Eddie Butler has been on rugby’s front-line for more than 40 years now.
As part of the legendary Pontypool team of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he won 16 caps for Wales and captained his country six times, while also going on a Lions tour to New Zealand.
Since hanging up his boots, he has forged a highly successful career as a journalist and broadcaster, becoming one of the most recognisable voices in the game.
Here, in his own words, is his story.
The Pontypool years
Butler was born in Newport in 1957, but, when he was three, the family moved to Raglan, as his father was working in a nylon factory in Pontypool.
After attending Monmouth School, he had a gap year in Spain in 1975 just as Franco’s dictatorship was coming to an end.
He went on to study French and Spanish at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, becoming a triple rugby Blue.
Back home, he had initially tried his hand training with Newport, but without much joy.
Then, in the summer of 1976, came the phone call which changed his life, as Pontypool coach Ray Prosser rang up to invite him on board.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I was shown around the club by Graham Price and felt the welcome was a little warmer and I never played for anybody else,” says Butler.
“Ray Prosser was an absolute giant of the game. We had our set way of playing, which was very much the Pross way, based largely on the observations he had made lying in an Otago hospital bed on the Lions tour of 1959.
“He just formulated this view that rugby was to be played vigorously up front and everybody else had to fit into the mould.
“We never claimed to hold the keys to the mysteries of the universe, but it suited us.
“A lot of it was physical fitness. We trained mercilessly and then we had a very simple game plan.
“Basically, you sold yourself to the collective. There was absolutely no individual glory at any time. You just sacrificed everything for the common good. It was our little commune.
“Pross just treated everyone the same. There were no stars at the club, however many caps you had won. Pricey, Bobby and Charlie were treated exactly the same as everybody else. The method was more important than the personalities.
“Our Achilles Heel was that we overstepped the mark on occasions. We were quite violent really. It was all part of the system. We were quite red of claw.
“It’s just that we were very good at it.
“Bobby Windsor was just a force of nature. He was so good at all aspects of the game and that included the dark arts.
“So you tangled with him at your peril, really, and he had Charlie [Faulkner] as his henchman. Jeez, they could inflict some terrible pain. They were world-class torturers.
“It was just rugby at that time. It was a violent game.
“When I played for Cambridge University, people used to relish beating us to a pulp.
“It was all part of the fun, really. You sported all those rake marks down your back, but they were very superficial.
“The trouble was, because we played twice a week, you were always carrying some niggle. Pontypool Park had a fair bit of dog s**t on it. I spent years consuming antibiotics because every nick and cut turned sceptic. There was always something oozing pus on me.”
Butler chooses two scrum-halves – David Bishop and Terry Holmes – as the best players he lined up alongside for club and country.
“The Bish had more natural athleticism and Terry had the ultimate rugby brain,” says the former Pooler captain.
“Terry was so big and so bloody tough. When he was fit and raring to go, God, he was a good player.
“The Bish was more volatile. What you saw was what you got. The Bish was the Bish.
“He just did some extravagant things on the field, things that very few people could ever do.
“They were chalk and cheese in terms of personalities. They couldn’t have been more different.”
Playing for Wales
Butler was just 22 when he made his Wales debut at home to France in January 1980, packing down at No 8.
Then, a few weeks later, he lined up against England at Twickenham, where his back row colleague Paul Ringer was controversially sent off. You can read the full story of that extraordinary match here.
“My first two games were both spectacularly and overtly violent,” he recalls.
“You talk about the dark arts at Pontypool. Well, it seemed to me, on those two international occasions, it was quite out in the open. It was open warfare.
“But with the background I had, I just thought ‘Oh well and so it carries on at international level just as it does at club level’.
“I knew no different, so you just got on with it. That’s how it was.
“For that England game at Twickenham, it was just an atmosphere that was really toxic and the game duly delivered on what had been feared.
“I have a lot of sympathy for Paul Ringer. But, unfortunately, David Burnett, the referee, had been so specific in his final warning that even if Paul had missed John Horton, he would have probably got sent off.
