Not only Neath may be cast into outer darkness

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The Independent Online

For me, the saddest news of the week was that the Welsh Rugby Union – the body which the inhabitants of my native land love to hate – had virtually decided to withdraw all financial support from the Neath rugby club and to consign it to amateur status (for I find it impossible to believe the club will cease to exist completely).

For a few years now it has in effect been the creature of the WRU. Bridgend, Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport, Pontypridd and Swansea, though less deeply in hock to the Union than Neath, also depend to a greater or lesser extent on that organisation, and a pretty disorganised organisation it seems to be. They want to be recognised as the only top clubs in Wales, Neath thrust into whatever is the rugby equivalent of outer darkness.

I am surprised that Peter Hain, the local MP, the Minister for Europe and the smart-money candidate to be the next leader of the Labour Party, has not had something to say about this. Perhaps he has and I have missed it. If so I apologise to him.

But unlike my colleague Tim Glover, who comes from the place and wrote movingly about it in The Independent on Sunday two days ago, I am not at all sentimental about either the place or the club. It lacks the glamour of Cardiff, the brilliance of Llanelli or the outstanding record of Swansea against touring sides which, in any case, it used to play in combination with Aberavon. If it is famous for anything, it is for rough, sometimes called "uncompromising'', forward play verging on the downright dirty.

Nor is this method of proceeding new, being a product of Rees Stephens in the immediate post-war period or, more recently, of Brian Thomas. It has a long history. My father told me that the international forward Dai Hiddlestone, who came from Hendy in Carmarthenshire and was the grandfather of the full-back Terry Price, had to move from Llanelli to Neath because he was considered "too dirty'' for the local club.

Stephens brought New Zealand rucking techniques back with him from the Lions tour of 1950. Thomas, in his outings for Cambridge University, Neath and Wales, had never proved any great advertisement for what used to be called the handling code. Nevertheless, when he was manager over a decade ago, he developed a fast, young and, by the standards of the time, very fit pack, who could cause their opponents considerable trouble.

Unfortunately, Thomas also thought it profitable to encourage in his players a disobliging manner, walking menacingly as if they were Hollywood villains in B-films of the 1940s, and sporting silly black gum-shields to match the club colours. I do not know what they did to the opposition but, by God, they frightened me.

There were some deserved successes at this time. There were also a few unmerited honours which came Neath's way when Ron Waldron, the new Wales coach, introduced into the national side several Neath players who were not really worth their caps. Waldron was a serviceable prop who had played for Wales in 1965. He had also served the club well. As the national coach he was, however, a disaster. He adopted a special lingo of his own which Gerald Davis christened "Waldron speak''.

It is not fair to blame Neath for the reign of Waldron as Wales coach. What is fair is to point out that, since 1945, the club has produced four forwards, two of whom would be certainties and two possibilities in any Wales XV of the post-war period: Courtney Meredith, Rees Stephens, Roy John and Dave Morris.

I would also say that Lyn Jones, who is still heavily involved with the club, is the best flanker who never played for Wales. It was his misfortune to be of normal size, but to play his rugby in the recent era when it was the fashion to have two or even three No 8s as loose forwards. Now that the virtues of a mobile No 7 have begun to be appreciated once again, Jones would prosper.

Earlier I mentioned that Neath used to play the touring side as Neath-Aberavon. The other clubs given this honour were Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport and Swansea. But Bridgend and Pontypridd never were: they are interlopers, Johnnies-come-lately. Not long ago, for instance, Pontypool could have mounted an even stronger claim. And where are they now? Languishing somewhere on the lower slopes of Welsh rugby.

It may be that – as Graham Henry, the national coach, believes – Wales needs fewer clubs. But if Neath and lowly Aberavon (and no one has mentioned Aberavon) are to go the way of all flesh and feed their bodies to Swansea and Llanelli, why should Bridgend and Pontypridd not give themselves up to Cardiff as well? No one has asked that question yet.

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