When he reflects on his life, Emyr Lewis feels blessed in more ways than one.
He’s hugely thankful for his rugby career, which brought him 41 Wales caps and memorable triumphs with both club and country.
But he also feels blessed by the faith which has helped him get over some of the lows of his playing days and the challenges presented by life after rugby.
Having become a Christian a decade or so ago, the man known throughout the game as Tarw the Bull has found a new contentment and happiness.
It’s allowed him to lay to rest the bitterness he felt over the way his time with Llanelli and Wales ended and come through a difficult transition into a post-playing life.
When he spoke to me from his farmhouse near Bridgend, it wasn’t the story I had expected to hear, but it proved to be one of the most honest and open testimonies I have come across while doing these interviews.
Perhaps the best place to begin is at the end or, to be precise, the end of his playing career in 2003.
“People ask why do some rugby players have mental health issues after they finish playing,” says the former back rower.
“Well it’s simple really. It’s because you are training and socialising day-in, day-out and then all of a sudden someone just pulls the rug from under your feet and you are gone. You are not there any more.
“Your life has changed dramatically overnight. You have got to start from scratch, you have got to find a job.
“It’s surprising how quick you are forgotten really.
“I did find it hard to come to terms with my rugby career ending.
“It was definitely difficult. It’s a tough period of time for about three or four years, just trying to adapt to everything.”
The moment when it all changed came totally unexpectedly when he was just going about his business in photocopier sales.
“I was in Cardiff in the office and I had a phone call out of the blue,” he recalls.
“I shouldn’t have been there and I never pick the phone up because it’s never for me.
“Anyway, I picked it up, spoke to this lady and she said they were looking for a photocopier.
“Well that never happens. Nobody phones up looking for one, everything is cold calling.
“But she said they needed one urgently, so I make my way down there to west Wales on this horrible November evening.
“When I got there, she explained it was a Christian retreat and said ‘If you go online, you will read a lot of miracles have happened here.’
“I thought ‘Oh crikey, here we go’.
“She showed me round and the last place she took me was the church and she just turned to me and said ‘Do you mind if I bless you now?’
“I was thinking ‘Ok, anything for a sale’.
“So she blessed me and something went straight through me. I had to sit down.
“She said ‘Are you all right?’, with this smile on her face, and she goes ‘We will see you again’.
“I came out, I drove up the lane and for some reason I felt this compulsion to turn around.
“When I did, the only thing I could see was the sun coming through the clouds and the rays of the sun highlighting the cross of the church.
“I went cold. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was surreal.
“I knew something had happened to me. That was the moment the seed was sown.
“Things just started changing after that and six months later I was a Christian.”
What also played a key part was Lewis’ friendship with his former Wales team-mate Garin Jenkins, whose story you can read here.
“Garin introduced me to the Bible and God and from there on in my life changed and became so much better,” he said.
“I went to church with him in Porth in the Rhondda and when I was there things started moving. I opened my heart up more and I could see things differently.
“It must have been the hardest church on earth because Garin was there, Chris Jones was there, his brother Clive was there and Phil Davies, the former Treorchy player, was there.
“You think ‘Crikey, I wouldn’t like to mess with this church!”
“I know it sounds really dramatic, but when I walked in there for the first time, as soon as I put my foot over the threshold, the lights went out, there was a power cut.
“It was just a lovely place. Everyone was so relaxed and I just felt so at home there.
“I have always believed in God. It’s just in the past I think I used it more as a safety net, whereas now it’s full on.
“My faith has definitely helped me make that transition out of being a rugby player.
“As I say, the first two or three years were difficult, there is no disputing that.
“There were certain things that had left a bitter taste in my mouth, the way in which I was let go by Llanelli and the way I was treated by Wales.
“I fractured the base of my spine on the 1996 tour of Australia and I was just forgotten about by Wales after that.
“I was bitter at the time, but faith has helped me overcome the bitterness.
“Once I committed myself to Christianity, things became a lot easier.
“I am very fortunate that I have found God. It has been a very, very important part of my life.
“My life is so much better because of it.
“The huge support I have received from my wife over the years has been a massive factor as well.
“I am happy, I am contented. It’s really good.”
So if that’s the ending, what was the beginning?
