The day an All Blacks rugby legend side-stepped the lad from Llanelli!

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"Llanelly with a 'y' doesn't sound Anglicised to me!" All Blacks legend Wilson Whineray puts awestruck young Welsh sports editor Leighton Bowen straight back in 1963 (left-to-right felt unnecessary!)

In tribute to a deserving British and Irish Lions series draw with the New Zealand All Blacks, former News of the World reporter LEIGHTON BOWEN recalls a famous interview he carried out with the legendary All Blacks skipper (later Sir) Wilson Whineray. At that time BOWEN, now 77, was a 23-year-old Sports Editor of the Llanelli Star. Llanelli or Llanelly? Thereby hangs another tale. . .

MONDAY, December 30th, 1963: Waiting for the 7.10pm bus home after a reception for the touring All Blacks at Stradey Park, Llanelli*. I shall be here again tomorrow afternoon for the New Year’s Eve battle between the Scarlets and the touring New Zealand All Blacks.

Standing at that bus stop, three or four pints of Felinfoel Best Bitter staving off the December chill, I recall the first time I saw the All Blacks here and all that has happened in the intervening decade.

On Tuesday, November 17th, 1953, I was an excited 13-year-old, sitting with all the other boys behind the dead-ball line on a special schools trip. The great excitement then was the prospect of seeing live the legendary, mystical Maori Haka, ritually performed as a curtain-raiser to every All Blacks match.

All Blacks perform their fearsome Maori war dance, the Haka

We had no idea then, would not have believed it anyway, that in years to come global television would have, in many ways, reduced this marvellous bit of live theatre to a regular occurrence on our TV screens, encouraging many attempts bylesser rugby nations to denigrate and often mock it.

In 1963, ten years after my first live glimpse, the Haka was still the perfect aperitif to a great sporting banquet and I was still excited by it. But now, the 13-year-old schoolboy was the 23-year-old Sports Editor of the Llanelli Star and instead of .simply turning up to watch the match I would be reporting it.

First, though, I was on my way home to see my young wife, Pam, and 20-month-old Martyn after attending a reception for the tourists and having interviewed All Blacks skipper Wilson Whineray.

It was a most unusual interview that I would always remember and it also commemorates my favourite career picture, thanks to the Star’s part-time snapper Ron Freeman (day job, Chief Projectionist at the Odeon Cinema, Llanelli) a man with a snapper’s instinct for the unusual. It was more a chat than an interview; Whineray asked me more questions than I put to him. Rugby in general, and the next day’s match in particular, took second place to his interest in the area’s reputation as a major producer of tin, steel and coal.

Then came the most unusual segment of all. Whineray slowly leaned forward, closer to me which might have alerted Ron Freeman to the upcoming snappable moment. Softy, as if not wanting to be overheard,  Whineray told me that earlier he had met a local dignitary who had mentioned, with great pride, that he was a leading light in the campaign to change the name of the town from Llanelly ending with a ‘y’ to Llanelli ending with an ‘i’.

His face clouded with bemusement as he asked: “What the hell is that all about?” I explained that, technically, Llanelli with an ‘i’was correct in terms of the Welsh language and that Llanelly with a ‘y’ was hated by Welsh language purists because they considered it an Anglicised version of the name.

Ron’s picture below captures the exact moment when Whineray seems to have given up finding any logic in any of this and he gave me one of my most treasured of sporting quotes:

“I’m here to tell you, he said, “that Llanelly with a ‘y’ doesn’t sound at all Anglicised to me,” Priceless! And good old Ron Freeman managed to capture my best side, too!

FOOTNOTES: I’m delighted that the Lions drew the 2017 Series in New Zealand this weekend but it would have been rough justice on the All Blacks if we had sneaked a win. I was a little pessimistic going into the series so overall I am very pleased. . . and relieved!

* Although almost all my time in the town was spent while it was Llanelly with a ‘y’, I have used Llanelli with an ‘i’ so as not to upset my many friends who have Welsh as their first language.

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