The iconic Wales team of 1988 have gone into folklore for their thrilling Triple Crown triumph, with Jonathan Davies, Mark Ring, Ieuan Evans, Robert Jones and Bleddyn Bowen to the fore.
But while that back line dazzled as Wales stunned England at Twickenham and Scotland at the Arms Park, the grizzled forward pack was very much the foundation of the success that captured a nation.
Front row warrior Anthony Buchanan was one of those forwards and made history as the last miner to play for Wales.
He was working in the local colliery when the call came to replace the injured Staff Jones for the key game which saw almost 30,000 Welsh fans flock over to Dublin to roar on their team to a first Triple Crown in a decade.
In his new autobiography, ‘The Buck Props Here’ which is being serialised by Wales Online, Buchanan reveals the extraordinary story of how he almost got dragged into a fight with one drunken Welsh fan just hours before kick-off…
There was a real feeling of optimism around the Wales team against Ireland as we were in with a chance of a Triple Crown for the first time since the golden years of Gareth Edwards and Co.
News reached me that Staff had injured his calf and that I might be playing. That led to a tense, emotional few days where I wondered, ‘will I or won’t I?’
But the speculation ended when Staff passed his fitness test. It was a case of back to work once more, where I took a lot of stick from the others who took great delight in saying, ‘Buy a ticket like the rest of us.’
A large group of around 70 Ystradgynlais lads from the rugby club were going over to Dublin for the weekend but I couldn’t join them as I had left it too late to book my place.
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However, opportunity comes along sometimes when you least expect it.
On the Thursday before the game I was back at work underground repairing a pump when my name was called on the tannoy system (everyone in the colliery can hear what is being said).
I spoke to the control room and was told that somebody from the Welsh Rugby Union was on the telephone and wanted to speak to me.
As you can imagine, everyone listening started giving me some good-natured ribbing, shouting, ‘Get a ticket, Buchanan!’
My immediate reaction was that someone was playing a joke on me here.
I got to one of the telephones underground and it was true, it was one of the secretaries from the Welsh Rugby Union. She said, ‘You’re in the team to play against Ireland. Can you get yourself to Cardiff Airport by 3 o’clock this afternoon?’
This was at 11 o’clock in the morning.
Mark Ring was part of the thrilling Wales team of 1988, here he larks about before the opening win against England at Twickenham
I would never laugh at someone else’s misfortune, but Staff had gone to stretch his leg and raised it on to one of the barriers around the national ground and pulled a hamstring in his hitherto uninjured leg.
You couldn’t make it up!
I arranged for someone to come down and take me back to the surface. As I made my way through the washery it was a bit like Roy of the Rovers, with everyone shouting and clapping. It was a wonderfully exciting moment that I will never forget.
I believe that I was the last working miner to play for Wales – Garin Jenkins was also a miner but he had changed jobs at this time – which is quite an honour when you think of how the industry once dominated south Wales and provided so many players.
I made my way to the lamp room, where you are booked in and out of the mine, and was approached by the lampman, Gary.
He said, ‘Look, before you go, you must go up and see the manager.’
‘I haven’t got time! I’ve got to be at Cardiff Airport by 3 o’clock. And I have to go home and pack first.’
‘Now listen to me,’ he said firmly. ‘Do yourself a favour and go and see the manager before you leave.’
I had a shower and changed. I ran upstairs to the big office. I knocked on the door and it was opened by the manager, Mr Jones. He looked at me with a sort of relief on his face and said, ‘Come in.’
I replied, ‘Mr Jones, I really am pushed for time.’ He just turned and so I followed him into his office. Inside, sat at the large oak table, were three very important, dour-looking gentlemen who, as it turned out, were mine inspectors.
Mr Jones gestured towards me and declared proudly, ‘Gentlemen, this is Anthony Buchanan. He has just been selected to play for Wales against Ireland on Saturday in the Triple Crown match.’
The three gentlemen looked at me and said ‘All the best.’
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I turned and started walking towards the door when Mr Jones pulled me back and whispered, ‘No stay, don’t go.’
These inspectors were from Yorkshire. They had no interest in rugby; they were there to inspect the mine. Mr Jones must have been under pressure because he was trying to change the subject and talk about me, which they weren’t having.
It was quite farcical. I was trying to get out of the door and he was holding on to me. ‘Just give me five minutes,’ he begged in my ear.
Buchanan eventually got away and went to meet his other half, but there was real drama to follow once he met up with Jiffy and Co in Dublin….
I found Alana in the middle of a lesson. I knocked on the door and she hurried out and said, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’ve been picked to play on Saturday,’ I said.
‘Give me a minute and I will get someone to cover me and come home with you.’
