FRANCE v WALES – A TALE OF TWO WINGS (16/03/21)
My first sight of a French team of any kind was at the Arms Park in March 1950, a sad occasion because two weeks before a ‘plane carrying Welsh supporters returning from Ireland crashed on landing at Llandow. There were only three survivors and in memory of the eighty who died buglers played Last Post before the kick-off. Wales won the game 21-0 and the Grand Slam for the first time since 1911 but the disaster cast a shadow over everything.
In the French side was 6’2” wing Michael Pomathious the first Frenchman to be selected bythe Barbarians which was a great honour in those days. In March 1952 Wales clinched another Grand Slam when they beat France 9-5 at St.Helen’s and Pomathious scored his side’s try. His opposite number Horace Phillips was playing on his home pitch and forty years later he and the Frenchman were re-united at St. Helen’s where in 1948 France won and Pomathious was chaired off by Welsh supporters!
He played for Agen who we met in the 2001/02 European Shield losing in France but hitting the headlines with a 59-10 victory at home in unusual circumstances. Supporters enjoyed it but were puzzled until it was disclosed that Agen had deliberately lost the game as they didn’t want to qualify for the semi-finals because of a fixture back-log. They were given a one-year ban from European competitions and fined a lot of euros which had just been introduced, £60,000 in ourmoney.
Another great French wing Emile N’Tamackscored 26 tries in 46 games for France and was in the Toulouse team that came to Ebbw Vale in the 1998/9 European Cup as firm favourites after imposing a cricket score on us in the first encounter. We rose to the occasion and Jason Strange’s conversion of a penalty try and four penalty goals gave us a 19-11 victory. But the story doesn’t end there and is so startling it’s best to quote from the Rugby Annual of Wales.
“Unpleasant scenes followed. Referee Ed Murray who had sent off Toulouse prop Cyril Vancheri for kicking (banned for 28 days), was jostled by French players. A touch judge also appeared to be pushed, as were police officers as they stepped in to protect the match officials. One policeman had his helmet knocked off. In the club house there were further incidents and the visitors left without attending the after match function.” Toulouse’sdefeat meant they played Ulster in Belfast not the south of France in the next round and someone in Ulster, who went on to win the European Cup,sent us a Thank You card.
The following season we got the double over Toulon and there was peace all round but the Toulouse game was recalled in the programme which is worth repeating. “Emile N’Tamack of Toulouse went on as a replacement at Ebbw Vale and had a try disallowed which added to the visitor’s anger but those present will remember him signing autographs and shrugging off any discussion on the disturbances.” Wing three-quarters were, and still are, the gentlemen of rugby football. Most of them anyway.
Since April 2020 we have passed the time recalling players and games in Ebbw Vale’s past with the encouragement and practical help of former players, club officers and rugby historians. This is the last in the series and is written in the hope that the future will be as interesting and as enjoyable as the past was.
ITALIA v CYMRU – RYGBI YN ROMA (06/03/21)
The 2021 Six Nations tournament has produced exciting finishes, too much controversy and a Triple Crown for Wales with a Grand Slam to play for. Among the newcomers who have done so well are two with Ebbw Vale links. Louis Rees Zammit is the nephew of Paul ‘Pablo’ Rees our dashing full-back of four decades ago and Callum Sheedy is the nephew of our brilliant outside-half Mike Boys who out-witted every opposition and was the key player in 1994/5 when we were promoted.
In the last Rugby World Cup our favourite other team was Japan, in the Six Nations it’s Italy. Their anthem is operatic, sung with passion and pride and to hear it on home ground must be worth the journey alone. Supporters of the Home Unions now enjoy Rome in the Spring as much, if not more, than April in Paris, it’s a major sporting occasion in a football country where rugby is increasingly popular with clubs playing in the Pro 14 and European Cup.
Like all South Wales valley towns we have strong links with everything Italian, strengthened by Clive Burgess when he moved to Lombardy to work in a vineyard and play for Brescia. In 1983 Ebbw Vale went there on a hectic three match tour and rested between games at Lake Garda. Rugby in paradise.
Among the many Italian families who emigrated to South Wales were the Sidolis whose ice cream factory in Market Square, Ebbw Vale is renowned. It’s not far from our ground where in March 2003 two Sidoli brothers from another branch of the family were on opposite sides, Robert for Pontypridd and Peter for Ebbw Vale. Peter’s team won.
In 2003 Robert Sidoli played his sixth game for Wales in the land of his fathers expecting to win in Rome’s Olympic Stadium but the Azzurri had a player of world class quality, an outside-half who played for Stade Francais. Diego Dominguez converted Italy’s three tries and kicked a penalty and dropped two goals in a historic 30-22 win.
The last time an Italian team played at Ebbw Vale was in October 2001, a European Shield tie against Rovigo, a lively club from a lovely town where rugby is popular. On a frost-bitten pitch they were not accustomed to Rovigo were formidable opponents but we won a tense encounter 28-26 through tries by Andrew Wagstaff and Matthew Jones, both converted by Gareth Cull who added four penalty goals.
Our coaches that season were Mike Ruddock and Kevin Hopkins and the club captain was Chay Billen, who did not play against Rovigo. The Ebbw Vale team that did will bring back memories to many – Matthew James; Gareth Cull, Rhys Shorney, David Weatherly (capt.), Andrew Wagstaff; Scott Mitchell, Gareth Betts; Iestyn Thomas, Jonathan Evans, Martin Jones; Ockert Boyse, Neil Edwards; Kati Tuipuloto, Paul Williams, Will Thomas. Replacements, Damien Penisini, Leyton Phillips, Rhys Williams, Gavin Evans, Kevin Ellis, Paul Matthews, Ross Watts.
Undefeated Wales will be firm favourites when they return to the Stadio Oiympico for the fourth round of this year’s Six Nations, a game of added interest to Ebbw Valians who will pay special attention to the nephews of two of their all-time favourites, Pablo and Boysie.
WALES v ENGLAND 1963 – DENZIL’S DEBUT
Wales v England is still a Derby game but not as much as it was when Welsh clubs regularly played mini internationals against their English equivalents. When Denzil Williams made his Welsh debut in January 1963 it was against an England XV composed of players from twelve clubs, Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Coventry, Fylde, Durham City, Sale, Wasps, Rosslyn Park, Bristol, Torquay Athletic, Exeter and Bedford.
Wales selected six new caps, Denzil Williams (Ebbw Vale), David Watkins (Newport), the captain Clive Rowlands (Pontypool), Brian Thomas (Neath), Robert Michaelson (Aberavon) and Dai Hayward (Cardiff). England won 13-6 with two of their all-time greats prominent, outside-half Richard Sharpe and wing Peter Jackson. It was a rare win at the Arms Park for them but Ebbw Valians were pleased to read in one report that “big Ebbw Vale lock Denzil Williams would become a good international prop.”
It was the start of an outstanding international career for the lad from Trefil, thirty-six games against each of the top nations in a period when Wales played forty-three. A Lion in New Zealand and Australia in 1966, Denzil returned with Wales in 1969 and played in each of the seven games of a tour that ended in Fiji when caps were not awarded but a long term friendship with rugby in the South Seas began.
Wales defeated Otago, Wellington, Australia and Fiji, drew with Taranaki and lost both Tests in New Zealand which was customary at the time and still is. The referees were local and the need for neutral officials was emphasised in the second Test in Auckland when the New Zealand referee Pat Murphy “leapt with joy when the Kiwi full back dropped a goal from 55 yards!”
Denzil’s record as an international player in non-professional times is impressive. He played nine games against England and was on the winning side six times, two were drawn, only one was lost and that was his debut game in 1963. There were fewer international games then but Denzil played three times against the All-Blacks and twice against South Africa and Australia. Add the Barbarians, Monmouthshire and every top club in Britain and Ireland and you get a much travelled, very experienced top notch rugby football international.
The road to the top began with club rugby with the occasional County game and WRU trial matches. In 1962/3 there were two, the first in Ebbw Vale when our hooker Martin Preece in the Possibles faced Llanelli’s Norman Gale. Denzil Williams was in the final trial at Newport, and so was his clubmate back row forward Graham jones who joined Denzil in the Welsh team in 1963 against Scotland, Ireland and France.
The making of an international player was the duty of clubs with top class fixtures. When Bath played at Ebbw Vale we witnessed the 1st XV debut of Jeremy Guscott, when Coventry came they brought David Duckham and our annual fixture with Gloucester was England v Wales in miniature. It was from those games that Denzil and many like him gained the experience to qualify for country and the Lions. Now of the Home Countries only England has clubs that are stepping stones to the national team.
The third round of the 2021 Six Nations brings together neighbours with a history stretching back to their first encounter in 1881. We have played each other 136 times, England winning 63, Wales 59 with 12 drawn, and this year’s encounter is expected to be tense and tough but hopefully the red cards will stay in the referee’s pockets, if only to avoid post-match inquests on their validity.
SCOTLAND v WALES – WEARY WEEK-ENDS AND NO WINS
The biennial outing to Murrayfield in February was once the most popular away fixture of them all. By bus and by train in enthusiastic mood we crossed two borders and headed for Edinburgh even though fog, frost and failure often awaited us. I took the high road in 1957, 1959 and 1961 but felt low coming back because Wales lost each time so I didn’t go again. The journey was not a comfortable one, it began at Beaufort LMS station on Friday evening and when dawn broke we were in Princes Street with a long day and night ahead of us.
Scotland won the three games I saw, 9-6, 6-5 and 3-0 with only five tries overall one of them by a wing, a Cambridge Blue and a Masters of Mathematics who was a master of change of pace and captain of his country, including a game in 1960 at Cardiff when he was listed as Arthur Smith (Ebbw Vale).
In 1962 a few months before he captained the Lions in South Africa, Arthur led a Scottish team with a full-back named Scotland and a flanker named Glasgow. They won in Wales for the first time in 25 years and their first at the Arms Park in thirty-five. The evening before Ebbw Vale had new visitors, the oldest Scottish club Edinburgh Academicals who won 6-3. Both games were played in unpleasant conditions but two wins in Wales over one week-end was ample compensation for the visitors.
Our main links with Scottish teams were with Gala but we also played Watsonians on their Christmas tours. In 1979 a short New Zealand tour in England and Scotland included a game in Dundee against the Anglo-Scots whose lock was J A Stewart (Watsonians and Ebbw Vale). Can anyone remember him?
Smith is the most common name in Scotland and there are three wings of that clan who stand out. Arthur of course is one and before his time there was Ian who created history in the 1925 Five Nations when in an all-Oxford University three-quarter line he scored four tries against France and another four against Wales.
The third, George Smith, played for the 1950 Lions in Australia and New Zealand and returned as their manager on the historic 1971 tour. In February 1949 at Murrayfield he scored a try in Scotland’s 6-5 win over Wales, a controversial match because captaining the Scots was forward Doug Keller who two seasons before had played for Australia against them.
In 1950 Wales won the Grand Slam for the first time since 1911 and began 1951 with a comfortable 23-5 win over England at Swansea making them firm favourites to devour Scotland two weeks later. It was not to be, the game is remembered as the Murrayfield Massacre with the Scots up-ending a much fancied Wales 19-0. The turning point was a drop goal from the touchline by Scottish skipper and No. 8 Peter Kininmonth which might have been unintentional but it counted. Not many No 8s have dropped goals, probably the last was Emyr Lewis who won the 1993 Cup Final that way. Has an Ebbw Vale No 8 ever dropped a goal? Someone like Dai Fryer perhaps.
We don’t want a drama of that kind when we play at Murrayfield in the second round of this year’s Six Nations, a simple win will do nicely on a ground where Wales have won six, lost four and drawn one of our last ten games there. Let’s hope daffodils not the flowers of the forest will take first prize at this year’s Murrayfield Show.
WALES v IRELAND – ST HELEN’S 1949
In post-Second World War years big crowds of genuine rugby enthusiasts watched club rugby and hoped, some probably prayed, they would get a ticket for an international match. In March 1949 there were 40,000 lucky ones at St. Helen’s when Wales played Ireland and while they didn’t see a classic they had plenty to talk about when the referee Tom Pearce blew the final whistle. Two months later he returned to Wales and scored 92 for Essex when they played Glamorgan at Ebbw Vale. How times have changed!
Wales wore white shorts for the first time, “for reasons connected with dyeing and laundering rather than taste or high policy” but it didn’t help because with Jackie Kyle a genius at outside-half Ireland won the game 5-0 and with it the Championship and Triple Crown. Kyle’s breakaway on the blind side and his punt ahead was followed up by open-side wing-forward Joe McCarthy of the Dolphin club. And like a dolphin he leapt over the Welsh line, caught the ball in mid-air and scored a try. But was he offside?
The try at the Mumbles End was converted by full-back George Norton of Bective Rangers a side we got to know very well. He was the only member of his club in the 1949 Irish team, a Lone Ranger one might say, and a few months later went with the 1950 Lions to Australia and New Zealand. He didn’t complete the tour through injury and Wales’s Golden Boy Lewis Jones became the first ever Lions replacement. We played Bective Rangers eight times in the 50s and 60s on the eve or the day after a Wales – Ireland game winning four, drawing one and losing three. Our colours were similar but theirs were officially rose, not red, white and green.
Five Nations fixtures were the same every season, Wales played England in January, Scotland in February and Ireland and France in March a busy month that included celebrations of St. David and St. Patrick who some believe was Welsh. If so Ireland have a Patron Saint who’s not Irish but what’s in a name? We have a devoted member who’s a Patrick but he’s a David at heart.
Tries were rare in the old days but three Ebbw Vale players got one for Wales against Ireland, wing forward Graham Jones (1963), Denzil Williams (1969) and Clive Burgess on his Welsh debut in 1977 while Paul Ringer then a Scarlet who won his first cap from Ebbw Vale scored a try against the Irish in 1979.
In the Wales v Ireland game at Swansea in 1949 only one try was scored which was not unusual in those days. Seventy one years later in an Autumn Nations Cup game Ireland beat Wales 32-9 in Dublin but despite the scoreline only two tries were scored which was as disappointing as the game itself. Hopefully the next Wales v Ireland encounter will be a spectacle with more than two tries, and with a different result!
A GRAND SLAM AND THE LIONS ROAR
1971 was a great year for British and Irish rugby, especially for the Welsh who saw their team win a Grand Slam for the first time in nineteen years using only sixteen players. As a result twelve of the side were selected for the Lions party to tour Australia and New Zealand and the captain and coach were both Welsh.
Ebbw Valians particularly enjoyed the 1971 Five Nations because Arthur Lewis and Denzil Williams were in the Welsh team. Arthur missed the Scottish game through injury and was temporarily replaced by Ian Hall of Aberavon but he returned for the Triple Crown decider against Ireland when Denzil played his 35th game for Wales creating a new record for a forward.
In its 50th anniversary we should recall a great Welsh team that played in such an adventurous way – J P R Williams, Gerald Davies, John Dawes (captain), Mike Roberts, Mervyn Davies and John Taylor of London Welsh, John Bevan, Barry John and Gareth Edwards of Cardiff, Barrie Llewellyn and Delme Thomas of Llanelli, Denzil Williams and Arthur Lewis of Ebbw Vale, Jeff Young of Harrogate and Dai Morris of Neath. A galaxy of stars that has never been out-shone.
The opening game against England was the first at the newly named National Stadium and was won comfortably 22-6. Murrayfield as usual was a tough place for Wales but in a thriller we won 19-18 through a late try by Gerald Davies converted from the touchline by wing-forward John Taylor. The move began at a lineout won by experienced warriors Delme Thomas and Denzil Williams, unsung heroes of an historic victory.
The 23-9 win over Ireland in Cardiff clinched the Triple Crown and what followed was a Grand Slam thriller at Stade Colombes where Wales hadn’t won for 14 years. The decisive try was inspired by J P R Williams who in his own 25 turned defence into attack, ran 70 yards before feeding Gareth Edwards who scored. Most of the record crowd of 60,000 were silent but those wearing red scarves, berets and rosettes were not. It was a great week-end, the entente was very cordiale and they even based a film on it.
John Dawes unsurprisingly was made captain of the 1971 Lions, former Scottish wing Doug Smith was manager and his “assistant” alias the coach was Carwyn James. The task before them was immense, and our interest in the tour was magnified by the inclusion of Arthur Lewis.
After a stop in Hong Kong the Lions landed in Brisbane and two days later with jet lag affecting them they played Queensland and lost 15-11. They soon recovered, beat Australia and began the main tour in New Zealand who were firm favourites but as one home reporter declared “the Lions roared loudest” and played crowd pleasing rugby which opened many eyes Down Under and influenced the way rugby was played there.
Every game in New Zealand was intense but one at Christchurch went too far and was described as brutal and vicious. Two key Lions front-row forwards Sandy Carmichael and Ray McLoughlin were so severely punched they could not play again and replacements were flown out. In the middle of the Battle of Canterbury was the powerful Arthur Lewis who scored a try, John Bevan scoring the other in a game won by the Lions 14-3 but remembered for the wrong reason.
The 1971 Lions are still the only side to win a series in New Zealand and the coaching and player-management brilliance of Carwyn James was widely recognised but a coach like a prophet is never honoured in his own land. He should have been chosen as the Welsh national team coach, after all he was, and still is, the only man to coach three teams, the Lions, Llanelli and the Barbarians, that defeated New Zealand. What more could be asked of a coach.
POSTCRIPT. In a recent article the date of our first game with Aberavon was given as Christmas Day 1922. We did play them on that date but Howard Evans, rugby historian and statistician who has written the history of the Wizards, says that the first Ebbw Vale v Aberavon game was played on December 29th 1894. Which poses a question, how did we get to Port Talbot a hundred plus years ago?
2016 – A HAPPY NEW YEAR
“White Christmas” sold millions of records and was written by Irving Berlin whose childhood was in Russia before his parents emigrated to America. He couldn’t have dreamed of a white Christmas like the ones he used to know and I dreaded them because snow covered pitches and icy surfaces cancelled matches, as it did with a vengeance in the 2009/10 season.
After losing 14-9 at Pontypool on December 5th we were inactive until January 26th when we should have been home to Llanelli in the Cup. Our ground was frozen, surprisingly Tredegar’s was not so we played the tie there and lost 23-7. It had been a long time for players to go without passing, kicking and dropping balls but the Cup defeat was the least of our worries. When the 2009/10 season ended so did our place in the Premier Division.
Matches over the New Year festivities have been few and far between but one just over four years ago is worth recalling. On New Year’s Eve 2016 we were aiming for a win that would secure us a place in the top eight of a Premier Division that had been split for reasons only those at HQ could explain.
Our visitors were Cardiff and a battle royal ensued which we won 24-20, a close run affair that led webmaster Robert Smith to comment, “It was tense. A wandering fingernail salesman did a roaring trade on the bank but the players needed to remain calm and do what they do best. For Ebbw this meant scrummaging and there was an inevitability about the penalty try that came as Cardiff repeatedly collapsed the advancing Steelmen eight.”
The game ended a memorable year. On Sunday 15th May we had gone for the second time to Sardis Road to play Pontypridd in the Principality Premiership Play-Off Final and won handsomely 31-12. Fingernail salesman left by half-time for there was never any doubt of the result, Dan Haymond finishing the show with a dash down the touchline and a flying touchdown at the club house end.
Recall those games by studying the teams listed below, both skilfully coached by Nigel Davies, captained by the formidable and towering Damien Hudd and featuring Ronnie Kynes the Premiership Player of the Year whose try scoring resulted in an addition to rugby’s vocabulary, Catch n’Kynes.
v Pontypridd 15 May 2016
Dan Haymond; David Williams, Nathan Preece, Adam Jones, Jared Rosser; Dai Langdon, Chris Thomas; Ross Jones, Matthew Williams, Gethin Robinson; Damien Hudd (capt), Ashley Sweet; Rhys Clarke, Ronnie Kynes, Cameron Regan.
Replacements:- Joe Franchi, Ian George, Robert Sevenoaks, Josh Jacas, Luke Crocker, Tom Edwards, Iain Smerdon, Harrison Keddie.
v Cardiff 31 December 2016
Dan Haymond; Nathan Preece, Gareth Maule, Dai Langdon, Craig Duncan; Josh Lewis, Dai Jones; Ross Jones, Joe Franchi, Gethin Robinson; Jonathan Davies, Damien Hudd (capt); Rhys Clarke, Ronnie Kynes, Harrison Keddie.
Replacements:- Jonny Bowen, Ian George. Robert Sevenoaks, Max Williams, Jack Goodey, Chris Thomas, Srdan Majkic, Dawid Rubasniak.
T’WAS THE GAME BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Charles Dickens who wrote about funny people and hard times introduced us to Scrooge and ghosts of Christmas past. Since there has been no rugby to play or watch live we too have gone back in time and recalled players and games past like a Gwent Derby on the afternoon before Christmas 1960 that still haunts those who saw it.
The aim of fixture secretaries before they were made redundant by leagues was to play neighbouring teams over Christmas and the New Year. It reduced the travelling but strangely back in the days of charabancs and narrow roads we ventured far and wide at Festive time. Ebbw Vale played three games in December 1922, the first two locally against Blaenavon and Cross Keys and the third at Port Talbot to play Aberavon for the first time. It was also the first and last time we played on Christmas Day.
On Boxing Day in the Thirties we played Rugby RFC in the Midlands and Devonport Services, Taunton and Exeter in Devon and it wasn’t until the Fifties that we began Boxing Day fixtures with Abertillery, a Jones Bus ride away. When Christmas Eve was a Saturday it was business as usual and in 1960 we were home to Newport, a holiday fixture to bring joy to club treasurers with Scrooge-like tendencies.
From the 2nd of January 1960 to the 24th of December when Newport came we had played 37 games winning 28, drawing 3 and losing 6 so we fancied our chance and it looked like a happy Christmas with five minutes to go and a 3-0 lead. We were not helped by being a man short for the last fifteen minutes and were defending the clubhouse end on the bank side when Newport wing-forward Brian Cresswell scored a try to level the score and from the touchline full-back Norman Morgan who worked in the nearby Cold Mill in between playing for Newport and Wales, converted. Newport got the season’s double, their players and supporters had the Christmas present they had asked Father Christmas for while Ebbw Valians faced a Christmas less merry than usual.
When Leagues came in the WRU tried to arrange local Derbies over the Festive season but on Boxing Days 2006 and 2007 some bright spark at HQ decided we would play Llandovery. Obviously he or she had failed in geography but both games were perfect for the day after Christmas and not just because we won 18-16 and 18-13. Our supporters turned up at Llandovery in Hawaiian costumes and added colour and noise to a cold day, so cold even the Drover’s sheep wore thermals.
The last game we played was on March 7th of this year, home to RGC 1404 which we won 20-17 having earlier beaten them in North Wales 31-28. We had found our true form and were rarin’ to go when the season came to a grinding halt since when we have waited patiently for club rugby to re-start and passed some of the time recalling games and Ebbw Vale players of the Past.
We now look forward to the time when our players start creating their own history again and send sincere Christmas greetings to the Present with best wishes for a Happier, Healthier and Normal New Year.
STEELMEN SPREAD THEIR WINGS
The installation of floodlights allowed fixture secretaries to spread games throughout the winter instead of packing them into the autumn and spring months. April was very busy with Easter Bank Holiday games and end of season tours to Cornwall reaching a peak in 1972 when the team played nine games in twenty-six days and travelled thousands of miles.
It began on the 4th April with a 10-16 defeat at Pontypool Park but from then on it was victory all the way. Three days later we won 12-10 at Rodney Parade where we didn’t stay long because cases had to be packed for a tour that began next day. Twenty four hours after playing Newport the team was in the air heading for Los Angeles.
A packed programme awaited them and two days after landing they played UCLA (University of Los Angeles California) and won 10-4, not an impressive score but jet lag and hot sun didn’t help. That was on April 10th, four days later the party moved up the coast to Santa Barbara and won 54-12. Still heading north three days later they played in California’s capital Sacramento and won 22-10.
By then the team had got used to Budweiser, big breakfasts and weather as warm as the hospitality but winning was paramount. Two days later Ebbw played San Francisco a city of cable car rides and an atmosphere all its own and won 47-6, a preview of the return game in Ebbw Vale the following September which we won 84-4, our highest ever score.
