Having risen to one of the top jobs in world rugby, Andy Marinos is someone who has really scaled the heights of the game.
But, talk to him about his rugby life, and you get the clear sense he takes just as much pride in the days when he played for the land of his grandfather.
It’s just over 20 years now since he arrived in Wales from South Africa, having exchanged views of Table Mountain for ones of the Transporter Bridge by signing for Newport.
He went on to win eight caps in the red jersey of his adopted country, who he qualified for through his maternal grandparents.
After hanging up his boots, he moved straight into the administrative side of the game with the Dragons and has continued on a steep upward curve along that graph.
Today, he is chief executive of SANZAAR, the body which oversees Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere.
As such he is one of the most influential and powerful men in the world game, someone with a lot on his plate, especially with the sport going through such a challenging time due to the coronavirus crisis.
Yet he made time in his busy schedule to talk to me from his home near Sydney, via the wonders of Zoom, and what I found was a man who has the fondest memories of his time in Wales.
Marinos was born in Harare, with his family emigrating to South Africa when he was 10 after independence was declared in Zimbabwe.
From then on, his home was Durban, but throughout his childhood he was very much aware of his Welsh roots.
“My grandparents on my mother’s side were from Anglesey, in north Wales,” he explains.
“They were called William and Edith Wynne. They had moved over to South Africa in the 1940s.
“I was particularly close to that side of our family.
“My grandfather, a pharmacist, was from west Wales originally and he was a very proud Welshman.
“Welsh was very much his mother tongue and he took every opportunity to use it, not that we could understand a word he was saying half the time!
“I just remember it very clearly.
“I grew up hearing Welsh being spoken to us more than I heard English, to be honest.”
The young Marinos began to make his mark in rugby as a centre and spent four years with the Sharks from 1991 to 1995, prior to a two year spell in rugby league in Australia with the Sydney Bulldogs.
He returned to Union and South Africa to play for the Stormers in Cape Town, until his life took a seismic shift in 1999 when he made the move to Wales.
“It all came via an approach from Graham Henry and the national set-up,” he said.
“They knew I had Welsh ancestry.
“To be honest, I’m not too sure how they knew. I must have had a really good agent representing me at the time!
“I had always spoken quite a lot about my heritage growing up and certainly in interviews as I started playing rugby.
“I think there was a very clear understanding that I had Welsh roots.
“Maybe it was picking up from those articles and comments I had made in the past that the link was made.
“Anyway, I met up with the WRU and they offered me a chance to join Newport and put myself in line to play for Wales through my ancestry.
“Tony Brown had started investing into Newport and the WRU pushed me in that direction.”
With the offer on the table, Marinos, who was working in investment banking at the time, was faced with one of the biggest choices of his life.
“It was a tough decision at the time,” he admits.
“I’d had a particularly successful season with the Stormers. We had done really well.
“I was in the wider Springbok training group at the time when the approach came.
“But I took a slightly different approach to my rugby career.
“As much as I loved it and really enjoyed what the game had given me, I saw it as a huge opportunity for me to grow and develop as a person.
“It was a chance to go and experience another culture, another country that resonated.
“It was a lot easier given my close links to my grandfather.
“It was a wonderful occasion to go and walk in the footsteps where he had been.
“The opportunity to play international rugby was a very big draw card for me and my wife was very supportive of that.”
So with the decision made, the then 26-year-old Marinos headed for Wales.
“The first time I drove over the Severn Bridge into Newport, the scenery was very, very diferent to driving down the M1 into Cape Town and having Table Mountain as the backdrop,” he recalls.
“But I must say from the very first day that I got there, the warmth and the friendliness of the people in Wales really resonated with me.
“Everyone was very engaging. The whole introduction was very warm and very friendly. The players, Newport and the WRU were very open and welcoming.”
Before he had even made his debut for the Black & Ambers, Marinos was fast-tracked into Henry’s Wales training squad in preparation for the 1999 World Cup, which was to be held on home soil.
“Ironically the first time we assembled as a squad was up in north Wales,” he said.
“So it was almost like my first pilgrimage was back into the land of my grandfather.”
He played in the non-cap warm-up game against the USA at the Principality Stadium, but then when the final squad for the World Cup was named, he wasn’t included.
“Jason Jones-Hughes, who the WRU had fought so hard to get, became eligible and I had to step aside because he had been assured a place in the World Cup squad if his eligibility came through,” he said.
“So I missed out.”
All his attention was then focused on Newport and he made his debut against Neath that September. He acknowledges Welsh club rugby took a bit of getting used to.
“I found the game a hell of a lot slower,” he said.
“That’s just largely due to the conditions.
“You go up to Ebbw Vale, Pontypool, Pontypridd or some of those valley towns, the surfaces weren’t as firm under foot as what I’d been used to in South Africa and across Australasia.
“So the pace of the game was certainly a lot slower, but there was a lot more physicality and intensity in the close exchanges. I found that quite an adjustment.
“My first six to eight months, I had more facial stitches than I had in ten years of playing rugby prior to that.
