A BRIEF HISTORY OF EBBW VALE RUGBY FOOTBALL CLUB
The Ebbw Vale rugby club is still popularly known as the Steelmen although heavy industry in the town has long gone. Undoubtedly the presence of first the Ebbw Vale Iron and Steel Company, then Richard Thomas and Baldwins Ltd followed by the British Steel Corporation has had a vital effect on the Club’s fortunes. From the early days when iron and coal were the main exports to the depression years when players went north joined the Rugby League to the opening of the giant steelworks in 1938 the club survived and prospered.
The club was formed in 1880 and first played on a field south of the present ground where fierce matches were played between local teams like Bakehouse Rovers, the Lillywhites and the Crusaders. Even in its early years there was dissatisfaction with the boring play and often cold-blooded fury prevalent in a Monmouthshire League formed in 1896, in which Ebbw Vale were undefeated for two years. The rent of £64 for 32 games on the Bridgend Field was one of many financial problems and the attraction of being paid to play in the Northern Union which became the Rugby League deprived clubs like Ebbw Vale of their best players.
A Welfare Scheme in the steelworks in the 1920s was well supported but the Depression closed the works in 1927/8 when a gate of £5 was a princely sum. Members of the committee paid the team’s expenses, supporters bought season tickets through their wages (3d or 6d a week) but in 1938 the new works opened and brought prosperity and full employment to the town.
During the Second World War many clubs managed to keep rugby going. Vital heavy industry kept many key workers at home and at Ebbw Vale a major war effort was launched by the steel works and two collieries. Ebbw Vale rugby club enjoyed its only invincible season in 1940/1, thirty games were played against other Welsh clubs as well as Service teams from Britain and the Empire. Several Ebbw Vale players joined the Services and among those who died in action were men who would certainly have achieved representative honours after the war.
Peace found the club ready with a good set-up, a spacious ground and plenty of willing helpers determined to take Ebbw Vale to the top playing what had become a distinctive style of running rugby. The team began toppling the best in Wales and established a reputation not only for the way they played but for first class hospitality. Large crowds watched matches at the Bridgend Field in the 1950s a glorious decade in which Ebbw Vale were Welsh champions four times.
In 1960/1 the mighty South Africans who only lost one game of their tour played a combined Ebbw Vale/Abertillery XV at the Bridgend Field and were lucky to win 3-0. The All-Blacks and Wallabies also came to Ebbw Vale and many other representative sides and the Welsh Counties Championship finals and WRU trials were played there. With fixtures against the
best in Wales and England there were others against Irish and Scottish clubs and each season ended with a tour to Cornwall.
The 1960s brought floodlights and Ebbw Vale was closely involved in the Floodlit Alliance, a competition based on tries only which suited the side and attracted thousands. Recognition of Ebbw Vale players had begun in 1957 when Graham Powell was the first of many Steelmen to be capped by Wales among them David Nash, Denzil Williams and Arthur Lewis who were selected by the Lions. They were players who shone in every game whether for club, county or country but like others worked for a living and turned out for their clubs regularly.
In 1959 the Ebbw Vale steelworks employed Arthur Smith the legendary Scottish wing who captained the 1962 Lions in South Africa. He is regarded as one of rugby’s all-time greats, an artist supreme and on one occasion played for Scotland while an Ebbw Vale player. Other outstanding players deserved national recognition but were not selected for Wales among them forwards Eric Finney in the post-war years and Gareth Howls who played 608 games for Ebbw Vale and was recognised by the Barbarians, British Police and Wales B.
The club had created history in 1972 when they toured California and they ended the Centenary by returning. Ebbw Vale have toured four times in North America, twice to the Golden State and to Florida and Canada winning every game in them all. There were fifty-two fixtures in the Centenary, one against Romania on their first ever tour and an opener against our good friends Gala who also played in a special Sevens the following day. It was a great season socially and the Centenary Dinner in Crickhowell was regarded as the best of its kind. The club Patron, the Duke of Beaufort came and every club we played was represented from Scotland to Cornwall. It was held on a Friday evening and fortunately for the players a game the following afternoon was cancelled due to a snowbound ground!
The fixture list already full of variety was increased in the 90s when European Cup and Shield matches took the side to France, Italy, Spain and Romania and not just the players but the supporters, the Addicts, whose cries of ‘Ebbw, Ebbw’ spurred their team on. There were exciting encounters and the double over mighty Toulon in 1999/2000 was a major achievement. Everything changed when League rugby began in Wales and after spells in the second graded division Ebbw Vale not only became established in the Premier Division but won the title in 2016 under the captaincy of Damien Hudd.
The Welsh Cup added to a season’s excitement and 1997/1998 was the club’s most successful. After defeating Cardiff, Swansea and Newport we reached the final which was played in Bristol instead of Cardiff because the Millenium Stadium was being built. Our opponents were prolific Cup winners Llanelli and they kept their grip on the trophy winning 19-12.
An army of Ebbw Vale supporters crossed the Severn and though disappointed were proud of their Steelmen. It was unusual for a player on the losing side to be named Man of the Match but the award went to Tongan full-back Siua Taumolo one of several Polynesians who played for the club. Kuli Faletau was one, a Tongan international lock forward who with his family lived in the house at the ground. His son Taulupe went to a school nearby and became a famous Welsh international and Lion. South Africans have also played for the club and two of them, Balie Swart and F C Smit later played for the Springboks, Balie in the World Cup winning team in 1995. We have also been fortunate in our coaches who have played important roles, some of them reaching International and World Cup level.
The present and the future – Junior rugby, value of sponsors, family atmosphere, players loyalty, place in the community, role in Welsh rugby, the future.