The true story of the day Welsh rugby’s hardest men were injured fighting a bull

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Gareth Llewellyn couldn’t believe what his eyes were seeing.

Did all top rugby clubs do things this way?

Trek back to the late 1980s when Neath RFC were on tour in the south of France.

The itinerary had taken a strange turn when the players were dispatched to a farm and ended up fighting bulls.

Llewellyn was just 19 and as green as grass. He had heard that the club he had joined just weeks earlier did things differently.

Now such whispers were confirmed with bells on as he watched one of his new team-mates come off second best in the bullring and another, Brian Williams, actually grappling with a bull in scenes producers of the ancient TV series Rawhide might have signed off.

When he’d read that manual How to Succeed in Rugby, Llewellyn must have missed the chapter entitled The Importance of Bullfighting in the 15-man Code.

But that’s how Neath did it back then.

No doubt, those charged with preparing regional players for the return of rugby in the coming weeks will take a slightly different approach.

“Let’s just say the trip was of its time,” says Llewellyn.

“I was only a kid, so it was an eye-opener in every respect.

“Brian Thomas, who was running the rugby side of things at Neath at the time, had told us beforehand the tour would be character-building, and so it proved.

Gareth Llewellyn in action for Neath

“The match we played out there turned into a battle royale, but a few boys didn’t even make it onto the field, having been hurt fighting bulls.

“We’d been invited out onto a farm where they were breeding these bulls.

“At first everything was pretty much as you expected.

“They puts us on tractors and we toured the place and looked at all the bulls. Then they took us back to the farm for an outdoor lunch that came with buckets of pastis, a French alcoholic aperitif, which the boys tucked into.

Brian Thomas came over and said: ‘Boys, they have a small bullring here where you can go in and have a go, with some small bulls.’

“So we went across to this bullring with half-a-dozen boys split in the middle of the ring with these cloaks waiting for what I thought would be something the size of a labrador to come trotting out.

“Instead, they rolled back this gate and a bull came out with a big set of horns, on the end of which were steel balls, presumably to stop the skin from being pierced when contact was made.

“As soon as it ran out, the boys legged it to the areas around the ring where the bull couldn’t get you.

“It was all quite funny to start with.”

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But events took an unfortunate turn.

“The boys were creeping out from behind the safety barriers until Andrew Kembery decided to edge a bit further.

“The bull, in the meantime, was doing everything you’d seen in cartoons — scraping the dust back with his hooves, bowing his head and snorting.

“I thought to myself: ‘If that bull runs, Kembers is not going to make it back to safety’.

“With that, the bull took off.

“Instead of trying to reach safety, Kembery panicked and pulled up the cloak in front of him and got absolutely flattened. He was knocked off his feet and had a huge gouge down his chest where a steel ball had hit him, which meant he couldn’t take part in the game at the weekend.

“The French guys who were watching were just laughing at it all.”

Neath RFC legend Brian Williams

That should have been that, really. Point proved: rugby players make useless bullfighters, let’s all go and have another glass of pastis.

But the French weren’t finished, sending in another, bigger bull, this time with nothing on his horns.

“By that stage, even Brian Thomas was starting to get twitchy,” remembers Llewellyn.

“But Kevin Phillips and Brian Williams jumped into the ring.

“Brian Thomas shouted: ‘Get out, get out. This is over now. We’ve finished’.

“The farmers [Phillips and Williams] were having none of it and within seconds they were doing the matador thing, swishing cloaks above their heads and stepping to the side when the bull ran towards them.

“It was unnerving to watch.

“After seeing what had happened to Kembery, I thought there was a fair chance we could see someone seriously injured or worse.

“I thought there was a fair chance I was going to see somebody die.

“Kevin got himself into a bit of trouble but managed to get out of there and behind the safety barrier.

“The next thing the bull ran at Brian Williams.

“Brian tackled the bull around the neck and the animal took off, charging around the ring with Brian holding on for dear life. He was eventually shrugged off but pulled himself up and used his skills as a farmer to calm the bull.

“Even the French were astonished.

“They went from laughing at us to being stunned into silence at what Brian had just done.”

It was a Crocodile Dundee moment without the hat with corks.

Williams injured his knee in the episode, ruling him out of the game with Beziers a few days later.

It was a loss because Neath could have done with their hardest player.

“The match was a battle from start to finish,” says Llewellyn.

“It was brutal, everything you’d expect when you played rugby in France in the late 1980s, with big punch-ups and people coming off the field left, right and centre.

“On the final whistle, people were shaking hands when all of a sudden the floodlights went off and the whole place was plunged into darkness. We thought ‘what the heck’s going on here? Are they going to start fighting again?’ Then a big fireworks display started. For a young lad, the trip was some experience.”

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Tragically, Williams passed away long before his time, at the age of just 46. Pembrokeshire’s finest would have been 60 next month.

Llewellyn has previously called him “the fittest and most powerful man I played rugby with”.

The iron-man prop left behind a store of memories, among them the time he trekked across fields to the nearest hospital after a horrific farm accident left him with an almost severed wrist.

Even Williams, a man renowned for his immunity to pain, feared it was the end of the road for him as a rugby player.

But within months he was back on the pitch.

“Before I joined Neath, I didn’t know guys like Brian Williams existed,” says Llewellyn.

“The man was a freak.

“People talk a lot about his toughness and Brian was a very, very hard man, but he was also a great friend and a gentleman off the pitch.

“He was as tough as they come and didn’t need to demonstrate his toughness. Everyone just accepted that’s the way he was.”

Maybe the last word goes to Dai Shaw, Neath’s team secretary at the time and a man at the very heart of things during the club’s glory years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Brian was special,” Shaw told WalesOnline.

“He was the man, the leader of the pack.

“Some people say he was the most influential player ever to pull on the Neath jersey.

“It is hard to disagree.

“When he played, there was a sense that everything and anything was possible.

“It was a joy to watch him play, but even more of a joy to know the man.”

A special man was Brian Williams, one who had the strength of the Hulk and the resolve of an ancient Celtic king.

Assuredly, he won’t be forgotten.

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