Eddie Butler: The remarkable life of the ‘voice of rugby’

Eddie Butler: The remarkable life of the 'voice of rugby'

Eddie Butler captained Pontypool for three years

Eddie Butler was a man of many talents and will be remembered by people for different reasons.

He was the player who won 16 caps for Wales and captained his country on six occasions before retiring from international rugby union aged 27.

He became a columnist and journalist who was not afraid to hold people to account; a broadcaster and commentator who soothed and informed with his rich prose and booming voice.

Butler could write and broadcast with gravity and depth but also with lightness and humour; his crafted montages were a genre in themselves, not only on rugby union or even sport.

His final act for the BBC was a piece on the death of Queen Elizabeth II that he scripted and sent over from Peru, where he died in his sleep on a charity trek.

Not many people could have done that, but the extraordinary Eddie Butler could.

A gentle giant, brilliant broadcaster and a wonderful wordsmith.

Pontypool grounding

Butler was born in Newport in 1957 and, when he was three, the family moved to Raglan, as his father was working in a nylon factory in Pontypool.

After attending Monmouth School, Butler had a gap year in Spain in 1975 just as Franco’s dictatorship was coming to an end.

He studied French and Spanish at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge University, where he was a triple Blue after playing three Varsity matches against Oxford University.

That mattered little to the hard school of Pontypool RFC where he came under the tutelage of legendary coach Ray Prosser who nicknamed him ‘Bamber’ after the University Challenge host Bamber Gascoigne.

The public schoolboy became accepted in the Pooler set-up that included the famed Pontypool front-row of Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price.

Butler once quipped: “It took me about five years before I was accepted and then they made me captain in the sixth. It takes a bit of time but they are a great bunch of lads.”

Wales come calling

The early 1980s was a tough era for Welsh rugby after the success of the 1970s.

In an international career that lasted four years, Butler was 22 when he was handed his Wales debut in 1980 against France in a side which included Cardiff fly-half Gareth Davies.

After they had both retired Davies was head of sport at BBC Sport Wales when he brought Butler into his department.

Butler had already begun to carve a name as a rugby journalist with the Observer and Guardian newspapers as he started his media career.

“First of all he was a top-class player,” said Davies.

“Eddie became club captain at Pontypool, he captained Wales and he was against the norm.

“His broadcasting career was also against the norm, because many people think they can be broadcasters, but Eddie truly was a one-off in terms of his command of the English language, it’s what enabled him to be such a such a great professional.

“That’s how he is recognised worldwide now. Many people will not have been around when he played. It’s almost a case of him being irreplaceable.”

Eddie Butler in action for Wales against Scotland in 1982
Eddie Butler in action for Wales against Scotland in 1982

Commentary gems

Butler graduated to commentary after working alongside the legendary Bill McLaren as a pundit.

He commentated on Wales’ 2005 Grand Slam which started with Gavin Henson kicking a match-winning penalty against England and finished with a famous win over Ireland.

Former Wales centre Tom Shanklin was an integral part of that squad who won a first Grand Slam in 27 years.

Shanklin recalled a magical line from Butler that referred to Henson who was famous for shaving his body.

“He was the voice of Welsh rugby,” Shanklin told BBC Radio Five Live.

“He was a master of words. He has commentated on so many of the games I have played in.

“I always remember the 2005 win over England when Gavin Henson kicked the match-winning penalty and it was the words after the kick was nailed through the posts, ‘Shave away Gavin, shave away’.

“He was unbelievable and also during the 2005 Grand Slam game against Ireland.

“Some of his greatest work was in that game and it was such an iconic moment for Wales. What better person to have commentating on that than Eddie.”

Gavin Henson kicked the match-winning penalty in Wales 11-9 win over England in February 2005
Gavin Henson kicked the match-winning penalty in Wales 11-9 win over England in February 2005

After Shanklin retired, he became a co-commentator under Butler’s tutelage.

“When you start going into commentary there is no better person to learn off than Eddie,” said Shanklin.

“He was brilliant in helping you out when you first started out. I got to know him personally over the last few years and what a lovely bloke he was.

“If you were co-commentating on a game and you saw Eddie was going to be first voice you knew you were in safe hands.

“I will always remember there would always be this massive hand coming across to silence me and he would keep that hand there until people could hear the crowd.

“He would let the game breathe then he would open his hand and invite you in to the commentary.”

Perfect partners

Eddie Butler and Brian Moore commentating at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff
Eddie Butler and Brian Moore commentating at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff

Butler’s most famous co-commentators were former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies and England hooker Brian Moore.

“He was a great professional and a great friend,” said Moore.

“I am a lot more upset than I thought I was going to be and I can’t account for the depth of feeling.

“It was strange in many ways because we did not work together that often. It was not like a whole football season, it was the Six Nations and a few other games per year.

“We did not spend that much time in each other’s company and yet I felt, and I am sure he did, we were just incredibly close.

“I have struggled because I wished I had told him how much I rated him.”

Moore and Butler formed the iconic double act.

“It just worked and I don’t know why particularly,” added Moore.

“I only argued with Eddie when he was wrong and that’s why we argued a lot!

“When people have often said we sounded like an old couple bickering that’s because over many years you get to tolerate and compromise and a deep underlying affection which underpins everything else.

