Last rites read for Stradey, a shrine of rugby

Llanelli's famous stadium stages its final match tomorrow night. Welsh choirs and a sombre mood will ensure the tears flow. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

Every sporting ground is sacred to someone somewhere but in a small West Wales town on Tuesday night thousands gathered around a patch of grass and mud which can claim a holy reputation the rugby world over. It wasn't sickly sentiment because these folk had such a heartfelt reason to mourn the imminent demolition of Stradey Park. To them it was so much more than the last knockings of a ramshackle old theatre where Phil Bennett used to dance.

They had gathered in Llanelli to honour those relatives, friends and fellow fans whose ashes have been scattered across the pitch over the last century or so. A 30-minute service was conducted by the Rev Eldon Phillips, the rugby club's chaplain, and at its climax a small square of Stradey earth was dug up and the good reverend vowed it would be planted at the Scarlets' new home. Hallowed turf, be thy name...

It was an emotional moment shrouded in pertinence for both the individuals present and, indeed, the community at large. The clock was truly ticking then, on the ground with arguably the most famous name in club rugby.

Tomorrow, the "Scarlets", "Llanelli", call them what you want, will play their last game there before the bulldozers move in. Bristol will be the opponents who dare not win, which will not matter greatly as the prize on offer will be a far from fitting EDF Energy Cup group game. But then, 129 years of history had to be brought to a conclusion somehow. And there was no way that any match of any scale – barring perhaps a visit from the All Blacks – could compete with the memories that will be swirling through an evening air thick with nostalgia.

One will resound above all others and in this respect perhaps the marketing people have missed a trick. If they could have delayed the transformation into rubble just one more week (it must be suspected the property developers are not in too much of hurry to erect their houses) then the farewell could have taken place on 31 October; such a meaningful date for Llanelli rugby club and indeed, for the Llanelli licensing trade. For, in 1972, that was "the day the pubs ran dry".

Max Boyce immortalised the titanic victory over the New Zealand tourists – and the equally titanic celebrations thereafter when every barrel and every bottle was sank – in his song, "9-3". The shops were closed like Sunday, And streets were silent still, And those that chose to stay away, Were either dead or ill, But those that went to Stradey, Will remember 'til they die, How New Zealand were defeated , And how the pubs ran dry.

It was a classic Boyce "I was there" moment. Only 20,000 could actually be there for the afternoon kick-off to witness a side, inspired by their coach Carwyn James and their captain Delme Thomas, humble Ian Kirkpatrick's mighty All Blacks. Yet even after full-time there was a full and active role to be played for the non-attendees. Realising the significance of their boys, from a locality numbering no more than 40,000, beating the best team in the world, the factories, offices and homes quickly emptied and the hostelries duly overflowed. Landlords genuinely had to pull down their shutters when their supplies were exhausted and there and then the folklore was given its catchphrase.

Of course, there have been other memorable occasions at Stradey, not least the funeral of Ray Gravell, the beloved centre, last November. There had been other momentous games, too, since the first match there in 1879. It staged internationals and a World Cup group game between Argentina and Samoa in 1999. But the ground became synonymous with the club toppling the giant nation, as evidenced by the chorus appended by the supporters to their own club anthem. "Who beat the Wallabies?" they repeatedly ask in the middle of "Sospan Fach". It refers to the four times Australia have been defeated at Stradey, the first of which was 100 years ago last week and the last of which was in 1992.

Indeed, that 13-9 win over Bob Dwyer's World Cup winners is hailed by none other than the Scarlets historian, Les Williams, as being, at the very least, comparable to the achievement of 20 years before. Again the Stradey emotion had erupted and even the Aussies were impressed. Greg Growden wrote the next day in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Who beat the Wallabies' was still echoing through the narrow streets of this proud little town hours after the final whistle."

It was a tune that had reverberated and would carry on reverberating around the eardrums of rivals each and every time they came to Llanelli. Usually well before kick-off. Jonathan Davies, the Wales fly-half who was a schoolboy in the crowd in '72 and who went on to play for and against the club, recalls: "From the visiting dressing room you could clearly hear them all singing and it was very, very intimidating." Davies, who came from nearby Trimsaran, had far happier memories of the place when he was one of them. "The thing I remember most was the incredible tunnel leading out on to the pitch," he said. "It was brilliant to run down there, with the studs echoing and then to burst out into this sea of scarlet."

