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Former second-row Martin Lewis has been chaplain at Cardiff Blues for more than a decade. He tells RW about his work behind the scenes at the Guinness Pro14 club.

Rugby pilgrimage: Martin Lewis watches Namibia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand

What it’s like to be a rugby chaplain

It’s tempting to say that you wouldn’t notice a rugby club chaplain as he or she goes about their business quietly and unobtrusively, offering words of support to any in need of comfort. But it’s difficult to miss the 6ft 7in former second-row that is Martin Lewis, chaplain at Cardiff Blues. He is an imposing figure in many ways.

Lewis, 57, played 400 first-class rugby games over 12 years – for Penarth, Bridgend and Abertillery – before a snapped ACL ended his playing career at the age of 42.

Playing days: the 1984-85 Penarth team, with second-row Lewis easy to spot in the middle of the back row

He had a Christian faith from a young age, so when he was asked if he’d like to replace Ian Rees as the Blues’ chaplain he accepted the challenge with alacrity. He recently passed ten years in the voluntary role.

What started as strolling up the touchline at academy games, talking to parents or injured players, evolved into ‘Chat with the chaplain’, where young players could take 20 minutes out of training to get problems off their chest. Then Lewis’s role escalated further, embracing the club’s senior players too.

“I started alongside people like Dillon Lewis, Jarrod Evans, Liam Belcher, who are now all first-team regulars,” says Lewis, who retired from a banking career five years ago.

“I’d wander into the gym and Sam Warburton would come out of the corner, ‘Good to see you, Mart’, just be available to people if they wanted a chat. Or some would say ‘Can we meet for a coffee?’ and you would meet them away from the training facility.

Leading Blue: Jarrod Evans is among those Lewis has known for a number of years (Athena Pictures/Getty)

“What we offer is that non-judgemental, impartial listening ear, totally confidential, unless of course there are safeguarding issues. We’ve got this tagline, ‘Pastorally proactive, spiritually reactive’. We’re not there to Bible bash but try to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”

Lewis is a member of Sports Chaplaincy UK, a charity with 600 chaplains across the UK, of which 55 work in rugby union. Invariably it’s a voluntary role and a labour of love. In Wales there have been two or three chaplains at every pro region – Lewis’s wife works with Blues’ mixed ability team, Cardiff Chiefs. More than half the English Premiership clubs have one too.

Here to help: with a booklet from Sports Chaplaincy UK“We provide chaplaincy support at pro level down to grass roots. We’re growing all the time in terms of rugby across Wales. We had a club that held off, understood chaplaincy but weren’t sure. They had a suicide the other week and said please come. Suicide seems to be a real problem in South Wales, particularly across our rugby clubs, which is really concerning.

“The other day I bumped into Gerald Davies, now chairman of the Pro14. He said I’ve heard about you at a meeting, it’s fantastic, we need to have more of you. Trying to get that endorsement from the WRU is a big step for us.”

It’s not just a sympathetic ear that Lewis provides. He might hold a remembrance service, perhaps scatter a fan’s ashes on the pitch.

He took the service for former Bridgend team-mate Gareth Williams, the ex-Wales and Lions back-row, who he visited every few weeks during his dreadful MSA illness. And he’s involved in community work too, with Blues players helping to feed homeless people in Cardiff at his behest.