Rugby Union: Lifeline for the legends

Tim Glover hopes a great name of the game may be about to rise again
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Wales had just beaten France in Cardiff and before the first drinks touched the sides in the Angel Hotel, Stuart Gallacher decided to turn professional. The Wales and Llanelli No. 8 accepted Bradford Northern's offer of pounds 9,000 to play rugby league.

"Carwyn James told me to think again but I didn't listen," Gallacher said. Money not only talked but it talked louder than the legendary James. Gallacher, a policeman on pounds 70 a month, was able to buy a new house in Yorkshire for pounds 3,500. "Why did I go? For the same reason players are now going to England."

It was 1970 and Gallacher not only forfeited the chance of going on James' Lions tour to New Zealand the following year but missed Llanelli's famous victory over the All Blacks at Stradey Park in 1972. He will not miss the 25th anniversary rematch against New Zealand on 8 November.

The All Blacks specifically asked for the fixture, one of the most evocative in the game, but will be unaware of how close their hosts came to lapsing into history rather then helping to write it.

When rugby went open, Llanelli RFC almost closed. But for the sale of Stradey Park to the Welsh Rugby Union for pounds 1.25m earlier this year, Llanelli would probably have gone to the wall, the most celebrated casualty of the chaotic move to professionalism. Although the sale of their prime asset was traumatic, at least Llanelli, who are now tenants, have the option of buying it back for the same amount should circumstances change.

Sitting in his office at Stradey, Gallacher, now chairman of the club, has been at the heart of the rescue operation. "We lost six internationals overnight," he said. "We lost the hard core of the team. It was an open bunfight. Emerging from the amateur game, there were no contracts, no transfer fees and the players were in pole position. The market place sets the standard and there were so few quality players, the level of the market rose dramatically. There was no control, no guidance from the unions. The only people to benefit were the players."

Even worse, the fly-half factory, which produced Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies had run out of raw materials.

When expenditure began to lap income (the debt was approaching pounds 1m) Llanelli, like any other major club, were susceptible to the charms of a benefactor. When a caravan-park entrepreneur appeared with the promise of pounds 3m they thought their troubles were over. In fact, they were just beginning. In a controversial deal, Llanelli bought the New Zealander Frano Botica for pounds 200,000 and contracts appeared like confetti. They may as well have been written in invisible ink. The wheels came off the caravan deal when the pounds 3m man appeared on TV, wrote a cheque for pounds 500 and said that if a thousand people followed suit the club would be saved. Lesson one: beware of geeks bearing gifts.

It was time for all good men, in addition to the WRU, to come to the aide of the party, and in the last few months Llanelli have virtually reinvented themselves. They are in the process of selling 500,000 pounds 1 shares and at the end of the month the club will become a limited company with Ron Jones, treasurer of Glamorgan CCC and Pete Jones, local businessman, playing prominent roles. When it seemed easier to give up the ghost, they decided to reincarnate them. "What we all agreed is that Llanelli and Stradey are great brand names which could be exploited," Gallacher said.

They are aiming to increase membership from 2,800 to 10,000, targeting people outside the area and have drawn a response from Singapore to Solihull. Llanelli has a population of 40,000 but further west the club is looking at a catchment area of 10 times that. There is talk of Scarlet support centres, and the area becoming a rugby province. If Manchester United is the epitome of how a sports club should be marketed, the Scarlets see a parallel with the Reds.

Television revenue from the WRU for the eight Premier clubs is pounds 500,000, compared to pounds 200,000 last year, and there will be more if Llanelli are successful in the European Cup. With the Anglo-Welsh league a dead duck, Europe holds the key. "To play at Brive in front of 15,000 is good for the players and the national cause," Gallacher said. "Young men grow up very quickly. Our fixture list is the strongest it has ever been and every game is meaningful." And expensive. Today they are playing in Scotland, having left Llanelli by coach on Friday morning for Heathrow and a flight to Edinburgh.

Llanelli have a modest squad of 30, including six home-grown youngsters and a newly signed American lock, Dave Hodges. The bill to keep the show on the road will be pounds 1.4m, pounds 800,000 of which goes to the players, a decrease on last year.

"Compared to England we are the poor relations," Gallacher said. "We have to play with style and we have to win. If we combine both we might break even." At the moment the four Premier clubs in Wales play in the European Cup but England and France want the Welsh quota reduced to two. "They believe their standard is higher and want more of their clubs in Europe," Gallacher said. "That is why it's vital we perform. When a European league is formed Welsh clubs have to be in it."

Gallacher reckons players in the English Premiership are getting an average of pounds 60,000. "Their wage bills are not sustainable and wealthy individuals who have bought into clubs are not getting a return. The bubble will burst."

Meanwhile, Llanelli were not only powerless to prevent the departure of the Quinnell brothers to Richmond or Ieuan Evans to Bath but are aware that players as young as 16 are being lured across the Severn Bridge. Evans, who went for pounds 75,000 after 13 years at Stradey, has pledged pounds 5,000 to buy shares.

Llanelli have introduced a pounds 5 membership for juniors and their new strip, featuring a Celtic warrior with sword and shield, is also designed to appeal to the young. "We want to fill Stradey," Gallacher said. "But we have no God given right to do so."

His son Jonathan was a promising No 8 at the club until he bought a surfboard. However, even he might forego the pleasures of the Gower Coast to watch the Scarlets play the All Blacks at Stradey Park.