The main opposition in the city were and still are the Bay Area Touring side, the BATS, who did well but were beaten 22-16. That was on April 21st, next day the team flew home, arriving on the 23rd and four days later really came down to earth drawing 7-7 at home to Abertillery.
The hectic programme had not ended, three days after the Abertillery game we were home to Newbridge and won 19-3. Then a memorable season finished and the players could rest and think back to a tour of a lifetime which we repeated eight years later.
The club has a good record in North America and were undefeated in two tours to California, one to Florida and another to Canada in 1982 a tour originally planned for the Far East. Fixtures were to be played in Bangkok and Singapore but the distance, the cost and doubt over the beer changed our minds and we went to Toronto and Ottawa instead. A wise decision and a fine tour, four games and four wins.
A year later the Steelmen flew to Italy where rugby was becoming popular. Three games were played in a week, the first against Zebre which was then an invitational select side that included Clive Burgess who was playing for Brescia in Lombardy and seven other full internationals including the Leicester and England half-backs Les Cusworth and Nick Young. Zebre won 38-10, a few days later we took on an Italian National XV who won 16-4 and the tour ended with victory over the host club Brescia 22-9.
Ten months later we played Brescia in Ebbw Vale and won 20-16 against a side with eight capped players at all levels and led by the master of backrow play Clive Burgess who scored a try in the last game he played on the ground. There was no player like Budgie and there never will be.
THE DOCTOR WHO SCORED A TRY THAT CAUSED A STIR
Among several unusual fixtures in pre-league times was one against St. Mary’s Hospital one of London’s medical schools that not only produceddoctors but rugby players some of whom were capped by England. When St. Mary’s played at Ebbw Vale on their 1956 Easter tour we wondered how so many were released from hospital duties but as Max Boyce would say perhaps they all had doctor’s papers.
We won 11-3 against a side that included an England centre Lewis Cannellwho was capped nineteen times from 1948 to 1957 and must have been good because he was selected by the Barbarians to play alongside the Prince of Centres Bleddyn Williams against the 1951/2 Springboks.
The 1956 Hospital Cup final was played at Richmond between the holders Guys and St. Mary’s whose experience of playing in Wales paid off for they won 6-5. Rugger types didn’t approve of anything unusual and were shocked by an incident that afternoon later described as “likely to be remembered by all who watched or played in the game.”
With a few minutes left Guy’s were leading 5-3 when they were penalised in their 25. A St. Mary’s player, whose name escapes me so let’s call himDoctor Who, placed the ball and as the defenders trudged back to their goal-line he shaped up for the expected kick at goal but instead tapped the ball forward, picked it up, nipped over for a try in the corner and St. Mary’s won 6-5.
It was controversial and no TMO to give a second opinion but if there had been he would have disallowed the try because the move did not comply with current laws on the taking of penalty kicks. It was also regarded as an abuse of the spirit of the game but the result stood thanks to the quick-thinking of the doctor who was talk of the wards when he went to work next day.
Another one–off fixture was unusually played on a Thursday in September 1973. The first four games of the season were against Newbridge, Cardiff, Penarth and Gloucester and then came an added attraction, the Irish Wolfhounds. They were led by scrum-half John Maloney who played 27 times for Ireland with Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson and went with the 1974 Lions who were undefeated in South Africa. Six other internationals who came with the Wolfhounds had played for Leinster against the touring Fijians a few weeks before so we were up against formidable opposition but won a great game 13-7.
In the club’s early days there were very few unusual fixtures like that and matches were mainly against clubs in the County. Players and supporters travelled to away games by bus or Great Western Railway whose station was a few yards from our ground. On Saturday October 13th 1906 we were home to Blaenavon and four hundred of their supporters came by special train. Matches were fully reported in local papers and the account of the game in the Merthyr Express eloquently described a hard Western v Eastern Valley clash which we won 3-0 through a first half try by outside-half Billy Thomas.
On April 23rd 1977 we hosted an English team but didn’t play them. ThePhyllosans, all over forty, led by our former full-back Clive Best came to watch his old club play Llanelli, an important game with the Welsh Championship yet to be decided. We won 7-3 and our visitors from Essexenjoyed the rugby and the occasion after a hard season playing formidable opponents like Chelmsford Undertakers and Hertford Termites.
This reminder of odd fixtures and unusual happenings was of a time when clubs decided who they would play, where and when. In 1968 Mary Hopkins sang “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end” and we thought seasons of 45-50 games against teams from far and wide would go on for ever. But they didn’t and now they are but memories of the way we were.
DERBY DAY WINNERS AND LOSERS
Once upon a time rugby Derbies attracted big crowds but unlike those who went to Epsom on Derby Day they did not go to enjoy themselves, games between local rivals were serious and tested players physically and supporters mentally. They filled the terraces and grandstands especially onBank Holidays which pleased club treasurers but not always players whose Christmas Day was over-shadowed by a battle royal on Boxing Day.
We had four Derbies, home and away to Abertillery and Tredegar with the occasional Cup tie to add to the tension. In the 1983/4 season we conceded the double to Tredegar, losing 20-4 away on New Year’s Eve and 7-3 at home and there was a third encounter of the close kind in February, a re-arranged Cup tie on a cold Sunday afternoon at the Rec. The notes in the match programme summed up the occasion, “The game has caught the imagination of rugby followers throughout the Heads of the Valleys area and we hope it lives up to expectations.” It certainly did.
Tredegar were favourites but to quote one press report, “Carl Dennehy’s pack paved the way for victory with a commanding display” and with tries by Jeff Mott and Neil Robinson and a conversion by full-back Paul Extonwe clung to a precarious 10-9 lead with a few minutes left. For the few neutral spectators the end was exciting, for supporters it was agony as Tredegar captained by scrum-half Ian Lewis partnered by Nick Hunt mounted a final assault. It was repulsed, the final whistle was blown and in a neck and neck Derby we had won by the narrowest of margins.
There was another close finish in a Cup tie at Abertillery in January 1975 where we led 9-7 with two minutes left and Ebbw Valians began to uncross their fingers. Then from a lineout on our 22 Abertillery’s giant lock Ian Brice got possession, the ball flew to the backs, full-back Alfie Brickell grubbered, flying wing Adrian Rees out-paced the defence and scored a try in the corner. The scoreboard operator gleefully hoisted the final score, Abertillery 11 Ebbw Vale 9, and for us the Cup was over.
We played Abertillery again in the Cup in the 1988/9 season with the same result but without the drama. The half-back battle was a highlight, Abertillery’s Rupert Moon and Byron Hayward versus the inimitable Nigel Osborne and one of many Brynmawr bred Steelmen, Stephen Jones better known as Ching. Abertillery won 17-6 and as usual Byron kept the scoreboard busy scoring a try and kicking three penalty goals.
Cup rugby might not have the magic it once had but our home game with Pontypridd in March 2013 was an exception. We were top of the Championship they were riding high in the Premiership but after winningat Cardiff 16-11, a seemingly endless game played on sand we were confident and almost pulled it off. It was a Valley Derby and another Cup tie that went to the wire. Ponty scored a late try, converted it and won 23-22 and their relieved coach Dale Mackintosh said it was their toughest encounter all season.
In the words of Robert Smith, “In a pulsating, old-fashioned Cup shoot-out Ebbw narrowly failed to defeat Wales’s top club side.” It was a great performance, a game to be remembered with pride but how much better it would have been if we had won!
THE DAY A COUNTY BEAT A COUNTRY
Unlike the 1960/61 Springboks who only lost one game their successsors in 1969/70 lost five. It was a controversial tour and the last to Europe by South Africa until 1992 when their side included a former Ebbw Vale lock forward, Frederick Christiaan Smit greatly admired and remembered locally as Fred.
The 69/70 side suffered injuries but did well in Wales beating Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli losing to Newport 11-6 and Gwent 14-8 at Ebbw Vale where the captain Dennis Hughes of Newbridge gave simple instructions to his team, “tackle, tackle, tackle.”
At full back for Gwent was Robin Williams who in the previous season had shone in the Welsh Secondary Schools side. He was badly injured early in the game and it looked as if he would have to go off but he stayed on and was told by Dennis Hughes, “you can win this game for us but don’t let the Springboks catch you with the ball. Get out of the way or fly kick it. Just don’t be in the way when they come in with the tackle. At all costs don’t get hurt again!” His skipper was right, Robin Williams did win the game by kicking two penalty goals, one from halfway, with his right foot and another plus a conversion with his left.
The Gwent try was scored by Cross Keys right wing Roger Beese following a trademark break from Arthur Lewis who was capped the following year and in 1971 went on the successful Lions tour Down Under. A very satisfied 18,000 crowd dispersed to all parts of a County that had produced a team that did what Wales had so far failed to do, defeat South Africa.
The centres Norman Edwards and Arthur Lewis, fly-half Mike Grindle, props Gareth Howls and Denzil Williams and flanker Graham ‘Gomer’ Evans represented Ebbw Vale who finished sixth in the 1969/70 Welsh Championship a place below Tredegar and one above Newport. Glyn Turner scored 27 tries and Mike Grindle who made the Welsh final trial was described by a journalist as being a shrewd tactician and a superb outside-half, which he was.
Gareth Howls had been one of six Ebbw Vale players in the Monmouthshire XV that lost 23-12 to the invincible 1967 All-Blacks at Rodney Parade, the others were Barrie Edwards, Arthur Lewis, Mike Grindle, Glyn Turner and Denzil Williams. A young Gareth faced the experienced Ken Gray, 25 times capped for the All-Blacks, in a side containing twelve Test players. The County were kept in the game thanks to four penalty goals by Keith Jarrett the boy wonder who two years earlier had been capped by Wales four months after leaving Monmouth School.
Gareth Howls played 608 times for Ebbw Vale from 1965 to 1981 when he played his last game at St. Ives on the Cornish tour. He played many times for the Welsh and British Police, the County, four times for Wales B, the Barbarians, trained with the Welsh team and deserved the ultimate honour of playing for Wales. He was a key player for Ebbw Vale in sixteen seasons of loyal service and was captain in four of them, a legendary figure and a great character worthy of a place in any rugby Hall of Fame.
THE ROAD THAT LED TO BRISTOL
The 1997/8 season is remembered for the Cup semi-final at Sardis Road and the final at Ashton Gate but we shouldn’t forget the previous rounds which got us there. After big wins over Kidwelly at home 57-14 and Tonyrefail away 60-20 we drew Cardiff at home in February, a formidable side with ten full Welsh internationals.
Not that we were novices for we fielded six existing and future Welsh caps plus Tongan internationals Siua “Josh” Taumalolo and Kuli Faletau in a squad that rose to the occasion to win 24-9, described by the capital based press as “a big surprise.” The margin of victory was certainly a surprise but not the result. Nor was the recall to the Welsh team of our captain Kingsley Jones who ”fired his team with tireless zest.” For him it was just another day at the office.
Our tries were scored by centre Jonathan Hawker and wing Alun Harries with the usual 5-star performance by Byron Hayward who converted one and kicked four penalty goals. Cardiff’s points came from three penalty goals by their outside-half Lee Jarvis. So far so very good and the fixture secretary Up There gave us a home quarter-final against Swansea our bogey side in the Cup who had beaten us 26-15 the season before in the semi-final at the Arms Park. It was time for a change and that is what we had.
We defeated the All Whites in the seventh round on the Easter weekend 27-13. The game, according to our club chairman, “began in bright sunshine then it reached freezing point with flurries of snow, four seasons in a single match.” Quite usual for mountain dwellers, unusual for visitors from the coast but the mood the team was in the result would have been the same in the tropics.
It was only our fifth win in thirty games with Swansea so the after match celebrations were, to say the least, enjoyable, and sighs of relief were many. There was good rugby played and a dramatic incident when an Ebbw Vale player was reportedly “felled with a wicked short arm” by a Swansea player who was shown a yellow card.
Nothing unusual you might say but history was made, a small outside-half was the culprit and a big wing-forward was the victim. Usually it’s the No. 10 who gets clobbered but it all ended peacefully, Arwel Thomas the assailant left the field for ten minutes leaving the assailed Kingsley Jones shaking his head in wonderment.
Kingsley scored a try and those clever lads Lennie Woodard and David Llewellyn made it three. As usual the kicking by Byron the Boot was on target, three conversions and two penalty goals while Swansea got a try which Arwel Thomas converted and added two penalty goals. Meanwhile at the mouth of the Usk, Newport who were not doing well in the Premiership, were playing Pontypridd who were and went to Rodney Parade firm favourites but came unstuck, showing how uncertain and enthralling Cup rugby can be.
Newport had a match winner in Shaun Connor, a true Gwent stalwart who played for us and many other sides and who came like others from “over the mountain.” Neil Jenkins converted all three tries for Pontypridd and added two penalty goals but Shaun decided the result with a late penalty goal giving Newport a 27-26 win and a semi-final place against us at Sardis Road.
The story of that game has been told and re-told and one player out of a superb squad was singled out; Josh Taumalolo who scored a hat-trick of tries at Pontypridd and was named Man of the Match in the final despite being on the losing side
We have happy memories of Josh, Kuli and others from the South Pacific who graced us with tbeir presence on and off the field. In the musical ‘South Pacific’ is the song “Some Enchanted Evening”; thanks to our Tongan friends, we had many enchanting Saturdays.
VERY IMPORTANT PLAYERS
In pre-League times a variety of fixtures brought famous clubs from all over the British Isles, and match programmes carried team sheets of players of renown. On Saturday the 14th of April 1956, Cardiff paid their first official visit to Ebbw Vale, their players were almost all internationals led by half-backs Cliff Morgan and Rex Willis who had played together for Wales fifteen times. Ebbw Vale, captained by right wing John Pugh, were not over-awed and with our halves Wilf Hunt and Jack Lawrence in top form won 13-0.
Late changes to teams listed in the programme were announced on the PA system and, in the 1970s, one in particular took the crowd by surprise. Cardiff were the visitors and Club Chairman Allan Foster dramatically announced, “There is one change in the Cardiff side, at No. 9 Brynmor Williams has withdrawn.” He then paused and added, “He will be replaced by Gareth Edwards.”
On January 16th 1988 ten of the Cardiff squad who came to play us had been capped. The front-row battle was between Jeff Whitefoot, Alan Phillips and Steve Blackmore and Paul Knapp, Ian Watkins and Malcolm Sibthorpe and it was Ian who made the headlines in the Western Mail – “Watkins injury turns it.” Ian, who three Saturdays later won the first of his ten caps, had gone off injured and of the two replacements neither was a hooker. Cardiff won 32-10 but two years later in the same fixture the headline read “Vale’s spirit slays Cardiff.” We won 20-13 and Ian Watkins again played but in a Cardiff jersey opposite Nigel Meek.
David Duckham of Coventry, England, the Baa Baas and the 1971 Lions was one of the greatest three-quarters who regularly played for his club and is named in our programme for a game in April 1978 which we won 36-7. We also had regular fixtures with Bedford who we played every October. In 1982 three days after over-whelming Gloucester 45-18 we registered a 16-6 win over a Bedford side with Rob Wilkinson in the second row. The Baa-Baas always included an uncapped player when they selected a team to play a touring side and Wilkinson’s claim to fame was being chosen for the greatest game of all time, Barbarians v the 1972/3 All-Blacks.
The Edinburgh side Watsonians used to tour Wales over Christmas and brought a strong side. On the day after Boxing Day 1980 Gavin Hastings was their full back and was kept very busy, we won 32-15. We always played Bath on Friday evenings which led to the headline “Friday Night is Bath Night” but Friday the 13th 1985 was unlucky for us, like the Romans they came, saw and conquered us 15-10. The Western Mail report referred to a Bath centre playing his second game for them who “ripped the home defence to shreds with his determined straight running” – Jeremy Guscott.
The Bath scrum-half that night was Richard Hill who in later years coached us alongside Leigh Jones and who left to coach the Quins, the ones in Twickenham not west Wales. Richard returned in October 2000 with a Quins squad that included two international hookers, Tani Fuga of Samoa who started (and quickly found his opposite number Leyton Phillips a handful) and Keith Wood of Ireland and the Lions. They fielded a very strong side and won 18-6 with two of England’s greats in leading roles, Will Greenwood in the centre and Jason Leonard at loose-head.
On Wednesday 4th December 1996 we played a Kingsley Jones Invitation XV and the programme team sheet was most impressive. Posters advertising the game were displayed throughout the Borough showing Jonah Lomu, the man described as “the first true global superstar,” the wing no opponent could stop and who everyone wanted to see. Those fortunate to be at the game saw him play in Ebbw Vale colours, a memorable occasion worthy I believe of a plaque reading ‘Jonah Lomu played here.’
There are thousands of Joneses in Welsh rugby but none so full of character, rugby ability and personality as the family of the late and much lamented Philip Kingsley Jones who introduced Jonah to world rugby. Some will say the greatest cricketer to play on Eugene Cross Park was Garfield Sobers but who was the greatest rugby player? Jonah Lomu of course, and he came here thanks to a man from Blaina!
BATTLING THE BOKS IN OUR OWN BACKYARD
In 1960 the Fifth Springboks toured in Britain, Ireland and France and were previewed in the first issue of a new magazine, Rugby World. A leading South African rugby journalist wrote, “One will expect the touring team to be attractive in its approach.” When it was over the President of the Transvaal Rugby Union said the Springboks should have moved the ball more and J B G Thomas, the leading Welsh rugby writer at the time wrote, “The dourness of their dedicated plan of campaign and their over-whelming desire to win the matches at all costs within the laws found them to be considerably less attractive as a team than many of their predecessors.”
Controversy continued to the final game against France which was refereed by Gwyn Walters of Gowerton who was a midget compared to the big men on both sides. Clad in a blazer he had to control a terrific battle up front but Gwyn “happily checked the rougher and more illegal tactics” and when the combat continued he threatened to call it off unless the players behaved themselves! France drew 0-0 with South Africa who must have been glad to go home after a long hard European winter.
The tour had been closely followed by Ebbw Vale and Abertillery players who would take time off from work to play them in their 11th game on Tuesday afternoon 29th November 1960 at Ebbw Vale. Luckily the selected fifteen reported for duty and did not suffer the disappointment a Pontypool forward experienced in October 1951 when he was due to play in the Pontypool/Newbridge XV v South Africa match, to be refereed by Gwyn Walters, but suffered an injury in work on the morning of the match and had to withdraw.
The ground was packed, the atmosphere electric but the home team were calm and collected especially prop Len Dimmick from Blaina whose opponent, Stephanus Petrus Kuhn from the Transvaal came with a huge reputation but came off second best. It is still regarded as the hardest, toughest game seen on our ground played in drizzling rain on a wet and greasy pitch. Despite the conditions the Combined side captained by Hadyn Morgan rose to the occasion and came near to scoring a try when he and Martin Preece chased a rolling ball after a Wilf Hunt cross kick but the captain could not make the final touchdown.
It was a great effort, two rivals at the top of the Western Valley combined to take on an undefeated international side who won 3-0 and were relieved when the game ended. The after-match dinner at the County Hotel, Ebbw Vale is remembered by Martin Preece as quiet, with the tourists not mingling, and drinking orange juice!
The forwards conceded nothing especially the front row as J B G Thomas reported “the props Mike Hurn and Len Dimmick neither buckled or rose skywards and hooker Martin Preece struck swiftly and surely.” The turning point came in the second half when scrum-half Roy Evans “went down to save in a maul and had his head cut open by a stud-nail as the Springboks hacked at him.” There was no replacement and the tourists took advantage, No. 8 Alun Pask had moved to scrum-half and could not cover as he certainly would have when winger Hennie Van Zyl went over for the only score.
A Frenchman is said to have commented on the British after the Battle of Waterloo, “We can never take them for granted again,” which could be said of Combined teams who rose to the big occasion. Nine years later a Gwent side beat South Africa on the same ground.
A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY BACK TO THE CENTENARY (27/08/20)
New seasons have always been looked forward to with eager anticipation, none more than our Centenary in 1979/1980. There were many social events ending with the Centenary Dinner in Crickhowell when every club we played was represented,but it was the fixture list that mattered most to players and supporters.
Fifty-two matches were planned plus an end of season return visit to California. The first was at home to Gala who also brought their second team to play our Athletic on Cae Canol and won both games. The next day we hosted a Centenary Sevens with Newport, Pontypool, Newbridge, Tredegar, Abertillery, Cross Keys and Gala and despite their years of experience in Sevens we beat the Scots in the final. The Centenary celebrations had begun well, and much more was to follow.
There were several special games against teams like the WRU President’s XV full of internationals but the most important was against Romania on their first official tour who won 12-0 and also defeated Pontypridd, North Wales and West Wales and only lost to a full strength Welsh side by one point, 13-12.
In April with forty-four games behind us we played Crawshay’s XV, the Welsh equivalent of the Barbarians founded in 1922 by a Monmouthshire man, Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, Welsh Guards, who while in the Guards Depot in Caterham, Surrey was asked to send a team to play Devonport Services. That one game began a tradition of touring and a reputation for playing fast and entertaining rugby which will be celebrated in 2022, Crawshay’s Centenary.
Their team that came to Ebbw Vale on Wednesday 2nd April 1980 was a Who’s Who of internationals and others destined to be capped – Lyndon Thomas; J J Williams, Gareth Evans, Malcolm Swain, Robert Ackerman; Phil Bennett, Selwyn Williams; John Richardson, Mike Richards, Meredith James; Mike Griffiths, Carl Smith; Terry Charles, John Griffiths, J P R Williams. It was not JPRs first game as a flanker, he had played there three times on the 1978 Welsh tour to Australia.
The Ebbw Vale side was Wayne Bow; Des Parry, Phil Blight, Ian Goslin, Chris Edwards; Gary Lawrence, Steve Lewis; Colin Williams, Jonathan Williams, Peter Morgan; Elwyn Jones, Ashley Ellison; Phil Gardner (captain), Clive Burgess and Graham Evans.
A very enjoyable Centenary neared its end with two wins at Northampton and home to Maesteg and then in complete contrast players and many supporters flew to California for a four game tour. Like the 1972 Ebbw Vale team we won every game there, the first in San Diego the home of the US Pacific Fleet, before heading north to Santa Barbara where the after match reception was on a ranch. Phil Gardner’s task as leader of a mission to encourage rugby in the colonies ended with wins in San Francisco and the state capital Sacramento. As requested by our hosts we always had a nice day and the nights were rather pleasant too.
Of the 56 games played in 1979/80, thirty were won, two were drawn and twenty-four lost, a 55% record which given the number of games and work commitments the players had was a good result. It ended with four games in the Golden State famous for Hollywood and films directed by Hitchcock who specialised in nail-biting thrillers, but for sheer tension, thrills and a triumphant ending the final three games of the 2016/17 season that led us to the Premiership title tops the bill. And unlike a North American tour it can happen again.
BONDING IN BRIXHAM
August was usually the month when supporters prepared mentally and physically for another winter of content and waited anxiously for dates of pre-season fixtures which took precedence over weddings and such like. Unfortunately these are not usual times but if we can’t forecast the future we can recall the past and pre-season games that were rather different.
Most have been away from home but that didn’t stop supporters travelling to places like Coventry RFC who we once played annually. We eventually found their new ground where we were charged £15 admission and a £3 parking fee but at least the cost of beer was reasonable. In 2009 we played a friendly in Brynmawr against Barking coached by Alex Codling and were beaten 20-5 but a week later did much better at Sixways where Mike Ruddock’s Worcester beat us 21-20, an encouraging performance but when the season ended both clubs were relegated.
In August 2018 one of our most unusual pre-season friendlies was enjoyed in Brixham famous for its fish, hospitality and a landing ground for an air ambulance helicopter on its rugby pitch. In adventurous mood those on high decided that the players would not stay in a hotel but be bonded in the great outdoors. The result was a tented camp that was more Sirhowy than Sahara but was handily placed next to licensed premises, Brixham rugby club.
The sight of townies putting up tents borrowed from local boy scouts was like viewing an episode of “Some Mothers Do Have Em” but a semblance of a camp was achieved followed by a pleasant evening in Brixham rugby club, a short walk to the ‘digs’ and a good night’s sleep.
