Jason Tovey has never taken professional rugby too seriously. In an age where preparation is so thorough; from what a player can eat to how much iron he pumps in the gym, it is very easy to fall into the trap of viewing these sportsmen as robots. Tovey loves rugby in its purest sense, but he despises what the sport has become. When the 33-year-old was growing up in Cross Keys, like any young boy, he dreamed of wearing the red of Wales one day, but in the main rugby was about making friends and having fun.
While the game is currently devoid of the laughs enjoyed in the amateur era Tovey succeeded in having fun whether that was through downing a pint with a dead rat in it or turning the local Walkabout into a depiction of the last days of Rome.
As he rose through the Welsh age grade system Tovey was surrounded by players who lived lives like monks to make it to the top. Back in 2008 he was a member of the Wales under 20s side who finished fourth at the Junior World Cup. It was a squad brimming with world class talent, many of which would go on to play key roles in what future historians will conclude was a golden generation for Welsh rugby. The likes of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb, and Leigh Halfpenny were among the best players in the world. But at age grade level Tovey was considered just as much of a prospect as someone like Biggar, and while the outside-half may not have hit the same heights he insists he has no regrets after finally deciding to hang up his boots.
“When I was younger it was a goal of mine to play for Wales but when I hit about 26, I wasn’t that bothered about it,” he told Rugby Pass+.
“Not many people get to play professional rugby for 16 years. I loved 12 years of it, and slowly fell out of love with it.
“I’m not going to complain. It was good while it lasted, but for me, I’ve never taken this sport as seriously as others do.
“It’s as much about the craic and enjoying the company of your teammates as it is about winning on the weekend. The social element for me has always been very important.
“When I see some of the younger boys just sat there scrolling through their social media accounts, I feel like saying ‘boys put your phones down, get on with the evening, and enjoy each other’s company.
“Another bug bear of mine is when players post photos on social media when they’ve just lost a game. I mean, c’mon, boys you’ve just lost a game, and you are posting a photo of yourself grinning on Instagram. Where’s your professional pride? Do it after a win, like!”
When he was in his early twenties he was as hellbent on playing for Wales as any other player. Having impressed in an unfancied Dragons outfit he was invited by Warren Gatland to Wales’ pre-2011 Rugby World Cup training camp in Spala, Poland. In an era where players are guarded when dealing with the press Tovey is refreshingly honest. When I ask him whether he regrets not winning a cap for Wales he doesn’t hold back.
“I was in one of the Wales training camps in Poland in the lead up to the 2011 World Cup, and it was undoubtedly the worst week of my life,” he says.
“I’m not a fitness type of guy, and I don’t enjoy stuff like that. I’d rather be on the pitch having a laugh.
“I think that was at the point where the game was changing, and you had to adapt. Unfortunately for me I felt like I couldn’t do it.
“I would have loved to have gone to the World Cup, but I’m not overly bothered by it. I remember I was sat in a sandpit with Dan Baugh doing bear crawls and I thought fuck it, this isn’t me.
“They had all these cryotherapy chambers, and I hate the cold. I thought it was pretty pointless.
“It was one of those where some quirky conditioning guy read somewhere it could help the body. If it helps you great, but if it doesn’t you shouldn’t be forced to do it.”
I remember thinking ‘fuck me this is professional rugby and I’m downing a pint with a dead rat in it!’ That definitely wouldn’t happen today but back then some of the old amateur traditions were still present
Tovey maintains his best days came during his first stint with the Dragons. The Newport-based side have always been viewed as the poor relations to their Welsh rivals let alone to Irish, English, and French sides. This season the Dragons, who have a significantly stronger squad on paper than they did during Tovey’s era, failed to win a single home game. But when Tovey was younger Rodney Parade was a fortress, a place where the likes of the star-studded Ospreys in their so called “Galacticos” era, and even Leinster were sent packing. In a far cry from the current army style culture implemented by current director of rugby Dean Ryan the Dragons were coached by maverick former Wales playmaker Paul Turner. Tovey looks back on that era with fondness, but his face turns crimson when asked what life was like off the field at the time.
“When I first started at the Dragons I had people like Rhys Thomas, Adam Black, Steve “Jabba” Jones, and Luke Charteris as teammates,” he said.
“The Dragons was a fun place to be. I loved going into training and being around these guys.
“We had some mental social events back then. I’ll never forget my initiation into the first team. Have you ever played the old drinking game where they’d throw something like a golf ball or a coin into your pint and you’d have to down it if it landed in your drink?
“Well, that’s what I did only they used a dead rat from a pet shop instead. That was Rhys Thomas’ idea who was one of rugby’s great characters.
