I can’t compete as a player with Vivian Jenkins, my distinguished predecessor as rugby correspondent of The Sunday Times. My rugby was the coarse variety in Gloucestershire. It was very enjoyable though in the true amateur tradition with a lot of post match drinking and silly games.
But I did enjoy writing for The Sunday Times on rugby from the early 70s until 1980. I started off doing the rugby round-up of matches in different parts of Britain - Scotland for the Scottish edition, Wales and the west of England for the Welsh, the north of England for the northern edition, the midlands for the midlands edition and then everywhere else for the final edition. I did this by sitting in the office on a Saturday afternoon and taking calls from informants in different parts of the country. I would spend Friday afternoons and evenings in the same office arranging for these informants to ring me on a certain number at a precise time the next afternoon. I would be
as perturbed if they were early with their calls as if they were late. The editions came fast and furious and so did the telephone calls. It was a very good way of getting quite a lot of information into a relatively small space in the biggest quality Sunday newspaper. Two paragraphs about Broughton Park or Gosforth or Moseley or Stroud or Bridgend or Swansea went a long way in the seventies.
The trouble was that the editions often didn’t. Again and again the print run would be disrupted by industrial action so that instead of changing editions, the authorities decided to keep printing the first edition. At least people would be able to buy a Sunday Times the next day they reasoned. At least we’ll make some money. This meant that if you lived in the area where the first edition circulated then you had all your local news but if you lived in, say, Gloucestershire or Cardiff then the round-up was all about Scottish clubs and many people found this unfathomable and extremely annoying. I used to dread talking to my father on a Sunday because he would point out yet again that he wasn’t interested in Hawick and Jedburgh and Edinburgh Academicals. He wanted to know how Tredegar, the club for which he had played first when he was at Tredegar grammar school and later after he had left it, had done. For him Tredegar was the best club in the world. There was no question about that. He would brook no argument. “How did Tredegar get on boy?" he would ask and if I was able to say they had won, a smile spread across his face. If I said they had beaten Tredegar Ironsides, their deadly rivals, he was even happier and would say “quite right too."
In time the Sunday Times’s production problems was sorted out at great cost
and I succeeded Vivian Jenkins at considerably less cost. My first tour was to New Zealand in 1977 and my post tour book “Life with the Lions” flirted with the best seller list for the first couple of weeks after it had been published. Having it serialised in two issues of The Sunday Times didn’t half help. In fact, the demand for it was sufficient for it to have sold out the week before it was due to come out. Some rare copies of the book carry a banner
saying "sold out before publication.” I was proud of that.
For three more years I covered every Five Nations. I covered the All Blacks in Italy, the All Blacks in France, the Japanese, the Argentinians, the Tongans, the Fijians, the Samoans on tours of Britain. I spent a few days with Carwyn James when he was coaching Rovigo in Italy. When Jack Gleeson, the coach of the all conquering All Blacks on their tour of Britain, died suddenly of a tumour, I flew to New Zealand and wrote a piece about him and his funeral. I particularly remember going down to the south of France to do a feature about Serge Blanco and how he invited me to have lunch with his team before the match. With only minutes to, and being the showman he was, Blanco landed a huge drop goal from the touchline to win the game for his side. I spent time with Bobby Windsor, Charlie Faulkner and Graham Price for a photo essay. While on tour with the Lions in 1977 I had the idea to try and interview the prime minister, Robert Muldoon. I rang his office in Wellington on a Monday and got to see him at teatime the next. He was sometimes curt, sometimes belligerent but I got enough out of him to make a story. Wouldn’t happen now.
Sitting at home one day early in 1980, I was disturbed by a call from my boss, John Lovesey, the sports editor of The Sunday Times. I will never forget his opening words. “Are you sitting down, John?” he asked solicitously. “Because if you’re not, you may want to when you hear what I am about to say.” He went on to offer me the job as golf correspondent of The Sunday Times knowing that I had grown up on the edge of a golf course and that golf had been a childhood game that I had played with a little more distinction than I had played rugby. Henry Longhurst’s successor as golf correspondent of the paper, having done the job for a few years, wanted a change. “I think we will have less difficulty in finding a rugby correspondent than a golf one” he said.
It was agreed that I should cover the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa, the one captained by Bill Beaumont, and switch to golf in the autumn of that year. That tour was memorable. There were a protest against the Lions. Danie Craven was kingpin of South African rugby. His views about the tour and mine were about as close as Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s on Trident. I flew down to Stellenbosch to interview him and as I did so his dog, which he had named as best man at his recent marriage, slumbered and snored at his feet. At Johannesburg airport when the
Lions were flying home, Craven was there to see them off. He shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said that he respected me even if disagreed with me. I wrote a book about that tour, too. It sold perhaps one tenth as many copies as Life with the Lions and maybe not even that many.
"John Hopkins is that rare specimen, someone who
not only knows his rugby, but also knows how to write"
Derek Robinson, BBC
So ended my time as a full-time rugby writer. But it didn’t end my interest in rugby. In time I left The Sunday Times and wrote essays about golf and rugby in The Independent on Sunday and the Weekend FT (Financial Times). It was a blissful time, full of polite people who asked me nicely to write for them, thanked me when I had done so and paid me well for doing so. I covered the 1991 Rugby World Cup in this capacity. In fact I covered every World Cup from 1991 to
2007 and I have the speeding tickets in France, South Africa and Australia to show for it.
In 1993 I joined The Times as the golf correspondent with permission to write about rugby when I was able to and there I remained until I retired at the appropriate age in 2010. I had my first byline in The Sunday Times in January 1970 and my last in The Times on 26 March 2010, my birthday. If my two-year sojourn on the Indy on Sunday and the Weekend FT was fun, this was much more work and, if possible, even more fun. Just as The
Sunday Times seemed to have the money to allow me to go to anywhere within reason so long as they thought what I was going to write about was worth it, so The Times actively encouraged me to go to say, Sun City in December for the Million Dollar Challenge, as it then was, or Australia in January, not forgetting Rye in the first full week of the year when the members of the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society played their annual competition called the President’s Putter. The colder the better. Firm underfoot? Wonderful. A biting wind blowing in from Siberia? Just the job. This was British eccentricity at its best and when I was able to caddie for Ted Dexter, the cricketer, it made for enjoyable reading on a January morning when there was no golf of any significance going on anywhere in the world except Hawaii.
I love books. They do furnish a room as someone once said. Well, hardback books do. I am not so taken by paperbacks. They can break, fall to bits. The hundreds of mainly hardback rugby ones I gathered without really trying have been eclipsed by the thousands of golf books I have collected with rather more intent. If someone gets half as much pleasure out of reading one of the rugby books that once sat on my shelves as I had writing it and covering rugby, then I will be happy.