Matthew Mathias pays tribute to Eddie Butler, who died on September 15th, a former captain of the Wales Rugby Union side and British and Irish Lion who went on to add his stylish commentary to the memories of a generation of the game’s fans.
Eddie Butler has passed away. There was no tolling of bells, no processions, and I doubt there will be a bank holiday when he is returned to us. There was however an outpouring of sadness, affection and admiration for this Man of Gwent, this ‘Voice of rugby.’ Respectful, eloquent with a bit of fuss, but not too much. How very Eddie Butler.
The title, Voice of rugby is, of course, correct, but it alone ignores how much more Eddie Butler was; even when it came to rugby. You see for many he wasn’t just the voice. While he talked, so beautifully the talk, people forget that he had already walked the walk. Before he devoted his voice, he had given his heart and body to the sport. Lest we forget that not only did he play rugby, he played for his country and not only did he play for his country, he captained it.
We have heard the words ‘line of accession’ many times this week and well, wasn’t that the case with Eddie? For my generation and the one or two before it, Scotsman Bill Mclaren was our voice of rugby, the soundtrack to the ‘crowning years’. It was with Bill that Eddie began his time as a commentator and so when the man of Hawick sadly passed, it felt almost natural that Eddie should be the one to accede him. What massive boots to fill but what a job he did.
The Voice of rugby is dead, long live the voice of rugby.
I loved the way Eddie commentated, the ebb and flow of his voice in perfect sync with the game before you. Pronunciation was important to him whether it be the soft double L’s of home, the Z splattered names of the Georgians or the commentators’ nightmare in the form of the Tongan team sheet (yeah I am sure you can say Siua ‘Halanukonuka and Sione Kalamafoni but you try it in the middle of a game…). Forget all that though, it was when he was commentating on France that we got excited. He made passing a rugby ball between hairy arsed gallic players sounds like phone sex between lovers. Every single syllable stressed, every rolled R perfectly accentuated, as if he was being paid by the word. Beautiful.
While rugby administrators allied with TV executives seek to strangle any form of romance, tradition and occasion out of the 6 nations, Eddie understood those three pillars. He played in the old, worked and lived in the new. He got it, and his famous voiceover pieces have become as much part of a six nations day as the crowds, the anthems, the analysis and the curry and chips from Caroline Street.
You could tell how much work had gone into them, how important to him was the scene setting, the history, the antagonists, the supporting cast, the musings and of course the delivery. Words were important to him and when he delivered, he spoke as if he was tasting every letter that came out of his mouth.
But we can’t dwell on his love of the spoken word and ignore the written. Only two years ago he told Wales online ‘that he had gained most pleasure in his working life from writing three novels’. That’s good because I gained a lot of pleasure from reading them. I was fortunate to have been asked by Wales Arts Review to review his first book (The Head of Gonzo Davies). You would expect them to be beautifully written, but it revealed that as well as a wordsmith, Eddie was a talented storyteller.
Those three novels that gave him such pleasure are a testament to his love of Wales, her stories and the people that lived there once and live there now. He knew so many parts of Wales because he’d been to so many, invited by people who wanted to see him and more importantly hear him. Not for him the Wales of Cardiff, the Valleys, North Wales, mid and west. He knew the subtle and not so subtle differences between valleys, between the counties, towns and villages of the west, the change in accents and peoples as you travelled from the Llyn peninsula to Wrexham, Connah’s quay through Powys to Pencoed and everywhere in between and nearby. He knew them, he understood them and he enjoyed them. Wasn’t he himself a boy born in Newport, schooled in Monmouth and who played rugby in Pontypool? All Gwent? Yes but all three almost foreign to each other in history and culture. His novels showed this and yet it all came back to a need to tell a story, a love of words and a long standing but ever burgeoning love affair with Wales. In recent years he had begun to believe in an independent Wales, believed so much that in 2019 he spoke to a throng of fellow believers at an independence March in Merthyr. Eddie the rugby player, Eddie the voice of rugby, the novelist, the broadcaster, the journalist, the campaigner, and I feel a deep sadness that with many of these different facets of his life, he was just getting started. He lived a life less ordinary, and it shows in how this wonderful man passed away, walking the Inca Trail in Peru while raising money for a Welsh prostate cancer charity
It will be a strange weekend on the 4th and 5th February 2023. The Irish in Cardiff, Scotland travelling to Twickenham and Rome resplendent to welcome the French. We who love the game or those who only love these weekends will do what we do, put on our tops, unfurl our flags, head to the game, club, pub, neighbours or the fridge in preparation and there will be something wrong, something missing. Everything will be there but the voice, and while I know many of us mourn Eddie Butler now, that Saturday we will mourn him again.
There should be a montage in his honour, epic music, panoramic views of his beloved Gwent and slow-motion replays of his time on the pitch and in the commentary box but it wouldn’t work so well, because who on earth could do the voiceover?
RIP Eddie Butler, you are going to be missed.