And then, all of a sudden, everything got unmistakably, thuddingly, horribly real. He was a rugby player, Scotland’s flying winger, desperately trying to clinch an epic victory over Wales in Cardiff, only to be brought crashing to the turf. The opponents who’d felled him got to their feet but Evans didn’t move. Even shifting one millimetre, he discovered later, would have proved fatal. His neck would have broken and as he so evocatively puts it: “I would have died in front of 75,000 people wearing that thistle on my chest.”
Though the Millennium Stadium and the millions watching on TV were not immediately aware of the gravity of Evans’ injury and knew nothing of the heart-rending moment in hospital when, comforted by his parents Brian and Sally who’d been in the crowd and brother Max who was playing alongside him, he had to sign the form consenting to an operation from which he might not recover, the stricken Scot’s plight would quickly touch the world and prompt hundreds of messages from well-wishers.
“And a couple of missed calls from Sir Sean Connery,” he laughs. “There was a text, too. At the time I couldn’t move my arms so Mum read it out to me. We just looked at each other. How did he get my number? I guess superstars always find a way. But I wasn’t sure this was really Sir Sean. I’ve got this friend, you see, who’s a legend at impersonations. A short while later the phone rang: it was the voice we all know so well. ‘Very funny, Niall,’ I said, ‘but I’m not really in the mood, mate.’ Then the voice said: ‘Who the hell’s Niall? This is Sean Connery… ”
Evans was recovering after the second of what he terms “two miracle operations” in which surgeons had to open him up from his front and pull his vocal chords to one side in order to access his spine. “I was drugged up on morphine and I think I said: ‘Oh hi.’ Possibly the most underwhelmed response he’s ever received! He said he was dreadfully sorry about what had happened but he was hosting a fashion show in New York called Dressed to Kilt and wanted me to be there. I thought to myself: ‘Right, I’ve got two months to be on that plane’.
“That was the big turning point in my recovery. The show was glitzy, lots of lovely girls, Miss Scotlands and the like. Showbiz wasn’t me at that time: I had a low profile in Glasgow with Max and the rest of the boys. Plus I was in a very fragile state, all skin and bone. But Sir Sean came right over, said how pleased he was to see me, and I felt good.” Evans had made it to the Big Apple. Then he made it to Week Five of Strictly Come Dancing, pictured right. After that he almost made it to the lead role in the erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. Showbiz is very much his realm now and he has designs on being an actor.
But this weekend it’s full-on rugby and he’s thrilled. Last night he watched his old club play Cardiff Blues in the city which first took notice of him, having earlier been invited through to Edinburgh by Gregor Townsend to watch the current Scotland squad train, and today he’ll be at Murrayfield to see his successors host Argentina.
“This is the first time I’ve been back to Glasgow for five years,” he says. “My taxi went past Hughenden, where I played my games and the memories came flooding back. I can’t believe it’s been five years. Nor can I believe it’s been eight since that day in Cardiff. My dad’s always said to Max and I, ‘Live every moment’, because life goes by in a flash. I’m realising that more and more now.”
The exile from where he used to hare down the wing, still with the Twen2y4se7en blond highlights in his hair, hasn’t been intentional, simply that this whizzing life has taken him far and wide. He lived in Los Angeles for a while, enrolling in acting workshops.
And just to put a bit more distance between the likes of old cauliflower-eared compadres such as Al Kellock, who drops by the hotel for a bearhug greeting and to make arrangements for a couple of pints later, he started hanging out with beautiful women. “Do you know,” he says, “that Kelly Brook was my first proper girlfriend?”
Much as he’s enjoying his new life, though, Evans, now 33, still gets wistful about the old one. “I miss rugby,” he admits. “I’m very grateful to Gregor to be getting the chance to meet this Scotland team but I still find it quite hard to watch the game. Not out of bitterness but because I can’t help thinking back to the fantastic times I had as a player and it makes me feel sad that rugby was ripped away from me.
“I hardly know any of the boys. Even so, I expect a bit of ribbing over what I do now. I just hope they don’t want me to sing for them. Or dance. I know all about what great players they are, though, having watched them under Vern Cotter and now Gregor. It would be fantastic to play with Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell. I’m very jealous!”
Zimbabwe-born Evans won his first cap against today’s opponents, a defeat to the Pumas in Rosario rather setting the tone for a career which flickered for another nine games, only one resulting in victory, before 13 February, 2010 and a game which was out of this world.
From the bottom of their boots, Scotland dredged up a performance. They led 10-0, then 15-3, then 21-9 and seemed set to end a miserable winless streak in the Principality. “I woke up that morning believing we were about to do something special,” recalls Evans.
But the sin-bin, injuries and rotten bounces killed them. As well as losing him, Chris Paterson sliced open his kidney and Rory Lamont wrecked a knee. The Scots were still leading by ten points with three minutes remaining but they only had 13 men left standing and, with the clock long dead, Wales overhauled them 31-24. In a throwback to the rugger malarkey of the 1970s, the home team’s Andy Powell was later arrested while drunk in charge of a golf buggy at a motorway service station outside Cardiff. Evans’ sickening injury was viewed by the sport’s critics as being all too typical of its present, with violent hits commonplace.
At just 24 Evans was finished. “The silver lining for me was that Max was still involved in rugby and it was lovely to see him continue playing for Scotland and have a good impact, even though I was slightly gutted that he moved from centre to wing to take my position.” Immediate post-retirement, though, Evans struggled. “ITV were good enough to give me the chance to be a pundit at the 2011 Rugby World Cup – but it was really tough being in a studio talking about games I’d hoped to have influenced, in a tournament I’d always dreamed about, while sat next to me were legends like Sean Fitzpatrick and Francois Pienaar, who’d retired on their own calls.”
