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Bris Legends interviews: Ralph Knibbs

Only three players have made more first team appearances for Bristol, and only nine have scored more tries - but very few have left a mark like the legendary Ralph Knibbs.

A try on debut and with his first touch of the ball, aged just 17-years-old, kick-started a career that would span 436 first team matches and a further 122 tries in the blue and white hoops, with many fondly remembering Knibbs as one of the most exciting players ever to represent Bristol.

And the man himself has his own warm memories of a 15-year spell with his hometown club.

“I remember my time at Bristol with pride and honour,” he said. “I feel very, very lucky.

“I remember it with huge enjoyment - so many memories good and bad - but I wouldn't change a thing.

“I was invited to train with the Bristol U19 Colts team, our coach was Elwyn Price. You had to earn the right play, so training doubled up as a weekly trial, which made it more intense and pressurised. I thrived in the environment; it was the perfect grounding to prepare for playing in the first team.

“Winning the John Player Cup is right up there. Scoring on my first touch on my debut against Pontypridd. Winning at Strady Park against Llanelli. The unbeaten runs in my debut season and in our centenary year – they are all incredible memories.

“I always enjoyed playing sevens, we won many tournaments. Scoring a try on my 400th appearance against Harlequins, the first and only time my late dad came to watch me play rugby. It was a special day, as he was so proud.

“Being able to play for the city of your birth made it extra special to me. I had many lucrative offers from other clubs and from rugby league – but no amount of money could compensate for playing for Bristol.”

Mainly a centre, but equally adept at wing of full back, Knibbs, fresh off the back of a sensational first team debut aged just 17, did not taste defeat in a Bristol shirt until the following season.

In 1983, he was a member of the John Player Cup winning side and the Gloucestershire side which won the County Championship – and he repeated this success with Gloucestershire the following year and was a losing John Player Cup finalist with Bristol in 1984 and 1988.

Knibbs toured Romania and Spain with England Under 23 but never played for the full England team. He famously turned down a chance to tour South Africa with England in 1984, telling the press: “I don’t see how I could justify going to South Africa, therefore appearing to condone apartheid.”

Work commitments ruled him out of England’s tour to Australia in 1988, but he did play sevens for England. Knibbs’ final first team game was at West Hartlepool in May 1996 – and he captained Bristol United the following season before moving to join Coventry, eventually retiring from rugby in 2001.

‘Bristol’s 100 Greats book’, written by Club Historian, Mark Hoskins and Dave Fox, describes him as ‘one of the most gifted backs ever to play for Bristol. His jinking, dummying, unusual angles of running and sheer speed, coupled with skills learned as a basketball player, made him a difficult and unorthodox opponent.’

But how does Knibbs describe himself as a player, and his outlook on the game?

“Unorthodox. Elusive runner, soft hands, worked to maintain a high level of fitness. Worked hard, play hard, party hard. Always respect the opposition, even if you don't like them. If you can entertain and interact with the crowd, as they have paid to come and watch you play for their team, never forget that. I believe rugby is a simple game often complicated by coaches. I tried to be the best I could by being as fit as I could, educate myself in all the positions on the pitch, focus on honing my skill such as passing, kicking, lines of running, defensive techniques, ball retention etc.”

“Being able to play for the city of your birth made it extra special to me. I had many lucrative offers from other clubs and from rugby league – but no amount of money could compensate for playing for Bristol.”

Ralph Knibbs

Knibbs now resides in the Midlands, but remains a keen supporter of Bristol, praising the current side and setup.

“I am excited by the current side; Pat Lam seems to be building a very strong culture and high-performance ethos. I am definitely a supporter of the team. I tend to go to a few games every season, often the away games as I now live in the East Midlands.”

During this time of uncertainty, Knibbs finds himself more connected to the current coronavirus pandemic than many others – and has a message for NHS staff and the general public.

“At this current time, I would say the true legends are the NHS staff. Therefore, the true legend in the Knibbs household, is my wife Kath, as she is an Intensive Care Nurse working on the front line.

“Please follow the government advice, stay at home to save lives and protect the NHS.”

Well, you heard the man.


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