The former Wales, Barbarians and Lions rugby union player raised a few eyebrows when he left for Warrington to play rugby league in 1973. But more than 40 years on, John Bevan, 63, has not looked back and is now a master of rugby and housemaster at Haberdashers' Monmouth School. He talks to CAIO IWAN.
"YOU’VE got to be a nasty piece of work to play in the back-row. That’s where I played until sixth form but then I moved to being a centre, then a winger, and I had to learn more ball skills and improve my positional play.
My union career lasted from when I was 11 years old until I was 22. I spent six of those years as a back-row and three on the wing.
I had earned 10 caps for Wales by the time I was 22. Fiji was my first game, when I was 19 or 20, but I won my first official cap against England while I was playing for Cardiff College – I was lucky enough to play in a great side there with a lot of good coaches.
I was studying Physical Education (PE) and Religious Education (RE) - I’m not religious, but all of my family are either miners or vicars. As a teenager I worked in the mines every summer for weeks. You’d be catching the 5am bus and working straight through until 3.30pm. It definitely toughened you up and it was hard work. I was working with men at 15.
I went on the Lions tour in 1971, the year we won the Grand Slam with Wales. It must have been a gamble to take me there because I was the youngest member of the squad. I scored 17 tries in 13 games for the Lions – a record I hold with [Sir] Tony O’Reilly, who’s now a millionaire by the way – where did I go wrong?!
On the tour, I couldn’t wait to get home – I was there for three-and-a-half months but was homesick after a couple of weeks. We would play Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday and it was a long time to be away from home. But I was a real nuisance and no fun to be around.
I’ve worked under some terrific coaches like Clive Rowlands and Carwyn James [who was the Lions head coach on their victorious tour of New Zealand in 1971]. He would always pick on me because I was the student. He was great. Once on that tour, he took my passport away from me and said I’d be going home but he was never going to let me even though he knew I wanted to.
I can’t remember the score when I played for the Baa-Baas against New Zealand, but we won! I remember Gareth’s try [the famous Gareth Edwards try where he touches down in the corner] well and I also scored a try in that match.
After I finished at Cardiff I signed on the dole for a month and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. But then Warrington came in for me. At the time, I didn’t know where it was. But I made the decision to go up north, and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did – I was a league player born in Wales.
Here, I could run 60 or 70 yards and score a try without anybody touching me. In league, when you wake up in the morning it feels like you’ve been run over by a bus. I’ve had a couple of red cards in both codes but you couldn’t be a shrinking violet when you played league – it’s such a tough game. I’ve had some horrendous injuries – dislocated shoulder, elbow, I’ve dislocated every finger at least once.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was going to a good club. I had 13 happy seasons in Lancashire. They are Welsh people with funny accents. Good people.
If you won every week, you could live on it, but if you lose, you couldn’t. We were paid only if we won.
I went on to captain the Wales rugby league team which I’m very proud of. I was also lucky enough to represent Great Britain and went on a tour with them a few years after my first with the Lions.
I retired from rugby when I was 35. I played 332 games for Warrington and scored 201 tries.
I worked at a Roman Catholic School in Warrington between the ages of 22 and 28, where I was teaching RE.
Then I taught at Arnold School with my wife, Rhiannon, whom I married in 1972 and who had a job there as a school nurse. We did some boarding and that’s where my son John-Rhys went. He is now 38.
After 14 years at Arnold School I had a bit of a midlife crisis and applied for the job as head coach at Munster in 1997. But there was an issue with the contracts and the Irish players wouldn’t come back from England to play so I had to leave. I then became director of coaching with the Welsh Rugby Union. I didn’t enjoy it. It was an office job and it wasn’t as hands-on as I would’ve liked.
But I was head coach of the Wales team in the under 19s world championships in 1999 and we lost in the final to a New Zealand side that had Richie McCaw, Jerry Collins and all these playing for them. We had a good team then too.
I always wanted to be a teacher. I enjoy working with kids and I think you get better as you become more experienced. As a young teacher I made some horrendous mistakes but you’ve got to have a passion for it and learn from it.
It was later then that I joined Monmouth School. The house that I run is the last step before they go to university. You’re like their parents – they need boundaries. But it’s amazing to see them grow and thinking you’ve played some part in overseeing their development from a young 11-year-old into a young man. It’s very rewarding.
The first 15 and the under 12s are the two most important teams in the school. With the young ones, you brainwash them into thinking that rugby is the best sport in the world! There are 17 teams in the school and very talented staff. We’ve had a cracking couple of seasons which is a testament to everyone involved right throughout the school and not just myself. We’ve produced some good players in recent years, like Hallam Amos, who’s gone on to play for Wales, and there are a few other dark horses coming through as well but you can never tell because people change so much from one year to the next.
We get a Dragons coach coming in a couple of times a week to do some conditioning work with the boys and they religiously attend.
It would be a nightmare if they were just here for the rugby though. They must make an effort to get some academic results – that’s something we emphasise strongly here.
You’re a broken leg away from being a nobody so you’ve always got to think about your career beyond rugby."