You may think I was useless not being able to pack on my own, but there is so much involved. You must have your tuxedo, your dickie bow tie, all the Welsh gear, the whole shooting match. It was a mad rush but we got everything packed, although it wasn’t until I arrived in Dublin that I realised I had brought everything – apart from pants and socks!
When you are a player, on the Friday you get a limited number of tickets for the game. After our morning training session, I took mine over to the hotel where the Ystradgynlais lads were staying, to give my allocation.
After your team run-out on the Friday morning, you then try to relax for the rest of the day. Traditionally you go to the cinema in the evening. When I was at the hotel I received a phone call to say my Uncle Peter was coming over on his own, and could I get him a ticket?
My uncle was a lovely man, always supported me whenever I played. I was dismayed and said, ‘I’ve given all my tickets away.’ Remember, this was the Triple Crown match, the first in almost a decade, and tickets were as rare as rocking horse manure.
This was playing on my mind. I felt terrible, and I couldn’t concentrate on the film. Then I realised that the Ystradgynlais lads were in a hotel just around the corner from where we were and, as we were leaving the cinema at around 10pm I asked Derek Quinnell if I could have a word.
I said, ‘Look, I’m in desperate need of a ticket for my uncle and I’ve asked everyone and there are none spare. Do you mind if I just nip to the hotel and get one of my tickets back from my mates?’
Fortunately, he said yes and told me to make it quick.
I didn’t really think this through. It was late at night, on the eve of a massive international, and the supporters had been out drinking all day.
Can you imagine the scene as I walked into the hotel? The vast majority of the supporters couldn’t say bread, they were so intoxicated, and there’s me asking for a ticket.
As soon as I was spotted, I faced a barrage of questions. ‘Buchanan, what the heck are you doing out at this time of night?’
‘Don’t you dare let us down tomorrow!’
I explained I was looking for a ticket I had.
‘Why do you need a ticket? You’re playing!’
I soon realised that I was never going to get any sense from anybody in there. It was absolutely pointless. Anyone who has been with people who are drunk while you are stone cold sober will know how I felt – you see the most ridiculous things and hear absolute rubbish.
I decided to leave but, as I approached the door, one supporter, who could hardly stand, decided to punch me on the arm and tell me not to let them down tomorrow.
‘No problem,’ I said, and I tried to walk away but he followed me and punched me again. I made the mistake of turning around and saying to him, ‘If you punch me again I will drop you.’
‘You wanna fight, do you?’ he declared. ‘Come on then!’
And he started taking his coat off. I thought to myself, the Wales team are outside waiting for me. I’m playing against Ireland tomorrow. This guy wants to fight me, and I haven’t got a ticket for my uncle. What am I going to do?
I left and climbed on the bus and went back to the hotel with the team. I was worried because I realised, come Saturday morning, getting any ticket would be out of my range. All my focus would have to be on the game. I felt terrible because I knew how much of an effort my uncle had made to come over to support me.
Once back at the hotel I sat down with Phil May. I was particularly close to Phil and he was always great company and a fantastic captain to play under. I could never make out how, for someone who always put his body on the line, he never seemed to pick up cuts on his bald head when he always had cuts everywhere else.
I said to Phil, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is really starting to affect me. It’s taking my thoughts away from the game.’
Phil turned to me and said, ‘Go and see the Big Five and tell them your problem.’
I decided to take his advice, but I failed to take into account, once again, that it was 11 o’clock on a Friday night in Dublin before an international game.
Anthony Buchanan and Billy James walk down Westgate Street in Cardiff with the Wales team’s dragon mascot
(Image: Western Mail and Echo Copyright)
I steeled myself and went upstairs to the room where I knew they were and knocked on the door. John Dawes opened in a cloud of cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey.
John was a nice guy and he said to me, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I need a ticket,’ I replied.
Once again, I was greeted with, ‘Why do you want a ticket? You’re playing.’
‘My uncle is travelling from Wales overnight. Whatever it takes, I have to find a ticket for him. I want to start focusing on the game and my head is over the place.’
He disappeared into the smoke and returned a few minutes later with a ticket. I have seldom felt so relieved. The next morning I took the ticket down to reception and left it in an envelope for my uncle to collect – finally I could turn my attention to the game.
The game itself was a brilliant occasion, although international matches, as players will tell you, really do pass you in a blur.
It wasn’t a classic by any means, but the most important statistic was the final score, 9–12. We won! Paul Thorburn, who had also been recalled to the team, won it at the end with one of his kicks.
It was a phenomenal feeling to be involved in winning a Triple Crown – a mixture of relief and emotion. The pride in what you had achieved would settle in later and last.
(Image: Y Lolfa)
The Buck Props Here! By Anthony Buchanan with Geraint Thomas is published by Y Lolfa www.ylolfa.com
The book will be launched in Ystradgynlais Rugby Club, 2pm, Sunday 3 October.
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