Phil Steele: My Scrum V exit, the hot tub interview BBC boss didn't like and the friends who helped me through tragedy

When Phil Steele reflects on the job he has done for the past 14 years, he doesn’t look upon it as work, but rather a night out with friends.

That job has now come to an end, with BBC Wales deciding not to retain him as pitchside reporter for the newly revamped Scrum V Friday night show.

It’s a decision which has not gone down well with the public, who have cried shame, with a petition being launched calling for his reinstatement.

But there are no hard feelings on Steele’s part when I meet up with him for a coffee and a chat.

Instead, he prefers to look back fondly on his time in the role and the memories it has given him.

A former full-back with Glamorgan Wanderers and Newport, and an ex-teacher, Steele has actually worked as a freelance broadcaster for the BBC since 1995.

But it was in 2007 that he took up the pitchside role on a permanent basis, replacing Stuart Davies, who was switching to second voice commentary.

“Right from the very beginning my philosophy was ‘Hang on now, you are in a unique position here, you are not confined to the commentary box, you have got the best seat in the house, you’ve got access to everywhere you want in the ground, let’s make something of this’,” he explained.

“I wanted to get over to people at home what it was like to be at the match, rather than just what’s going on in the game. You’ve got commentators for that.

“Rugby has been my life since I was eight, when I was playing for St Francis Primary School in Ely.

“I have been a player, a coach, a teacher, a fan, a broadcaster, a rugby club dinner speaker. I have done every role.

“All throughout that time, rugby has always been about more than the 80 minutes for me, even when I was playing for Newport and we had a big game at home, be it Cardiff or whatever.

“Not that I didn’t take it seriously on the field, but the whole day was the thing.

“Going on the bus, sitting by Rhys Morgan, Lord rest him, or Spike Watkins. It was just talking with them.

“Then there would be a few pints after the game, with a beer kitty, and maybe a sing-song. There would be staying away, tours and trips.

“It was always more than the 80 minutes. In fact, all my memories of my playing days now are mostly off-field.

“That’s just the way I am built. I am a very social person, so I always try to get that over in my broadcasting.

“But it’s not an act either, it’s me.”

That sociability and natural way with people came into its own with the countless interviews Steele did before, during and after games, not just with players and coaches, but well-known faces in the crowd.

“I interviewed Geraint Thomas in one Christmas match and I remember another game where Bobby Woodruff, the old Cardiff City player who played against Real Madrid in 1970, was there, so I spoke to him,” he said.

“I would look out for anybody of interest like that.

“Steve Redgrave was at an Ospreys game the one day, so it would be let’s go and have a word with him and find out what his connection with rugby is.

“It could be Gareth Edwards, it could be a Scotland international, anyone of interest.

“Nobody had ever done it before, so it was quite innovative.

“It took on a life of its own, with people saying ‘I wonder who Steeley has got tonight’ or they would say ‘You know who’s going to be here tonight?’ and they would tip me off.”

Another innovation Steele brought in was speaking to coaches during games when there was a break in play.

“It was all done on trust and mutual understanding and love of the game,” he said.

“They knew I wouldn’t tuck them up.

“Dai Young was the first one and it went from there.

“You had Lyn Jones at the Ospreys. I had a few of the famous silences from him!

“Sean Holley would do stuff, Nigel Davies, Paul Turner. They would always do one.

“I used to do it with visiting coaches as well.

“So the first thing I would do when I got to a ground was check where the coaches were sitting.

“If I went up to say Dai after a yellow card, he might not say much about it, but you could hear it in his voice or see it in his face.

“All this was new. Nobody had done it before in the middle of a game.

“That took off and gathered momentum.

“Now it’s written into TV contracts, with coaches putting headphones on and talking direct to commentators.”

Steele continued: “The other thing I started to do then was interview players when they had just come off after being substituted.

“You had to pick your moments.

“At one game, I was in the dug-out and I had Adam Jones one side and Duncan Jones the other, all full of sweat and snot. They had just come off the field.

“I am there with my arms round them. The camera pans to me and I go ‘Well, this is not a bad front row’.

“It was a very visual thing.

“That grew then to players coming off the pitch at half-time.”

Which, of course, is where Steele’s “Have a good orange” catchphrase was born.

“What it was, I wanted a sign off to say enjoy your rest or whatever,” he said.

“It didn’t really scan in just a couple of seconds to say: ‘Go and enjoy your potassium hydroxide refreshing drink with your banana’.

“So I just came up with ‘Have a good orange’.

“That obviously harks back to the old amateur days when players stayed on the field and had an orange. I don’t know where the tradition came from, but that’s what happened.

“Some people picked up on it and said ‘that was funny’.

“For the ScrumV audience that was 50 plus they would know about the half-time oranges. They played the game.

“People would shout out in the street: ‘Steeley, have a good orange’.