All was quiet until 2.30 am when floodlights lit up the adjoining rugby ground and the air ambulance helicopter landed with a roar that made even props believe the War of The Worlds had begun and the Martians had landed which would be rather inconvenient with the rugby season only a few weeks away.
But the lads are not called Steelmen for nothing, on their bonding week-end unlike 007’s cocktails they were stirred not shaken and next day produced a big win over Brixham. Gregg Woods remembers every moment of the first visit to Brixham, “camping two nights, first task assembling tents, then a good old-fashioned Friday night sing-song in Brixham’s clubhouse.” It rained heavily on the Saturday night by which time no-one really cared and on our second visit to Brixham a year later the squad reverted to tradition and went B & B.
Our supporters enjoy following the team away from home. They have imbibed in every clubhouse in Wales and several in England and even arranged a trip to a ground Ebbw Vale was not playing on. On Friday evening 20th February 1998 they went to Welford Road, the famous Tiger’s den to support Kingsley Jones the captain and Byron Hayward the outside-half of the Wales A team that played England.
The match programme described Byron as born in February 1969, 5”11, 12st 6lb and having a brief career as an amateur and professional boxer. Byron’s impact on a game was as powerful as it had been in the ring and it showed at Leicester where he scored a try, kicked three conversions and five penalty goals in the 41-22 win over England A.
As Alan Evans reported in an Ebbw Vale match programme a week later “both Kingsley and Byron were showered with accolades in the rugby press after their performances and true to form both players came to the Tigers clubhouse to chat with the band of Ebbw Vale supporters.” It was a happy Friday night for Welsh rugby but next afternoon the nation was in mourning. After seven games without a win England beat Wales at Twickenham with a record score of 60-26. It was a game Ebbw Vale supporters did NOT go to.
A TALE OF THREE COLOURS
We began our Centenary season in September 1979 at home to Gala and Phil Gardner led his team out in their usual colours but with wider hoops. Ebbw Vale teams had worn red, white and green jerseys since the 1930s when we changed from black and amber, the colours on the flag of Saint David. That posed questions still unanswered: why did we change? why red, white and green? and who suggested it?
An Ebbw Vale lad, Dai Regan Jones who joined the South Wales Borderers in the Twenties was a key player in their team that won four successive Army Cup finals, a record that was to last for forty years. He also played eight times for the Army in the Inter Services Tournament which was launched in 1920.
There is another Ebbw Vale – Army rugby connection, the Army Rugby Union was formed in 1906 after a suggestion by Lieutenant, later Major, Partridge of the Welch Regiment a descendant of the family that had owned the Beaufort Iron Works.
When the Borderers were stationed in Lichfield in 1927/28 Dai played eighteen times for Leicester whose colours were and still are red, white and green. He completed his Army service in 1928, came home and in the 1928/29 season not only played for Ebbw Vale but was captain.
It was then we changed our colours, surely not a coincidence that the new captain had worn red, white and green at Welford Road. Dai Regan Jones, described as forceful and dynamic, had a great influence on the club on and off the field and when his playing days ended he and another Ebbw Vale legend, Wally Talbot had the experience, ability and inspiration to take us to the top of Welsh club rugby beginning with four Welsh Championship titles in the Fifties.
When war broke out in 1939 the Welsh and English rugby unions, but not the Scottish, lifted the rule barring any player connected with Rugby League playing with those of Rugby Union in matches between clubs and Service sides. The ruling continued in post-war National Service years. In the Fifties one of our greatest scrum-halves, Roy Evans, joined the Royal Signals and played in an Army side that included Rugby League star and fellow signaller Billy Boston and, at full-back, Arthur Edwards a former Ebbw Vale Grammar School boy who had won a Welsh schools cap and played a few times for Ebbw Vale before becoming a regular soldier. He was capped from London Welsh and played sixteen times for the Army.
Allan Foster of Waunlwyd did National Service in the Royal Air Force and played in the 1961 Inter Services Tournament in a side that included back-row forward Leighton Jenkins who was capped five times for Wales in the 50s and Alex Murphy one of the greatest Rugby League half-backs of all time. When they were demobbed Murphy went back to St. Helens and Allan Foster returned to Ebbw Vale, changing colours from light blue to red, white and green.
National Service ended in 1960 but recruitment continued with sporting opportunities a major factor. Centre Ian Goslin had been a Schools cap before joining Ebbw Vale in the late 70s and later was commissioned in the Royal Air Force. A Flight Lieutenant he captained the RAF side which included a wing who was a fighter pilot in his spare time, Flying Officer Rory Underwood.
John Merritt the full-back in our 1940/1 invincible season joined the RAF, played in many war-time charity internationals and volunteered for aircrew duty. In his book “War Games” which tells of war-time rugby, Howard Evans writes “John James Merritt a sergeant in the RAF died on April 3rd 1943 with two crewmates of 51 Squadron when their ‘plane crashed en route to a raid on Essen. They had taken off when a fire developed and they turned back to land but crashed.”
John from Beaufort was laid to rest in St. David’s Churchyard mourned by former team-mates and those privileged to watch him play, giving added significance to Remembrance Sunday when a wreath on behalf of the club is laid at the Ebbw Vale War Memorial.
VISITORS FROM OTHER CONTINENTS
Variety used to be the spice of Welsh club life, every season brought new clubs to the fixture list which averaged forty-five. There was so much variety and it was increased when European competitions added a touch of style and a taste of garlic. Supporters whose language was Wenglish struggled in places like Toulouse and La Rochelle and concentrated on one question: “Ou est le pub?”
There were language difficulties at home but when Romania played us in our Centenary some of their players spoke French and a bit of English so we got along quite well even though they were not encouraged to mix freely. In contrast the USA Eagles left their ‘phone numbers in the hope we would arrange home and away games. That was ruled out by the Treasurer but it was touch and go between San Francisco and St. Ives.
Fixture Secretaries liked to plan ahead but occasionally a game was thrust upon them that required a change in the fixture list. On a Friday evening in November 1994 we were scheduled to play a non-League game in Blaina but we were chosen to host the South African National Development side instead. It was a most enjoyable game the future Boks won 29-15 and it was also a challenge to the PA announcer who had to tackle names like Skweyiya, Nyembeze and Raubenheimar. They were too strong for a good Ebbw side and included future senior internationals winger Visser, centre Van de Berg and hooker Krynaud Otto who seven months later would be in the Springbok World Cup squad alongside former Steelman Balie Swart.
Our tours to North America were long but none compared to round-the-world trips in 1976 and 1977 by two New Zealand club teams, Northcote (Auckland) and Wellington. En route to Europe they played in Hawaii and California and then in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Hong Kong until tired and broke they headed home.
Northcote came to Ebbw Vale after beating Metropolitan Police and the Wasps and losing in atrocious weather to Cross Keys. We won 7-0 in a game much better than the score suggests. A year later the Wellington club left New Zealand for a similar tour and they too played Wasps, Met Police and Cross Keys but won all three and looked like making it four at Ebbw Vale leading 8-7 with minutes left when our tiny but tricky outside-half Lyndon Miles dropped a winning goal. In the Wellington side was Murray Mexted a No.8 who was to play 35 times for New Zealand and is remembered as a great All-Black. <
In November 1984 we hosted another New Zealand side the Wellington Province Under 21s who lost 14-11 to Ebbw Vale & District Under 21s captained by Ian Watkins. We scored three tries by centres Mike Jones and Steve Lewis and scrum-half Chris Walmsley of the RTB club. Derek Bevan was the referee and his presence added to a great game.
It’s not often that an All-Black comes to our ground twice but in October 1992 we had the pleasure and honour of welcoming Sid Going, 29 times capped by New Zealand between 1967 and 1977 at a time when they were far fewer international fixtures. He had played opposite Glyn Turner in the Gwent v New Zealand game in 1972 and returned twenty years later as coach to his country’s Under 21s who played Monmouthshire Under 21s.
WIZARDS FROM OZ
Four days before Wales played the 1992 Australians at the Arms Park their second string played Monmouthshire at Ebbw Vale. It was an uneventful game and only one man made an impression, the Irish referee who awarded fifty three penalties and free kicks, a Man of the Match with a difference. There was a big crowd but no Ebbw Vale players were selected by the County, understandably because we were in Division Two and battling to stay in it along with Tredegar and Blaina. A game against a team from the other end of world was a major attraction and school children were given the afternoon off to watch it among them Greg Woods of Cwmcarn Primary who was one of many who went off to see the Wizards the wonderful wizards of Oz.
David Campese spent the afternoon autographing match programmes which are now collector’s items. One of rugby’s greatest he played 107 times for Australia and scored 64 tries. He played against Wales seven times and was on the losing side once, the third place World cup game in 1987 when the Wallabies had a forward sent off in the 4th minute and Paul Thorburn’s late kick won it for Wales 22-21.
The 1992 Wallabies were beaten by Swansea and Llanelli but were too good for Wales whose team was made up of five each from Llanelli and Swansea, three from Cardiff, one from Neath and one from South Wales Police. The Welsh coach was Alan Davies, the referee was a great character Tony Spreadbury and Australia were without Michael Lynagh and their captain John Eales probably the last second row forward to kick goals. As usual David Campese from New South Wales stole the show from Old South Wales by running sixty yards for a try in the 23-6 win.
The game at Ebbw Vale was a home coming for the County’s replacement scrum-half Ceri Jonathan. He had played on the ground against an international team before, the 1987 United States Eagles when he scored our only try. His selection was interesting because while the others in the team played for Newport, Pontypool, Newbridge, Cardiff, Sale (Paul Turner) and Bath (Iestyn Lewis formerly Ebbw Vale), Ceri represented Caerphilly who were in the Mid District Tennants Lager League which they won earning them promotion to Division Four of the Heineken League, swopping one lager for another.
The 1992 Wallabies were the last international team to play at Eugene Cross Park but memories of seeing the world’s greatest players on our ground remain. Who will forget the duel between Glyn Turner and Sid Going when the Kiwis came in 1972, the mighty 1961 Springbok pack that scraped a 3-0 win over Ebbw Vale & Abertillery, Gwent beating the 1969 Springboks and in the summer watching the world’s greatest cricketers.
The legendary West Indies batsman Everton Weekes who died recently was one. He and others of the 1950 West Indies team played a special match on what was then known as the Welfare Ground and as expected his innings was majestic. Described as the hardest hitter the game has seen one of his sixes from the rugby end soared over the bowling green and the tennis courts and landed on what became our training ground, Cae Canol, where our squad will prepare for next season. What form it will take or when it will start is not yet known but it will be another opening of another show with an eager cast eagerly waiting for someone to call “curtain up!”
THE MAKING OF RUGBY LEGENDS (28/06/20)
On the 21st of June 2003 in Waikato the All-Blacks defeated Wales 55-3 and by eight tries to nil, the last game in which Welsh players represented their clubs. The first when players came from regions was a ‘friendly’ in Dublin won by Ireland 35-12. Then came the fifth Rugby World Cup in Australia where Wales under Colin Charvis lost to England 28-17 in the quarter-finals but scored three tries to their one. Like Australia in the final we were kicked out by Jonny Wilkinson who dropped more goals than anyone else on the planet.
Watching international players in club rugby brought us close to the Welsh side but when that ended there were still the Under 18s, 21s and A teams who played throughout Welsh rugby’s heartland on grounds they knew and before big crowds. In doing so they took the game to the people and typical was the Wales-France Under 21s game we hosted in February 2002 which featured Gavin Henson, Mike Phillips, Paul James and Adam Jones and on the bench representing Ebbw Vale, Damien Hudd. France too had their future stars, prop Vincent Debaty was capped 35 times, thirty as a replacement. Clearly an impact player.
In March 2003 Gavin Henson, Mike Phillips and Paul James returned to Eugene Cross Park with Wales Under 21s to play Ireland. Hooking against Rory Best was Huw Bennett of an Ebbw Vale family who moved to Somerset where he rose through the ranks of English rugby playing for their Under 16s and 18s and the Bath Academy but then decided he wanted to play for Wales and did so many times.
George North was in the Wales Under 18s team that played England at our ground in April 2009 and so was Thomas Young of the famous Aberdare family who played against us for Cardiff and Pontypridd and flourished when he joined Wasps and played for Wales. England fielded players who went on to reach the heights of the game, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell and George Ford in the backs and two Vunipolas, Mako and Billy in the pack.
‘A’ team games were popular and of great benefit to the Unions and many would like to see them revived and played on club grounds. We hosted two in 1999 and 2000, the first against Ireland whose scrum-half was Guy Easterby then of London Scottish but soon to be a Steelman. Arwel Thomas and Paul John were the Welsh halves, Garin Jenkins was hooker and Ebbw Vale’s Chay Billen and Byron Hayward then with Llanelli were replacements.
In the Wales A team that played Italy in 2000 were Ebbw’s Nathan Budgett and on the bench were prop Iestyn Thomas and Jason Strange of Ebbw Vale and former Steelman, Dai Llewellyn. The Italian tight-head, Perugini, went on to play 83 times for his country, never as a replacement. In 2015 Jason began a successful career as coach to the Wales Under 20s, another Brynmawr boy who made good. His sporting life began in the town when aged twelve he created history by being the youngest to play for the Brynmawr first team – at bowls.
Now Wales Under 20s play all home games in North Wales and have their own World Cup which began in 2008 replacing the Under 19 and under 21 tournaments. In the first Under 20s Cup Wales were captained by Sam Warburton who two seasons before played for Glamorgan Wanderers at Ebbw Vale opposite Dan Lydiate. On the wing in the 2008 side was Leigh Halfpenny who a few months later was full-back in the Cardiff team that beat us 21-0 at the Arms Park a game refereed by Nigel Owens of Pontyberem.
There was no score at half-time but as our vigilant observer, Robert Smith, wrote “A scoreless draw looked on the cards but lurking in the shadows was one player, Leigh Halfpenny, who raised the game out of mediocrity.” His try and three conversions won the game for Cardiff and it would not be long before in a red jersey he became a regular match-winner for Wales and the Lions.
Leigh only played 21 times for Cardiff before joining the Blues, but as time goes by we remember him for that game. Staying in ‘Casablanca’ mode, of all the fixtures in all the towns in all the world he had to play in that one.
TOUGH AT THE TOP
1995 was the year rugby union went professional, South Africa won the World Cup and Ebbw Vale played in Division One. Our first fixture was at Sardis Road on Saturday September 2nd 1995 which kicked off late because television was covering South Africa v Wales in Johannesburg. The Boks won 40-11 but the game is remembered for a punch that ko’d our key lineout jumper and biggest forward, Derwyn Jones. The French officials did not see the incident but the culprit was cited, suspended for 30 days and £9000 was deducted from his Springbok contract of £140,000. Today that would be £17,500 out of £271,000.
Our first month in Div One was disappointing to say the least. We lost to Pontypridd, Neath, Swansea and Llanelli making the next fixture at Treorchy Zebras who had finished third in the previous season a must win game. A lot depended on it but after a week of physical and mental preparation the real Ebbw Vale turned up and we won 29-20.
Coach Nigel Way in his “View From The Bench” article in an April 1996 programme wrote “The transformation that occurred since September has been nothing less than incredible. After our first four games when our players put in plenty of effort but had no return, a meeting was set up between players, coaches and the club Executive. At the meeting was John Attenborough a leading sports psychologist and a team strategy and game plan was established. The immediate effect was a victory at Treorchy ………we had crossed the bridge of no return, i.e. no return to Division Two!”
Byron Hayward who contributed nineteen points at Treorchy including a drop goal from the touchline remembers a great try by his half back partner Dai Llewellyn, and how the new team defended strongly in the last quarter and really started to bond. The importance of that one game cannot be over emphasised, It was a turning point and a sign of better things to come.
There were other defeats of course but they were close, 16-10 to Cardiff, 7-3 to Pontypridd and 25-22 at Rodney Parade. We beat Newport 27-12 in the return fixture and in January 1996 got the double over the Zebras who included outside-half David Evans who four months before had played his 11th and last game for Wales.
It was a good way to start the New Year and we fielded a strong side – Darren Worgan; Ian Jeffreys, Iestyn Lewis, Cain Price, Neil Morgan; Byron Hayward, David Llewellyn; Alan Phillips, Steve Jones, Malcolm Sibthorpe; Dorian Medlicott, Mike Boycott; Ben Watkins, Kingsley Jones (captain), John Williams.
On June 24th 1995 Nelson Mandela the President of South Africa wearing a Springbok jersey at the World Cup final was a very happy man when he presented the Cup to Francois Pienaar. On September 30th 1995 Paul Russell the President of Ebbw Vale Rugby Football Club who was not wearing the club jersey was also a very happy man when he congratulated players and coaches on their important victory.
A former first class referee in English rugby Paul had blown many whistles to end games, one of them at The Stoop when we beat the Harlequins, but none sounded as sweet as the one that signalled a win for his club that autumn afternoon in the Rhondda.
WHEN BOYS BEAT MEN
The inception of leagues in 1990/91 changed Welsh club rugby dramatically and places in Division One (as the top flight was then) were decided on a club’s record over the previous three seasons in the Merit Table. We didn’t qualify and for four seasons languished in Division Two, well out of the race for promotion until 1994/95 when after seventeen games, eleven of them won and one drawn, our prospects brightened. If we won the last five fixtures versus Cross Keys, Abercynon, Tenby United, Maesteg and Narberth we would go up with Aberavon.
We not only rose to the occasion, we did it with skill and style. Wins of 34-9 at Cross Keys and 39-18 at Maesteg were the highest scores by any Ebbw Vale side on both grounds but the game that counted most was against Abercynon our closest rivals in the quest for promotion. They had beaten us 16-9 on their pitch in November when their No. 8 Neil Edwards scored a try, and came full of confidence, but in a close struggle in a tense atmosphere we won 17-15 through a try by centre Andrew Jewitt and four penalty goals kicked by Carl Thomas. Three matches remained but the main hurdle had been jumped.
The final game was at Narberth who needed to win to avoid relegation but never came near, despite a brave effort. We had a powerful fast moving pack and a sparkling back division that had Mike Boys as pivot, rugby’s Scarlet Pimpernel who was sought here, there and everywhere but was never caught anywhere. We won 39-9, Darren Worgan (2), Paul Young, Andrew Jewitt, Noel Chard and David Davies scored tries and we were promoted on try count. Job done!
The season was full of ups, downs and excitement. Mike Boys and wing forward Paul Hudson had made their debuts at Llanharan in September when Paul scored three tries. We took Aberavon’s unbeaten record 29-18 and Andrew Jewitt, a centre who regularly ‘tried’ the opposition, got two against South Wales Police but it was a great effort by the entire team that saw us through.
The final placings of the top three in Division Two showed how important the try count was. Aberavon won 17, lost 5, scoring 58 tries for a total of 34 points. We won 16, drew one and also lost 5, scoring 59 tries for 33 points. Abercynon won 16, drew one and lost 5 for the same number of points, 33, but only scored 38 tries.
Looking back twenty-five years later, the Ebbw Vale captain, prop Andrew Oliver, speaks of the expansive game the side played, of an extremely mobile pack and strong scrummaging. Of Mike Boys, he says his bravery betrayed his size and he was by far the smallest in the squad and probably one of the best tacklers.
In one training session Andrew says, “I ran at him at full speed, he suddenly disappeared from vision and I was felled like a Californian Redwood. You didn’t know what he would do next so after a time you just learned to expect the unexpected. His expansive style suited the likes of centre Andrew Jewitt, also a clever, deceptive player.”
It was a season of surprises: Wales got the Wooden Spoon, in the Cup we won at Maesteg but lost 14-11 home to Old Illtydians who lost 66-0 at Pontypridd in the next round, and 1st Division Cardiff beat 5th Division Merthyr 63-8. Cardiff won the 1st Division, Pontypridd came second and in third place were Treorchy Zebras who we would meet in the next season.
At the Annual Dinner Mike Boys was named Player of the Year and Paul Hudson was Most Promising. The final stages of the season were relived and, as someone said, it was the finest comeback since Frank Sinatra, and we did it our way. Ahead was the 1st Division so would it be tough at the top? That’s another story so watch this space…
WHEN THE EMPIRE OCCUPIED THE ARMS PARK
In April 1957 Ebbw Vale were heading for a third Welsh Championship and celebrating the selection of centre Graham Powell to play for Wales against Ireland, the first Ebbw Vale player to be capped and certainly the first from Waunlwyd a suburb once known for staging international quoits matches. It was well deserved at a time when selection for Wales seemed to depend on who you played for and not how good you were. The Union held trial matches and in the last in January 1957 two former pupils of Ebbw Vale County Grammar School took part, Graham Powell (Ebbw Vale) and full-back Arthur Edwards (Army & London Welsh) already an international.
In those days clubs played on international match afternoons and on Saturday 6th April 1957 while we were playing Pontypridd, a match we won 6-3, there was a big game at Cardiff Arms Park where the Empire and Commonwealth Games would be staged the following year. In aid of the Empire Games Fund a Welsh team played an International XV full of great players including wings Arthur Smith (Scotland) and Tony O’Reilly (Ireland) and half-backs Jackie Kyle (Ireland) and Dickie Jeeps (England) all shining stars of their time.
The Welsh team won 17-16 and the Games fund received £13,000 from the gate takings which is worth £350,000 today. The Games were a great success, instead of rugby and greyhound racing some of the world’s greatest track and field athletes took over the Arms Park while nearby in the new Empire Pool swimmers played water polo, dived and generally made a splash. Wales’s only gold medal was won by bantamweight boxer Howard Winstone of Merthyr Tydfil and the Queen’s Baton was carried into the stadium by Ken Jones one of our greatest wings who had won a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics 4 x 100 metres relay.
Ebbw Vale was a busy town in the Fifties, a hive of heavy industry and the social life that went with it. Those who spoke Welsh eagerly awaited the National Eisteddfod which was coming to the town in 1958. Other visitors that year were the Duke of Edinburgh who had lunch with local big-wigs in Glyncoed School and the famous singer Paul Robeson who sang in the Eisteddfod but with respect to both it was rugby that made the headlines.
Our 1958/59 season began with a match against a Ken Jones International XV to mark the official opening of the ‘New Stand’ which in fact was an enclosure where people stood. It was behind our first clubhouse, which was opened by one of Wales’s greatest all-round sportsmen Wilfred Wooller who had played for Glamorgan many times on our ground.
Ken Jones’s XV included six Welsh, two English, one Irish and two Scottish internationals and they played a side captained by lock Malcolm Collins that included Ebbw Vale legends Graham Powell, Wilf Hunt, Roy Evans, Len Dimmick and Denzil Williams. We won 9-6, all tries, everyone was happy and Webbs Brewery in Aberbeeg announced a profit.
When the flags were stowed away for the next Royal visit and the Eisteddfod visitors stopped singing, the excitement was not over for rugby enthusiasts in Ebbw Vale which at that time meant almost every human from Beaufort to Cwm. The 1958/59 season was another successful one, we won 76% of our games and the last at home was rather special and another excuse for a party. We defeated Abertillery 9-6 and the new main gates were officially opened. Through those gates have walked the game’s greatest and generations of Ebbw Vale players who wore the jersey with pride and still do. The influence of captains has been apparent in the past ten seasons and now we have the first called Joe to lead us. He faces a challenge but at least will not have to face the ultimate responsibility, being captain on a Cornish tour.
THE TROPHY THAT DIDN’T MATTER AND THE CUP THAT DID
The late 1990s were eventful for Ebbw Vale and Welsh rugby generally. In 1998/9 there were only eight clubs in the Premiership so Head Office added more games by creating a Welsh Challenge Trophy and flew in teams from overseas to wintry Wales, not the ideal time of year for those from sunnier climes in South America and South Africa.
To say the competition, which only lasted two seasons, failed to fuel the imagination of the rugby public is the under-statement of the decade. It was even described as a Mickey Mouse event which was unfair to Mickey who never failed to please. Adding to the novelty was Ebbw Vale’s idea to create “a taste of first class rugby to a far wider audience in Western Gwent” by playing games at Cwmbran Stadium.
