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Sport The demons that plagued Rhys Priestland, those infamous boos by Wales fans and his one big regret

19:15  16 may  2021
19:15  16 may  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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The great batsman Sachin Tendulkar once said: “If one man is representing India in cricket, then, yes, blame that person when things go wrong.”

It’s a line that can be adapted across different sports.

In Welsh rugby, especially, the man who plays No. 10 for the national team might be able to empathise with it. So many have copped flak after bad team performances and results. So many have been blamed almost to the exclusion of all others.

It can hurt - of course it can.

The morning after Wales lost to South Africa in Cardiff in 2000, the home fly-half for that game, Arwel Thomas, told this writer how he’d been driving home after the match and looked across on the M4 at countless mini-buses packed with gloom-ridden Welsh supporters.

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Thomas said: ''I thought to myself: ‘I bet all the people in those buses are blaming me for what happened'."

Neil Jenkins will know the feeling, and probably Stephen Jones as well, plus David Evans, Colin Stephens, Adrian Davies, too — all quality players in their day, all criticised at various points.

Oh, and Rhys Priestland. Him as well.

Indeed, maybe he attracted more abuse than all of those listed above.

Remember how it played out when Wales faced Australia in Cardiff in 2014? Priestland was the target for boos before he even came onto the field as a replacement. There have been some low points for players at the national ground over the past 40 years, but maybe that was the lowest, and possibly the most hurtful.

Not long after, Priestland made the decision to head for Bath to play his rugby.

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Anyone watching him performing in recent seasons, with his ice-cool decision making and glacial calm under pressure, will not have imagined he was a man with one big professional regret.

It’s a significant one, too.

Rhys’s regret

In an interview with the RugbyPass website, the west Walian revealed his previously lax attitude to mental health is the one thing he wishes he’d have done differently.

An ambassador for the Rugby Players Association’s Restart mental health charity, he stresses that, if he could turn back the clock, he would have had a different approach to dealing with the pressures of his professional career.

"It’s something I have had to work hard on," he says. "I was guilty a bit at the start. If someone asked me how are you after not even a poor performance, if things outside rugby were getting me down, you’d just brush it off and say I’m fine.

“It seemed like the macho thing to do but I now realise you don’t have to do it on your own, there are people out there who can help you. It is something I have worked hard on and it has made me a better person.

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"I’m nowhere near as miserable to be around if some things don’t go well on a rugby field anymore and that is important.

“I definitely wasn’t (the most confident player I could have been). If I had my time again that is one thing I would have focused more of my time and energy into that. At the time I couldn’t see the wood from the trees. I didn’t realise how important it was. It’s one of my major regrets from my career. There we are.”

What is there to say?

The ex-Wales rugby coach Steve Hansen used to reckon: “There is no point dwelling on the past because you can’t change it. All you can do is learn from it.”

If only it were that simple.

The human condition being what it is, every single one of us probably would do certain things differently if we could head back a few moves and play the game again. Not turning up for that key job interview because of a hangover? It seemed a good idea at the time. Rushing that spot-kick in a Wednesday night five-a-side tournament? Should have stayed calmer. Watching football the night before an important exam? Probably best not to put that high up on the CV.

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And so it goes on.

Where Priestland has kicked on is that he’s developed as a player and as a person as a result of his experiences.

Those Wales jeers from his own fans

It’s easy to forget how much he went through earlier in his career.

How much of a hammer blow must the booing business have been?

Imagine you were him at that point. You’d been getting up at dawn for two weeks, undergoing multiple sessions in the dreaded ice chambers that were in vogue with Wales at the time and throwing yourself into 12-hour training days that made some players physically unwell.

Then as you were about to run onto the field to play rugby for your country at the national ground, a section of the crowd choose to jeer you at the mere mention of your name over the public address.

Priestland hadn’t even started performing.

All he had done was sing the national anthem, watch the first 47 minutes of a match, get out of his seat and run onto the pitch.

Highs and lows

Here was a particularly clever player with game-winning skills.

At the 2011 World Cup, it was his smooth passing that gave the likes of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies the time and space to cause all kinds of problems for opposition defences.

Warren Gatland saw him as the missing piece in Wales’ jigsaw at the time.

Certainly, his emergence at that tournament had a transformative effect on the team. It was as if a master-switch had been flicked that put all the lights on. Wales looked to have found their No. 10 for the next decade.

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But barely a year later the then Scarlet revealed he’d sought the support of a sports psychologist to help him rediscover his form.

He’d been the focus for a torrent of criticism over his performances during a run of Welsh games and he announced he’d come off Twitter, with the vitriol not unsurprisingly affecting him.

There was a revealing interview after Wales had been beaten by New Zealand, eight days after they’d lost at home to Samoa. Then, Priestland said: “After Samoa I did not want to leave the flat or see anyone, I felt I had let people down.

'The poor performances were a lot to do with me because I have been playing with blinkers on.

“I put my head in the sand, cutting myself away and that has been the problem. One of the issues I have is I have not been asking for help.

“I have started to see the sports psychiatrist we used during the World Cup and he has been really good. A lot of the boys have been using Andy McCann, so I thought I would give it a shot because I had nothing to lose.

“I have tried to address it and hopefully I can get back to the way I have been playing.”

It would have been hard not to have felt sorry for him.

Eventually, Dan Biggar came to be Wales’ first-choice No. 10, a completely contrasting character with the hide of a rhino, who seemed able to plough on regardless of criticism or the occasional off-colour performance.

There was a privately held belief among some of the Wales management that if you could blend Biggar and Priestland you’d have close to the perfect fly-half for the modern game.

Whatever, it was Biggar who nailed down the jersey.

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He is now up to 92 caps for his country.

Playing in England for the past six years, Priestland has seen his cap tally stop at 50.

But he is back in Wales with Cardiff Blues next season. The odds are against him returning to the Test scene in some shape or form, but such a scenario isn’t wildly inconceivable.

He remains a fly-half whose clever mind means he carries a clear mental picture of a game, allowing him to make good decisions. At times he is like a snooker player thinking a couple of shots ahead.

Cause for regret?

How good could he have been had he fully realised his potential?

Well, it’s hard to say he hasn’t tapped into all his ability with Bath.

He has been a wonderful player for the English club.

a football player on a field: Rhys Priestland slots another kick © Clive Mason/Getty Images Rhys Priestland slots another kick

When Ugo Monye and Lawrence Dallaglio named the top 10 fly-halves to play in the Gallagher Premiership, Monye included Priestland on his list, above Jonny Wilkinson.

As Dan Lydiate remarked earlier this season, almost every player improves the more experience he acquires. He learns how to adapt to different situations, to train differently, to think differently and he should acquire new skills.

Yes, Priestland might not have been the most confident player on the pitch back in the day.

But few players can call themselves complete when they're young.

His modesty has long shone through, he has a personable nature and lack of ego.

Stuff like that matters.

And Priestland has learned how to cope on the field as he has gone along.

That matters, too.

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