The story of the important man in all the Welsh rugby pictures who knows everything that’s happened


He’s seen it all and met them all during his two decades at the helm of Welsh rugby.

First as secretary and then, for the last 11 years, as president of the WRU, Dennis Gethin has been at the sharp end of some truly momentous times.

There was the rebel season, the building of the Millennium Stadium, Grannygate and the civil war between the WRU and the regions.

There have also been the successes on the field, with Grand Slams and Six Nations titles, and his experiences of that trio of Kiwi coaches Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland.

Then there have been the dignitaries he has met along the way, from Nelson Mandela to a whole palace full of royals.

Now, as he prepares to embark on his final year as president, he is able to reflect with pride on a remarkable rugby life.

Dennis Gethin (Swansea, Neath, Cardiff, Glamorgan Wanderers): A Welsh Schools international and winner of two Blues at Cambridge in 1965 and 66. The full-back did go onto bigger and better things in Welsh rugby, but unfortunately it was off the pitch as President of the WRU.
Welsh Rugby Union president Dennis Gethin

How it all began

His love affair with the sport began at the age of eight when he first picked up a rugby ball back home in Seven Sisters.

It continued at Neath Grammar School, where he was to cross paths with one of the great future characters of the Welsh game.

“I remember when I was in the sixth form, one of the school teachers saying to me ‘There’s a boy in form one, there’s no harm in him, but we can’t stop him talking’.

“That boy was Clive Norling.

International referee Clive Norling was a talkative fellow pupil at Neath Grammar School

“I was his prefect and I used to put him in detention almost every day of the week.

“It didn’t do anything because he still carried on talking. Obviously I failed miserably!”

After being capped at full-back by Welsh Secondary Schools, he went on to study history and law at Cambridge University, where he won two rugby Blues.

“We played against New Zealand in 1963 when Don Clarke was the full-back for them,” he said.

“He was probably the most famous rugby player in the world back then.

“What I will never forget about that is walking off the field, he said ‘We will have a chat afterwards once I’ve had a shower’.

“I thought that was marvellous of him. He said ‘Now some of the stuff you did today was good and other stuff was not good’.

“I was just fascinated by him. Here he was, the biggest name in the game and he was taking time to try and help me.”

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An eye-catching performance for Cambridge in a victory over Cardiff at the Arms Park saw Gethin approached by Wales and Lions lock Keith Rowlands about joining the Blue & Blacks, which he did.

He went on to play 109 games for Cardiff between 1966 and 1971 – in a back line featuring the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies and Ken Jones – scoring 548 points, including a record-equalling 199 in 1969.

Gethin was a proliific points-scorer for Cardiff. Here the full back takes a penalty kick against the Barbarians at the Arms Park in April 1969

After retiring from rugby at a comparatively young age to concentrate on his career as a solicitor, he moved from private practice to local government where he rose to become chief executive of Taff Ely Borough Council from 1982 until his retirement in 1996.

A baptism of fire

But there was to be no pipe and slippers for this coalminer’s son, as a new chapter opened up for him, when he was appointed secretary of the WRU in 1998.

Almost immediately he found himself embroiled in the kind of political storm for which Welsh rugby is so renowned, as Cardiff and Swansea jumped ship to play a season of rebel friendlies against English clubs.

“That was a real initiation in the job,” he recalls.

“It was a pretty traumatic time for Welsh rugby with two clubs breaking away.

“That period was quite hectic and very challenging.

“It was a difficult time, no doubt about it.

“I suppose I was lucky in having played for Cardiff I knew quite a lot of the people involved.

“It was certainly a good way to learn about the job.”

Gethin receives the OBE from Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, at Buckingham Palace in 2016

Just months into the role, Gethin also played his part in appointing Graham Henry as Wales’ first overseas coach, in the summer of 1998.

“Glanmor Griffiths, myself and Terry Cobner went out to meet him in Australia, because he didn’t want to meet in New Zealand,” he reveals.

“Vernon Pugh had wanted us to go and meet this chap because he felt he was something special as a coach.

“It was obvious immediately that he knew his rugby and he was a lovely bloke with it.

“He had a marvellous run with the Welsh team.

“I got on really well with him and we have kept friendly ever since.”

Gethin’s highly eventful first year as secretary also served up the daunting challenge of completing the Millennium Stadium in time to host the 1999 World Cup.

“I did fear at one point we wouldn’t get it built in time,” he admits.

“I remember the roof had to come over twice from Italy because some metal went overboard.

“That was quite a hectic period!”

The dramas came thick and fast, not least in early 2000 when the Grannygate saga erupted after it was revealed that New Zealanders Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson had not been eligible to play for Wales after all.

Graham Henry during his days as Wales coach

“The press got heavily involved in that and it was fascinating,” reflects Gethin.

“It was incredible really.

“We spent a lot of time out in Ireland because the IRB was based there.