“So you can disagree without fear of offence or ruining your relationship. We once sat down and looked at how we could improve things and after a minute we said, ‘Let’s stop’.

“If we had gone down that route it would have been contrived. It hasn’t been contrived and just been spontaneous so let’s just leave it at that.”

Moore praised the manner in which Butler won over the viewers after replacing McLaren.

“I had immense respect for him,” said Moore.

“People now are being very nice about Eddie but they used to be on Twitter during games giving him a hard time.

“I remember when I first worked with him the stick he would get because he was not Bill McLaren and he had to follow a genius in broadcasting.

“Gradually over the years people did give him the full credit he deserved and was recognised for the great talent he was.

“He had a lot harder job than I had. Commentary is a subjective matter and you can’t please everyone but Eddie in the end went a long way to pleasing most people.

“If people listened with any objectivity, they had to understand he knew the subject, he loved the game, was a wonderful wordsmith and knew when not to speak.

Compliments and controversy

One of Butler’s great strengths was putting people at ease. Gareth Lewis is a BBC presenter who often worked alongside Butler.

“I presented Sunday Scrum V in the week that another Welsh rugby and broadcasting icon passed away in 2007,” said Lewis.

“Truth be told we were very nervous about holding it together, let alone doing Grav – Ray Gravell – justice.

“We were all croaky and a little ashen-faced as we came on air and I remember thinking, ‘Thank God Eddie is on the sofa’.

“He used just 11 words to sum up a man who almost defied summing up: ‘Ray Gravell was defined by Wales, but not confined by Wales’.

“Having said that, having spared the rest of us the job, having set the tone for an entire programme, allowed us to do Grav proud. Oh for an Eddie to sum up Eddie.”

Lewis also “refereed” his verbal battle with former Wales captain Gareth Thomas in 2006 following the departure of head coach Mike Ruddock.

Thomas was live in the BBC Wales studio defending his squad over player power accusations, Butler was the investigative journalist probing away looking for the reasons why Ruddock left.

The contrast made for some explosive Sunday night television.

“Although he was arguably best-known for the spoken word, he was also a true journalist – in the getting-to-the-truth sense,” said Lewis.

“There’ve been many versions told of the infamous departure of Mike Ruddock back in 2006 and the even more infamous episode of Scrum V, which I presented, and in which Eddie went head-to-head with Wales captain Gareth Thomas.

“Eddie had his ‘sources’ and there had been plenty of ‘rumours’ too (you need to watch the video to understand why those words are in inverted commas) but Eddie had been told things that week, as we all had, and he was determined to make sure the truth somehow got out.”

Gareth Lewis hosting the Scrum V show in 2006 alongside Jonathan Davies, Gareth Thomas and Eddie Butler
Gareth Lewis hosting the Scrum V show in 2006 alongside Jonathan Davies, Gareth Thomas and Eddie Butler

Lasting legacy

BBC rugby commentator Andrew Cotter is now an established voice on our screens who learned from Butler.

“When he was commentating on France he loved to roll those names off the tongue and doing it in that deep, Welsh baritone,” said Cotter.

“He worked with Bill McLaren as his co-commentator and then took over as the lead commentator when Bill stepped aside.

“So for the last 20 years he’s been the man calling those big moments and doing that with authority.”

Cotter says Butler reached an audience outside rugby.

“What a beautiful writer he was with those montages,” he added.

“In particular I remember the 2012 Olympics and he wrote a series of beautiful montages.

“Writing for television is a very different thing, a particular skill, and his writing and delivery and that’s what he was, a Welsh poet, ensured he was one of the great orators of sports broadcasting.

“Many other former sports people have talked about his rugby pedigree but that doesn’t guarantee you to be a wonderful broadcaster.

“He, like Peter Alliss and Steve Cram, go from being top-end on the field and actually become wonderful broadcasters.

“He was a very generous person, but what people will remember is those moments in sport and that rich, Welsh voice delivering those moments.

“If you get a chance to listen to things Eddie wrote and delivered, I’d love to see some of those montages again from the 2012 Olympics and beyond.

“He will simply be remembered as one of the finest voices we’ve ever had in sports broadcasting.”

Goodbye to a genius

Eddie Butler at Ray Prosser's funeral in December 2020
Eddie Butler at Ray Prosser’s funeral in December 2020

His former BBC colleague Gareth Lewis admits Butler was unique.

“What stands out for me most about Eddie is he was ok with being the brightest in the room,” said Lewis.

“He was ok with being intelligent. He did not play up to that image, that most of us have been guilty of at one time or another.

“He wore that intelligence and brightness so lightly. So inclusively. And much as Eddie didn’t always need that many words, so some people do not need all their names. Grav, Benny, Eddie. We’ve been lucky to have known them all.”

Hard to believe he will not be commentating on another Welsh rugby season which starts this weekend in which Shanklin was due to commentate alongside Butler.

“The URC season is about to start this weekend and it is going to be so strange turning up at the start of a season and the main voice is not there,” said Shanklin.

As one of his colleagues eloquently concluded, “Eddie Butler always so perfectly paid tribute to the greats of the game, I hope he realised he was one of them.”

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