How for starters did he come to be known as Tarw?
It’s a story that goes back a long way.
“That came from primary school,” explains the Carmarthen product.
“I was only about seven or eight.
“They used to play murder-ball in school in those days and I was just walking along the path and somehow or other I ended up having the ball in my hands.
“I could see all these big guys running at me, so I just ran straight at them.
“For some reason, someone started calling me Tarw and it stuck.”
But the bull wasn’t to be unleashed on a rugby field for a good while yet.
For much of his childhood, football was his sport and he only really took up the oval ball when he was about 16 after a rapid growth spurt.
“I was quite small until the age of 15. I have got class photos where I was in the front row, but then, the following year, I’m in the back row, about three inches taller than anyone else.
“I must have grown four or five inches in a matter of months. I had issues with it. Because I grew so quick, the bones grew and the muscles couldn’t catch up.
“So I missed school for about three months. I just had to lie down on my back. I couldn’t bend, I couldn’t do anything properly.”
But once his body settled down, the now sizeable Lewis soon made his mark in rugby, first with his school, Bro Myrddin, then Carmarthen Athletic before linking up with Llanelli at 18.
He made rapid progress and was called into the Wales squad within a season, eventually making his Test debut against Ireland in February 1991, aged 22.
It wasn’t to be a straightforward start however.
“I remember Ron Waldron going through the team and when he got to the back row, he said ‘Phil Davies, Martyn Morris and Arthur Emyr’. I wasn’t even on the bench.
“Then Clive Rowlands turned to him and said ‘It’s not Arthur Emyr, it’s Emyr Lewis’.
“So that’s how I was selected. It was quite surreal.
“Ron called me Arthur all the time, but I was so much in the zone I didn’t put two and two together.
“And it was a debut which I very nearly didn’t have because I had quite a bad car accident on the Wednesday before the game.
“I was driving up to Aberaeron and there was black ice on the road and I ended up being upside down in a field.
“It was very, very frightening, but luckily I had no injuries at all.”
So Lewis, now a policeman by profession, was able to make his debut and he was to be a regular fixture in the Wales team for the next five years, either at 6 or 8.
It was his rampaging ball-carrying – as befitted his nickname – that was his great strength, yet ironically it’s for two swipes of his boot that he will be best remembered by many.
The first came against England in 1993 when his chip paved the way for Ieuan Evans’ try in an unforgettable 10-9 victory in Cardiff.
“I was just stood there to the side of a ruck and all of a sudden Rob Jones gives me the ball,” he recalls.
“I don’t know why, I’m not ginger or anything like that!
“I looked up and they had four defenders against me and Ieuan, so there’s no way on earth we were going to attempt to go through them.
“I just thought if I put the ball about two or three yards from touch, then Ieuan and myself can chuck Rory Underwood over the touchline.
“So I knew what I was doing, I knew I was going to dink it, but I didn’t expect Ieuan to get there so quickly.
“I knew he was sharp, but flipping heck, on that day, he was just lightning.
“As soon as I chipped the ball and saw Ieuan had half a yard on Underwood, I thought ‘it’s on here’.
“He just went for it and the control of the ball when he kicked it on was just phenonemal. The rest is history.”
Neil Jenkins slotted the conversion to put Wales a point in front, but there was still more than half the game to go.
“Crumbs, the pressure and the tension during that second half, it was so intense,” says Lewis.
“We should never have won that game looking back on it. They had so many opportunities.
“It’s just that Mike Hall and Scott Gibbs in the centre nullified nearly every attack that came against us. They were superb.
“The atmosphere on the final whistle was absolutely incredible. The crowd was going nuts.”
Then, just a few months later, Lewis was at it again at the National Stadium, with his drop goal taking Llanelli to victory over Neath in the Welsh Cup final. You can read he full story of that memorable day, here.
“With the England one, I knew what I was doing, I had a little bit of time to think about it,” he says.
“But with the Neath game, I just didn’t think. To this day, I don’t know what came over me!
“It was just a case of the ball was in my hand and the next thing I know I’m dropping it on to the floor and it’s gone.
“It wasn’t as if I had gone back into the pocket to do it deliberately. I was ready to run with the ball and it just happened.
“I don’t know what went through my head. It was panic, basically.
