With entrepreneurial flair and a passport full of stamps, Wales star Josh Navidi is not your average Test back-row. This first appeared in the April issue of Rugby World magazine
“I RECKON I’d have quite a bizarre autobiography,” Josh Navidi says.
He’s quick to laugh today, dreadlocks gently shaking, his big, brown eyes dancing, but this statement is one you would believe. He goes on: “It’d have to be quite short but what I’ve done, growing up, what my dad’s done for me and my mum and brother, it’s crazy.”
Even if all you cared about was who played Tests, you’d appreciate Navidi’s journey. In 2013, when swathes of Welsh players were in Australia with the Lions, the Cardiff Blue was earning his first cap in Japan. You may recall that Wales lost, and Navidi relives a few other sore details – he broke his nose and was knocked out.
Despite sterling service for the Blues, he had to wait four more years to pick up his second Wales cap, when another Lions tour took place. At the time he cracked mates up with the line: “Every four years it’s my year!” But then he was back in red again in November, getting his first game at the Principality Stadium. He’s playing in a Six Nations now, too.
That’s the easy bit to recap, though. Talking to Navidi about every other avenue he’s wandered down in his 27 years is a bit like grabbing a greased-up snake. We wriggle off into unexpected corners, much of it good fun.
Navidi revels in talking about the impact his father, Hedy, had on him.
Dad moved to Wales from Iran aged 18, pushed by his own father to get a good education, and studied civil engineering in Bangor. He then met Josh’s mum, Euros. Hedy intended to return home, but when his father passed away and he had the affections of the young Anglesey lass, that was it, bye-bye Iran.
Navidi knows no Farsi, apart from the swearwords, but he can at least follow conversations with mum in Welsh. Older brother Sam inexplicably picked up some Farsi on a visit to Turkey a few years back, much to Hedy’s surprise, but Iran is a world of mysteries really.
“I’ve never been to Iran but I want to go this year, if I get the chance,” Navidi says. “But if I went I’d have to do national service. Because you’ve got an Iranian surname, it’d flag up (after customs). So if I went when I was 18 I’d have to have done two years’ national service. I’ll have to apply for a visa and go over, hopefully I can do it that way.”
We joke that it would come as quite a shock to the Cardiff Blues and the Wales management if Navidi went off on holiday and disappeared. He chuckles: “Imagine it. ‘Lads, I’m not coming back, I’ve got to do national service!’”
Navidi likes to travel. He’s done the lads’ trips, to Dubai and San Diego with team-mates. The latter was after Wales’ 2017 summer tour. He and a gaggle of Blues saw club-mate Cam Dolan play for USA. Navidi relished the surfing there; he had been surfing a few years before but that time he was road-tripping around France in a VW camper van with his ex.
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It is the rugby-shaping, two-year sojourn to Canterbury, New Zealand, that may have had the most profound effect on his now-robust game. He was 16 when he left, his father taking him over. The family planned to emigrate Down Under a few years before but it fell through. Young Josh had always wondered what could have been and after he was surprised with a trip to a Q&A with Jonah Lomu in his hometown of Bridgend, the idea of seeing New Zealand solidified. Mind, a lot of that might have been down to Hedy yakking away with big Jonah for almost 40 minutes, the legend telling Navidi Snr that Canterbury was the place to go.
They left two days after Josh finished his GCSEs. Having happened on a clash between Christchurch Boys’ High and Christ’s College, with almost 5,000 other spectators at Rugby Park, the pair got talking to coach Matt Sexton, then attached to the Canterbury Rugby Union. On his recommendation, Navidi went to St Bede’s College and over a two-year stretch with them he tasted success and learnt valuable lessons in rugby. But he knew he would be pulled back to Wales permanently, eventually.
Navidi shone as St Bede’s tore into New Zealand’s top four sides. Catching others unaware is a bit of a specialty for the versatile back-row. He carries and hits beyond perceived limitations of his frame. He laughs off talk of his engine but he can go and go – demonstrated by him racking up 80 minutes in all but one club game he’s played this term. In the autumn, when he finally got his Test chance on home soil, he stunned many.
In this Six Nations, he has belied the early gloom surrounding Wales’ injuries to play his way. Much of that, perhaps, is to do with the fact this is his first championship. He has a winners’ medal from the 2013 campaign, despite being an unused squad member, but he does not dwell on that; he is simply thankful to now get a crack in the tournament.
“I’ve got the Six Nations medal in my house. It’s a bit bizarre; it would be nice to play in a game and earn it yourself. This is the first time in a while I’ve been back in the Six Nations squad.”
His rugby is going so well that he’s had to take a step back from the family gym, Physique, in Bridgend. It’s a venture his dad took on in 1995 after finding local options lacking, toiling to do the place up and fill it with equipment for £5,000. Josh, a qualified personal trainer, has been heavily involved but is distancing himself from it for now, with his dad taking over more of the day-to-day responsibilities.
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Navidi says: “Last year I spent a lot of time in the family gym; I was running it. I felt everything was getting too much and it was better for me to concentrate on my rugby than have something on the side that was distracting.
“I was getting phone calls on the day of a game. It was more about what to do with staff. Say someone doesn’t turn up and we needed someone to fill in. If you can do it 24-7, you can sit in the gym all day and not worry about a thing. But if you are relying on someone else being there, that is when you get a problem.”
He likes what the gym represents, to show how far his family have come. Hedy had dreamed of wrestling at the Olympics and did coach wrestling, but his calling was always elsewhere. He used to deliver tiles and carpets. He used to work in a kebab shop. The Navidi parents opened up a hair salon before moving from Cardiff to Bridgend. Brother Sam now runs two salons in Bridgend. They’ve done a lot – and then there was the gym.
So does the Wales back-row have the same entrepreneurial spirit? “With Wales we had one of those ‘life after rugby’ things. It’s like an exam to see what you would be good at. It took about three hours and then they just went, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be an entrepreneur’.
“I was looking to open an estate agents a couple of years ago and I’ve been looking into opening a wine bar as well, in Cardiff. They’re on hold at the minute. I’ve done some personal training but I’m too busy in the day. After rugby you want to chill out.
“If I tried to do something like that (open a wine bar) it wouldn’t work. You’d need either a manager running it 24-7 for you or someone you know quite well to be there all the time. On a Friday, the night before a game, I’m not going to be there, sipping away on wine.”
If you think that is it for the twists, Navidi then comes into another new subject off the back of this idea. He is, it turns out, nothing if not innovative.
“If you’ve got money saved up, you can open anything. The boys do joke about the fact I save my money. I bought a car off my mate and the engine went in it. I changed the engine myself. It’s the first time I’ve done it but I’ve lowered cars, I’ve changed brakes before… I think I learnt from my dad.
“The one I did up was an Audi A3. My mate moved to New Zealand and he needed to get rid of it, so I said whatever he wanted for it I’d pay it. It took me probably 20 hours to do. It was raining and I had to cover up the engine. I was doing it all outside because I don’t have a garage.”
He laughs about this but lets slip that he may go car shopping that afternoon. He’s done the best he can with the Audi. Much like Wales have done as they power on, despite multiple injuries. Much like the Blues will have to do, led by senior statesman Navidi, next season in the post-Danny Wilson era. The small squad have to prove many wrong.
Navidi doesn’t seem to care if an opportunity looks awkward to others, though – it is still an opportunity. He has been making up for lost time in recent Tests and that inherent Navidi nous, that natural ingenuity, has played no small part in him impressing in red.
He has offered up some fine national service.
This feature first appeared in the April issue of Rugby World magazine.