In the new normality of lockdown, virtual quizzes have been all the rage, so for rugby aficionados, here’s a poser: Which Welsh player has the same number of Tests starts as Los Pumas captain Agustin Creevy, France’s perpetually blood-stained openside Jean-Pierre Rives and South Africa’s World Cup-winning centre Jaque Fourie?

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Too difficult? Some more clues. He is a Lions Test starter, won a Grand Slam in 2012, and has played in two World Cups. Still struggling? He will be forever wed to a tackle that fells the ball carrier below the knees, dubbed ‘the chop’.

For those of you who take a passing interest in rugby, you wouldn’t need to be Hercule Poirot to deduce RugbyPass are talking about Dan Lydiate. Not seen in the red of Wales since November 2018 (after a typically committed shift against Australia), the softly-spoken blindside has endured a season with the Ospreys that could be charitably described as challenging, or for the blunter speaking fan, a car crash.

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Warren Gatland guest stars on the latest episode of The Breakdown

Two wins in 13 PRO14 games, including a 44-0 drubbing by close rivals the Scarlets, and a whitewash in the Champions Cup was compounded aided by the messy fallout of head coach Allen Clarke’s departure mid-season. From the outside, it looked rudderless, with only Mike Ruddock answering the clarion call and parachuted in to administer some crisis management.

In the midst of the storm, the Ospreys needed stability in the World Cup-enforced absence of talisman Justin Tipuric, and Lydiate, the redoubtable blindside, stepped up to provide much-needed leadership for a callow, depleted side. Rarely seen without one, or even two black eyes, he put his body on the line and tackled himself to a standstill, even being shunted up to the second row when able bodies were limited.

When the season was abruptly halted last month by the virus outbreak, he lay fifth in the league with 152 tackles. More importantly, he had enjoyed a consistent run of games after an injury-ravaged few years which had seen him make only 63 appearances for the Ospreys in five seasons.

Bunkered down with his wife Nia and their two children at home in Ammanford, Lydiate, the master of the understatement, has mixed feelings about a tumultuous season. “From a results point of view, it’s been a fairly turbulent year,” he told RugbyPass. “On the flip side, I have really enjoyed playing week-in, week-out. I know I’m not with the Welsh set-up at the minute but I feel like I’ve played some decent rugby.”

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For Lydiate, frustration comes from the fact he thought the beleaguered side had finally started to find their feet. “I know our season had been written off but in the last couple of games for the Ospreys, I felt like we’d turned a corner. We beat Ulster at home and even though we lost against Leinster at the Gnoll, it was an improved performance.”

In truth, the annus horribilis endured by the Ospreys is hard to fathom when you look at their first-choice team. Fully fit and available, a squad containing Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Adam Beard, Tipuric, Gareth Anscombe, George North, Owen Watkin and Scott Williams – that’s nearly 600 Test caps – shouldn’t be drudging round at the swamp end of the PRO14. But, as Lydiate says, if only life were so simple. 

“I know we’ve got quality players but it was the perfect storm. For a good chunk, most of those boys were away at the World Cup, and in our first game we lost three key players in James King, Cory Allen and even Dan Evans, who is usually unbreakable. Every week we seemed to pick up another injury and we didn’t have a big squad to start with. What can you do?”

With a new head coach, Toby Booth, riding in on a white charger, Test Lion Rhys Webb returning, plus the quicksilver Mat Protheroe adding some elan to a backline, hardy Ospreys supporters can hopefully look forward to 2020/21 with a slither of positivity, hopeful that history will not repeat itself. Lydiate has seen chinks of light. 

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“Kieran Williams made an impression on me. He is like a little cannonball, pinballing down the field, a bit like Nick Grigg at Glasgow. Some have said he has a touch of the Scott Gibbs about him. He gave us gain line in the backs which we needed. Morgan Morris has also stood up. He’s come from nowhere but I’ve seen enough to think he’s made of the right stuff. He’s a real grafter and really humble, which I like.”

At the ripe old age of 32, Lydiate doesn’t feel the season was wasted. Far from it. “Being captain week-in, week-out was a bit of learning curve. I realised screaming and shouting, something I’d done before, isn’t needed. Often, all you need to say is, ‘look we’ve trained well, we’re on the money, so let’s go out and play’. No headbutting walls, no Mike Bassett-style kicking things around. Sometimes, clarity is all that’s needed.”

Ospreys challenging season

Dan Lydiate tackles Simon Zebo during the December defeat to Racing 92 (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Lydiate says that years watching Tipuric and Jones go about their business in an understated, effective way has rubbed off on him. “Tips just leads from example and Al is softly-spoken but thinks about what he says before he says it. Sometimes he doesn’t need to say much with that stare.”

It seems aeons ago when Lydiate’s talents were such that he was named Six Nations player of the year and was courted by the cash-rich French aristocrats, Racing 92, but he has since been overlooked by the trend for squat, multi-skilled breakdown exponents. Is there still room for a traditional blindside, who prefers working in the shadows? 

