with the 2-0 series victory in Argentina.

“They tried to play all kinds of psychological games with us out there,” Black recalls.

“I remember going to the stadium on match day and it took a lot longer to get there than it had all week.

“We only got there about 45 minutes before the start of the game.

“Then they said they had lost the key and couldn’t get the gear out for our warm-up, all that type of thing.

“But I just said to the lads don’t worry about, don’t give it a second thought, don’t let them get to us in any form or fashion, they can’t stop us being who we are.

“Sometimes circumstances are beyond your control, but I’ll tell you what is in your control, your character.

“That particular day there wasn’t a routine, we had to revert to character.

“That trip was special for bringing everyone together. It was a great tour.”

Then, just a couple of weeks later, came a first ever victory over South Africa in the opening game at the Millennium Stadium.

“They were the No 1 team in the world and going for the record number of consecutive wins,” recalls Black.

“But we were so up for it and had so much belief in ourselves.

“In point of fact, Graham and I had one or two words on the bus on the way to the game.

“I had given an interview and said I was totally confident we would go out there and beat them. I was a little bit in that mood. I felt we were too good. I felt like we could take anybody on.

“Graham said ‘I am a bit disappointed Blackie’. He thought I had given them a team talk.

“I said ‘Well, I’ll stand by that’ and I was right, of course I was!

Steve Black celebrates the June 1999 victory over South Africa with the Wales team at the Millennium Stadium

“Sometimes you don’t have to play mind games when your team is good enough.

“I haven’t really used mind games in sport. I don’t like that very much.

“All I’ve done is try and get the team into a fantastic position and build up how they think about things and how much confidence they have.”

It was an approach that clearly worked with Wales as Black built an intense bond with the players.

“So many people used to say the Geordies and the Welsh seem to have a lot in common from an emotional point of view,” he said.

“It might be romantic, but I do honestly think that’s the case and I was able to tap into that emotional side.

“I have had a great career, thank God. It’s been wonderful. I have been blessed in lots of ways.

“But my great successes through the years have probably been when I’ve had a deep emotional involvement.

“Every time I spoke to the Welsh lads, it had to be meaningful for them, something that touched them and made them realise I was there for them.

“Obviously I was down there to try make the team as good as possible and win games. The time before I came down, we were on a bit of a losing streak for a while.

“So obviously I was trying to make them better players and a better team.

Steve Black puts the Wales players through their paces at a training camp in Christ College, Brecon in July 1999

“But I also wanted to get to the stage where they realised that beyond that I cared for them as people, so they weren’t just a tool to success.

“It was on a deeper emotional level.

“I had a good rapport with most of them really. It was tremendous. We just really got on.

“I felt they possibly looked at me like an older brother. That type of thing. An older brother that had a little bit of fun with them but was able to keep them in check as well or influence them.

“Ben Evans was a massive character, I loved Scotty Gibbs, we got on great, Bateman, Chris Wyatt, the Quinnells. I could just go on. I had lovely moments with them all, both inside and outside rugby.

“If you look at that team, to come from where they had been to where they got to, with 11 wins in a row, was fantastic. It was good to taste success again.

“It was a lovely time. I could well up thinking about it now!

“It’s a definite form of love when you are together all the time. You care for each other and have shared goals.”

Steve Black with Wales skipper Rob Howley

The success saw Wales head into the 1999 World Cup on home soil on the crest of a wave and with high hopes.

But, for Black, the opening game against Argentina was to prove a dramatic and alarming occasion.

He has suffered for much of his life from ulcerative colitis, which causes him to lose a lot of blood, and the illness caught up with him in a serious way that day.

“I collapsed in the dressing room just after half-time,” he reveals.

“There was blood coming out everywhere and I was in a dreadful state. I was really very ill.

“I got taken away and had five pints of blood. I was really in a dodgy state.

“But I got myself out of hospital after a few days and got back on the training field.

“I was on the Max Boyce show on the TV around that time and I said ‘I’ve got this to tell you and the nation, I’ve had five pints of blood, so by my calculations I am probably more Welsh than English at this moment in time!’”

It was while Black was recovering that Wales’ long winning run came to an end, as they lost to Samoa in a group match.

Former Wales conditioning coach Steve Black

Now 20 years on, he can reveal the full back story to that defeat, amid a remarkable tale of divine intervention.

“I always used to go to church on the Friday before a game,” he explains.

“I would sit there and think about what I was going to say the next day in the dressing room and what I was going to be like when we get to the ground in the build up.

“Anyway, Graham had heard about this and when we were playing France away in the Five Nations, he asked if he could come to church with me.

