James Corrigan: All hail the local zeroes, the heart and spirit of sport

For every Manchester United, there are many thousands of little sports clubs such as Penarth

You might have missed the result on Saturday from "Fortress Klondyke", the rugby union ground at the northern end of Merthyr Tydfil, just off the Heads of the Valley Road. In the final game of the season, Dowlais beat the visitors 26-16 in what is probably most eloquently described as "a hotly contested encounter".

And so Penarth's campaign finished as it had started and as it had continued – on a low. At the bottom of Swalec WRU League Three South East, there they stood. Played 22, lost 22. The team that once boasted an annual fixture against the Baa-Baas was bleating with frustration.

The table never does give the whole account and quite often not even an accurate one either. In four of their fixtures, Penarth lost by three points or less and would have done so again if the referee on Dowlais Top hadn't awarded the home side a penalty try in the final seconds. A cruel end to a cruel term.

But then, it wasn't as if we denizens in our quaint Victorian town next to the city of Cardiff had yet to taste rugby failure. Indeed, if you are a rugby fan of a certain vintage, you will be familiar with Penarth Rugby Club. Before the advent of league rugby in Wales, the Seasiders were a "Merit Table Club", playing the likes of Llanelli, Cardiff and Swansea on a weekly basis.

They boast a proud past: a handful of players with Welsh caps and, of course, that yearly meeting with the Barbarians. For eight decades, rugby's most celebrated tourists would turn up on Good Friday and, as a boy, I watched Serge Blanco, JPR Williams, Tony Underwood and many more legends grace our turf. The crowds confirmed to me that the Athletic Field was the only place to be in Wales on Good Friday, although I didn't know then that the Athletic Field was the only place in Wales to get a drink on Good Friday.

It couldn't last. Professionalism was on the horizon and soon it became the survival of the fittest. By then Grandstand had confirmed Penarth were not the fittest, nor the fastest, though perhaps the fattest. Every Saturday our defeats would be read out for the entire nation to laugh at. We became notorious.

It was capped by a visit from the great journalist Matthew Engel, who was writing a series of articles for The Guardian on Britain's most hapless sporting teams. It was a grim task, but Engel probably wasn't ready for the gallows humour awaiting him in South Wales. In the small clubhouse he encountered the "media manager" who informed Engel it was his job to keep the result OUT of the newspaper.

This unpaid servant had other roles. "Every week I take two prop forwards with me up and down Penarth high street telling the shopkeepers they can either have our poster or a brick in their window," he told Engel. "It's amazing how many of them choose the brick."

If nothing else, Penarth Rugby Club could laugh at itself. It still can, as can so many clubs up and down the country, whether it be running, football, athletics, table tennis, whatever. Yes, sport at the upper level takes itself so seriously – and so it should with all those ridiculous noughts resting on their performances. But without the local there wouldn't be the national, and without the losers there wouldn't be the winners, and without the bottom of the pyramid there wouldn't be a top of the pyramid.

For every Manchester United, there are many thousands of little clubs such as Penarth, maybe without the close brushes with greatness but certainly with the heart and the spirit and the commitment to a cause which very often promises nothing greater than the satisfaction of merely being able to field a full team on any given weekend.

Indeed, The Spirit of Penarth is the title of a book just published. Written by Chris Thau, the former communications manager of the International Rugby Board, whose son, Alex, plays for the club, its subtitle is "131 Years of Seaside Rugby". Its 400 pages are rich with anecdote and heavy on local heroes and are a testament to Thau's exhaustive and unpaid research.

If you want to know about sport, proper sport, acquire a copy and help pay for the print run, which was funded by the club. No doubt, all you have read in the first 23 pages of this section are important, but exactly how important must sometimes be queried. Sport is essentially about survival, about overcoming the odds to continue to represent the community. It is about playing 22 games and losing them all, but still having the camaraderie to raise a glass and toast yet another season that can now be put alongside all the others, regardless of whether successful or not.

And for the record, Penarth will still be playing in Swalec WRU League Three South East next season. Due to yet another upheaval in the Welsh rugby structure there was no relegation in their league this year. So one Swalec clearly doesn't make a summer. Penarth shall be back. As shall the unsung zeroes everywhere.

The Spirit of Penarth: 131 Years of Seaside Rugby (1880-2011), by Chris Thau. For a copy, log on to windsorbookshop.co.uk or telephone 02920 706455.


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