The first would be a Welsh Challenge Trophy game with Gauteng Falcons from South Africa and it was decided to play it at Cwmbran but unfortunately for that wider audience the Stadium pitch was unplayable and it was played at Eugene Cross Park after all. We won 25-19 and also beat Namibia, now a country that plays in the World Cup but at the time mere rugby fledglings as the result shows, we won 75-7.
The 1998 Five Nations results were a mixed bag for Wales; we beat Scotland at Wembley and Ireland in Dublin but, like the old Arms Park, were demolished at Twickenham 60-26 and 51-0 to France at Wembley. Following that, a below strength Wales went to South Africa and there was criticism of the eighteen frontline players who for some reason did not go, the end result being a 96-13 defeat by the ‘Boks. Four days before the Test match Wales lost 39-37 to the Gauteng Falcons eight of whom played at Ebbw Vale six months later.
In 1997/8 we played two memorable Cup games. After beating Cardiff 24-9 in the quarter-final we reached a semi-final everyone expected to be close, a Gwent Derby with Newport at Sardis Road. It didn’t turn out that way, Josh Taumalola at full-back set the tone with three tries, Lennie Woodard got two and Byron Hayward kicked 19 points. We won 44-10 and reached our first Cup Final but it was in England not Wales.
We faced regular Cup finalists Llanelli at Ashton Gate, Bristol and they fielded an almost complete international side but it was their prop Martyn Madden on loan from Penzance who decided the result with a try following an off-load by Rupert Moon. Llanelli won 19-12, Kingsley Jones commented “We had 70% of the ball but Llanelli took their chances.”
Despite losing we had played well and a reminder of our Cup squad shows how fortunate we were to have such a group – Siua Taumalolo; Alun Harries, Jonathan Hawker, John Funnel, Lennie Woodard; Byron Hayward, David Llewellyn; Alun Phillips, Leighton Phillips, Mike Wilson; Chay Billen, Kuli Faletau; Richie Collins, Mark Jones, Kingsley Jones (capt). Replacements – Jason Strange (for Jonathan Hawker) and Steve Jones (for Leighton Phillips).
THE COLLEGE THAT LAUNCHED RUGBY’S GREATS
The Duke of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In Welsh rugby circles there are many who say international matches were won on the playing fields of Cyncoed. It was there that the talent flowed from Cardiff Training College, later renamed South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education, the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and now Cardiff Metropolitan University. It was in Cyncoed that some of Wales’s greatest rugby players served their apprenticeship coached by Leighton Davies who, on his recent death, was described as an unsung hero of Welsh rugby. His 1st XV had regular fixtures with the top sides in Wales and had great success in University rugby. Their annual game at Ebbw Vale was one of the highlights of our season.
Among the many past students at Cyncoed who were capped by Wales are Gareth Edwards who once played for the College against Ebbw Vale; a former Hafod-y-Ddol Grammar schoolboy David Nash; and one of the greatest Wales and Lions wings, John Bevan who, with J J Williams, was in the Cardiff Training College side that played at Ebbw Vale in September 1969. We won a fast moving game and scored eight tries, five by the forwards, but what impressed the crowd were three gems by John Bevan. Six years ago the successful Ebbw Fawr Learning Community Under 15s played Monmouth School at Eugene Cross Park and won 24-14. In our side were Joel Harries, Ethan Phillips and Dawid Rubasnaik and to complete a splendid evening John Bevan, Monmouth’s Director of Coaching, came with his team.
Rhys Shorney studied at Cyncoed and played for UWIC in a tough Division Two against the likes of Llandovery, Cross Keys, Pontypool, Abertillery and Maesteg. He scored 18 tries in 1996/7 and staged a one man assault on Abercynon who were beaten 37-34 thanks to a very late and third try by Rhys who then got three out of fifteen in the return game won by UWIC 85-14. He then joined Pontypridd and scored seven tries in a match against Aberavon and kept scoring when he moved to Ebbw Vale. Rhys graduated with a BSc in Physiotherapy and can be described as the club’s Head Physiotherapist but does this fully describe the duties and responsibility involved? When asked to suggest another title, someone close to the squad suggested Miracle Worker! Many players will agree with that.
Neil Robinson was another graduate of UWIC, a wing forward of merit who joined us in the 80s and captained the side for four seasons. After a long illness Neil died in April but will always be remembered by those he played with and club members who met and admired him as a player and a gentleman.
Dawid Rubasniak is now at Cardiff Met sixteen years after he came from Poland with his family to Ebbw Vale. He had never seen or heard of rugby until then but now the game has certainly heard of him. He started playing in Tredegar then attended Glyncoed School and Ebbw Fawr Learning Community where rugby was pre-dominant. He went through several age groups with the region, got his A levels and is studying for a Masters degree in Strength and Conditioning.
Dawid first played for Ebbw Vale in the Foster’s Challenge Cup and after playing Sevens for Poland was capped to play against the Netherlands who won 7-6, a result which would have been reversed if our Addicts had been there to support him. We have had a Dutch international, many South Seas Islanders, Kiwis and South Africans two of whom became Springboks, but Dawid is the first Pole to become a Steelman. ‘Dobra roboto Dawid.’
MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES
This a tale of two players of different eras who will be remembered not only for their brilliance as players but also for moves they created and which were named after them. One reached the summit of the game and became a Lion and captained Wales, a centre whose perfectly timed passes set up tries, and the other scored more tries from lineouts than anyone else ever has or possibly will.
Arthur Lewis was a world class centre and what became known as the ‘Arthur’ move was a class act. It began with his perfectly timed pass to full-back Mostyn Richards coming through at speed who fed wing Neil Collins who invariably scored a try. It was perfectly performed at Swansea in March 1976 when we played Llanelli in our first Cup semi-final. There was only one article in the programme but it was written by Carwyn James, the best coach Wales never had, and entitled “An Appreciation of Arthur Lewis”. He had coached Arthur on the 1971 Lions tour and wrote of him that he has “the ability to impart those little touches which is the making of a back division.
We lost 10-4 against a side with Phil Bennett, JJ Williams, Derek Quinnell, Phil May and other notables in it but even they couldn’t handle the ‘Arthur’ move as described by John Billot:
“A 20,000 crowd saw Ebbw Vale steal the lead with a try by wing Neil Collins following probing approach work by centre Arthur Lewis and full-back Mostyn Richards.”
Six months later, at Netherdale inthe Scottish borders, the move out-witted Gala in our 33-12 win and the report in the local paper was headed “Richards Rips Gala Apart”.
Many years later we benefited from another ‘move’, not involving the backs but the lineout, a set piece Bill McLaren once described as ‘a den of iniquity’. In the four seasons we were in the 1st Division and the Championship we only lost eight League games and continued our lineout supremacy in the Premiership thanks to Ashley Sweet who not only dominated opponents but forced them into early retirement. England and New Zealand benefited from ‘pouncers’ like Neil Back and Richie McCaw, and Ronny Kynes did the same job for us so often that the move was called the “Catch’n’Kynes”. It all depended on an accurate throw-in, which cannot be guaranteed even at the highest level; the 2005 Lions lost eight of their throws in the first Test in New Zealand! Wings once did the job, then French scrum-halves tried it but since the 70s hookers have taken it on. Some have added captaincy to hooking and throwing, Rory Best of Ulster and Ireland is the most famous in recent years and next season Joe Franchi will be another, a pharmacist off the field and, as Ashley Sweet has said, a ‘hell of a leader’ on it.
One throw-in by an Ebbw Vale hooker will never be forgotten. On the 6th February 1988 at Twickenham, Ian Watkins won the first of his ten caps when he replaced Kevin Phillips and immediately had to throw in at a lineout. Ian, as cool as if he was training on Cae Canol, picked up the ball, threw it accurately to Robert Norster and began a partnership Wales thrived on. It is no coincidence that both were born in Ebbw Vale. Wales won 11-3 then beat Scotland and Ireland to win their first Triple Crown since 1979. Ian, who scored a try in the Scottish match, settled down quickly to international rugby but it was a tough baptism. He went head to head in the England match with Brian Moore, alias the Pit-bull and, four Welsh games later in New Zealand, went face to face with Sean Fitzpatrick!
A TASTE OF SCOTCH (14/04/20)
The 2019/2020 season was to end for six Welsh Premiership clubs with a Cross Border competition against six of Scotland’s ‘elite,’ an end-of-season adventure rather different to the fondly remembered Cornwall tours of pre-League days. The first Scottish side we would have played at Ebbw Vale were the Southern Knights alias Melrose where in 1883 a butcher’s apprentice named Ned Haig raising funds for the club suggested that a tournament with only seven players in each team would attract a crowd. It did, Sevens rugby began, Ned got the credit and went back to selling haggis never dreaming he would be famous one day.
Regarded as the pioneer of Sevens Ned’s name was added to the Scottish Rugby Hall of Fame ten years ago along with Scottish greats Sandy Carmichael, Andy Irvine, Finlay Calder, Gavin Hastings, Ian McGeechan, Gordon Brown and Bill McLaren the greatest rugby commentator whose roots were in Hawick in the Borders.
Bill spent the evening before a televised match studying every detail of the players and the number of caps they had. Comparing player’s records in Bill’s day to those of today can be misleading because there are many more international matches now. Denzil Williams of Ebbw Vale played thirty-six times for Wales and Jim Telfer of Melrose twenty-five for Scotland, today a hundred appearances is not unusual.
The last Scottish side we played was in 2002 when a short lived competition called the Celtic League brought Edinburgh here but the last Scottish club we entertained was Watsonians who toured in South Wales over Christmas as a warm-up for the more strenuous Hogmanay at home. Never has Highland dancing rocked so much and never did it take so long to recover after they left. Thankfully they didn’t bring their bagpipes, an inspiring instrument but not when blowing reveille.
The other two Scottish sides due to play at Ebbw Vale were the Ayreshire Bulls and the more famous Heriots who produced two full-backs of note. Ken Scotland, one of the first attacking full-backs, played 27 times for Scotland and Andy Irvine who surely is Scottish rugby’s greatest. He played 51 times for his country fifteen as captain, played on three Lions tour, managed another and ended as President of the Scottish Rugby Union. And it all began in a little town in the Borders.
Three Scottish internationals have represented Welsh clubs, the one we still remember with pride is of course a wing described by Bill McLaren as the Flying Scotsman, Arthur Smith. In March 1960 Wales with eight Gwent based players, beat Scotland 8-0. To our delight the Scottish side were captained by A.R. Smith (Ebbw Vale). In the 20s a GP at the top of the Western Valley, Dr Earnest Fahmy represented Abertillery in the Scottish team and between 1969 and 1977 flanker Wilson Lauder of Neath played eighteen times for the Scots twice marking his club mate Dai Morris but never catching him.
When the Cross Borders tournament was announced a friend in Edinburgh said how pleased he was that we were involved as “Ebbw Vale is highly thought of in Scotland because it was Arthur Smith’s club.” We didn’t know that did we? But it’s something to be proud of.
A PAST UNSIGHED FOR AND THE FUTURE ASSURED (07/04/20)
The words of Wordsworth are fitting when reading Greg Woods’ report on the 2019/20 season for it is more than a summary of what happened, or could have happened, it is a timely reminder of where we stand, what has been achieved and our duty to the club. Hisreport was optimistic and above all honest and just what we needed at this worrying time. Greg also rightly praised our back room and medical staff the latter now engaged on a more important task. He looks ahead as we should all do for rugby will return and we must be ready for it.
He ended his report on a bright and positive note when he announced that the first fixture next season (“whenever that will be”) will be a celebration/testimonial match between a Ross Jones XV and a Rob Sevenoaks XV, a perfect opener to a new era. What a good idea, well done that man!
It’s a long time since we had one of those special matches and by sheer coincidence, believe it or not and most readers will not, while isolated and wishing I had kept my Meccano Set, I sorted out a mass of match programmes and came across one for Monday 11th April 1960 for a Past versus Present game. It was played as season 1959/60 was drawing to a splendid finale for we finished top of the Welsh Club Championship with 32 wins, 2 draws and seven defeats, an average of 82.93%.
The Past XV was Ieuan Sheen; John Pugh, Harry Morgan, Graham Powell, Dave Richards; Ernie Lewis, Jack Lawrence; Islwyn Williams, Albie Jackson, Len Coldrick; Malcolm Collins, Ben Edwards; Horace Matthews, Eric Finney and Gwyn Griffiths.
The Present XV was Tommy Carpenter; Mel Williams, Dave Barrett, Ray Knott, Arthur Smith; Wilf Hunt, Roy Evans; Len Dimmick, Martin Preece, Des Winters; Len Harries, John Herrera; Graham Jones, David Nash, Francis Matthews.
Some of the Past side had joined other clubs but all of them had retained their fitness and enthusiasm. The Present XV won 16-6 not that the result mattered, but with a Scottish wing who two years later was Lions captain and a galaxy of local heroes on view the big crowd enjoyed a treat.
RUPERT OVER THE MOON PLAYING FOR WALES
Extract from RGC programme, 07/03/20
The thoughts of the multitude who “support” Welsh rugby via television are centred on Twickenham today but real rugby folk who support, administer, coach and playfor clubs like ours will focus on a game on their own patch. We play RGC 1404 for the tenth time, the firstwas in 2013/14, a great season ending in promotion and a 96% success rate.
Rupert Moon was there to greet us when we first played at Parc Eirias in September 2013. We knew him as scrum-half for Llanelli and Wales and before reaching those heights when he and his brother came from the Midlands to study in Wales and play for our neighboursAbertillery.
He played 24 times for Wales and made his international debut in 1993 in Paris, a sad afternoon that ended with France winning the Championship and Wales the Wooden Spoon. There followed a string of games in Africa, North America, Japan and Polynesia as well as the Home Nations playing opposite world greats like Joost van der Westhuizen in Johannesburg, relishing the 1995 Championship won by Wales but experiencing the downs as well as the ups in Welsh teams that lost to Canada and Western Samoa.
The 1994 England v Wales game at Twickers was won by England but we received the Championship trophy from the Queen which rather dampened English celebrations. The English scrum-half was Dewi Morris a Welshman and opposing him was Rupert Moon an Englishmen. It was the 100th game between us, today will be the 135th, England having won 63, Wales 59 with twelve drawn.
For sheer enjoyment trips to Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris take some beating whatever the result but Twickenham is about winning. We were used to Wales v England contests at club level and those at Gloucester were the hardest. In 1985 and 1986 we re-balanced the fixture list and went to Kingsholm two years running and won both games which shocked The Shed leading a Gloucester official to say “to us it’s Wales versus England.”
Wales faced an England team at Twickers in January 1950 that contained seven from the Commonwealth studying at Oxford and Cambridge in a game we described as Wales v The United Nations. Under the captaincy of John Gwilliam and with the genius of Lewis Jones we won and went on to win our first Grand Slam since 1911.
Touch-judges were not neutral in those days and the Irish game was decided by one. Malcolm Thomas went over in the corner but was he in touch when he grounded the ball? The Scots referee Beattie consulted the touch-judge who said he was not, the try was awarded and Wales beat Ireland 6-3. The touch-judge bless him was Irish. Losers didn’t whinge in those days, they made no excuses and didn’t publicly criticise referees. Top flight rugby football was a sport in every sense of the word, thankfully it still is – at club level!
TWO GAMES WORTH REMEMBERING
Extract from Pontypridd programme 18/01/20
When we played Pontypridd in September 2000 we were beginning a season of three competitions, a Welsh/Scottish League including games with Edinburgh and Glasgow and the European Shield playing Dax, Harlequins and Perigueux but it was the traditional fixtures with Welsh clubs that still counted and drew the crowds. The first of them that season was at home to Pontypridd when a star-studded cast performed before a large audience.
The Ebbw Vale side was Jonathan Williams; Rhys Shorney, Stephen John, Jonathan Hawker, Andrew Wagstaff; Jason Strange, Richard Smith; Iestyn Thomas, Andrew Peacock, Andrew Metcalfe; Chay Billen, Deiniol Jones; Gareth Green. Tyron Morris, Mark Jones (captain). Replacements were Damien Pensini, Glyn Llewellyn, Alun Phillips, Shaun Connor, Gareth Betts, Rhys Potter and the famous all-rounder A.N.Other.
Pontypridd won 32-23 and fielded Brett Davey; Craig Williams, Sonny Parker, Jason Lewis, Lenny Woodard; Ceri Sweeney, Paul John (captain); Nalu Tau, Faoe Vunipola, Sven Cronk; Brent Cockbain, Robert Sidoli; Matthew Lloyd, Richard Parks, Dale McIntosh. On their bench were Richard Neville, Lee Jarvis, Chris Loader, Ion Evans, Paul Graham, Michael Owen, Gareth Rowlands, John Bryant.
The programme (price £1.50 as it is today) paid tribute to our out-going coach Leigh Jones and his successor Mike Ruddock and the previous season was recalled in which we lost by one point to London Irish in a Shield semi-final and by twelve to Llanelli in the Welsh Cup semi-final. The team list in the programme was a Whos’ Who of Welsh rugby at the time.
One of the most dramatic and exciting games between our clubs was in March 2013 when we were in the Championship. After beating Newbridge 27-5 in the Cup we won at Cardiff 16-13 and were drawn home to Ponty for a contest headlined as a “Tale of Two Tables” played before the biggest crowd of the season.
The Ebbw Vale team was Charlie Simpson; Wes Cunliffe, Polu Uhi. Adam Jones, Luke Davies; Josh Lewis, Dai Jones; Ross Jones, Matthew Williams, Robert Sevenoaks; Damien Hudd (captain), Ashley Sweet; Gareth Williams, Ronny Kynes, Spencer Gibson. Replacements – John Lavender, Jonny Bowen, Rhys Clark, Cameron Regan, Chris Thomas, Dan Haymond and Dan Ajuwa.
The Pontyoridd side was Gareth Wyatt; Owen Williams, Gavin Dacey, Dafydd Lockyear, Matthew Nuthall; Simon Humberstone, Gareth James; Chris Phillips, Huw Dowden, Keiron Jenkins; Craig Locke, Chris Dicomidis (captain); Jake Thomas, Wayne O’Connor, Dan Godfrey. Replacements – Joel Raikes, Dai Flanagan, Gary Williams, Bradley Thyer, Tom Hetherington, Ed Siggery, Scott Roberts, Stuart Williams.
A late try in the corner by the Ponty skipper was converted by Dai Flanagan and Ponty won 23-21. After the thriller Ponty coach Dale Mackintosh was made Freeman of the Borough when he said “I have a huge respect for Ebbw Vale’s tradition and for them as people – they belong up in the Premiership – there’s no doubt about it”. Two seasons later jwe were back where we belonged and in April 2016 won the most important Ebbw v Ponty game of all after which with thirsts temporarily quenched we headed up the A470 as Premier champions.>/p>
TOBY, CARL AND A PROP CALLED OKEY
Extract from Merthyr Programme 03/01/20
South Wales is the heartland of Welsh rugby, always was and always will be. It’s packed with clubs and players who haven’t got far to travel when they change colours and are welcomed back as opponents. Toby Fricker went a little further and crossed the Severn to play for Bristol with our best wishes mixed with disappointment to lose such a player. In his first season with us he won the Welsh Premiership Best Newcomer Award for 2018 which combined with being seen on BBC Wales Friday night games aroused interest in his home city.
Bristol were promoted and have settled well in the Gallagher Premiership with Toby making the big jump from Welsh to English Premiership successfully. He’s now a Bear in a world of Saracens, Tigers, Wasps, Sharks, Chiefs, Saints, Warriors and Quins where every game counts and even international players have to fight for their place. Bristol coach Pat Lam described Toby as “a young Englishman with a positive attitude and a desire to learn” but with a father from Builth Wells and Welsh 7s and Welsh Premiership experience he would fit into a future Wales squad quite comfortably.
Carl Meyer, a back who regularly kicked goals from his own half, made a journey into the unknown when he left Pietermaritzburg and ended up in Pontygof but he quickly settled down and won games for us. Spotted by the Dragons he went south came back to us for a while but last year went west to a city famous for bourbon, Cajun chicken and, literally, all that jazz – New Orleans. Promoting rugby in the US needs experienced players and Carl has plenty of that.
South Africa has produced some great kickers, Percy Montgomery is just one, but hidden away in the list of Springboks is another ace kicker, Okey Geffin of Transvaal a prop forward who came to these shores with the 1951/2 Springboks who are still regarded as the most popular and adventurous side to come from the Republic.
Geffin volunteered for the South African army in the Second World War, fought in the Western Desert and was captured at Tobruk which must have been a problem for his captors. A prop as strong as all Springboks were and are, he kicked five penalty goals against New Zealand to win a Test match in 1949 and kicked 89 points on the 4th Springboks tour to the British Isles and France. They only lost one game but met stern opposition, especially in Wales. Playing against a determined Swansea his kicks won the game but one was bizarre, the ball hit one upright then the other then the crossbar before it went over.
Prop Geffin kicked goals and in recent times so has hooker Matthew Dwyer, a serving Welsh Guards sergeant who has hooked for Merthyr and captained The Army team successfully in the Inter-Services Tournament before a full house at Twickenham. Last season he converted two tries and kicked a penalty goal which sank the Navy and according to a match report having done so turned away “with a smile as big as a Cheshire cat.” A hooker kicking goals is unusual but a sergeant smiling is unbelievable.
THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Extract from the Bridgend programme 14/12/19
There is a vast army of volunteers whose devotion to their clubs is crucial, for without those prepared to give much of their time to undertake tasks pleasant or otherwise, clubs would cease to exist and with them the game nationally. Bridgend have an honours board of such people, among them Durbar Lawrie who was Club Secretary for more than forty years and Derrick King, chairman for 26 years who died in September and, like Durbar, was greatly respected throughout the game. To paraphrase a comment made by a US President speaking of his country, they didn’t ask what their club could do for them but what they could do for their club. Happily there are still many like them.
After today we will be away until January during which time we will send Christmas cards to neighbours we see every day and generally eat, drink and feel anything but merry next morning. At least we have short journeys over the Festive season unlike 1999 when we went to freezing Bucharest and won 43-27 and ten years later when we went north for a Cup tie at Llandudno ruining their Christmas by winning 79-3.
Rugby at Christmas and New Year once meant local games with Abertillery and Tredegar, more Grand Nationals than Derbies, with plenty of obstacles to face and hurdles to jump. We played Tredegar on New Year’s Day which was not as daft as our predecessors who in 1925 played at Aberavon on Christmas Day which shocked the chapels and upset entire families.
Travel in the 40s and 50s wasn’t too bad but in the 1920s it was an adventure for club supporters to even follow their team to Tredegar. On the 23rd December 1922 Ebbw Vale players went like pilgrims to the source of the game – Rugby – and won 8-3 but the Christmas Eve game that will always be remembered by those who endured it was in 1960 and Newport were the visitors.
The ground was packed, thousands filled the terrace and the Great Western Railway brought Newport supporters to the Ebbw Vale station a few minutes walk away. We led 3-0 for most of the game but in the closing minutes the Newport wing forward Brian Creswell crossed for a try in the corner. It was then that Christmas lost its merriment, Norman Morgan the Newport full-back who worked in Ebbw Vale steelworks converted and the visitors won 5-3. Newport supporters had received their Christmas present, Ebbw Valians stopped believing in Santa Claus.
I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas like the ones we used to know, I don’t want the trees to glisten or hear sleigh bells in the snow. May everyone’s Christmas be bright and may the New Year be good for both clubs who take the stage today. But no last minute dramas please!
WHEN CLUBS SUSTAINED WELSH RUGBY
Extract from Seansea programme 07/12/19
On Saturday April 12th 1997 crowds emerged from pubs around Westgate Street in Cardiff and headed to the Arms Park for a rugby treat, a Swalec Cup semi-final between Swansea and Ebbw Vale. They would see top players, some internationals, those who would be and others who should be, which was normal when clubs were the final stepping stones to the Welsh team. Added interest to Ebbw Valians was that both coaches Mike Ruddock and Leigh Jones were from the top of Gwent’s Western Valley.
