It took an outing for Seven Sisters RFC in Division Two West Central to remind Tavis Knoyle just why he started playing rugby in the first place. By his own admission, the Welsh international scrum-half had stopped enjoying the game over the previous couple of years with the Dragons, amid injuries, successive defeats and long team meetings.
In February of this year, he parted company with the Men of Gwent and it was unclear what the future held for him. But now, having just turned 32 this week, he is rare to go again, after signing for Premiership club Merthyr. As he explains, it was a return to the grass roots in March that rekindled the flame for him.
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“I went and had a game for Seven Sisters with my brother-in-law, who is my best friend. I had about 30 minutes off the bench against Morriston and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
“Then I had a game for Glynneath against Tondu a couple of weeks later where I came on in the centre. It was really nice to go back. It made me realize I do still love the game.
“It made me remember why I started playing in the first place. You play because you care, you play because you love it. You’ve got so much passion for it as a kid. You don’t play for money, you play because you actually love the game.
“You just love being out in the fresh air competing. There’s no meetings after meetings, there’s no nitty bitty things to it. All it is a game of rugby and you go out and enjoy it. It’s a skill and an art, at the end of the day, and a stress reliever.
“As the years go on, it just becomes more of a business and you can lose track of why you started playing rugby. Since I finished with the Dragons in February, it’s probably the happiest I’ve been for years. It’s just been nice to go back and enjoy playing. It’s rekindled my love of the game.
“That’s why I decided to sign for Merthyr. Sir Stan Thomas had rung me when I finished and asked me. I said I didn’t know and that I would let him know. But after having those games, I decided ‘Yeah, let’s do it’”
The 11-cap Knoyle linked up with the Dragons in 2016, joining Tal Selley and Liam Davies as one of only three men to play for all four regions, following previous spells at the Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues, as well as Gloucester. He made 61 appearances for the Men of Gwent in all, before moving on four months ago.
“It is a tough place. I felt over the last two or three years, with injuries, new coaches coming in and chopping and changing all the time, I just had a gutsful,” he said.
“It’s not so much I fell out of love with it, it was just going to stale, with meetings and analysis. I am more of a doer, someone who likes doing things all the time. You would be in a meeting room for an hour and a half at a time and there are one or two of them a day. You are sitting in a room and after ten, 15 minutes most people lost interest.
“I just found it really difficult and it just got tougher. It took the enjoyment out of it. I stopped enjoying it over the last three years probably. I didn’t enjoy it half as much as what I did.
“To be honest with you, it was many things. Part of it was results. Everyone is working hard, the players, the coaches, the medical staff. You are all giving up things, not going out drinking, you are training really hard.
“But then when you are not getting results, you can get in a habit of losing. That can be really demoralizing. You try and pick each other up, you try and have a laugh, but it’s very, very difficult.
“It’s been tough in terms of injuries more than anything. When you are hurt and out for a long time that’s what really gets you down. I have had nine operations in all and the last three have been quite horrible. I’ve had two ACLs and a fused wrist. Rugby gives you so much, but it can take an awful lot as well.
“I have worked it out. I have missed five years of playing due to injuries over the 13 years. It’s not nice having to walk around on crutches. I love my golf but I can’t even swing a golf club now because of my wrist. I have got a bar in it which is fused with the bone. I can do weights and play rugby, but I can’t swing a golf club. That’s quite tough.”
Knoyle added: “There are so many good people at the Dragons. I have got great friends there. I met some lovely people there.
“When I left, I was hoping and praying for them to win. I know how hard the players and back room staff work. I wanted them to win. But to go through a year like that, I just felt sorry for them as a team and sorry for all the boys. I do really hope they turn the corner.”
It’s been some journey for Knoyle, who started out with his local club Glynneath, then progressed through Neath, while working as a laborer in the coal industry in Banwen.
After one game for the Ospreys, he joined the Scarlets in the summer of 2009 and before the end of that next season he had been called up to the Wales squad during the 2010 Six Nations, aged just 19, after only ten or so regional outings .
