Rugby Union: Renaissance of Llanelli's treble-chasers
The Scarlets have put their financial difficulties behind them and are on course to bring trophies and crowds back to Stradey Park
Admittedly, Alex Ferguson would think long and hard before swapping one of his garden gnomes for the Welsh Rugby Union Challenge Trophy, the Welsh Premiership and what is, for the time being, still referred to as the Swalec Cup (Swalec are pulling the plug in frustration at the political overkill on the far side of the Severn Bridge). But for those of us who have been reared on tales of Scarlet derring-do - of Carwyn and Delme, and Benny and Grav, and the legendary 1972 win over the All Blacks - Llanelli's sudden re-emergence as a power in the land is worthy of celebration.
This afternoon, Robbie McBryde's team visit Ebbw Vale in a Premiership play-off match of considerable significance; victory would establish Llanelli, who already have the Challenge Trophy on the Stradey clubhouse shelf, as the odds-on favourites for the title, with a cup final against the neighbouring hot-shots from Swansea still to come. They have lost only twice in 17 games and when Stuart Gallacher, their chief executive, talks about a "transformation" in fortunes, he is by no means overstating the case.
As recently as November 1996 Llanelli were on their knees and Welsh rugby - no, damn it, world rugby - was in serious danger of losing one of its treasures. With professionalism in it's chaotic, good-money-after-bad runaway stage, the Scarlets spent cash they did not have on players they could not afford, not least Frano Botica, the former All Black stand-off. That naivete cost them their famous old ground, sold to the Union for pounds 1.25m, and very nearly cost them a whole lot more. The Scarlets were within days of bolting the Stradey gates and calling in the pin-striped receivers.
Largely as a result of the WRU's sympathetic intervention and the success of a share issue that raised pounds 560,000 from scratch, the club stayed afloat. But the after-shock was almost as damaging as the financial earthquake: in the autumn of 1997, the All Blacks returned to a packed Stradey for a sentimental silver anniversary re-match and scored 13 tries in an 81- 3 landslide. The ground has not been full since; when Llanelli took on and beat the brilliant Parisians of Stade Francais in this season's European Cup, only 2,000 or so watched them do it.
"We've had a good few months, no doubt about it, but our gates are still a big negative," admitted Gallacher this week. "We're averaging around 4,000 at the moment, but we need 6,000-plus if we're going to build the business in the right way. Where have the crowds gone? I can't tell you. We still have support in the locality - if you need proof that Llanelli is a rugby town, look at our share issue, where we raised more than half- a-million [pounds], not through a single sugar daddy but through more than 1,000 rank and file Scarlets. But we're not getting them in on a Saturday afternoon, despite our best efforts in selling ourselves to the community.
"I think part of the problem can be found in the way Welsh rugby as a whole has conducted itself in recent years. Let's be honest, we've turned people off. The absence of Cardiff and Swansea from domestic [league] competition has made life very difficult and the collapse of the British League negotiations hasn't helped. In addition, our recent success has led to a number of our games being broadcast live on television at 5.30 on a Saturday night. To build an audience, you need stability. People want to know that there will be a big game at Stradey once a fortnight, kick-off 2.30. There is no point talking about revenue streams and all the rest of it when you have a higgledy-piggledy structure like ours."
For all that, Gallacher has stabilised Llanelli's off-field position in his 18 months as chief executive, just as Gareth Jenkins, the outstanding club coach in Wales, has stabilised performances on the paddock. Last weekend's cup semi-final demolition of the Cardiff rebels - a victory almost dripping in schadenfreude - underlined the effectiveness of a recruitment campaign that has brought Scott Quinnell, the Lions No 8, back to Stradey along with two fellow Welsh internationals, Byron Hayward and John Davies, and Salesi Finau, a ruthlessly physical wing from the South Sea Islands. Quinnell has more than punched his weight since re- crossing the Severn from Richmond; indeed, the Scarlets have barely lost since his return.
Now that Llanelli have been awarded "super club" status by the WRU - the union will pump in pounds 250,000 a year for the next two years in return for a seat on the Stradey board and an input in player development - they intend to strengthen further in an effort to leave their scarlet mark on next season's European Cup. Indeed, tangible success in the richest club tournament in the world would give them an opportunity to repurchase their spiritual home from their landlords. Llanelli have an option to buy back at the original selling price under the terms of a deal that shows the governing body, lambasted and ridiculed from Milford Haven to Newport docks for their mismanagement of the game in Wales, in an unusually positive light.
"Europe is where we need to perform," agreed Gallacher. "To do so, we will need a more powerful, more flexible squad and, yes, that means going into the market. But it also means hanging on to what we have. Chris Wyatt, our second row, is the hottest property in Wales at the moment and understandably so, given the way he played in the Five Nations. We're trying everything we know to keep him at Stradey.
"One of the key factors in our turning things around has been the understanding of the players, many of whom went through difficult times when the club was really up against it. They realised that we couldn't carry on offering fixed contracts that were way out of our range and they continue to realise that we are operating under tight financial constraints. But they've stood by us and made things happen on the pitch. We're all a little bit wiser as a result of what happened. Hopefully, we're now in a position to build something that will last."
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