“I said ‘Of course you can, churches are there for everyone’.

“So we end up going to church, along with Lynn Howells and Allan Lewis.

“They said ‘What do we do’ and I said ‘Just be yourself and think about what you want to think about. I will be with another friend of mine spiritually’.

“Of course, we won the game to begin the run. It was quite spiritual for me that whole French thing.

“Max Boyce must have heard about this because he arranged for a friend of his to pick us up in a helicopter and take us across to St David’s the day before games after that.

“Every time from that French match, we went to church together, me and Graham.

“Do you know the first time we missed it? Samoa! It’s unbelievable. I had missed it because I wasn’t well.

“Graham said to me ‘Blackie, Blackie, you know what’s happened here, don’t you? We didn’t go to church’.”

After going out to Australia in the World Cup quarter-finals, Wales then endured a challenging Five Nations in 2000, suffering heavy defeats to France and England amid the Grannygate scandal.

“I think we tried to change too much too early from that long run in 1999,” says Black.

“I think we should have kept that on. It didn’t really work in our favour.”

The 46-12 defeat to England at Twickenham also saw criticism of the Welsh team’s fitness regime, with former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer labelling the Quinnell brothers as fat.

“Dwyer was just talking a load of nonsense there, as he generally did,” reflects Black.

“I wasn’t going to stand for him having a go at Craig and Scott because they were good lads.

“They brought a lot to the team and cared about it very much.

“No-one was saying that about Craig when he was running down the Wembley turf the year before and people were bouncing off him or when he was going over and scoring tries in Paris.

“Sometimes people are easy to pick on and big Craig might have been that at the time. I wasn’t going to stand for that.

“It would have taken about 3.2 seconds to put Bob in his place.”

Craig Quinnell on the training bike in February 2000 with Steve Black watching on

But what did leave its mark on Black, leading to him parting company with Wales in dramatic fashion in March 2000, was another incident.

“I had gone up to London to see a great pal of mine, Paul Bracewell, who was the manager of Fulham,” he explains.

“He asked me if I would have a word with his players and I spoke to them.

“There was a thing in the papers then asking was I moonlighting up in London and that hurt by the way.

“I am a person that gives 100 per cent in everything I ever do.

“For someone who cares as much as I do, I thought that was a bit out of order really. I started to think that’s not right.

“The trouble is people believe what they read in the papers.

“It got to the stage where my daughter was in school and certain things were said, not to her, but about me. She started hearing a few things about her dad and that wasn’t good.

“I wasn’t that happy with that really at all, so it was time to go. I hadn’t fallen out of love with the team or the area. I loved living down there.

“But I didn’t want to get into any ridiculous warfare because that would have spoilt the whole experience for us.

“I had reason to think it wasn’t going to be too good after that. It was starting to become the blame culture and I hadn’t seen that down there.

“The most important people in your life are your family and if it was going to affect my family, it was time to go.

“I was moved when people wrote into the Western Mail about why I should stay. That was fantastic, lovely. It was very emotional because I did love it there and I loved the relationships.”

Steve Black oversees a Lions training session in Townsville during the 2001 tour of Australia

But Black stuck to his decision to leave, although he did reunite with Henry for the following year’s Lions tour of Australia.

In the two decades since, he has worked with a series of football clubs, including Newcastle, Sunderland, Fulham, Norwich, Huddersfield, QPR and Fleetwood Town, as well as the Falcons rugby team.

He has taught in nine different colleges, worked as a motivational speaker and a business consultant, while also running his own businesses.

The man who used to work as a bouncer in Newcastle as a teenager has come a long way.

“In a nutshell, I just like helping people,” says the 63-year-old.

“I get an enormous kick out of helping people fulfill their potential.

“It’s not a job to me, it’s a vocation. If I can’t feel that way, I’ll not do it.

“I am sports scientist really, I am an enabler. I do the tactics, I do the conditioning, I do the psychology, I do the whole thing.

“But it also links in well with my personality. If I find there’s not an opportunity to immerse myself emotionally in it and really care, then I’ll not do it.

“With Wales, I was definitely able to do that.”

Steve Black pictured at St James’ Park in 2015 during a stint working with Newcastle United

And, with that, our conversation came to an end, as he signed off with the following request.

“Can you do me a big favour and send my very best to everyone down there in Wales.

“It’s still in my thoughts and I’ve still got some lovely photos in my den.

“When I watch Wales play rugby, I still find myself saying ‘we’, which is interesting, isn’t it?”

Thanks for the memories Mr Black.

...

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