“I remember thinking fuck me this is professional rugby and I’m downing a pint with a dead rat in it! That definitely wouldn’t happen today but back then some of the old amateur traditions were still present in the professional game, and it was a lot more enjoyable.
“We did loads of crazy things. We did bush tucker trials with worms, and it was all good fun, but now it’s just so boring. Most of the boys would rather take photos and boast about it.
“The bush tucker trial was when you had three boxes with each box containing something different items which you had to eat. So, one box had beans, the other had cola bottles, and one had live worms in there.
“Luckily, my box had beans in it, but Adam Hughes wasn’t so lucky.”
If you thought that was bad it gets even worse.
“Also, at that time Newport had a Walkabout, and we managed to rent it out for a few hours,” recalled Tovey. “We did an obstacle course around the whole pub.
“All you do these days is sing on the bus which is far too tame. In Walkabout we did what we called an Ironman on stage. There was 11 of us who had to neck a bottle of reef, and then the first one out is done.
Back in the day before the Dragons trained at Ystrad Mynach the gym was quite literally in a shed at the back of Rodney Parade. We even used to have socials in there, stay in there all day and all night
“If you were a slow drinker, you were doing 11 bottles of reef on the head. I went into the final rounds of it, and I had blood coming out of my nose, while I also vomited blood.
“It was grim, but all your teammates would look after you. If they saw, you were in a bad way, they’d make sure you were okay.
“Back in the day before the Dragons trained at Ystrad Mynach the gym was quite literally in a shed at the back of Rodney Parade. We even used to have socials in there, stay in there all day and all night.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we did well under Tommy (Paul) Turner. We were so tight as a squad.
“We were like a tight-knit family, and boys would bust a gut for their teammates on the field.”
But as the old saying goes all good things must eventually come to an end, and in 2012 Tovey in his own words went “chasing a cap” in Cardiff. In Newport, his head coach Turner was a tremendous man manager getting the best out of Tovey’s natural footballing ability, but Dragons players weren’t favoured when it came to Wales selection at the time. After being persuaded by Dai Young to join Cardiff he looked forward to progressing in his career, but sometimes things happen which are out of your control. Former Wales prop Young, who had really sold Cardiff’s vision to Tovey, decided to join Wasps in England, and was replaced by former Leeds and Scarlets boss Phil Davies which didn’t go down very well with the Cross Keys man.
“My biggest regret was leaving the Dragons for Cardiff Blues, as they were known then, back in 2012,” he says.
“I went for all the wrong reasons. The money was better, and I thought maybe it would help me win a cap, but I was wrong.
“If Paul Turner was the best coach I had Phil Davies was the worst. I didn’t like the way he went about things.
“It was as if he was trying to be a psychologist instead of a coach. Literally straight after a game he’d ask you how you prepared, and whether it was good enough.
“No other coach does that; they wait a good few days before getting into you. He sent me to see a psychologist once which I thought was a joke.
“The problem is I signed for Cardiff when Dai Young was in charge, but he left to join Wasps, and then Phil replaced him. I tucked myself up by doing that. He sent me to see a psychologist, and I had to lie down on a chair with some bloke trying to get into my mind.
“He kept asking me how I prepared, and if I had visions of how I was going to play next week, but that’s not me. A good coach knows his players as people, and Phil failed in that aspect.”
Tovey only lasted a season in the Welsh capital before following his heart and returning to the Dragons. But things weren’t the same due to his former boss Turner parting ways with the club.
“In Newport Tommy (Paul Turner) got involved,” he said. “If you were running an attacking drill and messed it up Tommy would physically jump in there and go lads this is how you do it.
He was a good guy with great values. He retained the old school ethos, but he was an innovative coach who was ahead of his time in many respects. He’d always think outside the box, and that would rub off on me
Tovey on Paul Turner
“He was very hands on and was of the attitude that mistakes were just part of the process to becoming a good team which was the complete opposite to Phil. He loved things like no look passes.
“He was a good guy with great values. He retained the old school ethos, but he was an innovative coach who was ahead of his time in many respects. He’d always think outside the box, and that would rub off on me.
“He was a great man manager as well. He knew how to talk to players, and created such a good environment.
“We knew we didn’t have the best squad in the league from a talent perspective, but he made us feel as if we were the best. He’d was very hands on in training sessions.
“It was a big mistake by the then Dragons board to sack Paul. All he did was stick up for the boys, and the Dragons board got rid of him.
“The whole squad were behind him, and if we are being honest the Dragons have gone backwards ever since he left. Lyn Jones was a good coach as well as Darren Edwards, but Paul was the best.”