“The blokes certainly belted me and gave me a very warm introduction to Welsh rugby.
“But, like anything, you quickly adapt.”
After his initial involvement with Wales, the strong-running Marinos then had to wait some three years for his first cap, not that he has any issues on that front.
“I fully respected the fact I was doing my apprenticeship again,” he said.
“Although I’d had ten years of professional rugby under my belt, I was new into Welsh rugby.
“I had to prove myself and earn the right to get the honour of wearing that red jersey.
“It was at a time when we had Mark Taylor, Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Dafydd James and Gareth Thomas. There was a real richness of talent in the centre.
“But the desire to play for Wales never waned. It was always a very central focus of mine. It just took time.
“I was prepared and willing to ride that out because I had committed the rest of my playing future to Wales.”
Eventually the call came and he made his debut against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in February 2002, as a replacement for Iestyn Harris, in a game that ended in a heavy 52-10 defeat.
“A little note about that, I was actually the 999th Welsh cap,” he said.
“There was a funny caption I remember seeing in the press after the game. It said Henry dialled 999, but no-one answered.”
That heavy loss proved to be the end of the road for Henry, who resigned a couple of days later. Steve Hansen took the helm and his first match in charge, at home to France, brought Marinos’ first start.
“That is the game that really stands out for me,” he says.
“Running out in front of a packed house at the Millennium Stadium, the emotion I had, the tears were running down my eyes, singing that anthem.
“That will always stand out as being the pinnacle of my career.”
I wonder whether his mind had wandered to what his grandad would have thought?
“Oh absolutely and very much so,” he said.
“The Welsh dragon had been a very synonymous flag in our house growing up. It was never far away.
“My mum comes from a typical big Welsh family. There’s eight of them, with her brothers and sisters.
“I know my relatives back in South Africa and my aunts over in the UK were all celebrating at the same time, with me finally having realised that dream of playing for the country my grandfather had brought alive to me in my former years.”
With the man who had brought Marinos over, Henry, having left, fellow Kiwi Hansen was to be his coach for the remainder of his Test career.
“They had very contrasting styles,” he said.
“Graham was sort of a wise old owl.
“Steve’s style was very authoritarian and he very quickly wanted to change behaviours and attitudes.
“His approach was probably a little bit more direct and a lot more forceful to what we had experienced with Graham.
“But I think it was a natural evolution. Graham had built the confidence in the group that they could compete and then Steve came in and really reinforced the never say die attitude and had to change behaviours and disciplines.”
Marinos went on the 2002 summer tour of his homeland South Africa, starting both Tests, with his final cap coming against Romania in Wrexham the following year.
“My biggest regrets are that I missed out on the 1999 and 2003 Rugby World Cup.
“But you have just got to appreciate what you were given.”
After 97 appearances for Newport and 26 for the newly formed Dragons, Marinos called it a day at the end of the first season of regional rugby and moved into the role of chief executive at Rodney Parade.
“The business of sport and the business of rugby had always been something that had interested me,” he explained.
“So the transition from playing – as I call it from boots to suits – was always going to be inevitable.
“The opportunity I had with the Dragons and Newport and getting onto the WRU board and working under David Moffett was fantastic.
“I would have loved to have a few more years in Wales because I think it was a very exciting period for Welsh rugby from 1998 through to when Mike Ruddock took over and they won the Six Nations.
“But I had a pretty audacious approach from South African rugby to go back and take over as director of rugby.
“It was a very, very hard decision because my wife and our three kids at the time were very settled and happy in Wales.
“But, from a career point of view, it was an important step to get more experience and hopefully set me up for the future.”
Moving home in 2005, Marinos went on to hold a series of high-ranking roles in South African rugby, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Sydney-based SANZAAR at the beginning of 2016.
“When I look back on it, I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to experience rugby in both hemispheres,” he said.
“My rugby career was a journey and a series of life experiences that hopefully would set me up as a more holistic person for the future.
“Being in the financial game, I think I realised pretty early that although rugby was professional, it was never going to set you up for the rest of your life.
“There was always going to have to be life after playing.”
Home for Marinos now is Cronulla, some 30 kms south of Sydney, with the family having grown over the years to six children, with one of his sons named Rhyddian in a nod to those Welsh roots.
At present, his focus is very much the challenge facing rugby from the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a very tough period and quite sobering,” said the 47-year-old.
“But out of adversity comes great opportunity.
“I am very much a glass half-full not half-empty kind of guy.
“I look at this as a wonderful opportunity for the global game to re-set, re-evaluate and reorganise how we do things, particularly around the global season.
“We need to engage in a more meaningful way between the two hemispheres.
“When it comes to pulling together and getting through this, it’s not Union by Union, it’s all of rugby together.
“If we stay true to the values of the game, we can come out the other side with a much better structure that can take us forward.
“I still enjoy being part of rugby. I really do love it and I want to stay involved and be part of the change.”
It’s been some journey for Marinos in the sport he loves and on it goes.