Scott Quinnell shares this memory. Having joined the Llanelli Under-11s when he was eight (the No 8 always was a big lad) he went through all the age groups and eventually emulated his father, Derek, by running out at the ground he considered to be "my second home". "When I was a kid I would make sure I had the biggest metal studs on my boots and trample up and down that corridor," he recalled. "I guess it's like wanting to drive a Ferrari through a tunnel and hear that noise. It was incredible."

Scott and Derek will be two of the 23 past Llanelli captains paraded before kick-off tomorrow, although there is little doubt which pair will receive the biggest roars. It just happens to be Phil Bennett's 60th the same day, so there will be no sidestepping the "happy birthdays" for this quiet man. And then there is Delme Thomas. He was carried off on the shoulders of his team-mates on that afternoon.

Thomas is clearly dreading the moment when the shrill of the final whistles dies, when the fireworks fizzle out and the hymns of not one, but two male choirs drift off into the sky. "When we walk away and we know Stradey will be no more it will break my heart," the 66-year-old said. "Stradey has so much history attached and to think they're going to build houses there... I can't grasp it. It's very hard for me to accept.

"I was lucky enough to play all around the world, but nothing came close to what we had there. You could almost feel the crowd breathing down your neck – they were that close to the playing area. You had people swearing at you, encouraging you. You couldn't escape it."

He added. "If you go to Australia or New Zealand everybody knows where Stradey is and regard it as somewhere special. Yes, you have to move with the times – I understand that. Parc y Scarlets will be a wonderful new stadium and I look forward to seeing it. But to me it won't be Stradey. Nowhere ever could be."

Stuart Gallagher acknowledges as much. The chief executive of the region, which will be known simply as The Scarlets as soon as they take up residence next month at their 15,000-seater on an industrial estate, has had to battle not just the resentment of the more sentimental fans but also of local residents. The plan has survived two public inquiries. But throughout the former Llanelli forward has kept faith in the vision.

"Putting the emotions aside, this is a professional sport we are playing," said Gallagher. "We really have serious ambitions to be one of the top sides in Europe – we can no longer afford to stay in a stadium that is decaying. Obviously people will be sad to leave here, and I suppose I will be one of those in many ways. However, the time has come to move on."

And so they will move on; but not without a Sospan and definitely not without a pint. Because of the timing it is doubtful the fans will get out early enough to wreak their legendary damage in the pubs. But be sure this will become know as "the night the tear-ducts ran dry". Yet Stradey will live on, just as Boyce always said it would. And in 100 years, They'll sing this song for me, Of when the scoreboard read, Llanelli 9, Seland Newydd 3.

Saucepans, singing and sore fingers

Llanelli's "Sospan Fach" is an unusual anthem in that it sounds like other earnest Welsh hymns but in fact translates as "Little Saucepan" and tells the story of a harassed young mother, who, while cooking, has to cope with a daughter with a hurt finger, a baby crying and a disobedient cat scratching her son. It is cherished because one of the town's biggest industries was the tin-plating of kitchen utensils. It used to be a tradition for a fan to climb up a goalpost and plonk a saucepan up there, but now the posts at Stradey are tipped with little scarlet saucepans.

'Men took mud from our boots'

Phil Bennett, the Stradey legend, on Llanelli's 1972 defeat of the All Blacks:

"There had been a strange atmosphere around Llanelli. No one spoke to me for fear of saying the wrong thing. It was all nervous smiles and glances. But as soon as Carwyn [James, the coach] took charge at the hotel that day, the hours remaining to kick-off stopped looming like years ahead of us. He believed we could win and in those wonderfully lyrical tones of his, he convinced us we would win. The Stradey crowd carried us through the last 20 minutes. The victory was for everyone who had an emotional stake in the club. Carwyn knew this more than anyone. It was the driving force for the team. That was why he didn't mind grown men coming into the dressing room afterwards to ask for the mud from our boots. Later that evening, I can clearly remember two policemen playing rugby in the street outside a pub, using a helmet as a ball. It was that kind of day. It felt like VE Day."

Extract from: 'Phil Bennett, The Autobiography' (Harper Collins, 2004)