Rugby Union: Lydney look to the heavens for support

Saracens must tread carefully in the Forest of Dean in Sunday's Tetley's Bitter Cup tie.
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The Independent Online
THE VIDEOS should have come with a double X certificate. They were provided by Richard Hill, Gloucester's director of rugby, for the unsuspecting Rhodri Lewis, coach of Lydney. They all featured Saracens, Lydney's opponents on Sunday in the Tetley's Bitter Cup fifth round, the furthest the Forest of Dean side has been in the knock-out competition.

But they came without any warning, and, after watching the recording of the match between Saracens and Gloucester, Lewis, the former Wales international flanker, said: "There are times when I wish Richard had not sent the videos. I have watched them all and the second half of the Gloucester match is still giving me nightmares."

In fact, since it is Saracens who have to do the travelling, there is every chance they may finish on the receiving end of an unpleasant surprise.

Lydney may be dawdling around the middle of the Jewson National League One table, but they are no slouches, especially not on their own turf.

The Forest has produced some seriously talented players over the years and to a man they have always been hard. Particularly up front, an area of the game that is as much of a dark unknown as the Forest itself. One of those front-row denizens is Nick Nelmes, born and brought up in Lydney.

It is some seven stones since hooker Nelmes began his Lydney career as an Under-13; now, some 20 years later, this Gloucester-based tax inspector is preparing for one of the most exciting days of his, and the Town's, rugby life.

"There is no doubt about it," the 32-year-old Nelmes says, who now weighs in at 15 stone plus, "this is the biggest rugby occasion I have ever been involved in. I don't think there has been anything to top this. The Town has been buzzing since the draw was made."

Mind you, he is not expecting miracles. "Our aim is to surprise them," Nelmes adds, "but let's be honest, the days of the real shocks are going. Sides like Saracens prepare far too well. They will know something about us and these are professionals. They train all week.

"We train two nights a week, Tuesday and Thursday. And although our training and preparation is more intensive than it used to be, I don't think anyone at our level watches their intake of alcohol all that closely, for example."

Like Nelmes, Lewis, who played for the club until a while back, is a realist. "The two sides are worlds apart," he explains. "We can't compete with full-time professionals. I get the guys for maybe three hours a week. We do our best in the circumstances and we certainly played well away against Moseley in the last round."

They won that one by a point, with wing Chris Dunlop scoring two tries for the second successive Cup tie. But there will be a lot riding on their leading points and try scorer, Nick Paisley, who was named Jewson Player of the Month in December.

When it comes down to it, the biggest thing Lydney have going for them is the fact that they will be at fortress Regentsholme. They nearly pulled off a historic victory there against Sale back in 1981. "I was a ball- boy," Nelmes remembers. Lydney even led until the final few minutes. "Then Steve Smith sneaked over for a try," Nelmes adds, "and that was that."

Another crucial factor could well be the conditions. Lydney need mud. Plenty of it. Unfortunately the rain which has been hosing down for much of the winter has let up in the last few days, according to Nelmes, who says: "What we need is three or four inches of mud.

"And if it doesn't rain again between now and Sunday maybe we'll have to call in the fire brigade. That's what London Welsh thought had happened when they turned up to play us once in the Cup a while back. It was a glorious day but the pitch had not fully dried and the Welsh moaned about the state of things. In the bar afterwards, having drawn 17-17, we were toasting the fire brigade and saying what a good job they had done, and the Welsh swallowed it."

It is unlikely to come down to that, but Saracens can certainly expect a noisy reception. Lewis again: "The ground will be jam-packed. There has been tremendous interest in the tie and no one ever finds it easy to play us here. At home there is a certain spirit whoever we play and that will come to the fore against Saracens.

"I just hope they enjoy the experience and learn from this. They are looking forward to coming up against some of the best players in the world."

Someone who will be jammed among the Forest fanatics on Sunday will be their former full-back Steve James, the Glamorgan and England batsman. He played in the No 15 short as recently as three seasons ago, but since the two sports sit uneasily alongside each other and James is reluctant to risk injury, he is content to join his parents, Peter and Margaret, in the stands.

"I may not play for Lydney any more, but I always follow their fortunes," James insists. "And I watch them whenever I can. There is a real passion for rugby in this area."

He is close to confessing that he would like to be out there on Sunday, playing his heart out with the other local heroes, "but then I get this picture of Francois Pienaar running at me".

James must have known that the former Springbok captain would be making his first appearance of the year for Saracens and the alarm bells sounded. Or was it the fire brigade?