© Huw Evans Picture Agency The hugely popular Phil Steele on the microphone

“I spoke at Abercwmboi’s dinner a couple of years ago and they actually presented me with a plastic orange on a plinth!”

Generally, it would be a team captain that Steele would speak to as they left the field at half-time.

“It was very immediate and very visual,” he said.

“They were out of breath, they were sweating. If their team had played poorly and they were losing, you could tell they were champing at the bit to get in and give the players a bollocking.

“Again, it was all done on trust and goodwill. They knew I wasn’t going to stitch them up. So that took off.

“Only one person ever refused and that was Alun Wyn Jones.

“He didn’t tell me to F-off or anything.

“He was fuming and just ran past me, but, of course, that was quite effective and quite telling in its own way.

“They came to me and I said ‘Well I have just approached Alun Wyn and he has virtually given me the old Derek Quinnell hand-off and that shows he’s absolutely seething’.”

Steele would also interview players and coaches after the game, which meant him encountering very mixed emotions.

“I used to get criticised a lot,” he reveals.

“People would say you never ask the hard questions and that I should have gone to town on a coach.

“Well, I am not a journalist, I am a teacher at heart, from a caring profession.

“Media can be a very cut-throat world where you step on people to get on. Well, that’s not me. I have never been like that.

“I don’t think there’s a journalistic bone in my body. That’s not me.

“But I think, with the job I did at pitchside, not being a hard-nosed journalist was a positive advantage.

“I used to fall back on a lot of what I learned as a teacher, especially a special needs teacher, which I did for 15 years.

“The word I would use is empathy.

“If you are interviewing somebody who has just missed a tackle or made a mistake, you have got to understand.

“I am a former player and I know what it’s like if you’ve have a bad game.

“You are coming off that field and you want to throttle somebody.

“If anybody said anything, even jokingly, to me in that half hour until you had cooled down after a game, I would be really annoyed.

“So being a pitchside reporter was a little bit like being an amateur psychologist.

“In the space of 30 seconds, you could be interviewing a guy who has scored a hat-trick to put his team top of the league and then you have to interview the opposing captain or coach whose team have just lost it at the death.

“With the one you would have to share in their celebration and the next one you had to share in their commiserations.

“So empathy was the thing.

“I used to have little techniques.

“Sometimes a captain would come to me and he would be really dejected. You could see this was the last place on earth he wanted to be, stuck in front of the cameras, all live, of course.

“In the split second I had between him coming in and going on air, I would just tap him on the arm and say ‘Tough night at the office’ or whatever.

“It was just showing that empathy, making eye contact, letting them know I have been there before, I know what that’s like.

“The other thing I used to do stemmed from my time as a teacher.

“In school, if you gave a child a deserved rollicking, I would always finish up by saying ‘Before you go Johnny, Mr Jones in maths was telling me you did some really good stuff, let’s have more of that’.

“So I would leave them with a positive.

“I would say to Ken Owens, for example ‘Tough night at the office tonight Ken, but you are back on the horse next week against Munster, good luck for that one, hope it all goes well’.

“So that was my philosophy there, empathy.

“The other thing about it is it’s a rugby match. Of course it’s serious to them, it’s their livelihood, but it’s not World War III.

“In the great scheme of things, I am interviewing somebody who has dropped a ball, I am not interviewing somebody who has lied to parliament or taken us to war.

“So it’s important to have a bit of context about it.”

At away games, Steele would sometimes have a local pundit alongside him pitchside and that’s how he developed a close friendship with ex-Ireland and Lions hooker Shane Byrne, a man famous for his mullet hairstyle.

“Shane is a man who epitomises Irish rugby and Irishness,” he said.

“The first time we worked together, I wanted to make him feel welcome.

“So I said to him ‘Shane, a couple of us are going out for a couple of beers after the game if you fancy it.’

“He said ‘No Phil, I won’t come out for a couple, I’ll come out for a lot!’

“And he did!

“He would take me to these bars in Dublin and you wouldn’t have to buy a drink all night.”

It was Steele’s double act with Byrne which produced one of his most memorable moments on screen.

“I am interviewing Shane and, while he’s talking, the camera pans to the crowd and by the time they came back to me I had put this mullet wig on!” he recalls.

“I didn’t make reference to it at all, I just carried on with the interview.

“Fair play to Shane, he was brilliant. There’s me with this mullet on and he just kept a straight face and did his piece.

“As I signed off and went back to the studio, you can just see Shane’s lip starting to quiver as the camera moves away.

“It got a great reaction. All the terrace at the RDS applauded.

“It wasn’t buffoonery, it was rugby humour, just a bit of fun.”

Another memorable moment came at Parc y Scarlets in December 2009.

“Rupert Moon was head of commercial at the Scarlets at the time and he had the idea of attracting younger people to matches, between the ages of 18 to 24,” explained Steele.

“So he got this hot-tub in and did a competition with names out of the hat for four people to sit in it during the game.

