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RUGBYPASS+ Rob Evans: 'I've tried to base my life on honesty and integrity and if you don't get it back, it hurts'

Rob Evans: 'I've tried to base my life on honesty and integrity and if you don't get it back, it hurts'
2 months ago

‘You’re old enough to have had the cane aren’t you?’ The dig is accompanied by a booming laugh that appears to shake the walls of the café, followed by a swift punch to the arm. Such is Rob Evans’s way. We’re talking about “old-school” discipline, and the increasing absence of it in modern rugby. It’s something he laments, saying it’s what gave him his hard edge. ‘I had a few “clips” in training when I was 20-21’ he remembers with a grin, reminiscing about those days when he’d be rampaging around the training paddock, desperate to prove his worth.

‘The senior players were like “hang on, mate.” I wasn’t aware that I was being a tool, but these boys had been around the block, and when you’re playing every week you don’t want some young kid running into you full contact. It’s like, “Pal, fuck off. You haven’t played any rugby, you’re running into me full contact, I’ve got a sore shoulder from the weekend, so you’re having one of these.”’ He balls his hand into a fist, grinning maniacally, in case there’s any misunderstanding.

Evans is one of rugby’s eccentrics. An exuberant, hyperactive bloke whose presence can energise an entire room. Arriving at our agreed rendezvous, he enquires loudly, ‘where do you want me to sit, bud?’ Before I can answer, he plonks himself right next to me, shifting the cushions across so we’re virtually touching. He’s literally removed the barrier between us. And that is the essence of Rob Evans. What you see is what you get. Tactile, unfiltered, and authentic. If he was ever given the media handbook, he doesn’t show any signs of having read it.

He’s warming to his theme about discipline, launching into a rapid fire series of anecdotes, delivered in his distinctive Pembrokeshire brogue.‘(Former Scarlets head coach) Simon Easterby probably hates me to this day” he declares. ‘When I was younger, I was giving penalties away all the time and I knew about it. I knew about it after the game ‘cos there were bottles flying towards my head! He nearly smacked me up a couple of times. I can remember him slamming a pen through the laptop once to let me know he was pissed off with me.’ Evans says he was deserving of such treatment, acknowledging that he was ‘a right pain in the arse’, and wishes there was more of it in the modern game. “That’s the way you learn, but if you do that to a young kid now, you’d have the mother and father in complaining, do you know what I mean?”

He recalls another memory about getting into a scrap with Alun Wyn Jones when the Wales U20s squad had an opposed training session with the senior players. Evans’ over exuberance earned him a few jabs from the Wales stalwart. ‘He wanted to sit me down. He was like, “you’re 20 mate, who the hell do you think you are?” I definitely learnt from that. 100%. It made me a better person and better player, because it’s sink or swim. I wouldn’t have got as far if I have if I’d had an arm around me the whole time. I didn’t have an arm round me when I was a kid. No one did. As far as I was concerned it was “if you can’t hack it mate, see you later.” I would never change that because it hardened me up to the rugby world. Where’s rugby going if you haven’t got that? Where do you get the hard edge out of it? Where do you learn respect?’

Rob Evans
Rob Evans looks to escape the attention of Mark Wilson in the 2019 Six Nations (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

His point is an interesting one, particularly at a time when sporting bodies are making mental health an increasing priority. Evans’ nostalgia for the kind of low-level bullying that was rife in rugby seems out of time, but is undoubtedly genuine. ‘It’s probably the way these academies are run now. I came through at Carmarthen Quins with people like “Mad Max” (Max Howells) as my first coach. I played with Darren Daniel, Ian Jones, boys like that that were hard nuts but full of craic. They’d take the piss out of youngsters relentlessly. You were bullied, and if you couldn’t take it, go home. Now, if I said something to one of the youngsters, they’re like little mice. Where’s the craic, like? Where are people like Matthew Rees? When he was captain at the Scarlets, they were all playing ping-pong, tennis, snooker in the team room, and we weren’t allowed in! If you were a youngster you had to stand outside until one o’clock when the meeting started. That wouldn’t happen now. They’d complain. But rugby’s a respect game. You’ve got youngsters coming in thinking they’re the bees’ knees now – like I was to be fair – but I was put in my place fairly quickly. Sit down mate, have some respect.’

While Evans acknowledges that the modern focus on mental health is a good thing, he wonders aloud whether it leads to too much sensitivity among the younger generation. An inability to engage in the kind of japery and verbal jousting that he thinks is a vital bonding tool.

‘I didn’t massively enjoy my last few years at the Scarlets if I’m honest’ he admits, ‘because I feel like there’re no more characters in the game. It’s getting like school. And who liked school? Not me! It felt like the boys were too scared to have a bit of craic.”