The Swansea side was Matthew Back; Warren Leech, Mark Taylor, Scott Gibbs, Simon Davies; Aled Williams, Andrew Booth; Ian Buckett, Garin Jenkins (captain), Stuart Evans; Steve Moore, Paul Arnold; Allan Reynolds, Stuart Davies, Rob Appleyard. Replacements – Keith Colclough, Euros Evans, Danzi Niblo, Dean Thomas, Rhodri Jones, Lee Davies.
Ebbw Vale fielded Alun Harries; Ian Jeffreys, Jonathan Hawker, Mike Boys, Sean Marshall; Byron Hayward, David Llewellyn; Alun Phillips, Steve Jones, Duncan Bell; Chay Billen, Jason Lillas; Ben Watkins, Mark Jones, Kingsley Jones (captain). Replacements – Andrew Lamerton, Lee Banks, Gareth Bisp, Dean Jones, John Williams, Cain Price. A great game needed a great referee and we had one – Derek Bevan.
In the 1996/7 quarter finals Swansea won at The Gnoll 32-24 and we beat Bridgend at home 17-16 thanks to four penalty goals by Byron Hayward and a try by hooker Steve “Spike” Jones. A head to head contest between Spike and the Swansea captain Garin Jenkins in the semi-final was worth the entrance money alone and the battle of the minds between the coaches added to the drama. Swansea won 26-15 but lost in the final to Cardiff.
A few weeks earlier the last international on the Arms Park was played and Wales moved temporarily to Wembley Stadium. It was there that one of the greatest Welsh and Lions centres Scott Gibbs scored a famous try, one only he could have scored. In the words of writer and rugby historian Howard Evans, “The ball reached Scott Gibbs, or possibly ‘Gibsy’ reached the ball. He danced better than either Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and was over amidst titanic roars.” And where did the great Gibbs develop into one of the best in the world? A club.
Blaina, just over the mountain, has produced great players and coaches like Mike Ruddock and now adds a very promising referee whose father is Shaun Connor. Two weeks ago while we were revelling in Colwyn Bay 16 year old Ben refereed a 2nd XV game at Brecon and left a strong impression. Derek Bevan who came from Clydach and Nigel Owens from Mynyddcerrig both refereed World Cup Finals, perhaps one day Ben Connor from Blaina will too.
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Carmarthen programme, 16/11/19
As usual clubs played friendlies in August and in Rugby World Cup year the competing nations trained in camps to test players physically and mentally in harsh surroundings. Our warm-ups were not quite as energetic or mind-challenging, in August we made short journeys to Blaenavon and Nantyglo and a longer one to Brixham where our lads did not repeat their last visit when they camped like boy scouts, a wise decision because being townies the art of pitching tents is beyond them. We went to Devon, Wales went to Switzerland, a country famous for many things like finance, cuckoo clocks, chocolate,watches, Federer, trains that run on time and yodelling but not rugby football. They do have mountains, some even bigger than Domen Fawr, and it was on them that the Welsh squad went through ordeals mentally and physically. The operation was described as “beautiful but brutal,” there was no respite or St. Bernard Dogs carrying mini barrels of brandy to come to the aid of panting props and breathless backs who responded so well they could have won a game on Mount Fuji. Wales also trained in Turkey a country tourists find delightful and the result of all the planning, preparation and playing was a well deserved fourth place in the toughest World Cup ever. Never in the field of sporting conflict have there been more World Cups than in 2019. Men, women, young and middle-aged flew thousands of miles to compete, the rich and officials of the various Unions swelled the coffers of hotels and airlines while the vast majority stayed at home and sensibly recorded games so they could skip adverts and depending on who was on them panels of pundits pontificating prolifically.
It seemed at times as if every sport except dominoes and draughts was staging a World Cup tournament culminating in exciting finals. The Rugby World Cup is named after a junior at Rugby School, an establishment still recovering from former pupils William Webb Ellis and our club president Mark Powell. The 2019 Rugby World Cup was above all a triumph for Japan, whose defeat of the Springboks four years before was engineered by two Jones boys, Eddie once coach of Australia and Leigh once coach of Ebbw Vale.
Last season we defeated Quins twice and lost once and finished in the Premiership top six which qualified us to play in next Spring’s Welsh-Scottish club competition will take us across two borders into a land renowned for haggis, malt whisky and late nights. The last time we played in Scotland was April 2002 in the short lived Welsh-Scottish League when we lost to Edinburgh 31-49 but returned unscathed and determined to do better next time. That will be May 2nd when we return to the Scottish capital to play old friends Watsonians. Haggis and Scotch for breakfast anyone?
AS TIMES GOES BY
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Llanelli programme 26/10/19
You must remember this, tonight is the time for watches and clocks large and small to be put back an hour. Pity the man in charge of Big Ben, the nation’s premier time-piece that has dominated London even longer than rugby has dominated South Wales. When Llanelli were here last season this column related Wales’s 12th international played at Stradey Parc in 1887 but this time we only go back eleven years to November 2008 when the team I still call the Scarlets played here.
The match programme included a spotlight on our 19 year old full-back David Gareth Langdon in his seventh game of the season who when asked his nickname said it was Dai. He modestly mentioned playing for Wales Under 16s, 18s and the Under 19s in a World Cup and the player he most admired was Dan Carter. Nothing unusual so far until when asked his favourite meal he chose spaghetti bolognese and his favourite drink was – strawberry milkshake!
Having survived the comments, some unprintable, in the dressing room when his mates read the programme Dai played full-back against Llanelli behind three-quarters Andrew MacLaughlan, captain Kristian Owen, Shaun Powell and Andrew Bevan. Strangely the game was played on a Tuesday evening but the long journey for Llanelli did not upset them, they won and also the return the following February. Rather disappointing after we had won both fixtures in the previous season.
The tales of games between Ebbw Vale and Llanelli are full of adventurous moves and spectacular tries but one game in April 1957 remains in the memory of the few survivors who saw it. After a Five Nations in which Wales scored just five tries we defeated ‘Llanelly’ 26-3 thus getting the double having won the game at Stradey Parc 5-0 in September 1956. No-one expected us to win even at home by such a margin in an era when scoreboard operators were under-worked and it was the manner in which we did it that was unusual because our three tries came from cross kicks FROM the wings. Nowadays crosskicks are TO the wings.
Like all clubs Llanelli have veterans who talk about the good old days and very late nights when beer was half a crown a pint and no-one slept on tour. There will be a few here today and they have good memories of times past, like the evening game at Stradey when after sampling the best Felinfoel brew we left the Club Secretary behind!
An eventful Rugby World Cup ends a week today, weather permitting the next will be held in France and millions will watch it from armchairs and clubhouse bars. They will be kept well informed by what are now called pundit teams, in other words former rugby greats whose words of wisdom explain things to us. It’s a serious business but so was Bill McLaren’s era yet he made us chuckle many times. One of the hardest, roughest and most unpleasant games he covered was Wales v England in March 1987 at the Arms Park during which Bill described the lineout as a den of iniquity!
STEELMEN, DROVERS, ROMANS AND NIGEL
From Ebbw Vale v Llandovery programme,12/10/19
We first played Llandovery in the 1992/3 season when we were in Division Two and snatched a valuable away win 6-3 thanks to a very late drop goal by Jason Strange. Since then honours are about even in thirty-four League and Cup games between us. In 2015/16 we played the Drovers four times, once in the Cup, the first Premiership game when we suffered a hammering at Church Bank 50-0 and the fourth when we returned for a semi-final play-off which we won 20-16. A week later we beat Pontypridd 38-12 on their own ground and became Premier champions.
The 1992/3 season was a poor one for Wales, we beat England but lost the other Five Nations games leaving us with the Wooden Spoon. The touring Aussies beat Wales comfortably, understandably as they had world greats in their backs like Tim Horan and David Campese. A few days later they comfortably defeated Monmouthshire at Ebbw Vale watched by a big crowd that included Campese who spent the afternoon signing autographs.
Welsh Schools and Youth rugby was still strong in 92/3 and we staged a much better and far more entertaining game when Welsh Schools played Ireland who won 8-0 thus ending Wales’s hopes of a Triple Crown. In the Welsh pack was a young lad born, raised and nurtured in a rugby family, Craig Quinnell representing Llandovery College.
Wales’s first international match was played at Blackheath in February 1881. The captain James Bevan, a Cambridge Blue, was born in Australia and lived in Grosmont near Abergavenny and had to suffer a thirteen try defeat. It was Bevan’s first and last outing as captain, he was replaced by full-back Charles Lewis of Llandovery College an establishment that produced many great players in the formative years of the game in Wales.
Since medieval times a hardy breed of men from places like Llandovery drove livestock to markets in England on established routes, one taking them to south east London where in 1858 the first open rugby club was formed in Blackheath. Resting after their march the drovers might have seen a strange game and brought home news of men engaged in legalised mayhem, scrambling for possession of an oddly shaped ball to throw around, as well as opponents, after which everyone shook hands, changed in the adjoining Princess of Wales pub and stayed until stop tap.
In Japan another hardy breed of men are battling for the 2019 Rugby World Cup named after William Webb Ellis who in Rugby School picked up a ball and ran with it. He was not the first to do so, the Romans were doing that long before except the ‘ball’ was often an opponent’s head. They called it Harpastum and also played Soule which involved fighting, strangling and head breaking, a contest not even Nigel Owens could handle. On second thoughts if Nigel can control New Zealand v South Africa and a West Wales village Derby he would have shown Roman invaders in places like Caerleon that when in Wales you do what Nigel says.
Footnote. With end of season fixtures against Scottish clubs in mind it was very pleasing to hear from an acquaintance in Edinburgh that “Ebbw Vale has a great name in Scottish rugby circles, having been Arthur Smith’s team.” Arthur Smith came to Ebbw Vale to work in the steelworks after gaining a degree in Mathematics at Glasgow University and a Ph.D and four Blues at Cambridge. He captained Scotland and the 1962 Lions in South Africa and was described by Bill Mclaren as the Flying Scotsman, a legend in Scotland – and Ebbw Vale.
FARMERS GO FACE TO FACE
From Ebbw Vale v Narberth programme,14/09/19
In 1982/3 Narberth celebrated their centenary with a Pembrokeshire Cup and championship double and made a strong challenge in the Schweppes Cup, an unlikely title for a competition in a sport closely linked to beer. In the first round Narberth travelled east to Rhymney, famous for rugby and a brewery, and won 22-0. Meanwhile we were home to Ystradgynlais, tough nuts to crack but we won 18-9. Then in December we headed west for our fourth Cup tie in Pembrokeshire this time to Narberth a club we got to know well.
To quote the 1983 Rugby Annual of Wales “Ebbw Vale have experienced some worrying visits to West Wales and once again they encountered the perils of the west as Narberth snatched the lead three times with penalty goals by Geraint Bowen.” But we survived through a try by prop Malcolm Sibthorpe which amazed the Brylcreem boys in the backs. Stuart Lewis converted and added two penalty goals in a close encounter which would have been easier had Des Parry not let the backs down when he lost control of the ball over the Narberth line.
In the Narberth front-row was a young farmer and prop listed in the programme as B. Williams, and opposite him was Colin Williams another farmer from Deri. The ‘B’ was Brian who went on to play for a Neath side that was almost unbeatable and for a Welsh side that rarely beat anybody. Described as being tough as teak, Brian was an outstanding prop forward respected by all who opposed him. Colin Williams, still farming in Deri, remembers his first encounter with Brian and others that followed when Ebbw played Neath and the farmers went face to face.
It was the beginning of a happy relationship with Narberth who were in better form than we were in our first League encounters in 1992/3, beating us soundly home and away 22-9 and 18-10. We then got our act together and won the next seven. Our final game in the 2013/14 season was at Narberth and we travelled there with promotion to the Premiership in the bag and an undefeated run in the Championship at stake.Narberth is not the ground to go to feeling over-confident but the welcome was warm and the home players clapped us on the field which was a nice touch. We were in celebratory mood, Narberth were in winning mood and we suffered our only league defeat of the season, 29-10.
We haven’t played Narberth since and we don’t have a farmer in the pack but thanks to the Cup we meet again today in a competition full of surprises and more banana skins than they have in Tescos. We must be in ‘Cup’ mood as we were two seasons ago when we lost a semi-final to eventual winners Merthyr 6-10 and last season when we lost to them 9-10.
Welcome Narberth, it’s nice to have you back.
From Ebbw Vale v Newport programme, 07/09/19
After a summer of casting, rehearsing and out of town trial runs the curtain rises on another different Premiership planned to end early in April to accommodate a competition with Scottish clubs. When we played in Scotland we travelled by coach which on one occasion broke down twice going to Galashiels and once coming back near Garnlydan. Next Spring twelve Welsh and Scottish squads and supporting staff are set to travel by air, a faster and more comfortable way to get there but much more expensive.
We await details of this unusual and adventurous addition to the fixture list with some apprehension but we have a lot to do before S-Day beginning with the perfect start, a home game against Newport the only other Gwent side in the Premiership. It’s an important fixture and an opportunity, some will say excuse, to recall games and players of yesteryear.
A newcomer to our squad, Carl Sully, has joined from Pill Harriers a club that produced a father and son who hooked for Wales. George Travers won 25 caps before World War One and William ‘Bunner’ Travers a Lion in South Africa in 1938 was capped before and after World War Two, one of only four Welsh players to do so. Despite the war a lot of rugby was played and Bunner played for The Army and Welsh XVs in international charity matches.
George was in the Welsh team that beat the 1905 All-Blacks 3-0, the first of only three victories over them in over a hundred years of trying. Late in his career he joined Newport having played 23 of his 25 games for Wales as a Pill Harrier a club we have played five times, the last in the 1985/6 Cup which we won 27-8, outside-half Colin Watkins contributing 19 points. Our other games with Pill Harriers were in the 1920s a win each and two draws and only thirty nine points scored. Not very exciting for players and spectators but what else was there to do on Saturday afternoons in the Twenties?
George Travers played in a team that beat a major touring side and many years later another Newport international, Brian Jones, had the same experience not once but THREE times. He was in Newport teams that beat Australia in 1957 and New Zealand in 1963 and the Barbarians XV that inflicted the only defeat on the 1961 South Africans who had scraped 3-0 wins over the combined Ebbw Vale & Abertillery side and Newport captained by – Brian Jones!
Brian was here for last season’s game with Newport who won 27-20 after trailing 17-3, a fair result which was reversed later in the season at Rodney Parade where decades before Brian had seen his team-mate John Uzzell drop the goal to beat the All-Blacks. Last March before a much smaller crowd Ebbw’s Rhys Jones dropped one to defeat Newport 31-29 following which the referee ended proceedings and supporters recovered in the customary manner.
REL’S LAST THIS SEASON
NEVER EASY AT THE GNOLL
Extracted from the Neath programme 27-Apr-19
When leagues changed everything in 1990/1 our Merit Table record in the previous three seasons put us in Division Two while Neath were in Division One. Throughout the 80s our results had been poor especially against Neath who we only beat three times and by narrow margins, 4-3 and 18-16 at The Gnoll and 6-3 at home. But not all games with Neath have been close, like one at the Gnoll in November 1956 when we found ourselves committed to two games on the same Saturday.
The side we sent to the Gnoll had only one 1st XV player in it, lock Ron Morgan, and we were beaten 36-6, a heavy defeat at the time. Neath’s wing Keith Maddocks scored six tries and as a result was picked for Wales to play England the following Saturday. In an uneventful game he was judged by the Scottish referee to be offside, England kicked the penalty, won 3-0 and Maddocks didn’t play for Wales again. It would have been fairer if the Welsh selectors had been dropped not him.
The 6-3 win over Neath in March 1984 came a few days after we suffered a rare defeat at South Glamorgan Institute when a young full-back named Paul Thorburn of Hereford Cathedral School made his debut for us kicking four out of five attempts at goal. Two games later he kicked the two penalty goals that beat Neath who he joined the following season. Paul played 37 games for Wales and was one of the few Welsh world class players of the 80s. In 1987 the first World Cup was won by the host country New Zealand. Wales did well and defeatedAustralia in the third place play-off 22-21 thanks to a brilliant touchline conversion by Paul of a 79th minute try by Adrian Hadley. It was not unusual for Paul, a year before he had kicked a goal from 70 yards and eight inches against Scotland.
Among the few English players who joined Welsh clubs wasAlex Codling who went to the Gnoll. He had played for Harlequins and once for England and became rugby’s version of a lifeboat when Marcus Russell brought him to Ebbw Vale at the end of the 2005/06 season as coach. Our ship was sinking, at the end of March we had played 24 Premiership games, losing 16, drawing two and winning six. In April and May we won four out of seven and were rescued.
In 2006/7 Alex made us challengers for the title with 16 league wins, three drawn and seven lost, one by two points against Cardiff, the difference being the inclusion in the Cardiff side of Welsh international Andy Powell. As a result of that we finished runners-up to Neath, but joy was short lived when Alex moved back to England and three years later we were relegated.
The most suitable lyric for our last home game is, “The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day” from the musical Bells Are Ringing. If ever an Ebbw Vale squad deserves the ringing of bells it’s Greg’s Gang. Go back to the first home game which began as a tear-jerker but ended in triumph and a sign of things to come. We were 17-0 down to Aberavon and not even the inimitable Phil Steele could make us smile but there was a happy ending when our new scoreboard finally registered 19-17. Other close calls followed, wins by one or two points that brought relief, smiles and points in a season when they were as valuable as gold.
Thanks for more smiles than tears lads and enjoy your party tonight, you won’t call it a day until tomorrow.
MORE THRILLS THAN SPILLS
Extracted from the Bedwas programme 20-Apr-19
After a winter of content we can describe 2018/19 as a season of more thrills than spills and narrow wins which neutral TV viewers enjoyed but which shattered the nerves of supporters. It has been a season of hard fought League and Cup games, almost every encounter was of the close kind as so much was at stake in a Premiership that was more competitive than ever.
The Premiership consisted of sixteen clubs, twice as many as 1997/8 when there were only Swansea (46 points) who finished top followed by Cardiff (40), Pontypridd (35), Ebbw Vale (27), Neath (23), Llanelli (22), Bridgend (12) and Newport (0). We had a great Cup run, five games and then the final in Bristol and eight European Conference games that included a memorable visit to La Rochelle where we lost by a point having beaten them at Ebbw by two.
To keep us occupied in such a sparse season the WRU decided that with Bridgend, Llanelli and Pontypridd we would play for a Welsh Challenge Trophy. Mid-winter conditions were not welcomed by teams from sunnier climes, Cordoba and Tucuman of Argentina and Nambia, once known as South East Africa. It didn’t attract crowds, the competition lasted for two seasons and must have cost thousands in several currencies. A waste of money perhaps but at least the games were fifteen a side and played in rugby minded communities.
Tours by Springboks, All-Blacks and Wallabies often compensated for dreary Five Nations seasons like 1972/3 which ended in a five-way tie, Wales topping the table on points difference. The New Zealand tour brightened things up and its UK finale against the Barbarians before a packed Arms Park is still regarded as the best game of rugby ever.
When the All-Blacks played Gwent at Ebbw Vale in that tour over 20,000 flooded Pontygof with large contingents from the clubs represented. With Newport playing the tourists on their own the Gwent side consisted of five each from Ebbw Vale and Newbridge, four from Pontypool and one from Bedwas, their centre and skipper Roy Duggan. Terry Maggs of Blaina went on when Ebbw’s Graham Evans, another Blaina boy, was injured.
Ebbw Vale’s jerseys were red, white and green narrow stripes until the Centenary season 1979/80 when the stripes were widened and the club crest added. Players were devoted to the club as the 2018/19 Steelmen are, they wear the same kit but the main difference between then and now is that there are fewer spectators. It’s a great pity, for, thanks to BBC Wales cameras, there has been universal interest and acclaim for club rugby without which there would be no international team.
Our coach and his class of 2018/19 have never let their television fame to go to their heads and despite their stardom keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, except for the lineout leapers who spend Saturdays airborne. The Ronny Kynes fan club were most upset when injury ended his season, but his fame is such that when a forward in a televised match between other Premier teams got a try from a lineout it was described as a Catch ‘n’ Kynes!
TRYING TIMES FOR PROPS
Extracted from the Bargoed programme 13-Apr-19
Fifty years ago Wales played Ireland at an Arms Park partly closed due to reconstruction which kept the crowd to 29,000 plus the new Prince of Wales. It will be remembered for two things, an “incident” involving Brian Price from Deri and Noel Murphy from Cork and a snap try by a prop which was unusual. Since the Second World War only three props, Cliff Davies in 1950, Courtney Meredith in 1955 and Ray Prosser in 1957 had scored tries for Wales. Denzil Williams made it four.
Keith Jarrett’s kicking was deadly and when the Irish were penalised everyone expected him to take a shot at goal. Denzilhad other ideas, he took the ball off Jarrett and sauntered over for a try which turned the tide for Wales who won 24-11 and the Triple Crown. Props scoring tries came as no surprise to Denzil from Trefil, he had once played against a prop from Fiji who scored three!
It was in the Wales XV v Fijian game in 1964 our first sight of a side from the Islands an uncapped match but several Welsh players went on to win full honours. One was John Mantle of Newport who began his rugby career at Bargoed. Capped in both codes he went north and played 433 games for St. Helen’s where on his death last November he was described as one of their greatest.
Denzil Williams played against the 1964 Fijians twice in two weeks, for Monmouthshire/Glamorgan and the Welsh XV when he opposed giant prop Sevaro Walisoliso who was and probably still is the only tighthead to score three tries in a game. There were thirteen in all and everyone agreed that Fiji should have won after playing so well despite losing their huge lock Nalio with a dislocated shoulder after ten minutesthere being no replacements then. Wales won 28-22 but the best side lost.
John Mantle played for Loughborough College, one of two famous rugby academies the other being St. Luke’s at Exeter. His two games for Wales in 1964 were tests of endurance,England at Twickers and South Africa in Durban. The match against England in January 1964 was a 6-6 draw and to show how unexciting international rugby once was the 1962 game ended 0-0. Wales went to South Africa in May lost the Test24-3 and by three tries to nil, the biggest Welsh defeat for 40 years.
When major touring sides played club and combined sides inSouth Wales they got to know the land and its people. Bargoed produced quality coal as well as players and in 1935 welcomed the touring All-Blacks who a few days before playing Cardiff visited Bargoed Colliery and walked to the coal face 650 feet underground. Imagine 21st century international sides doing that!
Our ground has been seen on TV many times this season and was selected by the WRU to stage two semi-finals, Brecon v Penallta in the Plate and Merthyr v Pontypool in the National Cup. Both are major events in the Welsh club calendar and staging them is a privilege, quite rare and a “first” for us. The National Cup semi brought a big crowd, mainly Poolers and the cameras scanned an arena where once world greats in rugby and cricket played. Being a host club calls for a major effort and many thanks are due to those who carried out the many tasks required. Well done everyone.
The only other Cup game on our ground not involving us was in 1971, a controversial tie between Brynmawr and Newport under lights, controversial because it should have been a Saturday home tie for Brynmawr. And therein lies a story.
GREAT CHARACTERS PAST AND PRESENT
Extract from the Llandovery programme, 14-Mar-19
In 2015/16 we made a recovery the RAC and AA would have been proud of and repeated it last season. Words of a 1930’s song sprang to mind, “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again,” which we did after a disastrous afternoon in Llandovery in September 2015 where history of the wrong kind was made. The season had started well but we hit the depths at Church Bank in the fourth game where we conceded fifty points without reply.
We had arrived in Llandovery in optimistic mood but to quote another song title we left “Bewitched, bothered and bewildered.” It seemed like the collapse of civilisation as we knew it, but not for long. We won thirteen of the remaining eighteen Premiership games and for the second year running played Pontypridd in the Premiership play-off and won 38-12.
Among the many memories of that afternoon two stand out, two tries by Ronnie Kynes who thereby notched 18 for the season and the finale when Dan Haymond performed a circus act which reminds me of another old song, “He flew through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze.”
