Members of the Wales team have invited individuals to Saturday’s final Under Armour Series match against South Africa to say diolch - thank you for the part they played in their early playing days.
When the squad met up last month, they were given the opportunity to nominate someone who made a difference to them, be it as a school teacher, club coach or family member, without whom, they may not have developed a love of the game or developed into an international player.
Gowerton Comprehensive geography teacher Mr Dean Mason received two nominations, from former pupils Dan Biggar and Sam Davies.
Mr Mason is well known by all pupils, parents and teachers of the school past and present for going the extra mile for all his pupils, and using rugby values to help develop pupils off the pitch as well as on it.
He runs teams in every year group, organises lunchtime touch rugby, trips to watch Wales at Principality Stadium and foreign rugby tours every few years.
Wales outside halfs Biggar and Davies couldn’t speak highly enough of their mentor, Davies even crediting his mentor for his decision to opt for the oval ball rather than football.
He said: “He had the ability to gel us all together really well and give us the belief to go on and win the Welsh Schools Cup, even as underdogs. All the boys had so much respect for him and I think that’s why we won the Welsh Cup in the end.
“I enjoyed my rugby so much that particular year that I transferred from football to rugby. Before that I was leaning towards football but after Mr Mason led us to that title it was rugby all the way.”
Dan Biggar said: “You could always turn to him, he encouraged not only the rugby team but the whole of the year group and the whole school. He did a lot behind the scenes too, like fundraising to make foreign tours affordable for families. It was all about enjoyment, not winning, especially at a younger age, which is vital.”
Sam and Dan are just two of the rugby success stories from Dean Mason’s teaching career, but he feels on-field recognition is nothing more than a happy by-product of the power of rugby in a school environment.
“Teaching is a great profession to be in and time has flown since I started at the school in 1979. I love the kids, the bonhomie, the friendship of staff, pupils and parents. But what we’re achieving here with rugby is not about the person who becomes an international, it’s about how rugby develops others skills too, raises self-esteem, improves personal and interpersonal skills. We want to develop the best rugby players we can but also the best citizens we can.
“As a teacher you want to try to inspire people to be the best they can be at whatever they are and personally I’m more proud of Dan and Sam as fantastic young men and role models than of what they are achieving on the rugby field.”
Sam added, “It was a great privilege to be taught by Mr Mason, he’s got me where I am and hopefully I can go a bit further too on the back of what he gave me.”
Some of the other squad players who made nominations for this weekend include Justin Tipuric who has nominated Trebanos chairman Chris Penhale for all his unseen work in recent years, bringing the club back up the leagues, focussing on the junior and youth sections and improving the club’s finances. Chris coached Justin for Trebanos under 14s and still coaches the under 8s on a Sunday morning.
Justin Tipuric said: “Since taking over as chairman six or seven years ago, he’s done so much unseen work, his leadership has helped take the club from Division 5 to the top end of Division 1, there’s a big emphasis on the junior section and the youth team is growing now too.
"I was 8 when I started playing at Trebanos, they looked after me then and still look after me now, they are such a great family club. I enjoy going back there and doing a bit of coaching with the youth team whenever I can.”
Dan Lydiate has also nominated a former college lecturer, former Ebbw Vale skipper Chay Billen. “Chay was my sports science lecturer but became by mentor. He helped me during my time at the Dragons academy, I followed in his footsteps by playing for Ebbw Vale and I still speak to him a lot now.”
Keith Brooks played a big part in so far uncapped lock Rory Thornton’s development as a young player at Bonymaen RFC.
“I’m sure I will have a tear in my eye the day Rory wins his first cap. I’m proud he’s taken the time to mention me and remembers his roots. If I’ve inspired someone that’s all I’ve ever wanted really. Rory played for Bonymaen from a young age and I started coaching him when he was 14 or 15.
“He shot up almost overnight one season and for a tall boy was very skilful with the ball in hand. I saw something in him and started giving him, and other players more responsibility and ownership. I made him line-out captain and he just flourished on the field and his peers clearly respected him. Rory has put us on the map as a club. We’ve done our job.”