The car was a cross between a Lada and a Trabant, a cut-and-shut probably. It was parked in a taxi rank outside the one hotel in Bucharest that had any swank or alcohol. It was 1994 and the following day Wales were playing Romania as punishment for making an early exit from the World Cup three years before. The International Rugby Board had held a media conference about nothing very much and it was time to retire to a modest establishment on the outskirts of the city to serve up the match preview.

Behind was a Mercedes, not the latest model but not pre-war either. On approach, the driver appeared to be making a sales pitch but became frantic when the door handle was touched. He made shoving movements with his hands, as if it needed to be lifted off to gain entry. Not quite. The owner of the other taxi knew at least one word of English and smirked as he said: “Push.” Ten miles was a long way and at least his car started, if noisily and reluctantly.

You get to see much of the world covering rugby, to the envy of supporters who save up for what reporters get paid for. “I would love your job,” is a common refrain. It carries many privileges and plenty of access, although not as much as before the sport went open in 1995. But it also has one significant downside which, for someone whose ambition in journalism lay in politics rather than sport, outweighs the rest on the day of a match: detachment.

Sport is about emotion and ardour, oscillating fortunes that mix elation with despair, satisfaction with fury, pride with indignation. It needs, as the past year has shown, supporters, primarily those who pay to watch their sides through good times and bad, sun and snow, often at the end of their wits but unable to change their allegiance. Players trade emblems, and they did in the amateur days, but a fan’s commitment is for life, for better or curse.

The Irish prop Nick Popplewell on the charge for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand in 1993.
The Irish prop Nick Popplewell on the charge for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand in 1993. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

As a reporter you have to be unemotional to be fair to those you are writing about, which is difficult if your reflections are, depending on who you work for, through the prism of one side. When England lost to Ireland in Dublin last month, should the emphasis have been on the failings of the former or the latter’s best performance since before the last World Cup? As a fan, you take sides but in the free seats you have to make a balanced judgment.

So when you delve into memory and come up with a list of matches you would like to see again, they tend to be those in which you invested emotionally and financially: Wales’s victory against England in 1969 when the remarkable Maurice Richards scored four tries; Cardiff against Coventry in 1972 when Barry John, whose casual, languid air disguised a burning will to win, turned the match on its head, as he so often did, a player who made a young boy fall for the game; the club’s victory over the 1975 Australians when the burly PL Jones won the battle of the bulldozing wings with Paddy Batch; Gareth Edwards dropping a late goal to seal a rousing comeback from 24-0 down at Easter against the 1976 Barbarians; the 1978 visit of London Scottish to the Arms Park when Gerald Davies somehow scored a try after going round a defender standing on the touchline without putting a foot out of play; the victory over Bridgend in the 1981 Welsh Cup final when Cardiff were led by an Englishman, John Scott, a captain who did not need a coach to tell him where a game was going wrong and who gave the establishment club a rebellious streak in transforming it; the 1973 meeting between the Barbarians and New Zealand, breathtakingly brilliant, although it would seem pedestrian by the perpetual motion of today’s game; and Wales’s victory over France in the stirring 1978 grand slam decider at the National Stadium, a day when a steward’s badge was the only means of entry before chaos in the South Stand caused by spectators finding themselves in the wrong seats earned an escape to the enclosure.

The matches that have stood out since then have largely been because of the atmosphere. Such was the noise in 1988, it was like going back 10 years when Wales came from 20-10 down to defeat Scotland in Cardiff through stunning individual tries by Jonathan Davies and Ieuan Evans; when the 2001 British & Irish Lions ran out in the first Test at the Gabba, it was as if the Test were being played in Britain, such was the away support; the 1999 World Cup semi-final between France and New Zealand at Twickenham; the final four years later between South Africa and the All Blacks at Ellis Park and spending the following afternoon sitting with Jonah Lomu and his agent Phil Kingsley Jones in a Sandton hotel, the end of innocence as professionalism loomed; the 2003 World Cup final; various east Midlands derbies, raw and raucous; the 2011 Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton in Cardiff when Johnny Sexton inspired his side to overturn a 22-6 interval deficit; and the appreciation shown by the Wellington crowd to the 1993 Lions after they had squared the series 1-1.

The victorious England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson heads down the tunnel in Sydney after victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final.
The victorious England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson heads down the tunnel in Sydney after a dramatic 2003 Rugby World Cup final against Australia that went to extra time. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

That was the last Lions tour when the media had open access to players, and were allowed to watch training sessions and collar their quarry at the end. There was a trust then, with no media training required, and much of what you were told went unreported. Scott Gibbs, a squat centre who ran as if he had been fired from a cannon, straight and hard, came of age on that tour under the shrewd tutelage of Ian McGeechan. Two years earlier, after the speeches at the dinner following France’s victory over Wales in Paris, the then 20-year-old had talked in a quiet corner about his dreams and ambitions, which lay in music rather than rugby. He was disarmingly honest and it would have made a good story, but there was no chance of it appearing in print.

The legendary Wales fly-half Barry John
The legendary Wales fly-half Barry John, whose ability and will to win caused the Observer’s Paul Rees to fall in love with rugby. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

They were days when the words “off the record” were commonly used. Coaches were happy to take phone calls or chat after a match, providing context and making a reporter the bridge between a team and supporters; it is more like a tightrope now, to nobody’s benefit. You learned from speaking informally to people such as Eddie Jones, Graham Henry, McGeechan, Warren Gatland, John Connolly, Alex Evans, Mike Ruddock, Kevin Bowring, John Perkins and Tony Gray; Llanelli’s Gareth Jenkins, who in 2006 finally realised his ambition of becoming Wales’s head coach but had little chance of succeeding given the mess he inherited, had more numbers than the Yellow Pages and was difficult to get hold of, but it was always worth the hassle to hear him speak from the heart.

In the 1980s, the Welsh club scene was the most vibrant in the UK, but now it is the Premiership, where crowds have risen in the past 20 years, in proportion with the clubs’ losses. The pandemic has highlighted the game’s parlous state, but with the private equity company CVC now involved in both the club and international games, there is a greater chance of a global calendar being agreed after the 2023 World Cup to work to the benefit of everyone, most of all players who, as the Guardian’s recent concussion revelations have highlighted, have not had a voice and need to be protected.

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Rugby union has never been so popular, which is why not shutting off the Six Nations from terrestrial television is essential. But it also needs to rediscover the contrast between stealth and sinew that allowed artists such as Barry John and Gerald Davies to flourish. Unlike football, rugby is driven by the international game and stands at a crossroads: like the push-start taxi in Bucharest in a career that went from one breakdown to another on the world’s oldest Sunday title, a newspaper beyond compare, fearless and free; a boyhood ambition realised.