Keith Alun Rowlands was born in Brithdir, in the Rhymney Valley, on 7 February, 1936, the son of police Inspector Reginald Rowlands and his wife Edith, née Thomas. Shortly after entering Cowbridge Grammar School, Keith’s father was transferred1 to Aberdare, and consequently Keith joined Form 2 of Aberdare Boys Grammar School in September 1948. The family lived initially in Cross Street.
Keith made a notable impact in the school: he was Head Boy (1954–1955), a member of the tennis team, Captain of Cricket 1954 and 55 seasons, and Captain of Rugby 1953–542. He played in the Rugby 1st XV for three consecutive years from 1952, finishing in the great team captained by Colin Burke of 1954–1955. In his final year at school he won a Welsh Schools under-19 cap, to play against England. Keith has written about his days playing rugby at the school in the 75th anniversary booklet, which can be found in the History Section of this website.
He took Advanced Levels in History, Geography and Economics, and in 1955 Keith left for Kings College, London. Following university, he did his National Service as a member of the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment between 1958 and 1960.
Until 1988 when Keith became a professional rugby administrator, he was employed by Arthur Guinness Ltd. in sales and marketing, and later in Bristol by The Taunton Cider Company whose main brand was Blackthorn Cider.
In a short account it is difficult to do justice to Keith’s career in the world of rugby, because it spanned almost 5 decades and included many varied roles as both player and administrator. He was a big man both as an administrator and as a player; he was 6ft 5in and 17 stones - and red-haired.
Keith started his senior career playing for Aberaman and for London Welsh3. He then joined Llanelli for the 1958/59 season and stayed with them until the beginning of the 1961/62 season when he joined Cardiff RFC where he gained his 1st XV cap in his first season there. He continued to play for the club until 1967, by which time he had played for them on 149 occasions.
It was in this period that Keith’s international career took off. He was picked for the Welsh side for the final match of the Five Nations championship against France at Cardiff Arms Park, which the Welsh team won. Within a week of his Wales debut, he became a Barbarian in March 1962, playing against Leicester. The same month saw his selection for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, during which he appeared for the them on 18 occasions, including three of the tests. In the 4th Test he scored a try. Keith went on to gain a further 4 caps for Wales, the last against France4 v Wales at Colombes, on March 27, 1965 - a match that Wales lost, but nevertheless delivered the Triple Crown for Wales in that season.
For both the 1965/66 and 1966/67 seasons he was elected captain of Cardiff RFC. In both seasons he led his club to an identical set of results: P47, W35, L9, D3. However it was during his second season as captain that the playing career of the lock forward came to an end, for in December he broke his leg from what seemed to be an innocuous trip. It was just a month prior to this incident that Keith led the club to a 14-8 victory over the touring Australians.
Immediately following his playing days with Cardiff in 1967 he joined the club committee, and was club chairman in 1974–75. During this long period on the committee he became the WRU representative for the East District in 1974, and became a member of the Welsh ‘Big Five’ selection committee. In the following decade he was appointed as one of the WRU’s two representatives of the International Rugby Board, (IRB), and during this period supported the introduction of a rugby world cup. By 1987 Keith had become full time General Secretary of the IRB, at that time based in Bristol. However, it was he who later organised its relocation to Dublin. One of his initial tasks at the IRB was to calm a rather acrimonoius atmophere on the Board. He went on to champion the small local rugby clubs, but in particular, he helped turn the rugby world cup into one of the world’s top sporting events. The first Rugby World Cup, (RWC), tournament was held in the same year, 1987, co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia. In 1991 Keith became one of the RWC Directors, and was closely involved in both the administration and development of the RWC. He retired from both roles, with the IRB and RWC, in 1996 after the1995 world cup. RWC tournaments have taken place at four-year intervals ever since.
However, Keith actually never retired from the world of rugby. At the behest of both the IRB chairman, Vernon Pugh, and the RWC chairman, Leo Williams, Keith was persuaded to come out of retirement and take on the key role of Chief Executive of the 1999 RWC, which was to be held in Wales.
Later in 2004, he stood for President of the WRU, and in a contested election, he won the position of 47th President. He retained this post unopposed until his sudden death from a heart attack on 18 November 2006 at the age of 70 at his home in Rhiwbina in Cardiff. His funeral at St. Mary’s Church, Whitchurch was was filled to overflowing with ex-internationals of both Wales and other nations, together with an array of rugby administrators: David Pickering and Roger Lewis led the WRU mourners and Life Vice Patron Sir Tasker Watkins was joined by two other ex-Presidents, Des Barnett and Clive Rowlands, former chairman Glanmor Griffiths and three ex-Secretaries of the Union, Ray Williams, David East and Denis Gethin. A gathering of the this nature is rarely seen and was one which emphasised just how highly regarded Keith Rowlands was.
Keith’s wife was an Aberdare girl, Jean Burke, whom he married in 1960. Jean attended the Girls Grammar School at about the same time Keith was at ABGS. They raised one daughter Joanne and were the proud grandparents of Manon. Jean survived Keith by almost exactly five years. She died 8 November 2011, and like Keith her funeral service took place at St. Mary’s, Rhiwbina.
Keith was associated with several clubs and organisations. He was Patron of Aberaman RFC, President of Rhiwbina RFC, President of the Welsh Academicals and the Welsh Deaf Rugby Association. He was also President of the Cwmbach Male Voice Choir.
On Sunday 11th May 2008, a memorial match in honour of Keith Rowlands took place,
on the hottest day of the summer, as a fitting tribute to the giant Welshman who did
so much for the global game. Former players, senior rugby administrators, WRU Board
members as well as Aberdare resident and Radio Wales presenter Roy Noble were present
at the game in Mountain Ash. The Welsh Academicals RFC, took on a combined Mountain
Ash and Aberdare XV at Y Parc Dyffryn Pennar. Although the combined local team fought
bravely, the result of the match was a decisive triumph for the “Accies”,
The Academicals go back to the 1926 when a rugby team of old boys was set up in Mountain Ash by the caretaker of Mountain Ash County School at Dyffryn House. Jimmy Austin, the caretaker, challenged the official Mountain Ash RFC to a match against his team, which Jimmy’s team lost. However, by the following year the old boy team was supplemented by other Welsh students at various universities, and they coined the name “Welsh Academicals” for the team. On Boxing Day 1927, the young team beat the the town side to the great amazement of all the supporters.
Many years later, ex-ABGS pupil, D.R. (Dai) Owen, of Abernant, was heavily involved in the administration of the Accies, but did not live to see the memorial match as he died in September 2006, and there, at Dai's funeral was Keith, present as a bearer.
23 January 2016