No man is an island, as the famous line goes. Wales and Dragons hooker Elliot Dee would agree, speaking ina interview with wru.wales...
“In rugby it’s rare that you sit down and reflect on all your achievements and the people who helped get you where you are,” says the 26-year-old.
“Even when we won the Grand Slam, which would be a highlight of any Welshman’s career, we had two days of celebrating before reporting back for club duty on the Monday.
“If anything good has come from this time in lockdown, it’s made me realise how much of a whirlwind the last three years have been. I hadn’t had a chance at all to look back on the World Cup or the Grand Slam, but these were some amazing achievements.”
It was only when he had a special chair upholstered with all his team jerseys that Dee tumbled down the most welcoming of rabbit holes. Most of it is a tapestry of Gwent rugby.
Born and bred in Newbridge, in the county of Caerphilly, Dee’s earliest memories are of wet nights at the Welfare Ground.
“When I was six it was touch rugby and I recall showing off a bit because that game didn’t suit me,” he says, laughing.
“They put me straight up to the U9s, so I had three years of getting battered about by older boys!”
Coach Paul Shipp, father of Wales U20 and Dragons hooker Ellis, was a big influence for Dee in his ten years at Newbridge.
With no youth set-up at the club, however, Dee went on to join Penallta, fifteen minutes down the valley.
By this time his potential had been recognised by the Dragons Academy, his talent evident in his district displays for Gwent, Caerphilly and Islwyn.
Dee spent most of his boyhood rugby in the back row, but it was his PE teacher at Newbridge School who saw a potential conversion.
“Mr Bool was the reason I moved to hooker. He realised I wasn’t going to be a massive bloke, but I didn’t like the idea at first,” says Dee, who played in the first XV with Ollie Griffiths and Jack Dixon.
“I was a bit left behind for a few years when the rest of the boys had their growth spurts.
“Then when I got into the Dragons U16s I couldn’t get picked at all. I was third or fourth choice, but Boolie helped me in a big way, boosting my confidence when I really needed it.”
Enter Paul Young, Dragons Academy Coach. The former Wales and Newport hooker, who also coached Dee at Coleg Gwent, invited him to Rodney Parade after a couple of injuries in the number two jersey.
As Dee tells it: “I’ll always remember that night: we had a tight-channel contact session and I was getting kicked the hell out of me. But I just kept getting back up and chucking myself about. I think Paul saw something in me.”
Despite being a year young, Dee ended up playing all the U18 games for the Dragons that year, culminating in his selection for Wales U18.
“That all came from Youngy giving me a chance. It was a big turning point from not getting picked for U16s to getting picked for Wales U18s.”
And what about that robust attitude he showed that night in Rodney Parade? He credits his parents, Glenn and Lynn, with instilling a good work ethic in him.
“They gave me that ‘never quit’ attitude. If you put the work in you’ll get the reward, and something I always say to youngsters now is that hard work beats talent.”
Dee has benefited from knowing what hard work means on ‘civvy street’ too. Uncertain that a career in rugby was going to take off, he enrolled on an electrical apprenticeship with JW Bowkett’s in Newport.
“At one point I was getting up at five a.m. to get down to Rodney Parade for weights, going to work all day, then back to academy training at night,” he says.
“Mam was driving me here, there and everywhere because I couldn’t drive at 16, on top of driving to Merthyr and back for her own job.
“It was five till eight every day of the week, so it got to a point where I was going to have to focus on one thing, and luckily rugby paid off. That said, I’ve got a good relationship with Jon Bowkett to this day. I’m still laughing at his jokes ten years on and he still tells the same jokes!”
Back to that chair, which among other things tells the story of Dee’s club-hopping prior to winning his first regional contract.
The Dragons Academy Manager, James Chapron, happened to be coaching Pontypool at the time Young had brought Dee into the fold.
“I was 17 and got picked on the bench away at Aberavon. I was coming on in the final quarter, unbelievably nervous for my first senior game.”
The first ten minutes went smoothly, he says. That was until the Wizards second row took a tap penalty.
“He ran straight into me and I got my tackle technique a bit wrong and spear-tackled him.”
A red card in his first senior game, followed by a two-week ban. It didn’t bode well for Dee.
“No one would look at me, the coaches just shook their heads. I felt like a right idiot, having waited all that time to make debut, only to get a ban. It wasn’t malicious, it was just bad technique, and despite people being annoyed with me I think it showed I wasn’t going to shy away from anything on the pitch.”
After Pontypool were relegated that season, Dee played a handful of games for Cross Keys in the British and Irish Cup (“good trips when the clubs still played in Edinburgh and Dublin”), before joining Bedwas.
“They had a really good hooker there, a local boy called Rhys Hutcherson, and I thought, ‘Here we go again – I won’t get picked ahead of him’,” he recalls.
“But once I settled in, Spot [current Cardiff coach Steve Law] and Ian Gardner – two great guys – gave me a chance and things went well.”
Dee played well over 50 games for the Bridge Field outfit, and his memories of the Welsh Premiership are fond.
“When you’re a young kid, getting used to playing senior rugby, it’s a good learning curve. You have to have your wits about you and it definitely toughens you up.
“The difficulty for an academy kid going into that environment is that you’re full of steam and end up doing more than you should because you’re not relying on others. At regional level the focus is on your own job, which makes it easier because you’re not trying to impress and cover everyone all the time.”
“A year before I won my first Wales cap, I was really struggling,” says Dee.
“Lyn Jones had recruited me from Bedwas to the Dragons but from there I has three years where I really struggled with injury.”
Dee had already undergone two shoulder reconstructions by the age of 21, compounded by a further three surgeries to a complex foot injury, and then an operation to fix a shattered nose.
At the forefront of his mind was the fact that his first professional contract was slowly coming to an end at Rodney Parade. Those events paled into insignificance when, that same year, his mother passed away.
“Things kept going from bad to worse. I remember saying to my agent, Gavin Rees, that I thought I’d struggle to get another contract.”
Instead of letting the issues get him down, Dee vowed to bounce back.
“Gavin’s given me so much support and guidance throughout my career. We sat down and set some goals, which included getting back the starting jersey with the Dragons, and getting capped for Wales.”
Six months later, Dee had achieved those goals.
“I went from a year where nothing went right to being selected for 27 tests on the bounce. It’s wild to think about now.”
Far from being content with his achievements, Dee remains hungry for more. Lockdown has seen a return to his old stomping ground at Newbridge to train – the club has given him a key to use the facilities as he pleases.
“I love going down there now. They’ve done so much for me,” he says.
Keeping him on his toes this past fortnight has been 16-year-old Dragons Academy fly-half Joe Westwood.
“It’s been equally beneficial for both of us because he’s an impressive athlete. His dad, Jonathan, heads up the commercial team at the region and he’s been a good friend, helping me out a lot.”
These days, he feels fortunate to have another strong female figure in his life in partner Ruby.
“I can’t stress how much she takes the load off me in everyday life so I can focus on rugby. You always hear sportspeople say they couldn’t achieve success without their support network, but it’s so true.
“I’ll always appreciate the people who have got me to where I am now. You can’t forget that sort of help.”
You always hear sportspeople say they couldn’t achieve success without their support network, but it’s so true...