The competitive urge still burned. “I was grateful that the recovery had been amazing and I wasn’t stuck in a wheelchair. But a little bit of me was thinking: ‘It’s been so amazing that I feel I could still play’.” He sought out Margot Wells, wife of Olympic gold hero Allan. “She made me fast again and I thought about trying sprinting. But that little thought crept back in: ‘What about rugby? What about sevens?’”
With an eye on the Rio Olympics, he jumped on a plane to Dubai at the end of 2015 for a return – albeit in the reduced format – to the sport which had almost killed him. Unsurprisingly he left for the tournament with alarmed voices ringing in his ears. “I’d spoken to the surgeon in Cardiff who’d operated on me and to James Robson, the Scotland team doctor. They told me I shouldn’t be going to Dubai and my mum wasn’t happy at all.”
Evans lined up for an invitational UR7s team alongside Englishmen and Kenyans. “Before our opening game I thought I was going to throw up. We won it easily and I managed to score a couple of tries although I knew there would be harder tests ahead. Sure enough, in the semi-final a Fijian almost ripped my head off. That was enough for me. I’d enjoyed the camaraderie of being part of a team again. I’d smelled the Deep Heat in the dressing-room again. But I’d got rugby out of my system.”
Evans says the eerie silence of the 75,000 as he lay on the ground will stay with him ever. He counts the Welshman who crashed into him, Lee Byrne, as a friend, having fretted over the player possibly suffering any guilt. His first time back at the Millennium last year was “chilling”. He credits Robson with saving his life.
“In rugby from an early age you’re taught to listen: to your coach, your captain, the referee. Even if I didn’t heed what James said about Dubai I did in Cardiff when he told me to remain absolutely still. I always thank him for that when we meet and I hope to bump into him again this weekend.”
There was crucial back-up from other medics such as Evans being denied the painkillers which would have relaxed his body and possibly caused the fatal snap of his spine. He was also grateful that his mother, a nurse, rode with him in the ambulance. “I was panicking like a madman but she kept whispering in my ear that everything was going to be alright. I would have been in a world of bother if she hadn’t been on that journey.”
Now he’s laughing: “Obviously every mother would do anything for her children. Our mum always had lots of secret remedies for her boys when they got into scrapes. And for us growing up there were plenty. When we lived in Portugal, Max 14 and me 12, we played each other in a tennis tournament. He called a shot out which I swear to this day was in. He jumped the net and we started punching each other. All the parents were horrified. We both realised then that we could do some serious harm to each other if we continued fighting so we stopped.
“Since then we’ve always been close. It’s been said we have the telepathy of twins. We sound the same when we speak, which is probably a bit frightening, but I played my best rugby knowing Max was right beside me in the team and linking arms with him for Flower of Scotland away to France when I scored my only try was a moment I cherish.” The brothers are currently back living together in Weybridge, Surrey with Evans reporting that his big brother’s habit of munching biscuits straight from the packet, dropping crumbs everywhere, can be fairly annoying, though not as irritating as Max mimicking his entry into reality telly with Dancing on Ice.
No one, not his brother or his parents, was surprised that Evans decided to run the most outrageous angle of his life and end up in showbiz, and maybe his second cousin always knew this would happen, Chris Evans having sneaked him on to the set of TFI Friday while he was still at school. “Chris had this gorgeous girl show my dad and I round the set. I was gobsmacked.”
He joined Twen2y4se7en to help out a mate at Wellington College after another lad had dropped out. “I put off my first club Wasps to do it. The band was great fun but when we were touring with Westlife I decided I was missing rugby too much. First training session at Wasps everyone knew about the cheesy songs I’d been singing and I was made to tackle Lawrence Dallaglio who was just a machine. The teasing continued pretty much every day after that and it was just the same when I came to Glasgow, the lad who’d never been to the city before, up from England and a public school, streaks in his hair and all those silly videos.
“I used to sing all the time in the showers, the worst kind of playlist. And maybe then, even though rugby was my passion and still is now, I was wondering if there could be an interesting diversion which would open up for me one day.” Interesting doesn’t really cover becoming a model and a gay icon for his photo-shoots for Attitude magazine. Or the housewives’ choice for his snake-hipped Strictly moves in a see-through shirt. “I loved that show, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Judy Murray, whenever we meet, doesn’t let me forget that she stayed longer than me.”
Less memorable was Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls, Evans being forced to quit the location off the coast of Panama after shedding two stones. “I was definitely up for the challenge but couldn’t catch my tea. The fish were too big for this stick, a piece of string and a bent pin – they trashed my gear.” He was a hit, though, on the dating show Take Me Out with all 30 female hopefuls expressing avid interest. Currently he’s single and inevitably he finds tabloid scrutiny of his love life unnerving. “I don’t think of myself as a celebrity but people can be a bit weird about the fact you’ve been on TV. I’m still waiting to meet the right girl, which is a bit irritating as right now Max is all loved up.”
So he hopes for the big break in acting, having auditioned unsuccessfully for the recent Cinderella movie, tried for Casualty and missed out on another TV show, The Musketeers. “The closest I got to anything was Fifty Shades of Grey,” he says. “I was called back a few times for more auditions but ultimately the role went to a better man in Jamie Dornan. I’ll keep trying but any time I get fed up because I’ve missed out on a part which should have been mine I think back to the hospital in Cardiff and the trauma ward where there was a beautiful young girl who’d been knocked off her bicycle in a hit-and-run. She’d barely lived her life and she was already paralysed. I was so lucky.”