“It was just a referee who was teetering on losing control and was waiting for the very next thing in order to re-establish his authority. So it was no surprise, really.
“The thing was, it didn’t actually stop a lot of things going on. It remained pretty gruesome right to the very end, really.
“The worst one was when Geoff Wheel aimed an almighty hoof at the ball as it was bumbling along the floor and Roger Uttley was stooping to pick it up. His studs just went straight up Roger’s face and it was almost as if his face peeled away.
“It was an extraordinary game and it had a significant bearing on the next chapter in Welsh rugby.
“There was such an outcry after the match.
“We went from being a side that played a very Welsh way, which definitely included a no-nonsense approach to physical contact and violence, to being told the next person that does anything will never play for Wales again.
“The phrase at the time was they took our spirit away and you can’t play like that in Wales. It’s such a part of the fabric of Welsh rugby. It became very awkward. They were very difficult times after that.
“We didn’t really recover from it until the 1987 World Cup. It had a good five-year impact on Welsh rugby.”
Living with Lions
In July 1983, Butler was called up as a replacement during the latter stages of the British & Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand.
It was to be a brief but eventful stay.
“I arrived in New Zealand on the Saturday morning to be told by Jim Telfer that the two No 8s I had come out to replace – John Beattie and Iain Paxton – were both fit!” he recalls.
“I sat on the bench against Counties Manukau in Pukekohe without getting on and then ended up getting involved in a fight in the warm-up afterwards.
“There was a mass brawl where we were assaulted by about 50 of the crowd, as we went lapping around the outside of the pitch.
“I remember it was me, Ginger McLoughlin and Colin Deans. We were just slowly going round, minding our own business, trying to do a couple of laps.
“Then all of a sudden a couple of cans start being lobbed our way and then a couple of drunken people are jostling us, then they start tackling and then the tackling becomes a bit more full on.
“It just became a bit of a Rorke’s Drift moment in the middle of the pitch and they came at us in quite high numbers. It did kick off a bit.
“I would say drunkenness played a part!
“I then played against Waikato on the Tuesday before the final Test and that was my lot.
“It was typical of my rugby career really, a little bit turbulent. I was there about nine days!”
Captaining your country
Butler doesn’t have the happiest memories of his first game as Wales skipper, against England in Cardiff in February 1983.
“Oh, that was totally disastrous, 13-all, it was just awful,” he says with a groan.
“We were just rusty and nothing quite clicked. It was an ugly draw.
“The press launched into us, saying it was a shambles and everything.
“I enjoyed being captain of what was a young Welsh team. We had good fun and had a couple of decent wins against Scotland and Ireland that season.
“But it wasn’t an easy ride. We were generally criticised far more in the media than we were praised, simply because everybody took it for granted that Wales would carry on winning at rugby. It was just one of the givens.
“Public expectation was high and if you didn’t deliver then you were fair game for a roasting. So they were tricky times, no question.
“When we lost away in Romania later that year, God, that was awful.
“Travelling through Ceaușescu’s Romania was an experience in itself. We went out there with a very callow team and came up against a pack that did a Pontypool on us. We were lambs to the slaughter.”
Butler’s last game at the helm was a defeat at home to Scotland in January 1984.
“It did get to me then,” he admits.
“I thought ‘This is an ordeal now’.
“The captain was fair game if Wales weren’t winning. It just carries certain benefits and certain perils and if you are not winning you tend to suffer a bit. That’s just the way it is.
“So I was quite happy then that Spikey Watkins was given the captaincy and I just carried on playing for that season.
“England away, in that campaign, is probably my favourite Wales game of all.”
Butler won his final cap in November 1984 against Australia. “They were the best side I played against, they were brilliant.”
Then, the following February, still only 27, he retired from international rugby.
“I had joined the BBC and I was aware I was enjoying work more than I was looking forward to playing rugby on a Saturday,” he recalls.
“There was a definite change in mental preparation and you have got to be totally on the case mentally when it comes to giving your all for Wales and something had just changed.
“So I found it quite easy to say I am done here. I had ceased enjoying it.”