The busiest man on the field is the scrum-half and the older they get the more they amaze us. Our Peter Pan aka Dai Jones follows many Steelmen in that position, among them Jack Lawrence who revelled in the fast moving Ebbw side of the early Fifties when Championships were won and quality rugby was played. Jack was 92 when he died in February which saddened a team-mate who is still with us, Horace Matthews of Cwm. He played blind-side and his duty was clear, stick with Jack Lawrence, he’ll make the breaks, you take the pass, now called an off load, and you score a try. Easier said than done but in the Fifties decade our success rate averaged 75% per season.
Jack Lawrence played rugby into his forties and on Monday 11thApril 1960 was in a Past XV v Present XV game. The Past team was Ieaun Sheen; John Pugh, Harry Morgan, Graham Powell, Ken Richards; Ernie Lewis, Jack Lawrence; Islwyn Williams, Albie Jackson, Len Coldrick; Malcolm Collins, Ben Edwards; Horace Matthews, Eric Finney, Gwyn Griffiths. The Present team was Tommy Carpenter; Mel Williams, David Barrett, Ray Knott, Arthur Smith; Wilf Hunt, Roy Evans; Len Dimmick, Martin Preece, Des Winters; Len Harries, John Herrera; Graham Jones, David Nash, Francis Matthews. The Matthews brothers marked each other, or tried to. All great characters and all Welsh except the great Scottish wing Arthur Smith who captained his country several times as an Ebbw Vale player and was captain of the 1982 Lions team in South Africa that included his former club mate David Nash. A great player and character, Arthur Smith’s death aged 42 was mourned throughout the rugby world and was marked with a special game at Murrayfield in which Gareth Howls represented Ebbw Vale.
Great players and characters of the past, some of them legends, but the present generation are filling their places and are enjoying playing for the same club wearing the same jersey on the same ground. Our matches are expertly recorded on film and in print and we have our own reporter on the web who has a way with words as he showed after the game at Cross Keys last month. Commenting on our hooker’s performance he described him as a ‘human wrecking ball.’ A smashing compliment.
ALL BLACK IN PONTY, ALL BAD IN PRETORIA
Extract from Pontypridd programme Mar 01 2019
On Wednesday November 11th 1997 all roads led to Pontypridd, not unusual in the rugby season but this was a special day for the All-Blacks were in town to play Wales A and among them was Jonah Lomu. It was not his first visit to a Valley club’s ground, on December 4th 1996 he had led an International XV at Eugene Cross Park wearing an Ebbw Vale jersey and finished a memorable day by speaking at the after match dinner. The man who added a new dimension to rugby union around the world found a welcome in our hillside and we considered it a privilege to be in his company.
The 1997 New Zealanders were on a nine game tour and arrived at Sardis Road three days after beating Llanelli 81-3 and by thirteen tries to nil, the biggest score by a touring team in Wales. Llanelli coach Gareth Jenkins said his players “didn’t know what hit them……they just couldn’t live with it.”
The game at Ponty had an added attraction to Ebbw Valiansbecause Byron Hayward was in the Welsh side and Pontypridd supporters were pleased to have four of their players selected, one them Mark Spiller a former Steelman. It was a totally different New Zealand side to the one that demolished the Scarlets but it included twelve internationals, among them Tana Umaga, Walter Little, Anton Oliver and Carlos Spencer, an outside-half who mesmerised opponents.
Facing a mighty challenge Wales A responded defiantly and held the All-Blacks in check for an hour, one tackle by Byron that felled 19 stone Lomu typified their spirit but the inevitable happened and the dam broke. The All-Black second string won 51-8 and a few weeks later the tourists beat Wales 42-7 at Wembley and went home leaving behind them a trail of tired scoreboard operators.
Sardis Road played an important part in our 1997/8 SwalecCup saga for we played a semi-final with Newport there. We won 44-10 and our full-back was described as delightful and dashing, he was of course Siua (Josh) Taumalolo who got a hat-trick of tries then five days later with another SteelmanKuli Faletau played for Tonga against Wales at Swansea. It was a great season for Josh who scored three tries and kicked nine conversions for the Baa-Baas in a 73-19 record win overLeicester.
Wales finished third in the 1998 Five Nations losing 60-26 atTwickenham and 51-0 to France at Wembley. Worse followedwhen Wales went to South Africa with a ghost side well below strength because many “star” players made themselvesunavailable. The 96-13 win by the Springboks in Pretoria typified a tour described as a suicide mission but credit goes to the players who went and Pontypridd’s Dennis John the caretaker coach who temporarily filled the gap after Bowring left.
It’s Saint David’s Day and what better way to end it than playing, watching and talking rugby. Wales have rarely played on March 1st, the first time in 1890 ended in a draw in Dublin. The only excitement was after the game when eight Irish players and one Welsh were arrested for “too much exuberance of spirits” which could mean they had mixed Jamesons with Guinness. On March 1st 1975 there was plenty of exuberance among the kilted at Murrayfield when Scotland won 12-10 and denied Wales a Grand Slam. The SRU treasurer was delighted, there was a world record crowd of 110,000, forty thousand of them Welsh all of them genuine rugby people. A dying breed.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
Extract from RGC programme, 11 Jan 2019
When the Welsh Rugby Union created Rygbi Gogledd Cymru and added 1404 to its name it marked an historic moment in Welsh history for in that year Owain Glyndwr was crowned Prince of Wales. Owain, a rebel with a cause, led Wales against England in a rebellion that upset Henry IV who thought the Welsh were revolting anyway. We didn’t win and Owain was not seen or heard of afterwards but his fame lives on.
Four hundred years after Owain hit the headlines a Welsh team went to Belfast expecting to beat Ireland having just disposed of Scotland and drawn with England. Instead, they lost but would have won if the referee had awarded what every unbiased Welshman present knew was a perfectly good try. Mr J Crawford Findlay of Scotland had already displeased the Welsh press in January when in the game against England at Leicester he disallowed a try by the star wing of the time Teddy Morgan who was hailed as a saint ten months later when he scored the try that beat the 1905 All-Blacks.
One of the Welsh team in Belfast was Alf Brice, a prop and therefore rebellious by nature, but a perfect gentleman, like all of that ilk, who couldn’t resist telling the referee what he thought of him. Mr Findlay accused Alf of verbal abuse and those running the game suspended him for eight months and he didn’t play for Wales again. Like Owain, he disappeared into the mists of time.
RGC 1404 were formed in 2008 – a good year for Welsh rugby and Warren Gatlland”s first as national coach, which brought a Grand Slam with two crucial wins at Twickenham and Dublin. Eleven games were played that year, seven were won including Canada and Australia and four lost. In South Africa we lost twice and five months later fell to the Boks and the All-Blacks in Cardiff in a battle of wits between two Kiwi coaches, Warren Gatland and Graham Henry.
The only trophy that seems to matter in 21st Century rugby is the World Cup but when there were Five Nations the Triple Crown was the prize, beating France to bag a Grand Slam was icing on the cake. In a few weeks the Six Nations begins for Wales in Paris once famed for artists like Monet, Manet and many more. Equally famous artists of a different kind, Blanco, Sella and Rives, emerged in the 80s and 90s and turned French rugby into a thing of beauty. Serge Blanco played against Wales eleven times and was on the losing side only once in 1982 when Rives was up against a man from Manmoel called Clive Burgess. In March 1963 Wales were bottom of the Championship for the first time in fourteen years and a 5-3 defeat at Stade Colombes was the last straw. Seven of the Welsh side played for Monmouthshire clubs but only the backrow forwards were praised. They came from what became Blaenau Gwent: Alun Pask and Hadyn Morgan of Abertillery and Graham Jones of Ebbw Vale. There was some compensation on the Sunday after the game when Ebbw Vale drew 11-11 with Paris University but the toughest challenge was yet to come after a busy week-end: getting to work on Monday.
The current French team does not compare with the one Blanco captained and as we have won six of the last seven games against them perhaps another Waterloo is on the cards. Like Bonaparte, Owain Glyndwr led a losing side, but let’s hope another equally famous Welsh legend Alun Wyn Jones, does a Wellington.
A TALE OF TWO PARKS
Extracted from match programme Ebbw Vale v Llanelli 15 December 2018
Stradey Park was known the world over for rugby but it was thanks to Llanelli Cricket Club that it staged a rugby international between Wales and England. It was on March 12th 1887 and it drew 8000 to see the sixth game between the countries, England having won the first five but it looked as if it wouldn’t take place when the English refused to play on a semi-frozen pitch and were supported by the English referee. Thereafter refs were neutral but not according to the average bob banker.
If the game had been cancelled there would have been ructions in two languages, three if the unprintable is included, but a solution was found next door where the cricket ground was declared playable. The game and posts were switched, everything except the scoreboard which was not needed because the game ended in a 0-0 draw. It rained and it blew a gale which dislodged one of the cross bars that was replaced by the legendary Welsh centre Arthur Gould who climbed up the post to do so. Those who had booked seats couldn’t sit in the stand because there wasn’t one but at least Wales didn’t lose which was an excuse for a minor celebration aided by the Felinfoel and Buckley’s breweries.
Stradey Park developed into a stadium with a capacity of 10,800 and not only visiting clubs lost there; so did Aussies, Springboks and the All-Blacks. Incoming tours were longer then and were welcomed by Welsh clubs who formed combined teams to challenge the world’s best before sell out crowds. They watched games of high quality in their own locality, so many packed the grounds that if Health and Safety officials had been around then they would have had a field day. When Gwent played the All-Blacks at our ground in 1972 the official attendance was given as 20,000 but those of us huddled on the terrace knew it was more than that.
In April 2015 we scored a lot of tries at Parc y Scarlets which led our wizard website writer, who speaks Welsh but is named Smith, to wax lyrical (which is dangerous for a man of his age) when he declared “Ebbw played some calypso rugby on a table-top playing surface but the moment of the game came from Mathew Williams, his looped pass to Tom James for the bonus point try was sublime.” At a time when international and top flight rugby is one collision after another there’s not much sublime to wax lyrical about so we are left with memories of times when there was.
Sublime was Phil Bennett running out of his 22 for the Barbarians to start a move which ended with ‘that try’ by Gareth Edwards. Of Lewis Jones, doing national service in the Navy in 1950, on his Welsh debut running out of defence in a move which ended with a prop, Cliff Davies, scoring a try that stunned the Twickenham crowd. Lewis Jones later of Llanelli was sheer magic and made it to the top in two codes and so was another who “went North,” Ebbw’s Glyn Turner who in that Gwent v New Zealand classic scored a try that sent Sid Going the wrong way.
Next Saturday we kick-off the Festive season at Aberavon followed by the usual Boxing Day game at Bedwas. Christmas has changed a lot, there are very few chimneys for Santa to come down and you can’t get the Hotspur Annual any more but we must be thankful for small mercies: when we played at Aberavon in 1925 it was on Christmas Day!
STATS OF THE PAST
Extract from EV v Cardiff programme 08/12/18
In the summer, when we are at a loose end, delving into rugby history passes the time quite pleasantly. It keeps the mind tuned to the correct channel, it avoids physical pursuits like weeding and watering dandelions and it provides surprises. Last summer I discovered we first played Cardiff in 1927 and won 22-13, two seasons later beat them again, 8-6 and that Cardiff fielded two 1st XVs.
There were complaints from the rugger chaps and after a game at Northampton on April 20th 1927 which the Saints won 18-6 they described their visitors as being “weak, inexperienced and unrepresentative.” On the same afternoon we beat Cardiff 22-13 at Ebbw Vale which poses a question, was the team we played the strong, experienced and representative one?
But enough of ancient history, the results of the eight Ebbw-Cardiff games from 2014/15 when we returned to the Premiership are more interesting, we won seven and the one defeat was last season at home 21-23. When we were ring-fenced we had two good Cup runs reaching the semi-final in 2011/12 and in the next season after beating Newbridge 27-5 won a thriller at Cardiff 16-11 and lost at home to Pontypridd 22-23 through a last minute touchline conversion. As Neil Edwards our coach at the time said, “We are a Premier Division club that happens to be playing in the First Division.”
Several of the games were played under lights but before floodlights were installed on our ground the team trained on the Grammar School field with only the street lights on Beaufort Road to save them from bumping into one another. On January 7th 1961 the Bridgend Field as it was then known was illuminated for the first time for a game with Cardiff which we won 10-3 and a new era of club rugby began, more fixtures and the Floodlit Alliance try-only competition. A month earlier our greatest No. 8 David Nash won his first Welsh cap, one of six making their debuts against Malan’s Springboks who had beaten Ebbw Vale/Abertillery 3-0 earlier in their tour.
On December 3rd 1961 the heavens opened over Cardiff Arms Park and the international with South Africa was played on mud and under stinging icy rain and a gale force wind. The Boks won 3-0 causing John Billot to write “by the end it was just misery.” Next day a photograph of a rowing boat on the Arms Park was taken by which time those who had gone to the game were slowly recovering from pneumonia and hangovers.
There were no floodlights in the Arms Park so when Cardiff decided to stage an evening game in March 1961 it was under the Ninian Park lights against Bristol who surprisingly won. In the late 50s and early 60s Ebbw Vale had a massive pack which was described as a cross between a herd of rogue elephants and entries for the Smithfield Show. In it was Malcolm Collins who joined us from Cardiff and was captain in the 1958/9 season. Born in a house overlooking Rodney Parade he nevertheless became a Cardiff legend and in one season played in fifty out of fifty-two fixtures. A ganger platelayer for the GWR he became manager of the railway depot in Canton, the one in Cardiff not China, a big job for a big man and one both of our clubs regard as one of their best.
QUINS AND CUPS
Extracted from EV v Carmarthen programme 23/11/18
It’s not Cup day but when the Quins come to town memories of our first meeting come to mind for it was the Cup that brought us together. It was a competition revived in 1971/2 but not a new experience for Carmarthen who played in the first ever Welsh Cup in 1877. It was inaugurated by the South Wales Football Union the predecessor of the WRU but a Challenge Cup competition that called for a guinea entry fee was short lived despite a prize to the winners of fifty guineaswhich was a lot of money in those days.
In the first round there was no home advantage so Carmarthen had to travel by railway or horse and trap to Neath to play Cardiff who were not notified of the game until the evening before so only half a dozen of their 1st XV turned up.Carmarthen won and on the same day, December 27th,Carmarthen Grammar School played Lampeter College in the same competition.
We may be amused at those strange old days but every player, official and club activist was unpaid and it was thanks to them that the national game was created. The original Cup however did not give the game a good name, it was rougher than anything witnessed before or since and had a short life to the delight of local hospitals and preachers who condemned rugby as sinful.
Our first game in the new Cup competition was at VardreUnited in November 1971 on a Wednesday afternoon, a difficult time for players who worked for a living. We won40-10 and as it was the first Cup tie of the modern era all the media were there, some expecting a repeat of the 19th century roughhouse version. It wasn’t amicable but nothing to hinder the Cup’s future.
Our first five seasons in the 21st century are best forgotten but the Cup brightened us up in 2000/1 when we won 27-5 at Llandovery, 32-25 at Carmarthen Quins and 38-6 at Caerphilly which led us to the Millenium Stadium where we lost to Newport 19-12. It was a thriller that kept everyone in their seats to the final whistle, unusual at the ground where so-called supporters when not waving to the cameras go back and forth to the bar and then the Merched or more often the Dynion.
The Ebbw Vale team that started that day against a Newport side full of internationals and led by Gary Teichmann, 43 times capped for South Africa, was Paul Matthews; Alan Harris, Rhys Shorney, Jonathan Hawker, Andrew Wagstaff; Jason Strange, Richard Smith; Iestyn Thomas, Leighton Phillips, Damien Penisini; Chay Billen, Deiniol Jones; Nathan Budgett, Mark Jones (capt), Gareth Green.
We were in the semi-final again in 2001/2 when we lost to Llanelli 20-41 and the following season re-visited Carmarthen for another Cup tie and won 13-8. The Quins side had beaten Aberavon 13-12 in the previous round and it took a rolling maul and a try by replacement flanker Paul Williams in extra time to see us through. This season our Cup begins in January – at Carmarthen.
Club news take up little room in the papers these days and we miss The Rugby Annual for Wales which reported every game at all levels as well as goings on off the field. In the 2003/04 edition our Cup game at Carmarthen was covered as well as the story that ‘small’ clubs had rebelled when told of the Moffett plan to cut funding. We also read of a ‘mutiny’ by the Welsh team over pay and insurance which they declared hours before boarding the coach to take them to Heathrow and New Zealand. To cap it all England won the 6 Nations and Wales got the Wooden Spoon but apart from all that everything in the Welsh garden was lovely.
SMALL TOWNS ARE SMILE TOWNS
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Newport programme 16 November 2018
Rugby journalist Peter Jackson, who makes too few appearances on BBC Wales, once wrote that Deri “was the village that beat the All-Blacks” which might have raised a few eyebrows in NZ but not in Deri because they were chuffed that two of their sons had played crucial roles in the drama that unfolded at Rodney Parade on what was later called ‘Wonderful Wednesday,’ October 30th 1963. The Newport side was captained by Brian Price on his birthday and the drop goal that won the game was popped over by John ‘Dick’ Uzzell both of them from Deri one of many small towns and villages that brought smiles to the faces of even inscrutable Welsh selectors. Uzzell was in the right position to drop a goal because the little Newport outside-half put him there, which was not unusual for Blaina born Dai Watkins, formerly Cwmcelyn Youth, who always did the right thing at the right time.
Oakdale is another Gwent club that has produced quality in great quantity among them scrum-half Richard Smith who began his adventurous career there and went on to play for nine other clubs throughout the United Kingdom one of them Ebbw Vale where he vied for No. 9 shirt with Guy Easterby who played 28 times for Ireland. In a Welsh/Scottish League game against Newport on February 12th 2000 Guy started for us, Richard was on the bench and another Steelman David Llewellyn of Trefil was No. 9 for a Newport team that included internationals Shane Howarth and Gary Teichman. Josh Taumalolo was man of the match scoring two tries and creating another.
Richard needed a rest, a week before he had replaced Howley for Wales against France and spent all of five minutes on the pitch. After the Newport game which we won 29-17 Guy Easterby met his brother Simon then of Llanelli and they flew to Dublin to join the Irish squad having been selected by the coach – Warren Gatland.
Gareth Howls who should have played for Wales but had to be satisfied with four Wales B caps and selection as a Barbarian was born and brought up in Oakdale, a prop opponents and referees were always wary of. He would have regarded another Oakdale product, Mathew Williams, as the type of player every side should have. Chunky, as he was better known, retired at the end of last season and will always be remembered for his skills, loyalty and the pleasure of his company.
When Nat ‘King’ Cole sang “Small Towns Are Smile Towns” he hadn’t heard of Deri, Blaina, Brynmawr and Oakdale, small towns that produced great rugby players who in turn brought smiles to their families and those who coached them. Players like Brian Price, John Uzzell, David Watkins, Gareth Howls, Mathew Williams and many more. The talent is still there, so are the clubs but they must be encouraged and supported by those whose duty it is to preserve Welsh rugby.
In pre-League times we played Bath under lights on a Friday so the heading in the programme was inevitably “Friday night is Bath night.” Now autumn internationals as well as the Six Nations take over Saturdays beginning tomorrow when Tonga play Wales. We who remember Josh, Kuli and others who graced our ground have an affection for Tongan players who like others from the South Pacific brightened up the game in South Wales. Tonga has a population of just over 100,000 but has produced some of the world’s greatest players including Jonah Lomu, Taulupe Faletau and the Vunipola brothers. A small country but one that brings smiles to world rugby.
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Merthyr 26 October 2018
Like Hoovers in its heyday Merthyr swept all before them last season but we brushed away a poor start to finish a respectable sixth out of the sixteen clubs in the Premiership. Two defeats to Merthyr late in the season gave some indication of how the team had changed, 6-10 in the Cup semi-final and 14-17 in the League. We greeted the New Year with optimism and have not been disappointed.
This time the fixtures are straightforward, home and away with the Cup adding some variety but games outside Wales are gone for ever, the regions have taken over and their commitment has extended to South Africa which would pose a problem even for our Addicts. Supporting the team in France was easy but running a bus to Cape Town and staying overnight would be difficult.
One memorable season when we changed pounds sterling into what seemed Monopoly money was 1999/2000. Apart from playing home and away to every Merit Table club and annual games against the best in England we got doubles over Glasgow, Connacht, Toulon and Bucharest and won one and lost one to Edinburgh but it ended in disappointment in what the media described as “cruel fashion” when we lost 20-21 at home to London Irish in a Euro quarter-final.
A drop goal by Shaun Connor would have taken us to the semis if French referee Joel Jutge had not ruled otherwise which caused the packed terrace to re-consider the Entente Cordiale. We scored tries, the Irish kicked goals and a chap called Cunningham who we had never seen before and hoped never to see again, along with mon ami Joel, kicked his seventh penalty goal.
Our team that day was Jonathan Williams; Rhys Shorney, Siua Taumalolo, Jonathan Hawker, Andrew Wagstaff; Jason Strange, Guy Easterby; Alun Phillips, Leighton Phillips, Andrew Metcalfe; Glyn Llewellyn, Kuli Faletau; Nathan Budgett, Mark Jones (capt), Paul Williams. Replacements were Shaun Connor for Jason Strange, Richard Smith for Guy Easterby, Iestyn Thomas for Alun Phillips, Lee Banks for Glyn Llewellyn.
A week later we played at the Millenium Stadium for the first time, a semi-final of the WRU Challenge Cup against Llanelli who started with a bang and we were 26-0 down early in what looked to be a one-sided game. Skipper Mark Jones demanded a response and by scoring three tries, two by Rhys Shorney, in fifteen minutes we were back in the game but it was too late, Llanelli won 38-26.
Our longest journeys in the 80s were to North America but we almost went to the Far East in 1982 with games in Singapore and Bangkok planned. Instead we went to Canada which was a little nearer, but next Monday the east will come to Ebbw Vale when Dragons A play Hong Kong (also known as Dragons), the first side from Asia to play here whose head coach is a Dr. Leigh Jones. Doctor Who? No, not him – or her – but our former coach who went east, helped Eddie Jones’s Japan to beat the ‘Boks and is highly regarded in that part of the rugby world.
When we hosted San Francisco in 1972 we were invited to play a return game there. Being courteous we reluctantly agreed, went there a year later and returned in 1980. That adventurous flame still flutters but if we are invited to Hong Kong decline politely, the man who treasures our money says the team can’t go farther east than Newport.
AUTUMN AND THE AUSSIES
Extract from programme of Ebbw Vale v Cross Keys 13 October 2018</h4
The autumn internationals that bring teams from the southern hemisphere to Europe are run over a much shorter period than they used to be. Every four years or so either New Zealand, South Africa or Australia would spend months in Europe playing the Home Unions, clubs and combined teams like Ebbw Vale & Abertillery who joined forces to play them and in doing so brought the world’s best to our towns.
In the last war the Government issued a plea, “Is your journey really necessary?” In July 1939 the same could have been asked of Australia’s rugby squad who began a 40 day journey by sea to the Mother Country. On September 2nd they arrived at Plymouth, on September 3rd we declared war on Germany. Their tour ended without a ball being passed or kicked and after a few days they headed back to Oz avoiding U boats when they should have been avoiding tackles.
The toughest tour of all time was in 1888/89 when a Maori team played 74 games in the UK, winning 49, drawing 5 and losing 20, add a long sea voyage and the players forgot what New Zealand looked like. The Second Wallabies, which would have been the third if a war hadn’t intervened, came in 1947/8 and faced a 35 match programme which at the time was the longest by what we then called an official Dominion side.
They played 30 games in the Home Unions and five in France, winning 29 and losing six of which three were in Wales to Cardiff, Wales and the Barbarians. Their opponents in the fourth game were a combined Abertillery/Cross Keys XV who rose to the occasion losing 6-3, two tries to one. The Wallabies were not big by today’s standards, their second-rows (then known as locks) averaged 6’2” in height and 15 stone in weight but they played open rugby, had greater speed and “good hands.” They were playing like that seventy years ago.
