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Bob Norster at 65, Wales king of the lineout jungle who was so good opponents would target him

The memory drifts back to an evening game at Stradey Park a couple of decades or so ago with Bob Norster surrounded by a pack of journalists in the car park post-match.

“Bob, do you think players should be on performance-related pay,” one of the scribes asked the former second row.

Without hesitation, Norster replied: “I wouldn’t go there if I were you. Someone might come up with the idea of ​​performance-related pay for journalists.”


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Norster is 65 this week, on Thursday to be precise. It seems only 10 minutes ago that he was starring consistently for Cardiff and Wales as a player. It’s an understatement to say the Welsh pack blew cold as well as hot in those days — some of the performances were sub-zero jobs. But Norster had high standards and hit them in pretty much every game he played, with his lineout work often peerless.

At Cardiff I have formed a famous partnership with the hooker Alan Phillips. “Bob liked my throwing in,” Phillips recalls during a profile of Norster on Cardiff RFC’s website, “but the trouble was I’d get the first eight spot on and if I then missed him with the ninth I would get earache about it for days.

“Seriously, though, he really was the best in the business.”

Articulate, genial and savvy enough to steer clear of pitfalls the former Wales team manager and Cardiff chief executive may be, but he hasn’t done that much press post-playing, seemingly able to get by without seeing his name in print or online.

Maybe there’s plenty to be said for that.

But what a player he was.

When he operated the lineout was a jungle, but Norster was king of it, winning ball through a combination of perfect timing and extraordinary jumping skill. At 6ft 5in he wasn’t the biggest, but he had a superb technique, was strong in the air and accomplished what he did.

He had started on the club scene with Abertillery, graduating from their youth team into the senior set-up. It did n’t take long for word of his prowess from him to spread.

The story goes that Pontypridd, complete with their legendary line-out forward ‘Bionic’ Bob Penberthy, visited Abertillery and it was to the amazement of all and sundry that a young lock picked off the first three of their line-outs with ease. “Whoosh!” the tale went. “The youngster leapt like a salmon to take some of the cleanest catches you’ll ever see: two handed, followed by perfect delivery to the scrum half.” For Bob P. and his fellow forwards, it was a genuinely WTF moment — as in ‘what the flip just happened?’

“Never seen anything like it,” one of those forwards later testified.

The youngster in question was Robert Leonard Norster.

Yet despite Wales inviting him to join their squad in 1977, he had to wait until 1982 for his official Test debut, with no caps awarded for a game the big man featured in against Romania in 1979.

Once he was in the set-up, though, his country came to rely on him.

He became a dependable source of ball at a time when it all but dried up in other areas. He also became a leader. “I played with him early in my Test career and towards the end of his career,” said former Wales, Lions and Swansea back Tony Clement.

“As a youngster at the time, I felt he had the look-around-the-room factor.

“You’d look around the room and see a senior player like him and think you were in good hands. It would put you at ease straight away.

“He was a brilliant Wales team manager, too. He got on with the boys, had great knowledge and put his points across really well. We respected him a lot.”

No write-up on Norster is complete without reference to the famous exchange between him and the referee Keith Lawrence during the Scotland v Wales Five Nations clash at Murrayfield in 1987. The visitors had been forced into a late change after their mountainous prop Stuart Evans broke a foot during a run-out.

In came Maesteg’s Peter Francis for his Test debut.

He had proven an excellent player at club level, with a huge work-rate around the field. But Test rugby is a staircase or two up and so it was that the west Wales farmer found the going especially tough in the scrums.

Lions loose-head David Sole had an outstanding game, causing the Welsh setpiece all kinds of problems.

Amid the carnage, referee Keith Lawrence said to Wales pack leader Norster: “I’m not happy with your tight-head prop.”

Norster’s reply? “You’re not happy? How do you think I feel?

Bob Norster (far right)

A schoolteacher at the outset of his career, he acted as Wales team manager during Alan Davies’ reign as national coach. There followed spells with the Xerox Corporation and Lloyds Blackhorse and a long stint at the Cardiff Rugby helm. He later became a director with Engagesport LLP, a sports management company.

But close your eyes and it’s Norster the player who’ll most likely come to mind, not knowing the success he has enjoyed in other areas since setting aside his boots.

Opponents targeted him on the pitch in the knowledge that nullifying such a wonderful lineout jumper could neutralize an entire game-plan, but Norster rarely succumbed.

By 1988, he was operating at the peak of his powers. “The finest lineout forward in world rugby,” that year’s Rugby Annual for Wales called him.

Wales’ Triple Crown success that year saw memorable contributions from backs such as Robert Jones, Jonathan Davies, Tony Clement, Paul Thorburn, Ieuan Evans, Adrian Hadley, Mark Ring and Bleddyn Bowen.

But it was a forward who walked off with Welsh rugby’s player-of-the-year bauble, with the Welsh Writers’ Association voting overwhelmingly for Norster. You can read about this year’s Welsh player of the year here.

He was told by a spectator in the crowd later that year that he had also been named as the Rothmans Rugby Annual Player of the Year.

Different times.

But Norster would have succeeded in any era.

On his 65th birthday, he deserves to be toasted.

Penblwydd Hapus, Bob.


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