The media career
Having worked as a teacher in Cheltenham for three years, Butler joined Radio Wales as a press and publicity officer in 1984.
But that role ended when he “fell out with the sports department” and he went on to work for a property development company, while still playing for his beloved Pontypool.
Then, in 1988, he was taken on by the newly launched Sunday Correspondent newspaper to write about rugby.
“That was a brilliant job,” he says.
“It was the Titanic setting sail and we all knew it was heading straight for an iceberg, but boy we partied on deck while it was afloat.”
When the Correspondent folded after a couple of years, Butler joined The Observer for what was to be a lengthy stint in two spells.
“The Observer was a lovely newspaper to work for,” he declares.
Butler combined his time in Fleet Street with working for BBC Wales, having been brought back in by new head of sport Gareth Davies in 1990.
This involved a lot of second voice commentary for both TV and radio, as well as punditry, while he also worked extensively for BBC network alongside Bill McLaren.
“Bill was great. It was lovely.” he says.
“He was very much the main voice and, if you wanted to say something, you had to grab him by the arm and he would let you in.”
Then, when McLaren retired in 2002, Butler became a main commentator.
“I didn’t find it a comfortable transition initially. It took a long time to get used to it,” he admits.
“For the first time, I had to become a student of broadcasting.”
He also presented shows on BBC Wales for a number of years before he was “bombed out” following the infamous Scrum V programme involving Gareth Thomas in 2006.
You can read the full story of that here.
The partnership with Brian Moore
Butler has forged a unique TV commentary double act with former England and Lions hooker Moore, with the pair sparking off each other in memorable fashion.
“I think he was very suspicious of working with me because I had written a couple of things in The Observer about the England team and how difficult they were and he had responded in typically barbed fashion.
“We’d had a couple of stand-offs as journo and player. So I suppose we were deeply mistrustful of each other when it came to working.
“But it’s only rugby. You can take it seriously, but you mustn’t take yourself too seriously.
“We once found ourselves working our way through our mini-bar in France late one night and started to dissect what we did and then we both stopped ourselves and said ‘Woah, woah, woah, we are not going down this road’, we are never going to talk about how we do it because if we do that it will become artificial.
“So Brian and I are just happy for it to happen organically.”
The straight-talking Moore has become famous for his animated outbursts during commentary.
“When those things happen, he stares into the middle distance and his brow is completely furrowed and he is just in one. Set jaw and off he goes,” says Butler.
“You know when it’s happening. You can see there’s physical evidence that Brian is going off on one.
“You just let him go. There’s no point in trying to mould it or shape it. Whatever happens, it will run its course.
“The one that made me laugh was in Italy when England weren’t playing very well and they hoofed the ball downfield.
“He just gave it the ‘Oh for God’s sake’.
“Brian is very good. He’s not afraid to criticise England if they are playing badly.”
Butler adds: “He always worried about what his reception in Wales would be and I said ‘Don’t get a driver to drive you behind tinted windows to the stadium, catch the train and walk across the piazza’.
“He did it once and he said he was applauded all the way across.
“I said ‘You see, people in Wales are a lot more generous when you are not playing than when you are’.
“He is great fun, very good company.”
What the Butler has seen
Now 63 and living in rural Monmouthshire, Butler is father to six children, aged between 16 and 36.
Over the last couple of years, he has added another string to his bow by doing commentary for Premier Sports on the Guinness PRO14.
“I got the opportunity to stay within the Welsh parish and broadcast with Premier and I really enjoy it,” he says.
“I find there is so much more to Welsh rugby than there ever was.
“Having been away from it for so long, you forget just how fertile and generous and creative it is.
“We spend so much of our time beating ourselves up and turning in on ourselves, we forget that actually the product is bloody good.”
Butler has also branched out as an author over the past decade.
“If you ask me what has given me most pleasure in my working life, it’s writing three novels,” he says.
“That was the most fun and rewarding work I have done.
“It’s just me and the inside of my head.”
Looking back on his career on and off the field, he concludes: “I feel very lucky, absolutely, I really do.
“I have been doing this for over 40 years now. It’s been a busy life.”
This content was originally published here.