“In those days, forwards didn’t kick the ball, it was a big no-no.
“It was weird because I came off the pitch and Gareth Jenkins said ‘What on earth were you doing?’ and then gave me a big cwtch and said ‘fantastic!’.”
The following year was to be another memorable one for Lewis as he shared in Wales’ 1994 Five Nations title triumph.
“Scotland was the game that put us on the right foot,” he declares.
“Nigel Walker went off with concussion and I will never forget he is on the touchline fighting with Mark Davies, our physio.
“Nigel wasn’t a violent player in any way, shape or form, but he was all over the shop.
“He had been knocked out and when he came around, he just wanted to hit Mark’s head off. He just didn’t know where he was.
“Anyway, Mike Rayer came on for him and scored two tries.
“It was a good performance by all the players and then the French game was something else.
“It was brutal. That’s the only thing I can call it. I have never seen so much mountaineering going on in rucks in all my life. It was just crazy, but we got away with it.
“The ref allowed us to do it and it put France off their game.
“They had some big boys and a superb back division. For us to win that game was just something else.
“The crowd definitely helped, especially in the last ten minutes when we were blowing out of our backsides. The atmosphere was incredible.”
When it comes to Lewis’ Wales career, it’s very much a case of feast or famine, marvellous highs and painful lows, with it all coming to an end abruptly at 27.
The 1991 tour of Australia was certainly a low, with not just heavy defeats but also a bust-up among the Welsh players in the dinner following the hammering at the hands of the Wallabies.
“It was men against boys really and we just weren’t prepared for it,” he recalls.
“There was division in the camp as well. There was the Neath crowd against the rest, I suppose.
“We were humiliated on the pitch and also humiliated off it.
“The Australian press and public were taking the mickey and understandably. We kind of deserved it.
“Instead of rehydrating after the Test, we had a few too many beers and things got a bit out of hand in that infamous dinner, which didn’t help.
“There was an argument and, all of a sudden, a pint glass broke and Mike Hall got cut on his hand. I was standing next to Mike and I was the one who took him downstairs with the doctor.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was a policeman as well, so I was thinking ‘Crikey, this shouldn’t be happening.’”
There are so many other stories that came out during our 90 minute conversation, with two defeats to Samoa also emerging as vivid recollections.
“People often ask me what the hardest game I ever played in was,” he explains.
“There is no doubt in my mind it was the World Cup match against Western Samoa in 1991. That was just brutal.
“I remember Tony Clement looked as though he had been in a car crash. All the one side of his body was just black.
“Funnily enough, even though we lost, it’s one of the games for Wales I enjoyed the most because it was such a physical encounter and one of my better games.”
Then there was the June 1994 meeting with the south sea islanders on their own patch in Apia.
“It was scorching,” recalls Lewis.
“It was 95 per cent humidity and it was just ridiculous.
“We were singing the anthem and the backs were trying to hide behind the forwards to get in the shade because it was that hot.
“From the first lineout, we just couldn’t get there to the breakdown. We were exhausted, it was so warm and so humid. It was just crazy.
“I will never forget, Rupert Moon collapsed after the game.
“They threw us on the bus on the way out and there was just a one-track road.
“The crowd is walking in front of us, we are in a bus with no air-con and no fluids.
“All of a sudden, Rupert just collapsed in a heap on the floor with heat exhaustion and dehydration.
“We were really concerned we were going to lose him. He was that bad. It was really, really bad.”
It was that summer of 1994 Lewis joined Cardiff, where he was to spend nine years, playing 174 games and winning further trophies, before hanging up his boots in 2003.
The sporting tradition continues in the family today, with his son, Jacob, 24, an openside flanker for Llanelli, while his 17-year-old daughter, Medi, plays volleyball for Wales.
Now 51, Lewis still works in the photocopying industry, as an accounts manager for Sharp EU, while also featuring regularly as a pundit on TV and radio.
As for his playing career, well, he is now able to place that in a very contented context.
“I feel honoured and privileged to have borrowed the shirt for Llanelli, Cardiff and Wales,” he says.
“Not a lot of people do that. I am really pleased and blessed with what was achieved.
“I have put everything that went astray to bed and now I am just happy and content with life.”