“We were having to answer charges. We were in the dock to a certain extent, so my training as a solicitor came in useful, no doubt about it.

“It sparked a change really because it was the start of tightening up the whole eligibility issue.”

So Dennis, did you ever get to the bottom of how it all happened?

“Not really, no. I wish I did!” he replies.

“Those were very interesting times, they were.”

Further trauma was to follow in February 2002 when Henry decided to stand down, with the previous year’s Lions tour having taken a heavy toll on him.

Once again, Gethin found himself having to act as the public face of the WRU at a time of crisis.

“Graham wanted to leave. I think he had lost a lot of confidence,” he recalls.

“When he finished, he wasn’t there at the press conference.

“I had to announce it. He had written a statement out for me. He said ‘I can’t face it to come myself, can you read this out for me?’

“He was a shadow of himself and I had seen him at his strongest.

“It gave you a real insight into what being the Wales coach was all about.

“It’s one of the hardest jobs you can have.”

That was something Henry’s successor Steve Hansen also discovered during a lengthy losing run.

“He was different to Graham,” reflects Gethin.

“He was a former policeman and there was no messing around with him.

“He was pretty blunt, but I go on really well with him.

“He had to show a lot of strength of character when results weren’t going his way.”

Steve Hansen is unveiled as Wales coach in February 2002, joined on top table by Gethin, WRU chairman Glanmor Griffiths and team manager Alan Phillips

Not that being secretary of the Union – a post Gethin occupied until 2002 – was the easiest job either.

“You had to be very careful what you were saying and doing,” he acknowledges.

“You had to be very diplomatic.

“I was helped a lot by Sir Tasker Watkins, who was president at the time.

“He was without a shadow of a doubt the most incredible man I ever met.”

Gethin’s own stint as president, which began in 2007, has seen some further eventful times, notably the bitter civil war between the WRU and the regions.

“That was another difficult period,” he concedes.

Former WRU president and Victoria Cross recipient Sir Tasker Watkins, who Gethin describes as the most incredible man he ever met

I put it to Gethin that he has spent a fair chunk of the last 20 years having to soothe troubled waters.

“That’s a nice way to phrase it!” he replies.

“There’s always something going on in Welsh rugby.

“It might be a bit of a bonus in a way, as it gives us a bit of an edge.”

As president, Gethin’s reign has dovetailed with that of another Kiwi coach of the Wales team in Warren Gatland.

“I’ve got a tremendous regard for him,” he says.

“He’s a top coach and a top person, with a good sense of humour.

“The year he came was the year I became president. Then, when he retires, I’m finishing too.”

Along with Sir Tasker Watkins, Gethin also highlights former WRU and IRB chairman Vernon Pugh as a remarkable character – “It was his intellect really” – while he speaks fondly of Terry Cobner, David Pickering and Keith Rowlands.

Vernon Pugh made a big impression on Gethin

And, of course, there’s his wife, Janet, who has been an ever present figure at his side.

“She has been a massive support,” he says, sat in the lounge of their home in Pontypridd.

“I have never sent an email in my life, I have never sent a text. She does all that for me.

“Modern technology hasn’t grabbed me. Far from it.”

What about Twitter, Instagram, Facebook?

“I have heard the names,” he replies.

For Gethin, it’s been all about face to face encounters and he has had plenty of memorable ones down the years, particular as WRU president.

There have been meetings with the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Queen, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, plus Princes William and Harry,

Princess Anne he describes as someone who really knows their rugby, while Prince Harry is “a star turn”.

Gethin looks on as Prince William talks to Wales centre Jonathan Davies after a match at the Principality Stadium

But his favourite royal is Prince William, patron of the Welsh Rugby Union and regular visitor to the Principality Stadium.

“He loves his Welsh rugby,” says Gethin.

“When he comes to the matches in Cardiff, I am fortunate to sit next to him. He knows his rugby and he’s got a marvellous sense of humour.

“He’s involved with the Charitable Trust and is marvellous with the injured former players.

“He goes in to see them when he’s down for internationals and spends a lot of time with them.”

Gethin’s role as president also sees him regularly rising to his feet to speak at both pre and post match functions and other events.

“Because I have done it for so long now, I am not worried about it,” he says.

“I think my time in local government, getting on my feet and speaking, probably helps.

“I usually start and finish in Welsh.

“In English, I will say best of luck to both sides and may the better team win.

Gethin has become very accustomed to speaking in public over the years

“But when I say it in Welsh I don’t mention the opposition.

“It’s just best of luck to Wales!”

Now 74, Gethin is entering the final furlong of his long tenure as president.

“I will do one more year,” he reveals.

“I am very proud to have done it as long as I have.

“I have been very fortunate. I have travelled the world and met some incredible people.

“I’ve also really enjoyed being involved with the grass roots clubs, they are the backbone of Welsh rugby.

“I feel a very lucky man to have done what I have done. I have been privileged, there’s no doubt about it.”



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