“It was a bit of a whirlwind. I had been sitting in the local club watching these amazing players and then a year later I was running round with them training. I was star-struck. I was still eligible for the U20s!”
Knoyle was named in the Wales squad for the 2010 summer tour of New Zealand and proceeded to win his first cap as a replacement against the All Blacks in Dunedin, in the final game to be played at Carisbrook’s famous ‘House of Pain’.
“That was amazing. To go out there and represent your country and play for Wales. It was what I always wanted to do as a child,” he says.
The following year, he headed back to New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup as one of three scrum-halves, alongside Mike Phillips and fellow rookie Lloyd Williams.
“That was brilliant, it was awesome. It tested me mentally because at the time I was trying to push Mike and he was on fire.”
Knoyle was back-up to Phillips for the first two group games against South Africa and Samoa and then started versus Namibia, only to lose his place in the match-day 23 to Williams for the big knock-out showdowns with Ireland and France.
“I got dropped and really struggled. It made me grow up and realize ‘Right you are competing here, this is a competitive sport, wake up’. That was a bit of an eye opener, but good for me as well.”
So how does he now reflect on his international career, which ran through until 2013, with his final cap coming that summer out in Japan?
“Sometimes looking back, I wonder was I too young, was I too raw? I do feel as you get older you learn a lot more,” he says.
“I was competing with Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, with the likes of Lloyd Williams and Gareth Davies. There was competition upon competition all the time.
“I was competing with probably the best scrum-half in the world at the time in Mike Phillips. For about two or three years around that period he was unstoppable.
“I used to look at him and think he was my favorite player as a kid, so when I was in the Welsh squad with him I was always quite star-struck. I found it quite difficult to go after him and really compete. I never had the killer instinct at that age.
“He was class and he was so good off the field. He is a hell of a character. I have made life really comfortable for me. He was good, he was very helpful. I had one or two issues years ago and he was the first one to say if you need help with anything just let me know. Small things like that go such a long way.”
As for the region where he had the best time, he picks out the Scarlets, who he was with from 2009 to 2013.
“I just found there was a real good mix of experienced players and youngsters there. The man management was really good, you knew where you stood. You had a hell of a crack off the field, having a laugh on your down time. But as soon as you crossed the whitewash on to the training field, it was really intense. It was nerve-racking, but it got the best out of you.”
During our chat, the Glynneath-based Knoyle is as talkative and friendly as ever, with his bubbly personality coming to the fore.
“I’ve just been myself over the years. It can get you into trouble, but we are all human and got opinions. You’ve got to be true to yourself. It’s been lively my career, it’s been really nice. I consider myself really lucky.”
Away from rugby, father-of-three Knoyle runs the Unit 8 gym in Neath, a project he will now combine with playing for Merthyr.
“I’ve got a young family and a business to run. With Merthyr, it’s Tuesday and Thursday nights and a game on Saturday. It made sense and I’m looking forward to it,” he says.
“I know some people say the Premiership is a poor standard, but I think that’s really unfair and rubbish to be honest with you. These players have got to work twice as hard as everyone else because they are working in the day. They have got to try and go to the gym before they go to work, they’ve got training after work, a lot of them will have young families. So it’s a very difficult and tough but rewarding league to play in, with good players and good coaches.
“I think it’s great. I agree with the Chief (Dale McIntosh). These young regional players have got to play in it. A lot of Academy players won’t play from three or four weeks to the next. It’s not fair. As a youngster, you just want to play and it’s good experience against older heads, bigger men. I think we are very lucky and privileged to have the Premiership.”
Outlining his ambitions at Merthyr, Knoyle concluded: “When I spoke to Sir Stan, they want to win the league, they want to win trophies. I just want to be part of a team that’s winning a couple of games on the bounce. You don’t train and work hard every week to lose, you do it to try and win.
“I’m hungry, I’m excited and I can’t wait. I just want to go and enjoy rugby for what it is. I am really looking forward to it.”