Tours by national sides were not unusual but who would have thought two New Zealand clubs would experience Western Valley rugby? In 1976 Northcote/Birkenhead of Auckland province made a world tour beginning in Hawaii and played twice in Wales – against Cross Keys and Ebbw Vale. They were followed in 1977 by the Wellington club. We beat Northcote/Birkenhead 7-0 and Wellington 10-8 thanks to a late drop goal by the diminutive outside-half Lyndon Milesfrom Tredegar who was probably the smallest outside-half a New Zealander ever played against. In the Wellington side was Murray Mexted who went on to play thirty-four times for the All-Blacks. They left a good impression, especially on the club floor which had been subjected to a Haka to end all Hakas.
In November we play three games on Friday evenings, Saturdays will be reserved for autumn internationalswelcomed by makers of Welsh flags, plastic daffodils and plastic beer glasses. Just as the Sabbath is a special day for believers, Saturday is the true day for rugby people, as it was on the 7th of February 1925 when Wales played Scotland at Swansea. Ron Herrera of Cross Keys was the only Monmouthshire player in the side but no-one from his club went to see him on his debut, they got their priorities right and stayed at Pandy Park watching Keys beat Ebbw Vale 10-3.
WHEN CLUBS PRODUCED THE WELSH TEAM
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Swansea programme 6th October 2018
On the 21st June 2003 an era ended for Wales and a new one began for New Zealand. In Waikato for the last time a Welsh team consisted of players representing clubs and Don Carter played his first game for the All-Blacks. They won 55-3 scoring eight tries, six conversions and a penalty goal to one kicked by Stephen Jones of Llanelli RFC. Two months laterWales played a non-championship match in Dublin before 20,000 which Ireland won 35-12. It was the first time for Welsh players to represent their regions, two Scarlets, three Blues, four Celtic Warriors, two Ospreys, two Gwent Dragons and Alix Popham of Leeds. Seeing international players playing for their clubs had brought us closer to the national team, when it ended a link was broken for ever.
One example of those club-oriented days was the Swansea side that won at Ebbw on December 1st 1982. It ended an eleven match winning streak for the Steelmen who saw the New Year in with a good record, played 27, won 21, drew one and lost five. The All-Whites fielded eight current and future internationals, Tony Swift and Keith Colclough of England, Mark Wyatt, David Richards, Stuart Evans, Barry Clegg, Mark Davies and Richard Moriarty of Wales. That bunch totalled 99 caps and supervising it all was Clive Norling who refereed 35 test matches unheeded by TMOs.
In the Swansea side was someone who would have been capped but sadly ended his playing career after suffering a serious injury while working as an electricity linesman. Mike Ruddock comes from Blaina just over the mountain from this ground and it was there he played his first game of seniorrugby. He also played for Tredegar and then joined Swansea, played 119 times for them, scoring 43 tries and when his playing days ended became a coach and an exceptional one at Swansea, Leinster, Ebbw Vale, the region and then Walesculminating in the first Welsh Grand Slam in 27 years.
Our team that played Swansea in 1982 was Wayne Bow; Mike Dobbs, Jeff Stephenson, Steve Flynn (capt), Roger Denmead; Stuart Lewis, Nigel Osborne; Colin Williams, Ian Watkins, Malcolm Sibthorpe; John Williams, Steve Duke; Phil Gardner, David Jones, Neil Robinson with hooker Jonathan Williams and scrum-half Kim Norkett on the bench. We had a good backrow, we always have of course, and such was the standard of our fixture list at the time they faced the best in Britain. That December afternoon in 1982 was such a challenge for they were opposite Mark Davies, Trevor Cheeseman and Mike Ruddock.
In Conan Doyle’s stories the good guy was Sherlock Holmes and the bad guy was Moriarty, but at the Arms Park on December 5th 1981 the good guy was a Moriarty named Richard from Swansea who on his debut scored the winning try against Australia. Six years later the first Moriarty to play for Wales was captain of Wales in the first World Cup and led us to a win over Australia but the results since then make dismal reading. We have played Australia thirty times, winning three, drawing one and losing twenty-six so it’s time the bogey was broken, perhaps through a try by the third Moriarty to play for Wales. As Sherlock would say it’s elementary my dear Warren.
HO HO HO HO
AS OFF TO WORK THEY GO
Extract from EV v Bridgend programme 22 September 2019
It takes two to tango and two teams of the same rugby mind to produce a great game like the Floodlit Alliance drama with Bridgend when our ground was known as the Bridgend Field. We had to score seven tries to get through to the next round and we did, scrum-half Glyn Turner getting three. It was exhilarating, exciting and a spectacle of running rugby, totally different in style to our comeback win two weeks ago against the Wizards which ended perfectly but on behalf of the middle-aged I appeal to the lads not to leave it so late next time.
The club scene in Wales has changed a lot since the 60s and 70s but what the players do off the field hasn’t, they still work for a living. Chris Kirwan of the Argus in his report on the Aberavon game wrote of “total commitment and endeavour from players that train twice a week after a day’s work.” Our captain is one example, in between TV appearances his day job is laying bricks and in his spare time he scores tries in a style all his own known as Catch N’Kynes. Or should that be Cwtch N’Kynes?
South Wales is the heartland of Welsh rugby, clubs are close and players have often changed colours. In the last game of 1999/2000 we lost at the Brewery Field 13-12, John Devereux scored the home try and Paul Williams converted and added two penalty goals while our points came from Jason Strange with four. It was touch and go and in the hustle and bustle an Ebbw back-row forward was sent off at the start of the second half, a player who would get to know the Brewery Field – Nathan Budgett.
Once upon a time Welsh schools fielded rugby teams whose target was the D C Thomas Cup. In 2000 it was won for the 16th time in 30 years of the tournament by Bridgend Schools coached by Lyn Cole whose formula for success was “to play with a simple approach, an emphasis on the enjoyment element, and a determination not to over-coach and over-train the boys… we spend about half-an-hour a week coaching and the rest is down to the enthusiasm and natural instincts.” One wonders what the formula is these days. Or if there is one.
The 1999/2000 Wales Under 19s tasted success too, winning the Triple Crown under coach John Bevan who had a talented squad including Dwayne Peel, Nathan Brew, Andy Powell, Richard Mustoe and a flanker named Damien Hudd. With Andy and Damien in their faces no wonder the opposition crumbled.
In the 60s one of our greatest props Len Dimmick, who the Springboks rated the toughest they had faced, said he liked playing towards the beer in the second half, as we did two weeks ago when we came back from 17-0 down to 19-17 up. But these days our players respect the club motto, ‘Healthy Body Healthy Mind’ and play towards the bottled water and orange juice not the beer. Well done lads you have a set a fine example to us all so let’s fill our glasses and raise them to you.
A SCHOOL TRIP WITH A DIFFERENCE
Extract from EV v Aberavon programme 7 September
Club mates were partners in grime when pitches were so muddy groundsmen couldn’t mark them with whitewash. The Arms Park was notorious and so was Frenchy’s Field the Ebbw Vale Grammar School ground where muddied oafs emerged looking like extras in a Great War film. It was there that Arthur Edwards, Graham Powell and Graham Davies began their rugby careers which ended in national honours, two at senior and one at Secondary School level.
Welsh schools rugby prospered in the Fifties and so did clubs whose players did their apprenticeship at school and youth level. In 1956 a Welsh Secondary Schools team played eight games in South Africa, all strictly amateur of course but in Rassau, a secret collection was made to assist a lad from Alandale Road to go, secret because money was a naughty word in rugby union at the time. Now it’s the buzz-word and dominates the minds and actions of those who decide our future.
Second-row forward Graham Davies of Ebbw Vale County Grammar School was one of five Monmouthshire lads chosen, the others came from Brynmawr, Newport and two from Bassaleg. The captain was Clive Rowlands of Ystradgynlais Grammar School. A heavier England Schools team had beaten the Welsh and a pre-tour report pessimistically stated “we had no big forwards capable of matching the rapid development of South African boys,” implying that our lads had been raised on Spam and the Boks on raw rhino meat. As it turned out the Young Dragons did their country proud, losing the first of eight games, drawing another but winning six including a 21-3 hammering of Transvaal all on grounds hardened by the sun which had rarely shone on Frenchy’s Field.
There are many examples of the value of schools rugby and none better than a lad who was born in Sandfields, Port Talbot and who excelled at the local Comp in rugby and in the summer chucked the shot, discus and hammer so far sun bathers on the Mumbles took cover. But could Allan Martin have achieved as much in the Academy age? Teachers and club volunteers launched him on a career which began with being capped at every school age group, playing for Aberavon and thirty-four times for Wales plus the Lions. He and Geoff Wheel formed a record breaking second row partnership for Wales and Allan added to his skills with accurate place-kicking.
The last forward to kick goals in top rugby was Australian John Eales who landed 34 penalty goals and 41 conversions in internationals but the most casual kicker of that breed was backrow forward Peter Brown of Gala and Scotland who blew his nose, plonked the ball down, turned around, took a breather and then whacked it over 41 times for his country and only bothered with tees when playing golf at Muirfield.
In February 1972 at Murrayfield Peter Brown casually kicked four penalty goals but hit the crossbar with a conversion that would have put Scotland six points ahead of Wales and out of sight with five minutes left. A try and conversion was worth five points then and in the nick of time Gerald Davies flew over for a try and a forward John Taylor converted with a left-footed round-the-corner kick. Wales won 19-18 and went on to win the Grand Slam with only sixteen players among them Denzil Williams and Arthur Lewis who like Alan Martin came through the ranks, stayed with their clubs, reached rugby’s pinnacle and worked for a living.
IT’S GOING TO BE DIFFERENT – AGAIN (22/08/18)
We soon begin a season that, once again, will be different, with more television coverage of a Premiership of more clubs who, in 2019/20, will be reduced from sixteen to twelve. Reducing the number of Premier clubs is not new: in 1997/8 and 1998/9 it dropped to eight and later there was a move by six of the eight to form an elite league in which we would not be included. It made no sense, caused a stir and came to nothing but it would be mendacious of me to say we were not upset.
In the ‘close’ season the media filled space with news of coaches seeking new employment, so many that the Unions could have set up a Job Centre. Coaches, referees, players and supporting staff were not the only ones preparing for the new campaign, so were the medics who these days have to carry more than a sponge and a bucket of water. The highlight of the Premiership end of season bash was the Unsung Heroes Award shared by the medical teams of Aberavon, Bargoed, Ebbw Vale and Newport. The WRU commendation said “the lives of two supporters were more than likely saved by them at Premiership matches.” Our Rhys Thomas, Rhys Shorney, Alan Hancock and Saran Wyburn deserve the Golden Sponge for their devotion and ability to ease the pain of everything except heartaches after a defeat and headaches after a win.
Others warming up were the water carriers whose duty it is to refresh the thirsty like Gunga Din in the days of the Raj; the lads who provide hookers with towels; and the chap who takes the tee out, something unheard of long ago when kickers dug their heels in to place the ball which was leathery and heavy. Everything depended on the state of the ground and, in a Wales v England game at the Arms Park in 1893, it was so impenetrable the Welsh kicker tried a drop goal instead, which went over and Wales won 12-11, our first home win over England but for some reason the game was not televised.
The annual dinner was a great occasion with many awards, among them the Most Promising Player won by Toby Fricker, the 2018 Premiership Best Newcomer. The WRU citation said Toby “burst into the Ebbw Vale backline with aplomb” (as well as a ball) a compliment that typifies all the squad who also have plenty of assurance and self-confidence.
Our first pre-season game in August at Brixham, which we won 62-0, was our first in Devon for thirty years and we were made very welcome. It might be far-fetched to say that a super fireworks display in nearby Paignton was in our honour, but the final burst of colours were red, white and green. The squad didn’t stay in a Fawlty Towers but went camping in a field near a hospital and the rugby pitch which was used as a landing ground for an air ambulance helicopter. It landed twice during the night and caused concern that perhaps the Martians had landed, which would have affected the rugby season.
The day trip to Goldington Road, where we last played thirty-one years ago against Bedford and won 18-13, was hard but rewarding. We lost 20-15 to Paul Turner’s Ampthill side which included four Tongan internationals. Those at the game reported our defence as being brave and disciplined but it also confirmed the opinion that club rugby in England, even at their third level, is flourishing.
So it’s once more unto the breach dear friends, but this time the Premiership season is the most important ever.
HONOURING THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
Extract from the Ebbw Vale v Bedwas programme 6 May 2018
Over the last few seasons there have been so many changes in the Premier Division that describing them to outsiders was as difficult as explaining cricket to an American. However one aspect of the club scene never changes, the end of season Awards Night is a tradition we keep and not just because it’s a good night out.
Fifty years ago the Player of the Year was Arthur Lewis and Most Promising was one of our greatest flankers, Gomer Evans. Forty years ago a born and bred Dutchman Van Der Loos was Player of the Year and the Most Promising was a born and bred Ebbw Valian Nigel Osborne. Thirty years ago prop Malcolm Sibthorpe got the main award and another prop, Colin Williams was Most Promising.
When past seasons drew to a close there were tours and Snelling Sevens, the latter named after a Newport man who thought it a good way for senior clubs to let their hair down and their supporters boost brewer’s profits, especially if their team was KOd in the first round. There were no specialist Sevens as there are today but Graham Powell, Dai Barrett, Roy Evans, Mel Williams, Francis Matthews, Doug Ackerman and Ron Morgan were good enough to beat Newport in the 1958 Final.
That was sixty years ago and the last month of the season was very busy, we went to Cornwall and tourists came to us. In April of 1958 we played nine games against Universities Athletic Union, Dolphin (Ireland), Abertillery, St. Ives, Redruth, Penryn, Neath, Plymouth Albion and Pontypridd. We won seven, drew in Penryn and lost home to Dolphin. It was an exciting end to a good season in which Graham Powell of Waunlwyd became our first international.
The first game of the 1958/59 season was against a Ken Jones International XV to mark the opening of the clubhouse and stand (where we stood) behind it. Ken’s side included six Welsh internationals, two English, two Scottish and one Irish and the Ebbw Vale side was Tom Carpenter; Gwyn Austin, Graham Powell, Dave Barrett. Mel Williams; Wilf Hunt, Roy Evans; Des Winters, Bill Rogers, Len Dimmick; Malcolm Collins (capt.), Denzil Williams; Doug Ackerman, Ron Morgan, Bill Morgan. The ground was packed which was not unusual sixty years ago and the new facilities created a venue that was soon to stage games against Wallabies, Springboks and the All-Blacks.
Another unusual season draws to a close and with it these notes. They have been mainly historical, some would say hysterical, and told of the past and great games and players who wore the jersey with pride. The Steelmen of today are of the same mould creating their own legends as they showed in their command performance in the Cup semi-final at Pandy Park. To paraphrase a famous statement made by a very famous man seventy-eight years ago, “Never on such a muddy field of rugby conflict had so few brought so much pride to so many.”
The classic post match photograph of Ronnie Kynes by Neil Roberts showed a disappointed but proud leader of a band of brothers whose exploits did not bring silverware but something more valuable, belief in themselves and the club they belong to. Our players, coaches, medics, support staff, administrators, sponsors, the clubhouse crew and the ever loyal supporters all deserve honours. To everyone many thanks, enjoy the summer, don’t do anything dangerous like gardening or DIY, relax and rest your nerves until we take up arms again.
VOICES TO REMEMBER
Extracted from the Ebbw Vale v Merthyr programme 9 May 2018
In August 1952 the Wenvoe television mast began beaming pictures into our homes and our lives changed forever. In 1953 we were able to see Gordon Richards winning the Derby for the first time, Stanley Matthews getting a Cup winner’s medal at last and the Coronation with half the street in to watch it but the real treat came in December when the first Welsh home international was televised from the Arms Park and it turned out to be rather special; Wales beat New Zealand and we haven’t done so since.
In pre-TV times we relied on the wireless and listened to commentaries of sporting events with one voice standing out among all others – Howard Marshall. He pioneered cricket commentaries for the BBC and also covered rugby having won a Blue at Oxford and captained Harlequins. In the Second World War he was a war correspondent and his was the first voice we heard on D-Day.
At 8 am on the 6thJune 1944 he landed on a Normandy beach after getting very wet and losing his notebook when the boat he was in struck a mine. Later in the day he was shipped back to England to give the first eye witness account of the landings on the BBC’s 9 pm news in the same tone and style as if he was at a Test match at Lord’s not a battleground in France.
As television improved so did its sports commentators, none better than Bill Mclaren. After playing for Hawick in the Borders he became the BBC’s voice of rugby and was often the sole occupant of the commentary box. Unlike some of his successors, Bill didn’t drown us with words and was always worth listening to. In the 70s and 80s the Vice Presidents held annual dinners and as one was held on the eve of Wales v Scotland at Cardiff we invited Bill McLaren but he could not come because he spent the eve of a game studying the players and their backgrounds. He contributed an article in the Gwent Gazette’s special edition for our centenary in which he recalled the great Scottish wing Arthur Smith who played for us in the early 60s. Bill wrote of his “sweet running, feline grace and an indescribable change of pace that was to become a particular hallmark.”
Bill was born in Hawick and died there aged 86, seven years after his last rugby commentary. He had a turn of phrase, great wit and always described a successful goal-kick by saying, “It’s high enough, it’s long enough AND IT’S STRAIGHT ENOUGH!” Once when a kick went astray he said, “That one was a bit inebriated, just like one of my golf shots.”
Other broadcasters dropped some famous clangers, like Martin Bayfield who once said “Scotland are staring down the barrel of a wooden spoon,” and coaches like the now famous Eddie Jones who declared, “If you take the scrum out of the equation, we played well.” Players made more sense, among them prop forward Gareth Chilcott who played in the all-star game at the 1992 Garden Festival in Ebbw Vale. When asked what he would do after playing his last game for Bath, he replied, “I’ll have a quiet pint…and about 17 noisy ones.” Only a prop would have said that.
WHEN WIZARDS FROM OZ TAUGHT US A LESSON
Ebbw Vale v Aberavon – April 2nd 2018
Once upon a time rugby finished on April 30th and made way for cricket. Many players changed from jerseys to white flannels, among them the famous Compton brothers, Dennis and Leslie, who in the post-war years turned out for the Arsenal at Highbury and on May 1st moved to Lord’s to play for Middlesex and England. There are no professional sportsmen like that anymore, at rugby’s highest level players are often active for nine months in a year leaving no time for even a game of darts. After a season of almost fifty fixtures some of our players changed from being ‘muddied oafs’ into ‘flanelled fools’ and turned out for Ebbw Vale Cricket Club a few days after mentally and physically recovering from an end of season tour.
There are endless debates about the Welsh club game but not enough about promoting school and youth rugby which once flourished in Wales. It was the perfect launching sites for youngsters many of whom moved up to first class club rugby and hit the heights playing for Wales and the Lions. The importance of schools was highlighted in 1977/78 when the Australian Schools toured these islands. They won their fourteen games, including three internationals, scoring 103 tries and conceded five. Not bad for kids from the outback.
Their policy was to attack and their brilliant ball-handling and backing up was years ahead of the time. They brimmed with talent and in a great side the three Ella brothers stood out and not only because they were the first indigenous Australians to represent their country at school and senior level. Outside-half Mark is still regarded as one of the world’s greatest and was once described as a ‘wayward genius’ and would be in an international rugby union Hall of Fame. Their school’s 25-6 win over Wales was a prelude to a surge in Aussie rugby union and two boys who later played for Ebbw Vale got first hand experience of the sheer magic of the young tourists. Centre Ian Goslin and wing Chris Edwards, students at Cross Keys 6th Form College were on the receiving end in the 25-6 drubbing and never forgot it.
Ian joined the Royal Air Force and played in the Inter Services Tournament in 1984 and 1985 as centre to Rory Underwood who chose Ian as best man at his wedding. Ian captained the RAF to a win over The Army, understandably because there were no Welsh Guardsmen in the team. Chris was one of those speed merchants every Sevens side needs, in 1979 we went to Coventry on a Saturday and won – it was David Duckham’s last game for his club – and next day won their Sevens in which Dai Fryer and Chris Edwards dominated every round and scored at will. Poor old Will.
The 1978/9 season was a good one for Ebbw, we played 47 games, won 31, drew one and lost 15 but couldn’t beat Aberavon who drew 6-6 on our ground and won on theirs 9-7. It ended with a flourish when we won nine and lost one of the last ten fixtures. It was a good rehearsal for the Centenary season to follow when we were busier than usual playing 55 games, winning 29, losing 24 with two drawn and guess who against? Aberavon of course, 7-7 down there and 9-9 up here!
GOING NORTH AND COMING SOUTH
Extracted from Ebbw Vale v RGC 1404 programme 21stApril 2018
Going to Colwyn Bay is a day trip with a difference, you need more than sandwiches and a bottle of pop. It takes longer to get to than Barry Island the Mecca of South Wales Sunday Schools whose annual trip there was a bucket and spade affair with fish and chips and a ride on the fair to end the day. The North Wales coastline was relatively unknown to us until Colwyn Bay became HQ of RGC 1404 a new club created by the WRU, the title of which is a reminder that in 1404 Owain Glyndwr became the first Prince of Wales and the only Welsh legend who didn’t play rugby.
A modern rugby legend who came from north to south was winger Dewi Bebb who, after only a few games of senior rugby, was spotted by a Welsh selector, the one with good eyesight, and picked for Wales. One of six new caps to play England at Cardiff in January 1959 he was literally thrown into the deep mud which plagued the old Arms Park but despite the pitch young Dewi manufactured a Welsh win, 5-0.
Wings threw into line outs then which added to Dewi’s first night nerves but he rose to the occasion when he threw in to second row giant Rhys Williams who threw it back and Bebb scored the only try of the game. He played 34 times for Wales, went on two Lions tours and became a broadcaster in Welsh and English. His rugby began at Friars School in Bangor where he was born and continued with the Bangor and Colwyn Bay clubs before studying at Trinity College, Carmarthen where he was spotted not by Llanelli but Swansea, his one and only first class club
In one of our Vice Presidents’ dinners back in the 70s the guest speaker was Joe McPartlin, Oxford University and Scotland, who recalled his first game at the Arms Park in 1960 under the captaincy of Arthur Smith (Ebbw Vale) which Wales won 5-0. He fielded a high ball which arrived at the same time as Dewi Bebb who stole it from him and scored a try causing Joe to say ‘oh bother’ or a word to that effect. He was an amusing speaker and through him we played Oxford University home and at Iffley Road when Stuart Barnes was their outside-half. An England international he had captained Welsh Senior Schools while at Bassaleg Grammar and now talks endlessly on Sky television.
George North is another wing to come south and find fame. His mother was Welsh his father was a Yorkshireman and he was born in King’s Lynn but when he was two the family moved to Anglesey which explains why he is a fluent Welsh speaker. As a Scarlet he made his Welsh debut in 2010 against South Africa who won 29-25 and George scored two tries, the youngest (18 years and 214 days) Welsh player to do that on debut.
Next season North comes South again and will go East for the World Cup in Japan. New Zealand are expected to win it for the third time in succession with Europeans also rans but Cup rugby is full of surprises, in the 2015 World Cup the Springboks were beaten by Japan thanks to Eddie Jones, who had coached Australia, and his assistant Leigh Jones who had coached Ebbw Vale, another one of ours who went on to higher things.
SAINTS AND SINNERS
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Swansea 24 March 2018
St. Helen’s is a ground where in 1968 Gary Sobers hit six sixes in a single over and where in 1935 Swansea selected two schoolboy cousins, halves Hadyn Tanner and Willie Davies, to play the All-Blacks. It paid off, the two youngsters tormented and tantalized the tourists with devastating effect, Swansea won 11-3 and a few weeks later Tanner was selected by Wales against New Zealand who were beaten 13-12.
Not every Swansea player was a saint but many have been revered. One was Geoff Wheel, a favourite of the thousands wearing rosettes, red scarves and cloth caps who watched him at the old Arms Park. He was at the centre of the most dramatic incident of the decade when on January 15th 1977 he and Irish lock Willie Duggan engaged in a minor difference of opinion and became the first players ever to be sent off in the Championship. Wales won the game 25-9 and Clive Burgess of Ebbw Vale scored a try on his debut. A 21st century TMO would have suggested a warning and at most a yellow card.
