Rugby Union: Pontypridd defend their proud tradition

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The Independent Online
If rugby has spent the last fortnight in a dock of its own making, today is judgement day. The brawling miscreants of Pontypridd and Brive renew their Heineken Cup blood rivalry this afternoon and while many feel the match should not be taking place at all, no one wants to miss it now it is happening. Chris Hewett spent the day among the hardy faithful of Sardis Road.

The poster inside the clubhouse door advertises a local performance of Handel's Messiah, which is one way of getting God on your side during these diabolical days of hellfire and damnation. Welcome to Sardis Road, home of the warmest, friendliest, most family-oriented band of mean-minded, granite-fisted, uncontrollable hoodlums ever to set foot on a rugby field.

Some terrible contradiction, surely? Well, you pays your money and takes your choice with Pontypridd. Depending on your point of view - or, more likely, the proximity of your home to this one-horse rugby town tucked away in the no-man's-land between Cardiff and the Rhondda - Ponty are either honest to goodness working class heroes or so far beyond the pale that you need the Hubble telescope to locate them.

Ponty are not the first Welsh side to blaze a trail down this particular rocky hillside of public opprobrium. Back in the Iron Age of the late Seventies and early Eighties - pre-professionalism, pre-Rupert Murdoch, pre-super slo-mo cameras that home in on punches and stamps and butts like heat-seeking missiles - Pontypool were the mean mothers, men's men dangerously equipped with an entire bag of chips on each shoulder and a profound contempt for visiting whingers. When they sent one of their own, Eddie Butler, to study with the nobs at Cambridge University, the back row boyo frightened the living daylights out of his precious undergraduate colleagues by swapping punches with the opposition rather than invitations to high tea.

And then came Neath, the shaven-headed Welsh-speaking farmers from the far-flung western reaches of rugby Christendom. If their line-out calls were communicated in an unfamiliar language, the rest of their game was universally understood. It was far safer to be on the wrong side of a New Zealand All Black ruck than on the wrong side of Gnoll All Blacks like Brian Williams, Barry Clegg or Phil Pugh.

Yet over the last calamitous fortnight, Ponty have left their predecessors for dead by plumbing such depths of notoriety that it is a wonder the entire first-team squad have not been confined to a decompression chamber. They are the untouchables of rugby's caste system, the first official bogeymen of the professional era.

In the immediate aftermath of the on-field, off-field conflagration with Brive, the Frenchmen were hardly alone in calling for Neil Jenkins and his side to be ejected from the Heineken Cup tournament in disgrace. Virtually everyone else leapt to the same conclusion. So what if the full facts had yet to emerge? "Ponty are Ponty, aren't they?" they said. "Dale and Phil and the Lewis boys? Well, they're known for putting it about. Best make an example of them."

Up on the hillside at Sardis - picturesque Sardis, in its best bib and tucker with freshly painted black and white posts and a spanking new set of hospitality suites - the locals talk more of being put-upon than putting it about. "You know, I honestly haven't recognised the club I love from some of the reports I've listened to and read over the last few days," says Cenydd Thomas, the chief executive. "I've felt anger and hurt, I've been sad at heart. It's not my Ponty they've been talking of."

Thomas has been involved with Pontypridd for more than 40 years, man and boy. He watched from the terraces with his father, played a bit, coached everyone from the cannon fodder in the youth team to the grown-ups in the first XV and is now serving his time as an administrator. A retired chief superintendent with the South Wales Constabulary and a former international referee to boot, his sepulchral appearance - a portrait of the rugby man as an old codger - is deceptive. He positively embodies energy, wit and boundless enthusiasm.

"When the Heineken Cup directors announced that today's game would go ahead as scheduled, I was so relieved. I got straight on the phone to ITN and spoke to a girl at News at Ten. `Look,' I said. `You tell Trevor Macdonald to announce that the match is on. Tell him personally and get him to announce it on air. It's got to be more interesting than the bloody Lib Dems at Eastbourne, hasn't it?' And what do you think? They put it on.

"But it's been an awful couple of weeks, to be honest. I had no problem with the way we played against Brive, because we stood up for ourselves. You should have seen the intimidation, experienced the hostility of the crowd over there. Talk about provocation. When I heard about the fighting in the bar after the game, though, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach."

It is not the first time he has seen his club's reputation in tatters. A decade ago, in the mad-dog days of Scarlett and Butts and Knowles, Ponty were a real handful. When action was finally taken to clean up the Sardis Road act, Thomas was in the forefront of the initiative. "We'd gone six or seven years without success and suddenly, we had coaches who gave us some. Unfortunately, too many people here put their hands over their eyes and ignored the manner in which that success was being achieved. I'm not like that, never have been. I'd sooner see us lose and maintain some integrity. The coaches had to go, so we got rid of them.

"Look, we're no angels now. It's a hard old game and we've got some hard boys in the team, players who are able to take it as well as dish it out. I just feel we've been scapegoated over this Brive business. There's a Pontypridd side to this as well as a Brive one and I think it should be taken into account."

Eddie Jones, the team manager, was also deeply upset by the events in Le Bar Toulzac; indeed, he might very easily have been caught up in the melee himself. "It was only by the grace of God that I wasn't there. I was on the team bus and I remember thinking: `Be sensible, Eddie, 30 players have just gone into that bar and that means you'll be the 31st to get served.' So I pushed off to another place a couple of hundred yards away, figuring it was the only way I'd get a drink."

Jones condemns the bar-room brawling unreservedly, but like all true rugby men, he recognises that the game's very essence stems from the co- existence of the beauty and the beast at its heart. "We don't go looking for physical confrontation at this club and we certainly won't be doing so against Brive this time; let's be fair, there are talented young players in the Ponty side who wouldn't pose a threat to my grandmother, let alone some bloody great Frenchman. But I'll defend our actions on the field in Brive; it takes two to tango and they won't take a Welsh or British club lightly ever again. They knew they'd been in a game that day.

"Of course, I've been reading the riot act to the players all week because everyone here realises that another outbreak of trouble could finish us. We'll accept 50 per cent of the blame for what happened over there, but no more than that; after all, we had scars of our own. We're resilient, though. We're a big enough and lovable enough club to rise above it."

Pontypridd and Brive, then. Similar towns in many ways - small, close- knit, fiercely proud, perhaps over-protective, of their respective rugby traditions - and now almost manacled together in controversy. Cenydd Thomas, for one, is looking on the bright side. "I hope the Brive players feel able to sample our hospitality," he says. "I mean, we have mutual showers here. You can't get more hospitable than that, can you?"

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