Guinness Premiership: Llewellyn stays in fashion at Bristol

Welsh Peter Pan keeps flying in the line-out and helping his latest side to take off
Click to follow

Gareth Owen Llewellyn has no intention of raiding his memory to produce a book about his illustrious career. It's not that he hasn't got stories to tell or milestones to register, it's just that he is not a fan of the genre. "They're so incredibly boring, I don't bother to read them," he said.

It's a pity, because one of the things he could impart to the younger generation is how to survive in the jungle that is professional rugby. In many respects Llewellyn is the model pro, which helps to explain why he is still earning a living at the ripe old age of 37-and-a-half.

He is the oldest player in the Guinness Premiership, older even than Tony Windo, the former Gloucester prop now with Worcester. "When Windo heard I was playing on for another year, he was doing somersaults," said Llewellyn. Last weekend the Peter Pan of the Premiership scored a try in Bristol's marvellous start to the season, a demolition job on Worcester at Sixways.

"Anything can happen at the start of a season and we had a sneaking feeling we could nick it," he said. "To score five tries was fantastic." Today Bristol play Saracens at the Memorial Ground, and the former Wales captain will again attempt to dominate affairs at the line-out.

Most players, particularly forwards, tend to retire in their early 30s. There is an unwritten rule - they don't wear the heavy metal jacket beyond the age of 34. So what is Llewellyn's secret? "Apart from having an operation on my pelvis when I was young I've managed to steer clear of any serious injuries. The other thing is that wherever I've been I've always been faced with a challenge. The game I'm playing now is totally different to when I started. In fact, it's evolved two or three times. The key is to try and stay ahead of the game.

"We had the introduction of the World Cup, then professionalism, which changed everything. The hardest part is the training. The pre-season programme can be daunting because all that endurance stuff doesn't suit the big forwards, but I enjoy hard work and I like the environment."

Llewellyn, 6ft 6in and 18st, first played for the junior club Llanharan, where he won youth caps for Wales, before joining Neath, who were described as the Welsh All Blacks, in 1988. He was playing against the New Zealand All Blacks within months. When Neath played the tourists at the Gnoll, Llewellyn had a fine match against Ian Jones and made such an impression that in 1989 he made his debut for Wales against New Zealand at Cardiff.

"The All Blacks won 34-9 and the only other thing I remember is Grant Fox kicking goals. I was thinking that he looked exactly as he did on TV. Test match rugby is that much harder and faster. It's 80 minutes on another level. At one point I was dreadfully out of breath and when I looked around everyone else was the same."

Llewellyn's international career spanned 15 years, another feat of endurance. Like his first cap in '89, his 92nd in 2004 (he is Wales's most capped player) came against the All Blacks in Cardiff. Wales lost that one 26-25. To get to the magic 100 he needed to play in the last World Cup, but he didn't make the squad. It is not only Wales who have underestimated Llewellyn's stamina.

After seven good years at Neath (his brother Glyn also played for them, winning nine caps for Wales) he enjoyed four seasons, as a full-time pro, at Harlequins before returning to Neath, where he served another three years. "They had a bunch of kids but we still won the title." When Wales concentrated on forming the regions, the obvious move for Llewellyn was to join the Neath-Swansea Ospreys. It didn't work out. "I was on a one-year contract but I only played about five times," he said. "I had a disagreement with the coach, Lyn Jones, about the way we were playing and in the end they wanted me to leave."

Llewellyn joined Narbonne - "a fantastic life experience" - and at the start of last season was recruited by promoted Bristol, on a one-year contract, for another tilt at the Premiership. "A lot of the boys hadn't played at that level and it was a massive challenge. The task was to stay up." Richard Hill, Bristol's coach, had no hesitation in offering him a year's extension. "He's such a good player and an excellent professional," Hill said. "He's in good physical shape and belies his age. He's been a really important member of the side. He gives us 100 per cent on the pitch and has also bought into what we're trying to do off the field."

In a friendly at Neath, Bristol lost two hookers, Neil Clark and Saul Nelson, to injury but await the arrival of three New Zealanders, the Maori lock Sean Hohneck, the Waikato stand-off Dave Hill and the Otago centre Neil Brew. The lantern-jawed Llewellyn is not so much taking it match by match as season by season.

"When I retire I would love to take up coaching," he said, "but at the moment I'm playing with as much enthusiasm as ever. As a teenager I used to envy soccer players for making a living out of their sport. I realise how lucky I am." In the distant amateur days Llewellyn worked as a fitter. Has there ever been a fitter fitter?

Rocks Of Ages: Some veterans just keep propping up

CHARLIE FAULKNER

Country: Wales. Caps: 19.

The grizzled old prop (nobody knew his age, but he is thought to have been born in 1941) was a member of the Pontypool and Wales front row, along with Bobby Windsor and Graham Price, known as the Viet-Gwent.

JOHN DAVIES

Age: 37. Wales. Caps: 34.

Another veteran prop, the farmer from Dyfed was born on 1 February, 1969 which makes him 26 days older than Gareth Llewellyn. Davies (below) is still going strong for Llanelli.

JUAN COSA

Age: 40. Argentina. Caps: None.

The granddaddy of the professional game in Europe. Cosa, who plays at full back or wing, moved to Europe in the 1990s and played in the European Challenge Cup for the Italian club Catania last season at the age of 40.

ALAIN PENAUD

Age: 37. France. Caps: 31.

The former France and Saracens stand-off was supposed to go into semi-retirement last season as player-coach of Lyon but instead he has found himself playing for Stade Français.

Comments