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 people will remember him for different reasons.

He won 16 caps for Wales and captained his country six times before retiring from international rugby union at the age of 27.

He became a columnist and journalist who was not afraid to hold people to account; 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 elaborate montages were a genre unto themselves, not just in rugby union or even sport.

His last act for the BBC was a piece on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which he wrote and sent from Peru, where she died in her sleep on a charity walk.

Not many people could do that, but the great Eddie Butler can.

A gentle giant, a great broadcaster and a wonderful wordsmith.

to Pontypool ground

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

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

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

That mattered little to the tough school at Pontypool RFC, where he was under the tutelage of legendary coach Ray Prosser, nicknamed ‘Bamber’ after the host of the Gascoigne University Challenge.

The public school was accepted into Pooler’s line-up which included the famous Pontypool front row of Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price.

Butler once said: “It took me about five years to get accepted and then in the sixth they made me captain. It takes a while but they’re a bunch of guys.”

Wales is calling

The early 1980s were a tough time for Welsh rugby after the success of the 1970s.

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

After both retired, Davies became head of sport at BBC Sport Wales when Butler moved into his department.

Butler had already started his media career as a rugby reporter for the Observer and Guardian newspapers.

“He was a top player first and foremost,” Davies said.

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

“His broadcasting career was also against the norm because a lot of people think they can be broadcasters, but Eddie was really unique in his command of the English language, which is what made him such a great professional.

“This is how he is now recognized all over the world. Many people will not be there when he played. It is an almost irreplaceable case.”

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 as a pundit alongside the legendary Bill McLaren.

He commented on Wales’ 2005 Grand Slam, starting with Gavin Henson’s match-winning penalty against England and ending with a famous victory over Ireland.

Former Wales center Tom Shanklin was part of that team that won their first Grand Slam in 27 years.

Shanklin recalled a magical line from Butler, referring 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 commented on several games I have played.

“I always remember the win over England in 2005 when Gavin Henson kicked the game-winning penalty and after the shot hit the post, the words were ‘Shave Gavin, go away’.

“It was unbelievable and also in the 2005 Grand Slam match against Ireland.

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

Gavin Henson's match-winning penalty in Wales' 11-9 win over England in February 2005.
Gavin Henson’s 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 getting into commentary, there’s no better person to learn from than Eddie,” Shanklin said.

“It was amazing when you started helping me. I got to know him personally over the last few years and what a nice guy he was.

“If you were commentating a game and you saw that Eddie was going to be the first voice you were in safe hands.

“I will always remember that there would always be this huge hand to silence me and that hand would stay there until people heard the crowd.

“He would let the game breathe, then open his hand and invite you to comment.”

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 commentators were former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies and England hooker Brian Moore.

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

“I’m much more upset than I thought I would be and I can’t fathom the depth of my feeling.

“It was strange in a lot of ways because we didn’t work together that much. It wasn’t like a full season of football, it was the Six Nations and other games a year.

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

“I struggled because I wanted to be able to say how much I appreciated it.”

Moore and Butler formed the iconic double act.

“It worked and I don’t know why in particular,” Moore added.

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

“As people have often said, it feels like an old couple’s quarrel, that’s because you put up with it for so many years and compromise and it’s a deep affection that underlies everything else.

“So you can agree without fear of offending or ruining your relationship. Once we sat down and looked at how we could make things better and after a minute we said, ‘Let’s stop.’

“If we had gone that way, it would have been contrived. It wasn’t contrived and it was spontaneous, so let’s leave it at that.”

Moore praised the way Butler won over the crowd after replacing McLaren.

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

“People are very nice to Eddie now, but he used to give him a hard time in games where he was on Twitter.

“I remember when I worked with him because Bill McLaren wasn’t going to make it and he had to follow a genius on the air.

“Gradually, people gave him the full credit he deserved and recognized him for his great talent.

“He had a much harder job than I did. Commentary is a subjective matter and you can’t please everyone, but Eddie eventually went a long way to please most people.

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

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 introduced Sunday Scrum V in 2007 the week an icon of Welsh rugby and broadcasting passed away,” said Lewis.

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

“We were all confused and a little ashen-faced when we came up for air and I remember thinking, ‘Thank goodness Eddie’s on the couch.’

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

“That being said, taking the work out of everyone else, setting the tone for an entire program, allowed us to do Grav proud. Oh for an Eddie to sum Eddie up.”

Lewis also “refereed” a verbal battle with former Wales captain Gareth Thomas in 2006 after Mike Ruddock quit as manager.

Thomas was live in the BBC Wales studio defending his team against allegations of player power, while Butler was an investigative journalist looking for the reasons behind Ruddock’s departure.

The contrast made for some explosive Sunday night television.

“He was arguably best known for his word of mouth, but he was also a true journalist in the sense of getting to the truth,” Lewis said.

“There have been many versions of Mike Ruddock’s infamous exit in 2006 and the more infamous episode of Scrum V I introduced, in which Eddie went head-to-head with Wales captain Gareth Thomas.

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

Gareth Lewis hosted the Scrum V show in 2006 along with Jonathan Davies, Gareth Thomas and Eddie Butler.
Gareth Lewis hosted the Scrum V show in 2006 along with Jonathan Davies, Gareth Thomas and Eddie Butler.

A lasting legacy

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

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

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

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

Cotter says Butler reached audiences outside of rugby.

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

“I especially remember the 2012 Olympics and he wrote some beautiful montages.

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

“Many other former sportsmen have talked about their rugby pedigree, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a fantastic broadcaster.

“He, like Peter Alliss and Steve Cram, go from being top-notch on the field to becoming really fantastic broadcasters.

“He was a very generous person, but it’s those moments in sport and that rich Welsh voice that people will remember.

“If you get a chance to hear the stuff that Eddie has written and delivered, I’d love to see some of those montages again from the 2012 Olympics and beyond.

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

Hail 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 agrees that Butler was unique.

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

“He was okay with being smart. He didn’t pay attention to that image, which most of us have been guilty of at one time or another.

“He wore that wit and brilliance so lightly. So inside. And just as Eddie didn’t always need so many words, some people don’t need all their names. Grav, Benny, Eddie. We’ve been lucky to have known them. all of them.”

Hard to believe he won’t be commenting on a Welsh rugby season starting this weekend that Shanklin should have been commenting alongside Butler.

“The URC season is about to start this weekend and it will be very rare to show up at the start of a season and the leading voice is not there,” Shanklin said.

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