Rugby Union: Vale cannot look back in anger

Robert Cole finds the link between Oasis and a Gwent club ready for record
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IT COULD be straight from Roy of the Rovers. Home-town boys make good, then accept an invitation to help their local side and their business acumen turns the team into potential cup winners. Too good to be true? Not if you are a follower of the fortunes of Ebbw Vale rugby club, who on Saturday will meet Llanelli in the final of the Swalec Cup at Ashton Gate, Bristol.

While the Scarlets will be hoping to take the cup back to West Wales for the 10th time in 13 finals, it will be Ebbw Vale's first dabble in the big time. At the heart of the revival are brothers Paul and Marcus Russell, who have dedicated themselves to creating a rugby oasis in the middle of the sporting desert that is commonly known as Gwent.

Paul, 49, is a worldwide marketing partner with Anderson Consulting and began the campaign to raise Ebbw Vale's status and finally lay to rest the annoying "unfashionable" tag which the club had attracted.

Now he is ready to hand over the reins, or at least some of the control, to his younger brother Marcus. The 45-year-old is certainly no stranger to the limelight having steered Oasis to world fame in the pop world. It has made him a millionaire but has not distanced him from his roots.

Both brothers started out at Rassau Primary School. They went on to Ebbw Vale Grammar before gaining degrees at universities in London. And both now have a vision for the long- term future of the rugby team they grew up with, Paul having been president of the club since 1994 and Marcus becoming their biggest financial backer from next season following the recent incorporation of the club.

"We both share a common love of rugby that was born out of our days spent on the terraces watching Ebbw Vale with our father. Having the opportunity to help them is great," Paul said.

"Whenever we meet we tend to talk rugby or cricket, wine and food, but never business. Marcus is obviously very talented at what he does and when you see Oasis live you find out what a remarkable band they are and what a fantastic show they put on. I'm really proud of him and I'm delighted he has agreed to back the club financially. He'll have more of a hands- on approach next season."

The two brothers will sit together at the curious setting of Ashton Gate on Saturday hoping their dream of success for their home town team can take another leap forward.

"If we win the Swalec Cup it will be the realisation of a dream for me," Paul said. "My association with the club began in August, 1994, when I was approached by the chairman to see if I would become the club president. Their view was that unless something changed they would be confined to oblivion, and I agreed with them.

"They knew professionalism was coming and they didn't know how to handle it. Now everything is run as a business and there are professional managers in place at all levels in the club. We are on a journey that has no destination, which is why we have to set specific goals along the way. We want to be a community side for North Gwent, rather than an ecclectic band of professionals turning out in Ebbw Vale colours. We set ourselves a five-year plan to become one of the Premier clubs in Europe."

In the first season Vale set themselves the goal of achieving success on the field while improving facilities and attracting more people to the ground. They pinpointed certain matches they had to win to hit that target and even though they were crushed by the big names like Pontypridd, Llanelli and Swansea they achieved their primary objective.

"People at the club began to realise the power of planning and the power of having objectives and then reaching them," Paul said.

In the second season, despite problems between the clubs and the Welsh Rugby Union, Vale raised their profile further by having a good run and reaching the semi-finals of the Swalec Cup. And this year they have gone one better by reaching the first final in their history.

"We want to embrace professionalism in as many ways as possible and it disappoints me when I hear people at the WRU saying that professionalism has caught them out," Paul said. "We were the first club in Wales to put our players on contracts and I got the head of behavioural science at my firm, who is a leading sports psychologist, to look at the way the side approached matches.

"Now you will see a cool, calm and collected Ebbw Vale team walking on to the pitch before any game." That's definitely... not maybe.