Rugby union: Renaissance man arrives in Neath

Away from the bickering a vital season is about to start. Robert Cole reports
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The Independent Online
HOPE SPRINGS eternal at the start of every new sporting season, yet for Neath it will be joined with fear and trepidation as the National League Premier Division season prepares to kick-off on Saturday.

Despite coming back from the dead, thanks to the Welsh Rugby Union's buy-out of the club after debts of pounds 600,000 had made it one of the first real casualties of professionalism in Wales, the biggest problems still lie ahead.

Founder members of the WRU way back in 1881, inaugural National League champions in 1991, champions again in 1996 and the provider of many Welsh international players down the years they may have been, but nowadays history is counting for little.

As the new season approaches, it has been down to the Neath coach Lyn Jones to try to forget the politics, to ignore the disruption and near- disaster to the club, and to piece together a side fit to compete not only in Wales, but also Europe. The recent plight of the once-proud Welsh All Blacks is a salutary lesson for every club in Wales as the fourth season of openly professional rugby begins. As the battles between the clubs and Unions for commercial control continue, the worry is that there could be more Neaths to come.

Jones, a stalwart of the golden era at the Gnoll in the Eighties and Nineties, is, of course, trying to banish negative thoughts as he prepares his side for the opening day of the season. "Without hope you have nothing - but hope is the one thing I have plenty of right now," Jones said, displaying the same spirit as a coach as he did as an international flanker. "It would be foolish to suggest everything was anything like rosy - we saw some extremely black days during the summer.

"We are having to start virtually from scratch, but we go into the new season genuinely believing we can see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. In my opinion it could take three years to turn Neath around, but we intend to start that process from day one of the season."

Of course Neath were far from being alone in finding the costs of professionalism too much to bear. Cash, or, to be precise, the lack of it, has been at the heart of the turmoil between Cardiff, Swansea and the Welsh Rugby Union since May. The saga of whether or not two clubs would play in the Premier Division and Europe this season only came to an end on Friday when they announced they will be playing unofficial friendlies with England's leading clubs. That farce has thrown the Welsh game into chaos and left the way clear for Newport and Aberavon to join the Premiership fold in their place.

Jones, though, has little time for the wider politics. He will be judged on how Neath perform on the field, and he is not promising any miracles. "I expect us to have something similar to last season. Perhaps we will struggle for the first few weeks as we build up a team performance but by late September or early October we should be up and running," he said. "Nothing but first place ever satisfies me but, being realistic, we should finish around mid-table and I think we will surprise a few along the way.

"We intend to play at a quicker pace. We must have the right ingredients that make us Neath, setting us apart from the others, and by that I mean abrasiveness, a high level of fitness and a legitimate meanness."

The extra pace will be supplied by the newcomers the Tongan wing David Tiueti (ex-Bristol), the centre John Colderley (ex Moseley) and the fly- half Matthew McCarthy, who was on loan to Pontypridd, blending in with the captain and scrum half Patrick Horgan and the winger Delme Williams. On the debit side they have lost the forwards Ian Boobyer, Ben Evans, Darren Morris, Glyn Llewellyn and Neil Watkins but Jones believes this is the season that the second row Steve Martin "will achieve his enormous potential".

Colderley is symptomatic of a summer trend this year, being one of several players who have returned to play their rugby in Wales after brief flirtations in England. Martyn Madden (Penzance & Newlyn to Llanelli), Tony Copsey (Saracens to Llanelli) and Steve Pearce (Bristol to Bridgend) have all "come home" - and Jones can see the trend gaining momentum.

"I think the tide is turning. A lot of decent players went in search of the end of the rainbow in England and found it wasn't there," he said. "Of course the really big contracts will continue to tempt the really big names but I can see others now opting to stay in Wales and that will certainly strengthen our club scene."

In the short term he expects that scene to be dominated by Pontypridd, who have side-stepped much of the summer mayhem and gone quietly about their business.. "I fancy they will come good again but my only real concern is making sure Neath prosper," Jones said. After the traumas of summer, mid-table solidity would certainly fit the bill.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: THE WELSH PREMIER DIVISION CLUBS

ABERAVON

Along with Newport they are in the top flight by circumstance rather than merit or achievement. They had planned for First Division action and could now be found wanting through no real fault of their own. The Wizards will do well to avoid the relegation scramble and may even have been better off staying where they were.

CAERPHILLY

They displayed magnificent try-scoring form in romping away with the First Division title last season, but now they will find Premier defences something else to deal with entirely. That being so, consolidating their place in the top flight will be the priority for Chris Davey's team, and winning a fair share of their home matches the realistic target.

LLANELLI

By Scarlet standards, last season was an absolute shocker. They managed to live up to their cup specialists' reputation with a 10th victory in the final, but achieved a mere five Premier Division wins to finish sixth in the table. The progress of the exciting fly-half Craig Warlow will be crucial to their hopes of playing to their considerable potential.

NEWPORT

The famous old Black and Ambers have been thrown a Premier Division lifeline following Cardiff and Swansea's final decision on Friday not to play in Wales. Newport did not manage to win a single league match last season and since then the departures of Jan Machacek, Ian Gough and Alex Lawson have left some gaping holes.

BRIDGEND

Bridgend never really got going last season and they were only saved from the spectre of relegation by Newport's even worse form. The club have suffered much in recent times from being unable to hang on to their top players, so the return of Gareth Jones from Cardiff is significant. Nevertheless, they are likely to struggle for survival again.

EBBW VALE

May find it tough living up to their best league finish last season. The admirable all-for-one and one-for-all attitude under the captain, Kingsley Jones, is a big bonus but they will be praying the half-backs, Dai Llewellyn and Byron Hayward, stay free from injury. The full-back Siua Taumalolo provides an additional attacking dimension.

NEATH

A daunting task lies ahead at the Gnoll to rebuild a team who have been ravaged by a stream of departures. Virtually cleaned out up front, the new set of forwards will have to gel together in double-quick time if the Welsh All Blacks are to avoid the sort of start they may find impossible to recover from when the relegation battle starts in earnest.

PONTYPRIDD

Consistency has become their trademark. The signing of the locks Ian Gough and Marcus Thomas brings fresh young blood to a pack who were starting to creak. The metronomic boot of Neil Jenkins will again give Ponty the edge in tight matches and in Gareth Wyatt and Kevin Morgan they have two outstanding attacking talents.

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