Rugby Union: Llanelli still in awe of the legends of '72

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Stradey Park's consecration as a rugby shrine was inspired by a single sporting miracle: Llanelli's defeat of Ian Kirkpatrick's All Blacks a quarter of a century ago. Tomorrow, the Scarlets will attempt a repeat performance against Sean Fitzpatrick's tourists.

Chris Hewett found the link between past and present in Gareth Jenkins, the current Llanelli coach who played himself into Welsh folklore back in 1972.

As the crow flies, Laugharne and Llanelli lie no more than a dozen miles apart on opposite sides of the River Tywi. If the former has its poet, Dylan Thomas, who famously reinvented his locality as Llareggub in Under Milk Wood, the latter is more earthy in its passion. It has its rugby club, by some distance the most celebrated sporting institution in Wales.

It is a measure of the esteem in which the Scarlets are held in these parts that rugby leaves literature for dead in the hearts and minds of those who love both. Pay a visit to Brown's Hotel, Dylan's favourite Laugharne watering hole, and there, overshadowing umpteen pictures of the wordsmith enjoying his umpteenth pint, you will see one enormous photograph of Delme Thomas and his 1972 Llanelli unforgettables. They were the side who saw off New Zealand and, in so doing, instigated a mass, day-long bender of such mighty excess that Thomas himself would have been forced to seek refuge at a health farm.

Gareth Jenkins was one of Delme's heroes. Then a lean, languid flank forward, and relatively inexperienced at 21, he tore into the All Blacks without fear or favour on that emotion-charged afternoon. Together with the likes of Derek Quinnell and Tom David, he stopped a vaunted New Zealand pack in its tracks. Roy Bergiers scored the only try of the game, Phil Bennett and Andy Hill kicked five points between them, and Llanelli sneaked it 9-3. Such is the stuff of legend.

Tomorrow Jenkins will watch from his coach's vantage point, just as the great Carwyn James did 25 years ago, as a very different Scarlets side, less gifted than their forebears but no less enthusiastic, attempt a repeat of the unimaginable.

"I've got to take my memories out of the equation," Jenkins said this week. "I can't afford to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about what happened in '72, even though it was one of the greatest rugby days anyone could have shared in. This is a special occasion in its own right and what I have to do is impress upon the players that they are about to play the hardest, most physical game they will ever encounter."

That detachment will not be easy for Jenkins, as he well knows. "The place is awash with nostalgia. Tonight, the club is hosting a black tie dinner for 800 people to mark the anniversary of the '72 game and, as far as I know, every one of the Scarlets who played that day will be there. The very fact that we are the one club side to be given a fixture with the All Blacks on this tour gives the match an extra something and I suppose it is human nature to compare this to our day under Delme and Carwyn.

"But it's not comparable because you can't repeat history. You reflect on your past but live in the present and what gives tomorrow its unique flavour has more to do with what happens in the future than what went before. The way tours are these days, I can't see too many more opportunities arising for club sides to play the best. The game is changing and, to my mind, there will be a sadness about tomorrow's game as well as a joy. It may be the end of something."

Llanelli know all about mixed emotions. Up until last month, when a desperate share issue finally raised sufficient cash to drive the financial wolf from the door, the Scarlets were playing their rugby under the threat of imminent bankruptcy.

The gloom was almost tangible as the Scarlets tried manfully to raise themselves for matches played in a morgue-like atmosphere at a three-quarters- empty stadium and those gaps on the terraces spoke volumes. Llanelli is, after all, proud of its reputation as the most passionate rugby town in Britain.

"Our recent past has been well documented, and I don't want to dwell on it," Jenkins said. "Tomorrow, though, is what dreams are made of. It represents an opportunity for us to celebrate our emergence from all that financial pressure and to hold our heads high as a club with a future. I live in the town and am seen as a part of it and people are definitely talking to me about Llanelli rugby with a genuine enthusiasm that perhaps wasn't there at the start of the season.

"As rugby people, we're obviously losing some of the qualities we once held dear. The short, Test-dominated nature of modern touring is symptomatic of that and some of the old cameraderie is going, no doubt about it. When I played, clubs were rugby-minded, not business-minded, and the game belonged to everyone. In the professional age, there are going to be victims. God knows, we were nearly one ourselves.

"But this sort of match is irrestible, the very essence of rugby, amateur or professional. Television has made this new generation of All Blacks more familiar to the average supporter than even the greatest names of the past and to have them here at Stradey, to see them and to face them in the flesh, is wonderfully exciting. You can't ask for anything better than the chance to play the best."