Obviously, playing for the Scarlets, I’ve “chopsed” a lot of these boys over the years, so when I signed I was thinking “oh shiiiit, how’s this going to go down?

Evans on being accepted at the Dragons

If this all sounds a bit negative, Evans’ summer move to the Dragons has restored a little of his faith. ‘So I thought there were no more characters in the game, then I signed for the Dragons and there’s plenty up here!’ This, as with so many of his utterances is accompanied by his trademark high-pitched laugh. ‘To be honest, I’m loving it. Bradley (Roberts) – different. Elliott Dee, he’s funny. Ben Fry – mad. You’ve got Jared Rosser selling trainers, he’ll get you any trainer you want in the world. Ross Moriarty, absolute nutcase. Is he hard as nails? He likes to think he is. I’m not really a fighter though, mate.’

It appears that Evans has found a brotherhood of like-minded souls, which came as a relief for someone whose reputation precedes him. ‘Obviously, playing for the Scarlets, I’ve “chopsed” a lot of these boys over the years, so when I signed I was thinking “oh shiiiit, how’s this going to go down?” On the first day we met up in the Pod up the road. I think a few of the boys were a bit wary of me, but then Elliott rung me after and said “the boys think you’re sound”. He sounded surprised!’ There it is again – that infectious laugh that rattles teacups and disturbs the peace of several diners around us. ‘It’s like anything – when you play against someone, you have a perception of them. It’s like Welsh camp; certain people you play against and think “what a bellend”, then you sit down and have a chat with them and think “actually, they’re sound.” I think I’m going down alright here.’

Rob Evans
Evans celebrates winning the Pro12 final against Munster with current Wales coach Wayne Pivac (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

So who has proved completely contrary to his original perception? He considers this for a moment before saying ’Probably Keddie’ (Harrison Keddie, the Dragons’ abrasive, no-nonsense co-captain.) ‘I’d never really met him but he comes across as quite hard and y’know, he probably wouldn’t like someone like me who’s a clean-off character. But in my first week, he was like “alright pal, do you want me to pick you up, show you around Newport, take you food shopping?” What a legend. He didn’t have to do that, and it meant a lot.’

As it turns out, the Newport fraternity were only too happy to take a former Scarlet under their wing. ‘For the first couple of weeks, they were brilliant, I couldn’t fault them. Him (Keddie) and Jared Rosser would be ringing me up, “Rob, what are you up to? Fancy some food, we’ll take you out for sushi.” There is a sushi bar down in Pill (a notoriously edgy part of Newport). I walked down there my first night. It was a bit rough, like… fucking hell. The boys were like, “mate don’t go down there.” It’s got a bad rep, but I like it.

I just can’t take him seriously, pal. A skateboard, like! He thinks he’s cool but he came off the other day, he’s got cuts all over his arm

Evans on his flatmate, Bradley Roberts

City life, it seems, is a good fit for a bloke who grew up in a close-knit farming community in rural Pembrokeshire. He’s sharing a flat opposite Rodney Parade with Bradley Roberts, the South-African born Wales international. They’d not met before they moved in together, but have quickly developed a reputation as Newport’s odd couple. According to Evans, Roberts likes to think he’s in charge. ‘I swear I’m living in his flat, put it that way. I’ve just been home for a couple of days (in Pembrokeshire), and when I got back, he was telling me I’ve got to buy some bog roll. So basically, I’m paying for him to have a shit.’

At this point, Roberts appears outside, trundling past the river on a skateboard. Evans points him out with a look of utter disdain. ‘Look at him on that!’ he bellows, convulsing with laughter, ‘I just can’t take him seriously, pal. A skateboard, like! He thinks he’s cool but he came off the other day, he’s got cuts all over his arm.’ Evans relishes the opportunity to taunt his flatmate, who’s now spotted him and is heading towards the café. ‘He’s an interesting character mate. I went for a walk with him the other night, bought him a Nando’s, walked over the river bridge and he starts bloody skateboarding alongside me. It’s not a great look for me is it? And he doesn’t let me do any cooking, says he doesn’t trust me in the kitchen.’

Dragons Rugby
The Dragons banked a much-needed victory over Munster last weekend to kick-start their season (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

At this point, Roberts appears in the doorway. Baseball cap pulled down over his trademark mullet, and strides towards the table. We raise the aforementioned cookery ban, and Roberts confirms “Yeah, he’s not allowed in the kitchen. He’s not trustworthy.’ I recall a TV cookery feature Evans once took part in, in which he thought raw prawns would be an edible starter. ‘Ah we’ve got a story about dodgy prawns mate’ Evans claims. ‘First meal he cooked for me. I didn’t get off the bog for two days, did I?’ Roberts smiles, and says he was fine, suggesting it was all down to Rob’s weak constitution. Evans is still chuckling as Roberts heads back outside, ‘he’s clean off, mate. You’ve met a few South Africans. They’re not backwards in coming forwards are they? He went over to play for Ulster, and in his words, he was “carving up”. Typical South African. He reckons they asked him to be captain after his second game. I’m telling you now.’