Things went from bad to worse for the Dragons since Turner left Newport in 2011, with the regular defeats draining the enjoyment out of Tovey. But in 2016 he was given a lifeline by Edinburgh with Tovey deciding to up sticks by relocating to the Scottish capital. For a man who placed a big emphasis on enjoyment working under a strict disciplinarian like former England hooker Richard Cockerill might not have been the best idea, but Tovey was pleasantly surprised.
“I loved my time up in Edinburgh working under Alan Solomons, and then Richard Cockerill,” he said.
“Alan Solomons was a great guy and a great coach. When I heard Cockerill was coming in I was a bit apprehensive, but I got on with him really well.
“I played the best rugby of my life under him. It was definitely his way or the highway, but Edinburgh needed that at the time, and to be honest most of the players agreed with him.
“It was all about mental toughness with him. He even banned music being played in the gym when we were doing weights.
“The running sessions was basically running until you were gone but it worked because we made the play-offs for the first time ever under him.
“He changed the way I thought about the game, and I took it more seriously after working with him.
“I remember we beat Zebre at home by the skin of our teeth, and he gave us a tuning in the meeting the following Monday morning.
“The issue with the Welsh regions is you’ve got boys from say Llanelli travelling two hours to get to training but everybody lived within five miles of each other in Edinburgh.
“You’d be walking down the street and see two boys having a coffee and then another two boys would come along an hour later. The boys were always together.”
But it wasn’t long until Tovey was up to his old antics, and he can recall a few interesting socials with his former Edinburgh teammates which got out of hand.
I had about 40 boys in a two bed flat including some of my mates from Wales. It was carnage. We even had spew running down the stairs
Tovey on a party in Edinburgh getting out of hand
“There was this occasion where Cockerill made Magnus Bradbury captain, and then he stripped it off him,” says Tovey with a wry smile on his face.
“So, I have a confession to make. It was because of my flat party that he had the captaincy taken away from him.
“I had about 40 boys in a two bed flat including some of my mates from Wales. It was carnage.
“We even had spew running down the stairs, and then we went into town after. Magnus got into a bit of trouble in town and ended up needing to get stitches in hospital.
“Cockerill found out and punished him by stripping him of the captaincy. Luckily, he didn’t know it was my party but he will do after reading this.”
Following a successful stint in Scotland he decided to head back to Wales to play for Cross Keys in the Welsh Premiership in a bid to earn a regional contract having turned down a move to Zebre in Italy. His performances for Cross Keys led to a phone call from then Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman who offered him a contract back at Rodney Parade. Following a couple of extra seasons at his old stomping ground he ended his professional career back at Cardiff.
International players are put on such a pedestal in Wales with club stalwarts like Tovey, Adam Warren, Steff Hughes, and Lloyd Ashley almost forgotten about. Financial uncertainty and infighting have plagued Welsh rugby for several years with numerous discussions such as mergers, and cutting a professional side being played out in public. While most people aren’t shy to come forward with opinions it is the layer of players below the international tier who are likely to face the biggest consequence of any major restructure, and this is something Tovey feels passionate about.
“A lot of things are always played out in the press, and it is very tough on us players,” he said.
“It’s just a shambles how the regions don’t know their playing budgets, which results in a lot of players getting told just weeks before the end of the season that they are surplus to requirements. Nothing against the top international boys because it’s tough on them as well but the tier below will get it worse because they’ll struggle to find clubs, and it will have an adverse effect on their families.
“It wrecks me when I see people suggesting going back to eight or even 12 professional clubs. That’s ridiculous. Where do they expect the money to come from? A magic money tree? Let’s back the current four regions to get better, and they would be successful if they were able to get more investment.
At Cardiff we’ve had some awful results recently, but Dai is a very good coach. I just think the top of the organisation need to take some responsibility.
“I think the Welsh Rugby Union need to invest in the current four sides to make them successful. In my opinion the culture needs to be better at the regions as well.
“At Cardiff we’ve had some awful results recently, but Dai is a very good coach. I just think the top of the organisation need to take some responsibility.
“There’s no culture at Cardiff, and it’s miles away from what it was like at the Dragons under Tommy Turner where we didn’t have the talent of other sides, but we were a proper team. That just isn’t the case in Cardiff at the moment.
“We should have been better, and the club needs to address the culture from within if it wants to improve.”
While his professional career may be over Tovey has decided to give it one last chance with grass roots club Ynysddu RFC.
“I just want to give something back to grass roots rugby,” he says. “I’ve done pro rugby, loved most of it but now it’s time to just enjoy rugby for what it is; getting together with your close friends, and enjoying yourself on the weekend.”
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