Glenn Webbe, the Bridgend and Wales icon, talks racism, ruses and arm wrestles in a recently published autobiography that will enthral rugby fans of all ages
Book review: three decades on, Glenn Webbe is still packing a punch
Welsh publishing house Y Lolfa have a knack for producing fast-paced and lively reads, and they’ve come up trumps again with Glenn Webbe’s autobiography.
Called The Gloves Are Off, it charts the life and times of the 1980s Bridgend and Wales wing regarded – as the book cover reminds us – as “Welsh rugby’s first black icon”.
Webbe, 59, played more than 400 games for Bridgend and scored nearly 300 tries – a club record – before retiring in 1996. A ten-cap Test career seems an affront for such a powerful runner, particularly when you think he was only 26 when he won his last cap. However, by 1988 Ieuan Evans had Wales’ right-wing spot sewn up and Webbe was reluctant to play on the left because he had a strong left fend and was right-footed.
Nowadays you might shrug and get on with it, but these were the amateur days and Webbe had a stubborn streak.
He writes: “Ron (Waldron) did have a chat with me about playing on the left wing but I replied: ‘Why doesn’t Ieuan switch wings?’ I admit that the younger me was a bit cheeky at times. I had already played for Wales on the left but I really didn’t like playing there and decided to make a stand.” He went on to play eight more seasons of first-class rugby.
Webbe’s parents, Islyn and Hugh, were part of the Windrush Generation, emigrating to Britain from St Kitts after World War Two. He grew up with his seven sisters in a rough part of Cardiff but could handle himself, on or off the field. His team’s main move at high school involved him catching opposition goal kicks that fell short of the posts and running the length of the pitch to score!
Inevitably, Webbe encountered racism, most notably during a Welsh Youth tour to South Africa in 1980. He was part of a group not served in a restaurant because he was black, prompting a complaint by the tour management and a reversal of policy. When in 1989 Webbe was offered £32,000 to join a rebel tour to the country he turned it down.
His attitude to racist comments is to not react and so seize control of the situation. “It’s harder to say offensive things now than it was before, which is obviously a good thing,” he says. “These days, fuelled by the media in my opinion, to be offended by something has almost become quite trendy… if you say the wrong thing about people it can appear more of a crime than if you’d actually hit someone physically.”
He was put off joining his home-town club Cardiff after some players from the club, who he met in a pub, told him it was cliquey. So he joined Bridgend instead and what a legend he became, scoring seven tries in his first two games there and never letting up.
The nearest he came to leaving was when, aged 28, Hull FC tried to sign him to rugby league for £80,000. He played in a trial for them, scoring two tries, but stayed in union because he had met a girl, Sally, who became his wife. They’ve been together nearly 30 years.
His book is full of great tales and one of the funniest occurred 18 months after his final Test against Romania in 1988. Former internationals were entitled to free tickets to home Wales games, so he went to the WRU offices to ask for one. A woman there said he couldn’t have one because he wasn’t a former international.
“I said, ‘Well, I haven’t played for 18 months, so I am a former international.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘You have to formally retire.’
‘Okay,’ I replied, ‘give me a piece of paper and a pen.’ And I wrote, I want to announce that from this moment, Glenn Webbe has officially retired from international rugby.
Then I signed it and handed it over, saying: ‘There you are, there’s my official retirement from international rugby.’
She hesitated and then said, ‘Okay’. And she handed me a pair of tickets. You had one free but were allowed to purchase the seat next to you. I put the tickets in my pocket and headed to the door, before stopping to say: ‘I have some news for you, hot off the press.’
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘I’ve just come out of retirement!’ And I took off.”
His escapades on tour with Wales, often in the company of fellow prankster and room-mate Mark Ring, are too numerous to go into here. Suffice to say that readers will relish the antics of the amateur era, warts and all.
There are also sections on serious matters such as concussion and mental health, and a fascinating insight into visualization, and how you can achieve such a heightened sense of awareness that match incidents feel like they’re happening in slow motion. Ghostwriter Geraint Thomas was shortlisted for the 2017 Sports Book of the Year awards and has done a super job again here.
One of the best-known facts about Webbe is his prodigious strength and even today he can do 1,000 press-ups in 25 minutes. At the 1988 England-Wales post-match dinner, Webbe played a laughter box during Mike Harrison’s speech, infuriating England blindside Micky Skinner.
The two men argued and finally agreed to settle their differences with an arm wrestle, which Webbe won 3-0. Quite simply, no one could beat him. Once, he took on each member of the Neath team, one after the after, and even with the disadvantage of fatigue proved invincible.
His last competitive game for Bridgend was at Pontypool at the end of the 1995-96 season. By then, he was already suffering symptoms from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. He tackled it his own way, going off the medication and training furiously. Within a year, he felt back to normal and even returned to rugby as a player-coach. He did his Level Two WRU badge and coached Tondu to promotion.
Today Webbe is sales director and head designer of The Kitchen Bureau, the largest independent kitchen retailer in Wales.
“He remains the ‘life and soul’,” says his old buddie Ring, “and I must confess to still getting a little excited when I’m dressing up for some function in the knowledge that Glennfield Webbe is going to be there!”
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