If his flat mate has an innate self-confidence, what of his other teammates? Until last weekend, when Evans made his bow for the region, the Dragons hadn’t won a game at Rodney Parade since April 2021. It was one of rugby’s more mind-boggling records. It’s hardly a run that breeds confidence or inner belief. What Evans has witnessed since his arrival though, has surprised him. ‘I’ll tell you what, they work hard’ he says. ‘They work harder than the Scarlets. 100% Honestly, it was a bit of an eye opener. I was like “wow”.

Down at the Scarlets I was leading the charge. I was always the fastest prop. Up here, the first time I did it, I was second last. I’m not used to this. Harrison Keddie – I couldn’t believe how fit he was. Their bronco times, they were coming in at 4.36, 4.37.

One exercise most rugby players despise (apart from scrum-halves and sadists) is the Bronco test. A lung-burning cardio workout from which there is no hiding place. Completing it in less than five minutes is considered a good effort. ‘Down at the Scarlets I was leading the charge. I was always the fastest prop. Up here, the first time I did it, I was second last. I’m not used to this. Harrison Keddie – I couldn’t believe how fit he was. Their bronco times, they were coming in at 4.36, 4.37. That was the back row! Gareth Davies (Wales and Scarlets scrum-half) is about 4.30. I was like, “Jeez, I’m gonna have to cut out the cake here, like.”’

That hard work hasn’t yet translated into on-field success though. The Dragons, despite being better resourced than ever before, despite boasting a clutch of first choice Welsh internationals, are still less than the sum of their parts. Their trajectory for too long has been a flat line with barely a flicker of growth. Until last weekend, that is. Amid a swirl of unconfirmed rumours that DoR Dean Ryan had been sacked, the Dragons showed more snarl and bite in defeating Munster than they had in all last season’s home games combined. Evans is hoping this year will be the year that the promise is finally fulfilled.

Rob Evans
The ebullient Evans got into a few scrapes with Alun Wyn Jones as he tried to establish himself in the Welsh set-up (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

He arrived at Rodney Parade as a decorated Grand Slam-winning prop with 39 caps to his name, but he’s not expecting to waltz into the first team every weekend. His two main challengers for the jersey are also internationals. Fellow Wales prop Rhodri Jones has 20 caps of his own, and Aki Seiuli recently won the Pacific Nations Cup with Samoa. ‘I’ve been through a bit with rugby’ he says. ‘Ups and downs. It’s not that I’m not focused now, but my perspective has changed. If I wasn’t No 1 before, it was “head gone” but now I work hard, do as much as I can to be the best and if I’m not I can’t do much about it. That comes with age and experience. It only feels like yesterday I was 20, I’m 30 now and rather than worry about it I just want to enjoy my last five years. That’s my main goal.’

When talk turns to Wales, Evans’ mood changes noticeably as he opens up on what was clearly a challenging period for him. In September 2019, five months after helping Wales to Grand Slam glory, Evans was dropped from Warren Gatland’s World Cup squad. It was a huge shock. His subsequent appearances on BBC Wales television showed him in typical garrulous form, and viewers would have been forgiven for thinking he’d taken the snub in his stride. Behind the mask though, it was a different story. ‘I was pretty down after that, for a long while, more than people know’ he recalls, and for once he’s not smiling. ‘It affected me mentally, I really struggled with it. You question everything don’t you? Especially when you’re put in the spotlight. I’d worked hard to get back from my shoulder operation, and then I didn’t get picked… after being told that I was going to go. I didn’t want to see anyone. I really didn’t want to go to rugby. I can’t really describe the feeling, but it was pretty dark. I was probably quite depressed. You’re thinking,” should I have done this, should I have done that”, all the time, and it drains you.’

In the past when I was playing for Wales, if I’d done something wrong or had a bad game, that would be three days written off. You are in a hole. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was rude to my Mum and Dad. I don’t want to put anyone through that anymore. It’s not worth it.

The unanswered questions in his mind led to long periods of introspection and self-doubt. ‘Does he (Gatland) think I’m a good player? Am I going play for Wales again? Have I let my Dad down? All these thoughts banging around in your mind. My Mum and Dad haven’t got loads of money, and they’d taken money out to go to Japan. It was a big thing for them. You just feel like you’ve let them down. That was the hardest thing for me, telling my old man. What’s he thinking of me? And then all these rumours started coming out – what’s he done? He’s done this, he’s done that, he’s been out in Haverfordwest causing trouble.’