“Anyway, I was in the office during the week and Huw Tal, the show producer said: ‘Steeley, they have got a hot-tub there, do you fancy it?’

“You never turn anything down as a freelance, so I said yeah.

“It turned out I had to go into the hot-tub with these four competition winners, two boys, two girls.

“One of the girls was called Natasha and she was Miss Carmarthenshire.

“So they came to me and I had my headphones on, bare-chested, between two hunky lads and two pretty girls in bikinis.

“I asked one of the lads what the view was like and he said it was great. Then I said ‘What about the pitch?’

“You wouldn’t get away with it now. But it was just harmless, silly banter.

“My great worry was I had about £2,000 of radio mic in my hand and not to drop that in the water.

“Then I interviewed Miss Carmarthenshire. She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, in this real Llanelli accent, ‘Thank you Phil, it’s every girl’s dream to be interviewed by you’.

“I turned to the camera and said ‘I might not be available for the second half’.

“Again you wouldn’t get away with it now.

“They cut back to the studio and Mike Phillips, of all people, a handsome chap and a bit of a pin-up, was there. You could see his face looking at the camera, as if to say, what has Steeley got that I haven’t got?’

“It wasn’t taking the mick out of the match, it was just something different.

“But the head of sport at the time didn’t like it. It quickly went round the office that the boss wasn’t happy.

Pick your greatest Wales XV now

“But it turned out it had 250,000 hits on social media within a couple of hours. That was quite new in those days and the head of social media was over the moon.

“For all the interviews I have done and all the match reports, I became known for a while as that so-and-so in the hot-tub.”

While there have been plenty of smiles along the way, there have also been dark times for Steele, particularly when his wife Liz died in the summer of 2009.

“What we thought was a bit of a migraine turned into a brain tumour and she died within six weeks,” he said.

“There was nothing they could do. It was a secondary tumour. They never found the primary cancer.”

It was then that Steele’s work and his friends in the ScrumV team really helped him.

“The funeral was over and the phonecalls started to drop off, you are coming into September now and the nights are drawing in,” he recalls.

“I am starting to think, I am 48, I’ve lost my wife, what is life about, is that it for me now?

“Then I would look at the diary and I would see ‘Thursday, 11.30am, flight to Dublin, off to do Leinster-Scarlets’.

“You would meet up and it would be people like Gareth Charles, Stuart Davies, Huw Tal, Gareth Gronow, Dicky Bach and Rhydian, the floor managers.

“People like that became more than colleagues, they became family.

“We would have two days away, have a beer and a chat.

“It was just something to take you out of yourself.

“Stuart Davies was brilliant company. He became an absolute great friend of mine.

“I loved his humour.

“You have had a meal, it’s come to the witching hour 11 o’clock and you either decide to go back to the hotel or go for another few beers.

“I would say ‘What do you think Stu?’

“And he would say ‘I’ve got an hour in me Steeley’.

“I used to love that because it meant I didn’t have to go back to an empty hotel room and dwell on things.

“That was a massive source of support for me, just the camaraderie. It was as good as any bereavement counselling.”

Steele has been to countless locations through his work with ScrumV, so which was his favourite?

“I loved Belfast,” he said.

“Friday night rugby in Ravenhill, as it was then, became an institution. The atmosphere was fab, the ground was wonderful.

“I loved the history of the city too, the living history from our lifetime, with the murals and everything. I have done the open-top bus tour six times!

“We would stay in the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe.

“There was a section to complete in the guestbook, asking where did you first hear about this hotel and someone had written ‘News at Ten!’”

Steele recalls other incidents on the road, like where he employed the services of a gondolier while filming in Venice.

“We got one of the gondola guys to look into the camera as he was pushing off and say ‘Watch Scrum V tonight, Treviso-Ospreys’” he said.

“It was just little quirky things like that we did.

“But there was always a rule that you didn’t mess with the game.

“Rhys Edwards, Gareth Edwards’ son, was part of the team and he used to have a saying ‘Don’t f*** with the rugby.’

“The rugby was the most important thing.”

Since Steele’s announcement that his stint as Scrum V pitchside reporter has come to an end, there has been a huge reaction from people disappointed at the news.

“The response has been very humbling and pleasing because it shows they got what I was doing and the way I was trying to do it,” he said.

“They recognised a bit of a kindred spirit in terms of me being a rugby lover.”

So what of the future for the 60-year-old Steele, who has been married to his wife Kate since 2013?

“I will still be involved, particularly on the radio side of things, the commentary and so on, and possibly some stuff for the Sunday highlights programme,” he said.

“I have no hard feelings at all. I have been in it for 14 years, which is a good run in the media.

“Good luck to whoever is taking on the role, whoever fills my shoes.

“What I would say to them is enjoy it. It’s a very privileged position to have.

“It’s not like working. I didn’t consider it working, I considered it a night out with friends, just being involved with the sport that made me who I am.”

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