Volunteers at Pontypool Park comb the pitch for used needles and syringes, the detritus of drug abuse. Screwdrivers, nails, knife blades and broken bottles are planted deliberately on the try line. Arsonists persistently target the main stand. Vandals rip out seats and attempt to destroy the historic scoreboard.
The desecration of an iconic rugby club and the decline of a once-proud town are interlinked. Sport is swamped by the backwash of social and economic alienation. Pontypool officials pleaded with police to impose a 24-hour dispersal order around the ground in midweek following the latest outbreak of vandalism.
Ignore the illusion of today’s supposedly timeless passion play at Twickenham. The hymns and arias will have a hollow ring. Welsh rugby, once a unifying factor in the villages and towns of the principality, is in crisis.
Though there has been a small increase in schoolboy participation, the game has imploded at youth level. Second-team matches at senior clubs are regularly cancelled through lack of players. Wales’ Under-20 team conceded 67 points to England in Friday night’s defeat in Newcastle.
Club rugby, cut adrift because of a strategic commitment to four regional teams, will be dead within a decade, according to Pontypool director Ben Jeffreys. His father Peter, a fan from the age of five, stepped in last year to save a storied club, formed in 1868. A bitter legal dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union, over enforced relegation in an era of ruthless rationalisation, forced Pontypool to the brink of bankruptcy. The irony, that they were founder members of the Union in 1881, is both cruel and telling.
They play in the third-tier Championship. Where once 25,000 flocked to Pontypool Park, barely 500 maintain what used to be the habit of a lifetime. The club is seeking to reinvent itself, through sponsored pancake tossing contests and name-a-puppy campaigns, but their supporter base is overwhelmingly aged 40, or over. A local pub acts as a clubhouse.
There is little tangible evidence of the £20m the WRU claim to have invested in the grassroots. Though portrayed as progress, restructuring has produced little more than rancour and disillusion. Wales captain Sam Warburton has accepted a central contract, despite the concept not being thought through. His fellow internationals are leaving the Welsh game for France and England.
The past has a golden sheen, even if the future appears dark. A mural in the main street immortalises the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner. Legendary figures for Wales and the British Lions in the amateur era, their achievements helped create a shared sense of identity.
Price is Pontypool president. Four generations of his family have played for the club. “It’s in your blood,” he says. “Our team was successful because of the club rugby talent coming through. That talent will soon run out.” The message is amplified by the plight of a traditional rival, Bridgend, another club representing a town afflicted by youth-unemployment rates approaching 20 per cent. Now marketed as the Ravens, their crowds have dipped as low as 150.
Along the mountain road which links the Ogmore and Rhondda valleys, are the villages which once formed a production line of players and teams which reflected the toughness of their upbringing.
Places like Wyndham, Lewistown, Pant-yr-awel, Blackmill and Evanstown have been contracting since the last deep coal pit closed 30 years ago. Nant-y-moel, whose rugby clubhouse is a mid-terraced two up, two down, are struggling for players because teenagers move away as soon as possible.
The traditional escape route, playing top-class rugby in front of their own people, has been blocked by the bureaucrats. Such betrayal carries consequences.
Dignified Powell deserves better
Chris Powell, the Charlton manager, should not have to ask for respect. He has earned it, in the most trying of circumstances. He deserves the reward of a Wembley appearance, even if it is an inappropriate stage for an FA Cup semi-final.
Neutrals will wish him well in today’s quarter-final tie at Sheffield United because of his positive nature and careful husbandry of a club which has been added to the football portfolio of Roland Duchâtelet, a Belgian who made £400 million from the micro-electronics industry.
Duchâtelet owns five other clubs: Standard Liège and Sint-Truidense in Belgium, Ujpest in Hungary, Carl-Zeiss Jena in Germany and AD Alcorcon in Spain. He is seeking to expand his empire by buying Bari in Italy. Five of Charlton’s six signings in January came from the family business.
Powell has yet to agree a new contract, because of his insistence that he regain control of recruitment. He doesn’t want more money. He merely asks to be allowed to do his job properly and to the best of his ability.
English football has far too few black managers. If Powell becomes a victim of regime change, the Football League will have more explaining to do.
Jade's a Jewell
Britain held its breath when skier Jade Etherington ploughed into advertising hoardings after winning silver in the Winter Paralympics yesterday. Her courage, in hurling herself downhill despite having five per cent vision, should, to quote a discredited slogan, inspire a generation.