He’s quick to confirm there was no truth to such rumours, but understands that – because of his extrovert ways – people are quicker to jump to those conclusions. ‘One hundred per cent you live by the sword and die by the sword. People who know me know I’m a good person and I’ve got a good heart. If I’m honest I didn’t want to go on TV and cheer for Wales because I was hurting. Now I’m different, whether I’m more mature I’m not sure, but when you grow up you realise there are different parts to life. I hear boys say about when they have kids. It changes their life. If you have a bad day at rugby, they’ve got a kid at home who doesn’t give a shit. It just wants you to wipe their bum.” And with that, Rob Evans is back in the room, unleashing another of his belly laughs.

But the sentiment is real. Getting older has shifted his perspective. ‘In the past when I was playing for Wales, if I’d done something wrong or had a bad game, that would be three days written off. You are in a hole. I didn’t want to see anyone. I was rude to my Mum and Dad. I don’t want to put anyone through that anymore. It’s not worth it. I’m definitely a misperceived character, but I can’t change that. If someone doesn’t pick you or doesn’t like your character, what can you do?’

Rob Evans
Rob Evans has always had the ability to make people laugh but wonders if his refusal to toe the line has hampered his career (Pic credit: Stephen McCarthy/Getty Images)

He’s wondered whether his character has counted against him, whether his tendency to speak his mind and not toe the line has hampered his progress. ‘My Dad always says be stay true to yourself, but sometimes that doesn’t work out, because if you’re true some people don’t like it.’ Honesty, he says, has always been his guiding principle. His parents are both teachers, and they instilled a sense of it in him that he traces back to one of his earliest memories. ‘I remember going to the dinosaur park with my mate Ryan, and you were only allowed to take one fossil each. Me and Ryan went over into the corner and stuffed a few extras in our socks. I went back to my bedroom and lined them up on my windowsill and when Mum saw what I’d done she reacted like I’d committed murder!’

He continues to place a lot of stock on honesty. Whether it’s being dropped from a team or released from a contract – both things he and every rugby player has to deal with, he just wants the truth. ‘One of the hardest things I found with rugby is the lack of honesty at times. With coaches and that, I can take the hurt, just be honest with me. Just tell me the reasons so I’m clear in my mind. I’ve tried to base my life on honesty and integrity and if you base your life on it so hard and you don’t get it back, it hurts.’

Do not get me started on gaming. That is my pet hate. That was half my thing with the Scarlets players. Josh McLeod, he’ll sit on his X-Box for eight hours. Eight hours staring at a screen! I just can’t fathom it, like.

As much as Rob has embraced city life in Newport, his heart remains in Pembrokeshire. ‘I love it’ he beams enthusiastically. ‘There’s something down there, I don’t know what it is. I just love walking round there, breathing the air, feeling relaxed. As soon as I come past Whitland, I go up that hill and have this feeling, “I’m home.”’ His parents may have swapped farming for teaching, but the rest of his family still have their roots firmly planted in the Pembrokeshire soil. His uncles on both sides are farmers. One has a dairy herd, the other beef, and when Rob heads west his first stop is always at his uncle’s farm near Llawhaden where he says “nothing has changed” since he was a boy. The two of them will sit in the kitchen chairs, discussing the cows and little else.

When he’s done catching up, he’ll usually head out on the river to catch some fish for dinner. His boat is his sanctuary, a place he goes to escape the thrum of the modern world. It makes him something of an outlier among his colleagues, most of whom he says, are into less “rustic” pursuits. It’s another topic that animates Rob: “Do not get me started on gaming. That is my pet hate. That was half my thing with the Scarlets players. Josh McLeod, he’ll sit on his X-Box for eight hours. Eight hours staring at a screen! I just can’t fathom it, like. They’re telling me about how they’ve got a new gun. I’m like “what you talking about?!” Gameboys, like? Grown men. They’re on their mics talking to each other. It’s pathetic.”

Escapism for Rob is a couple of hours on the river, pootling around in his Shetland boat. ‘I normally whip someone up to come with me’ he says. ‘One morning recently, I was wide awake at quarter to five, so I text my Dad and said “are you awake?” He said, “I wasn’t but I am now!” So I said “fancy some fishing?” “Well I’m bloody up now, so I’ll be down in twenty minutes.” It’s hard getting up but once you’re out there, it’s unreal. All I need to be happy is a cup of tea with my old man, a piece of cake and a fishing rod. That’s literally all you need, pal.’

Evans drains his mug, and announces he’s going to head west right now. All this fishing talk has made him hungry for some of that pure Pembrokeshire air. If he keeps up this level of energy and enthusiasm the Sharks of Durban should be as wary of him this weekend, as the sea trout of the Lawrenny estuary.

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