Cry the beloved rugby club

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The Independent Online

They were called the All Blacks before the New Zealand version cottoned on. The Maltese Cross on the chest was introduced in the 19th century, the idea borrowed from an emblem worn on a cap by a club member. Wearing caps in those days was fashionable, yet compared to the bigger clubs in Wales Neath have never been regarded as dedicated followers of fashion, hence the idea that the future of Welsh rugby lies in the hands of Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Llanelli – and not Neath.

Aside from the fact that the Welsh Rugby Union was founded in the Castle Hotel in Neath, the club's contribution has been immense. The town's population is only about 30,000 but the rural community, villages like Crynant, Seven Sisters, Resolven, Bryncoch, swell the number to 70,000. Neath grammar school was a centre of rugby excellence (the secretary of the WRU Denis Gethin was a very useful full-back).

As somebody who was born in Neath, bred in Neath and is going to be buried underneath, I have to declare an interest. My grandfather, Herbert Ebenezer Glover, a wine and spirit merchant, was a one-time chairman of the club and from the age of six my father, who had the same name as his father, made me a season-ticket holder.

Saturday afternoons at the Gnoll could not come quickly enough. As Mary Hopkin would have put it, those were the days my friend... There was a second row pairing of Rees Stephens and Roy John that was better than anything the world had to offer; there was a one-man front row called Courtney Meredith, succeeded in later years by an uncelebrated (outside of Neath) trio called John Dodd, Morlais Williams and Ron Waldron. There was Glyn Shaw, the remarkable Walter Williams, a farmer who committed suicide, the equally remarkable Brian Williams, a slim-line prop of great strength and mobility, not to mention nobility. But the list is very long.

When Brian Thomas, a second row who graduated from Neath GS to play for Cambridge University and club and country, and Waldron were in charge of Neath in the 80's (that's the 1980's) they produced a team that played a brand of rugby with which nobody else was familiar. The forwards were light, fast and fit and the backs, particularly the wings, scored so many tries they amassed a record number of points.

Jonathan Davis was there for a while, so were Scott Gibbs and Allan Bateman, who has rejoined. And this was after the era of Dai Morris, the greatest player I've ever seen, even if I am biased.

Few teams liked visiting the Gnoll, and that included Bob Dwyer's Wallabies. After a fierce encounter he ungraciously described Neath as the "bag snatching capital of the world''. It was meant to wound but any native should have taken it as a compliment. The remark was Australian for testicle grabbing and diverted attention from the real nature of the contest. If you saw, for example, the face of Brian Williams after the match it was obvious the Wallabies gave as good as they got. Neither Williams nor Neath complained.

Under the coach Lyn Jones, a dynamic flanker in his day who, of course, was unfashionable, Neath remain one of the most innovative teams in Wales. Jones and Brian Thomas have something in common – they are both eccentric, which means they think about the game in a novel way.

Rugby in the principality is in a lot of trouble. The glamour clubs, despite serious investment, are under performing and the crowd figures are pathetic, certainly compared to attendances in England. Graham Henry, the national coach, is convinced there are too many clubs in Wales and the only way ahead is to concentrate resources on a handful of teams, as in Australia and South Africa.

Well, those countries never had a club like Neath. The All Black strip gave them the nickname of the Mourners. If Henry is responsible for their demise he is making a big mistake.

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