“I’m probably a bit old school. If I’m doing a job that frees someone else up, then I think I’m still valuable to the team. I may not be stood in the tramlines scoring tries, but if I’ve melted a couple of guys and instigated a turnover, I’ll have done my job. There’s a place for some dog in every side.”

When Lydiate gets to the end of his fresh two-year contract, he will be in his 35th year and there may be offers of making a few yen in the Top League or even a few dollars to be made in the MLR in the United States. Either way, he will have a decision to make. 

“I’d be gutted if it was my final contract because I feel like the way I’ve played this season is the best I’ve played in years. They say people like a vintage Mercedes with low mileage, well that’s me,” he chuckled.

The self-deprecating quip about the low mileage isn’t surprising for a player who has endured his share of injuries over a 13-year career. Most serious was the broken neck incurred playing for the Dragons against Perpignan at 19. 

But a shoulder and hamstring injury against England saw him missing the 2016 New Zealand tour, and an ACL injury picked up against the Springboks in November later that years saw the following season pass him by after a ten-month layoff. Just when he had a look-in with Wales, further niggling injuries saw him missing the 2019 Six Nations and dealt a mortal blow to his World Cup aspirations.

Like his famed Welsh back row colleagues Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau, who endured their own depths of despair, the lay-offs could have turned even most optimistic player into Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now fame and that includes Lydiate, a naturally level-headed character. 

“I spoke to my wife in the dark times. I used to say my only regret has been the injuries but she said, ‘that’s out of your control, just focus on your recovery’. I take heart from seeing someone like Manu (Tuilagi) and the injuries he’s had. He had quite a few breakdowns after coming back but now he’s back in the England fold in good form. It can be done.”

Like friends Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, Lydiate has instead learnt to roll with the punches and has left the Ospreys ‘injured crew’ WhatsApp group for now. “When you get a long-term injury, it’s like a death in the family. 

“It puts you in a tough place mentally. You have to wait a couple of days for your scan and the grieving process starts. You wail and feel hard done by, but then you have your prognosis, get a recovery plan and the road back to playing starts.”

Now fully fit, you wonder if Lydiate still harbours Welsh ambitions and can add to his 64 caps, and conversely whether Wayne Pivac’s management still have his number. The answer is very much in the affirmative.

“I had a bit of contact before the Six Nations with Jonathan Humphreys. He said: ‘mate, we’re sticking with what we’ve got at the moment, but the door is definitely not closed.’ I was happy with that. As long as I keep putting in the performances, banging on the door, it’s up to them. If Wales gave me a call to be in the squad again, I’d take it. One hundred per cent. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”

While Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright and Ross Moriarty are very able players in the No6 shirt, if the call-up does come, you’d have long odds on him letting anyone down in the Welsh shirt. Talking of Wales, how did one of Warren Gatland’s key lieutenants bid the Chiefs coach a farewell after his twelve-year Wales tenure? 

“I didn’t say a farewell to Gats, no. The last time I spoke to him was after I got injured in November 2018. There was no issue, that’s just rugby. I’ve had a few texts from Shaun (Edwards) since he’s been in France, especially during the Six Nations. Put it this way, he wasn’t asking me for French lessons!”

For now, Lydiate is plonked at home, like the rest of the rugby community, filling him time recording amusing TikToks after being inspired by a farmer friend and adapting his children’s playground into a heavy-duty gym to share Zoom fitness sessions with his team-mates.

As a proud part of the farming collective, with the family breeders of Welsh Blacks beef cattle, coronavirus has pleased and frustrated Lydiate in equal measure. “It’s very easy to go to the big branded supermarkets but we’ve seen with panic buying, some of their stocks went pretty fast. What bugs me is when I see meat imported from abroad and sold on our shelves, but it’s not to the same high standards we produce. There is plenty of meat available right on our doorsteps.”

What has heartened Lydiate, however, is the reaction of the community to the crisis and he hopes it’s a sign of thing to come. “I went to the butchers last week and it was brilliant. There was a long queue of people chatting – from a distance. It made me think people may be coming around to supporting the local produce. I know a lot of farmers who only spend within a five-mile radius. They go to the local pub, have a few pints and shop locally for groceries. By supporting our own, farmers will be able to survive.”

When wrapping up the interview, it is mentioned that Lydiate must have been busy online voting for himself as he came top of the Dragons’ best all-time blindsides, beating Colin Charvis into second place. The suggestion brought a hearty laugh, reminiscing about the region he turned out for on 85 occasions, and notably his last visit to Rodney Parade. 

“When we last played there, I was on the bench and remember running down the touchline. I looked to the left and the crowd were roundly booing me. One lone voice said, ‘when are you coming back, Dan?’ I thought was a nice touch among the catcalls.”

Indeed, wherever he laces up his boots for the final time, you would assuage that the appreciation from Welsh rugby will be universal. One of the game’s grafters and true gentlemen. For now, however, 234 professional games in, the big man will keep on chopping…

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