The Welsh second row partnership of Geoff and Alan Martin was immovable, unstoppable and unbeatable, they locked together 26 times for Wales and when they retired opponents worldwide breathed a sigh of relief. Geoff Wheel might be known as the first Welshman to be sent off in the Championship but in Swansea he is remembered for a lot more, like being a church organist.
A headline in the sports section of The Sunday Times on November 12th 1997 read “Rough justice for victims of unfair dismissal.” A report on our game with Swansea, written by Gerald Davies, concentrated on the sending off of Mark Jones and Stuart Evans in the 30th minute. The former Rugby League mates were exchanging the odd blow which Gerald thought did not warrant their dismissals and he wrote “as they walked off they shook hands, smiled and chatted amiably together. There were no hard feelings, they clearly shared a joke and by the time they reached the player’s enclosure they were strolling arm in arm.” As it always is in rugby, hostility changed to harmony after the battle ended. We won 13-9, our sixth win in eight matches which was an achievement because the Swansea side included several internationals one of whom Scott Gibbs a few years later replaced David as Wales’s patron saint after creating a miracle against England at Wembley.
In the Second World War St Helen’s staged charity matches and thanks to journalist and researcher Howard Evans we have discovered names of Ebbw Vale players who took part. One of them, John Merrett from Beaufort ,a full-back in the 1940-41 undefeated side, volunteered for the RAF as an air gunner and was killed when his bomber crashed in April 1943 returning from a raid. He is buried in St. David’s Church, Beaufort churchyard, one of several Ebbw Vale players who did not come home.
Think of Swansea, think of Mike Ruddock who played 119 games for the club, scored 43 tries and but for an accident at work would have scored more. Born in Blaina he was Swansea coach in 1991 and a year later led the All-Whites to a win over the touring Wallabies only four days after they had beaten Ireland 42-17. With Scott Gibbs, Richard Moriarty and Robert Jones in the side, victory was not unexpected. A month later the tourists beat Monmouthshire 19-9 at Ebbw Vale, the last visit of a major national side to our ground. It was a poor match not helped by an Irish referee who awarded 52 penalties and free kicks, surely a world record and without the aid of a TMO!
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
Extracted from the match programme Ebbw Vale v Neath 10/03/18
When it comes to name dropping Neath have plenty to drop. In the post-Second World War years two of their forwards Rees Stephens and Roy John were the best in the world and Roy turned lineout jumping into an art form. Viv Evans was a full-back of the highest quality capped three times in 1954 but was worth many more and another Neath great who should have played more than thirteen times for Wales between 1977-1980 was winger Elgan Rees of happy memory on and off the field.
There are families that can boast more than one international: the Llewelyns of Neath, the Quinnells of Llanelli, the Moriartys of Swansea and the Williams family of Taffs Well headed by the immortal Bleddyn, but the Rees clan has produced a rugby commentator. Sarra Elgan is seen on BBC Wales Scrum V which concentrates on the regions so should be named Scrum 1V and also BT Sport which covers top English rugby from Newcastle to Exeter.
BT’s big team of pundits include Lawrence Dallaglio of Italian descent, Austin Healey of Leicester descent and Sarra Elgan of Gnoll descent whose dad played for Neath, Wales and the Lions, whose husband Simon Easterby played 65 times for Ireland and in two Lions Tests and whose brother-in-law Guy played scrum-half for Ebbw and twenty-eight times for Ireland. In the Ebbw Vale squad of Guy’s time was another quality scrum-half Richard Smith, Rhys Shorney who is still with us, Josh Taumalolo, Jason Strange, Iestyn Thomas, Kuli Faletau and skipper Mark Jones.
Sarra interviews giants and works with the tallest rugby pundit, Martin Bayfield, a lock who played a lot for England and who was briefly replaced in the England side by Alex Codling who played for Neath, coached Ebbw Vale and is now coach of Ealing who are second to Bristol in the very competitive English Championship.
Among those who played for Neath and Ebbw Vale are the gentle giant Mark Jones and Paul Thorburn who could kick goals from the next town. On February 1st 1986 Paul Thorburn’s famous kick against Scotland measured 75 yards and 8.5 inches give a blade of grass or two, one of five penalty goals he landed. Clubmate Jonathan Davies dropped a goal and Adrian Hadley scored a try in a 22-15 win over a Scots side full of classy players three of whom scored a try.
In their day, decisions were made by the referee, now they are also made – rightly or wrongly – by the TMO but rarely at club level. It was used at our game at Sardis Road in May 2016 when a Pontypridd player was denied a try by the TMO who judged the touchdown was over the dead ball line. He was not as lucky as 30 year old Neath flanker Derek Williams who was awarded a try for Wales against France at the Arms Park in 1956. Nothing unusual in that except his touch down was marginally within the dead ball area and not far from the River Taff.
Back to Neath of the Elgan Rees era and a Cup game there in January 1978. Having scraped through at Llandaff 12-9 we won 16-10 each side scoring a try. We kicked two penalty goals to Neath’s one and the game was decided with two drop goals by our scrum-half Steve Lewis who is here today and for a small fee will tell you all about it.
WALES v ENGLAND – RUGBY v RUGGER
Extracted from the match programme EV v Pontypridd Friday 10 February 2018
Getting a ticket for an international match at Cardiff Arms Park was as good as winning the football pools, watching Wales play was a physical and mental challenge for the majority huddled beneath the North Stand. If we won sighs of relief would sound like claps of thunder, if we lost we blamed the referee and going home in crowded GWR trains picked the team for the next game. Before the squad system there were five Welsh selectors and we rarely agreed with them especially if a local favourite was not chosen.
In February 1988 when the team to play at Twickers was announced the entire population of Neath revolted. Their full-back Paul Thorburn, who first played senior rugby at Ebbw Vale, was dropped even though he was kicking goals galore. Farther west Llanelli supporters celebrated the long awaited selection of their lock Phil May aged 31, but it was a strange side that contained four outside-halves, Jonathan Davies who played in his normal position, Mark Ring and captain Bleddyn Bowen who were the centres and Tony Clement (Swansea) who made his debut as a full-back.
The critics were silenced when Wales won 11-3 through two tries by Adrian Hadley and a Jonathan Davies drop goal against an England lineup that included Will Carling, Rory Underwood, Brian Moore and Dean Richards. Ebbw Valians were pleased when local boy Ian Watkins was selected as a replacement hooker and they hit several ceilings when he took over from Phillips of Neath and was given the immediate task of throwing into a lineout. Tension didn’t bother Ian, pressure meant nothing to a young lad who had survived Ebbw Vale tours to Cornwall and his throw to Norster was perfect.
Robert Norster dominated lineouts supported by old soldiers Dai Young, Staff Jones, Paul Moriarty and that man of all seasons and all clubs Ritchie Collins. Ian Watkins kept his place in a Triple Crown winning Welsh side but the struggle in windswept Lansdowne Road took a lot out of them and France denied them the Grand Slam.
The French side included two of their country’s greatest backs, full-back Serge Blanco and centre Philippe Sella. Blanco won 93 caps from 1980 to 1991 all from Biarrittz and Sella 111 from 1982 to 1995 all from Agen who we played four times in European competitions. In 1997/8 we conceded the double, 16-17 at home and 12-51 away, in 2001/02 we again lost in Agen 20-9 but hammered them at Ebbw 59-10. We had to win the home game by a clear 8 try margin to qualify for the quarter-finals but while we played really well Agen didn’t seem interested. Their coach denied throwing the game but confessed he was concentrating on the French club play-offs. Agen were binned, banned and left with omelettes on their faces.
The Wales-England clash remains our biggest European challenge but in the last ten Championship games at Twickenham England have won eight to our two. Tomorrow an Australian and a New Zealander will be opposing coaches in a game between Welshmen and Englishmen but as much as we would like to have a Welsh coach we would accept one from Outer Mongolia if he could get us a win at Twickers.
We mourn the passing of Paul Russell but are left with many memories of a special man who did great things for our club at a time when it was most needed. Paul was a doer and his contribution to Ebbw Vale Rugby Club was immense but that was not his only involvement with rugby, he had been a member of the London Society of Referees and officiated games at the highest club level in England. He once refereed us at Saracens, we won but thought it advisable not to tell our hosts the ref came from Rassau!
CUP OR CWPAN IT’S A KNOCK OUT
Extracted from the match programme Ebbw Vale v RGC 1404 January 6th 2018.
“It’s not often we play a club three times in a season and even rarer to win each game but we have a chance to do that today.” That was written in the programme for our Cup game with RGC 1404 on 22nd February 2014. We had hitherto achieved three trebles, against Pontypridd in 1982/3, Newport 1997/8, Newbridge 2012/13 and our 37-24 win over RGC 1404 was our fourth having beaten them in the Championship, 31-16 away and 45-0 at home. It was our first cup tie with them and the fifth against a North Wales club. In 1975/6 we beat Ruthin 36-6, in 1983/4 Bangor 33-9, a season later Wrexham 11-7 all at home and in 2008/09 Llandudno away 79-3 which was the first expedition north by our supporter’s Army. Some even made it back.
Although we scored six tries in the February 2014 Cup tie our webmaster and match reporter, Rob Smith, wrote “RGC created three excellent tries and showed invention and imagination in their backs.” It was our pack that made the difference and a world record, missed by Guinness, occurred when prop Ross Jones scored a try in the first five minutes of play. He spent the rest of the game resting on his laurels and waving to his Fan Club on the terrace.
Rob Smith is not a suitable name for a bi-lingualist, a patriot who might agree with the historian who wrote, “No name is so frequently invoked in Wales as that of Owain Glyndwr.” That may have been so in 1404 but what about Barry John and Gareth Edwards?
Anglo-Saxons believe that everybody in Wales is a Jones, Davies, Williams or Evans but on the field that day we could only boast one Davies (Luke), one Williams (Chunky of course) and two Joneses (Ross and Dai). Carl Meyer was in our centre, Catch n’Kynes and Cameron Regan roamed the wide open spaces and possession at lineouts was assured by Damien Hudd and Ashley Sweet. Wes Cunliffe, Luke Davies, the aforementioned Ross, Cameron (twice) got tries for us and so did referee Morgan (Greg) who awarded a penalty try. Ian Smerdon kicked a penalty goal and converted twice. In the RGC side the Welsh element was quite clear, in their lineup were Afon Bagshaw, Llywarch ap Myrddin, Joe Jones, Mareddyd Francis, Mei Parry, Aaron Gwyn, Cam Davies and Harri Evans.
Looking back even further, forty years ago this month Clive Burgess made his Welsh debut against Ireland at the Arms Park of happy memory, celebrated with a try and helped Wales to a 25-9 win remembered for the first sendings off in the history of the international Championship. Scottish referee Sanson sent Geoff Wheel and Willie Duggan packing in the 37th minute. A strange reaction came from France who refused to accept Mr Sansom to referee their game with England because “he was too strict!” Victims of the hundreds of yellow cards dealt these days will approve.
Some will see today’s game as between Rygbi Gogledd Cymru 1404 v Glyn Ebwy. The 1404 marks the year Owain Glyndwr became Prince of Wales so we should add 1879 which marks the year of our formation. I hope that meets with the approval of Robert Smith who reports our games in English and Welsh. He is one of a minority of Ebbw Valians who can speak those languages, the majority speak Wenglish.
RS replies: I am more fluenter in Wenglish than what I am in English or Welsh, ‘cos we do talk it much more regular round by yur.
WORDS OF WISDOM FROM CARWYN THE GREAT
Extract from programme Ebbw Vale v Llanelli 30 December 2017
The programme for our Cup semi-final against Llanelli at St. Helen’s in March 1976 was small compared to the mini-magazines we have today. There was a single article but it was written by a man with the greatest rugby mind of them all, Carwyn James, and it was about one player. The heading was “An Appreciation of Arthur Lewis,” who was in the Ebbw centre that afternoon and our only international to Llanelli’s nine.
Carwyn wrote, “Arthur Lewis, at the wrong end of thirty, is playing better than ever. Even more, those around him are inspired to greater things when their player-coach is on the field.” Carwyn of course knew Arthur who was in his Lions team that won the series in New Zealand in 1971 when Carwyn’s coaching reached the heights. “Lewis,” he said “has the ability to impart those little touches which is the making of a back division. Coaches generally, I feel, are so forward orientated in their approach that back divisions are neglected to the detriment of the game in Wales.” That was written forty years ago and one wonders if Carwyn’s words of wisdom still apply.
John Dawes the tour captain and the immortal Mike Gibson were the centres in the 1971 test side but Arthur at 5’10” and 13st 7 lbs, played in ten matches on the tour and survived one of the toughest, roughest games every played. Carwyn wrote that Arthur Lewis made a “tremendous contribution” to the Lion’s victory at Canterbury and was a “fearless, hard and strong tackler.” Arthur’s rugby journey began at Crumlin and although his Welsh partnership with John Dawes and being made captain of his country are best remembered that afternoon in Canterbury was perhaps his greatest hour.
The 1976 semi-final at Swansea was unbearably exciting, Scarlets winning 10-4 leaving proud Ebbw Vale supporters, bedecked in rosettes and scarves, wondering whether a Llanelli try followed a knock-on. The journey home was also exciting, the supporter’s bus broke down and refused to go further but help came when the team bus appeared. There followed an historic rescue, supporters were taken on board by the players and bearing in mind the extra weight we got back to the clubhouse later than expected. Not a comfortable journey, but it literally brought us closer to the team. We have played Llanelli in the Cup seven times, once in the final and four in the semis but that first meeting can be regarded as the closest and the best.
The “Arthur” move was simple, he would time a pass to full-back Mostyn Richards who put wing Neil Collins away and our try in the 1976 semi-final was a good example. It was the perfect timing of Arthur’s pass that set it up and it is no exaggeration to say that when he passed the ball it was simply sublime.
It was a time when backs did the passing after forwards did the labouring but the modern game is quite different. In April 2015 we won at Llanelli 51-0, scored eight tries and made sure of a play-off place. One of the tries resulted in a looped pass from Matthew Williams which led webmaster Robert Smith to wax lyrically. He described the pass as sublime which showed that 2015 hookers can do what 1976 centres did.
FIXING GAMES FOR CHRISTMAS
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Bedwas programme 23 December 2017
Fixture Secretaries using telephones and the Royal Mail often arranged 45-50 games a season with special attention given to Christmas and New Year fixtures. In December and January 1977/78 we played nine games but only one was at home which made the Fixture Secretary very unpopular and sent him into hiding. Ten seasons later there were more unhappy faces when we played ten games in December and January and lost nine of them. But as the 20th century limped to a close things got better and there was more variety and festive fun for the fans.
In December 1999, January and February 2000 we competed in the Welsh Scottish League, the European Shield and the Welsh Cup, a mixed bag but a successful couple of months in results if not financially. It was a remarkable era for us and with the weather on our side the aforementioned three months are worth recalling because eleven games were played – and won!
Roll these off your tongues you bus pass holders, Llanelli (h) 20-19; Bucharest (h) 58-27; Bucharest (a) 43-27; Glasgow (h) 26-18; Toulon (h) 56-26; Connacht (a) 42-19; Bedwas in the Welsh Cup (a) 45-9; Dunvant (a) 30-17; Newport (h) 29-17; Caerphilly (a) 46-15; Builth Wells in the Welsh Cup (a) 55-12.
The Cup game with Bedwas was not our first encounter with them, that too was a Cup tie in 1976/77 when we won at their ground 29-3. In December 1976 and January 1977 we played seven games, winning six and the season ended with an impressive record, played 44, won 35, drew 1, lost five for an overall success of 81%.
Four weeks ago New Zealand beat Wales for the 30th successive time. We last beat them sixty-four years ago at the Arms Park, and like the others in 1905 and 1935 it was played just before Christmas. There will be no-one here today who was at the Arms Park on December 21st 1935 when a Caerphilly born 19 year old second row who began his rugby at Bedwas won his first cap for Wales against New Zealand. Eddie Watkins (Cardiff) was in a seven man pack with ten minutes left, hooker Tarr having been carried off with a dislocated neck. Black despair filled the Arms Park with Wales 10-12 down but a move begun by the legendary Hadyn Tanner ended with a match winning try. 13-12 to Wales and a Merry Christmas followed, especially in Bedwas where it all began for Eddie.
The 2017 Christmas fixture will not be as noisy as the one on Boxing Day 1976 when touring Watsonians drained us dry of Scotch and did the Highland Fling to the sounds of Abba singing Waterloo which was appropriate because we won and they met theirs.
To Santa at Westgate Street who has given us two home games over this holiday period and to everyone in both clubs on and off the field, a Merry Christmas and a Healthy Happy New Year.
WHEN BIG BEN STRUCK IN EBBW
Extract from EV v Cardiff programme 25 November 2017
In the 1950s tees were only used by golfers, rugby goal-kickers had to dig a heel in the pitch to place the ball. Our goal-kicker at the time was also our biggest player, not the most mobile of second rowers but a formidable presence. He was Ben Edwards, so reliably big and imposing they named a clock after him in Westminster. Speaking of time today’s High Noon crunch match being played before lunch instead of before tea is most unusual. Perhaps we should call it a brunch match.
Ben was a genial giant, like another goal-kicking second row forward of the time Cardiff’s Bill Tamplin he quickly placed the ball and invariably bisected the posts. Our clubhouse was not built in Ben’s time and the space at the southern end of the ground was used for parking, an often dangerous place to be. In a game against Cardiff a long range kick at goal by Big Ben flew like a missile found its target, hit the visitor’s bus, smashed a window and as there was no glazier on duty the Cardiff team had a draughty journey home.
Big Ben captained us on our first official visit to the Arms Park on Wednesday September 29th 1954 and Eric Finney, the great uncapped, packed down alongside him. Our pack was described in the Cardiff programme as “one of the heaviest in Wales and not lacking in speed.” The attendance broke records for a mid-week game and with the kick-off 5.15 a lot of work places in Ebbw emptied early. The Cardiff skipper was backrow forward Sid Judd who kicked one of his side’s two penalty goals and he was one of six Welsh caps in the home team, among them Bleddyn Williams who I never fail to mention in the programme when Cardiff are here.
Only four players named Edwards have played for Wales, a chap from Glyneath in 1921, the immortal Gareth and two who had played for Ebbw Vale, Ben and full-back Arthur. Ben was a Newport player when he got his only cap against Ireland in 1951 and kicked a penalty goal for Wales to draw 3-3. Arthur, formerly of Ebbw Vale Grammar School became a regular soldier and was commissioned in the Royal Army Education Corps which saw a lot of action – on the rugby field.
He captained The Army, played for them 17 times and was with London Welsh when he was capped in 1955 against England and Scotland, the latter winning 14-8 at Cardiff to break a run of seventeen defeats. It was Arthur Smith’s debut for Scotland, a legend described as “a beautifully balanced wing” who played 33 times for his country and five seasons after his debut captained Scotland as an Ebbw Vale player.
Players like Bleddyn and Arthur Smith are legendary figures who represented clubs when playing for their country. Supporters related to the national team and regularly saw international players in their club colours and others in the making, like Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton who faced each other in an Ebbw Vale v Glamorgan Wanderers game in March 2006. The last time Wales played New Zealand in Cardiff in pre-regional days was fifteen years ago when Wales lost 43-17. Six clubs were represented in the Welsh team giving some satisfaction to their supporters but there was nothing else to be pleased about although we did prevent Jonah Lomu scoring a try.
VISITORS FROM ABROAD – AND BLAENAVON
Extract from programme for Ebbw Vale v Cross Keys 10 November 2017
Just over thirty years ago we played the US Eagles on our ground which did not then have a grandstand or clubhouse. The wooden stand, opened in 1914, was declared unsafe which was no surprise, in the 50s it had overhead gas heaters. In the mid-80s the club was gutted by fire and for a season we used the cricket club’s facilities until the Council took over ownership and the present stand was built and the clubhouse like a phoenix rose from the ashes.
We were lucky to beat the Eagles 16-14, were outscored 3-1 on tries and depended on Arwel Parry’s goal-kicking. In the closing minutes the Americans threw into a lineout five metres from our line but the hooker delayed his throw, we got a free kick and Parry banged the ball into the half-built stand to end the game.
We began our 1979/80 Centenary by playing Romania who won 9-0 through three penalty goals awarded by the English referee a Commander in the Royal Navy. The USA and Romania were new to international rugby unlike South Africa who in February 1957 sent a Universities XV to Wales. They played Ebbw Vale/Newbridge on our ground, the 6d programme included pen portraits of the players one of whom was centre Ray Knott who sadly passed away last August. He later joined us from Newbridge and was one of six in the team against the Sables described as colliery workers. The best uncapped forward in Wales, Eric Finney, captained the side which won 6-5, an achievement because eight of the South Africans became Springboks.
After touring California in 1980 and Western Canada in 1982, in 1983 we went to Italy where Clive Burgess played for Brescia and in his spare time worked in the vineyards. We faced stern opposition, losing 16-4 to the Italian National XV and then 38-10 to a semi-international team called Zebre, not the Pro 14 lot but Italy’s version of the Barbarians. They included twelve capped players, Budgie of Wales, an All-Black, eight Italians plus three ‘B’ caps and their halves, Les Cusworth and Nick Young of Leicester who would play for England against Wales a year later. In between studying the culture around Lake Garda, admittedly bigger and nicer than Waun-y-Pound, we beat Brescia 22-9.
Americans, Romanians and South Africans did not bring supporters, but on Saturday October 13th 1906 the visiting team brought four hundred who came by special train to watch the Western-Eastern Valleys match of the day, Ebbw Vale v Blaenavon which we won 3-0, a normal result then and well into the 1950s and 1960s. Considering that Blaenavon had only been formed nine years earlier it was a major achievement to muster four hundred followers.
A game that finished 3-0 doesn’t sound exciting but ten months before the Blaenavon invasion Wales beat New Zealand by the same score and we haven’t stopped celebrating since. Many more points are scored in club games now but the crowds that watch them are far fewer in stark contrast to the packed houses we knew. We don’t host teams from overseas anymore, there is less variety in the fixtures and there are too many rugby-free Saturdays. If the 1906 rugby folk were here now they would turn in their graves.
THE THREE Rs – READING, ‘RITING & RUGBY
Extracted from programme Ebbw Vale v Bargoed 28 October 2017
Rugby in the UK once depended on schools to nurse, nurture and produce good players. Pupils of Heriots in Edinburgh’s Old Town and Cranleigh in Surrey went on to play for Heriots FP and Old Cranleighans and finally with Scotland, England and the Lions. In Wales we looked to the Grammar Schools, football was played in the Elementary and Technical Schools.
There were five Grammar Schools in what is now Blaenau Gwent, Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, Brynmawr, Abertillery and Nantyglo the latter producing Welsh Lions David Nash and Robert Norster. After the Second World War the WRU formed a Youth team for those who left school early thus catering for all youngsters. The end of season Welsh Schools v Welsh Youth game drew a bigger crowd than the Welsh Pro 14s put together.
New Zealand’s ladder to top rugby still begins in schools and progresses via clubs, provinces, Super Rugby and finally every Kiwi kid’s dream – the All Blacks. New Zealand provinces govern every age group and are the finishing schools where lads like Sean Fitzpatrick began their outstanding careers.
In 1984 Fitzpatrick was named Most Promising Player in New Zealand and was described as a vigorous and lively hooker who was educated at Mount Carmel Convent and Sacred Heart College which shows that hookers can be angelic, pure of heart and peaceful. Just like ours.
Sean Fitzpatrick is one of nine former pupils at Mount Carmel who became All-Blacks added to which the school has produced seven internationals, a Wallaby, Sonny Parker of Wales, four Tongan and one Samoan.
In 1983/4 the Rugby Almanack of New Zealand celebrated its Jubilee with special matches and players from overseas were flown in to take part. It was the heyday of Colin Meads, Wilson Whineray and Ken Gray a prop who met Ebbw’s Gareth Howls face to face at Rodney Parade but was never formally introduced. Being named New Zealand Player of The Year was a major achievement, in 1979 it was Wellington’s Murray Mexted who had once played for the Wellington club against Ebbw Vale. Unusually for a Kiwi he was on the losing side.
There were several New Zealand clubs celebrating centennials and one was Poneke in Wellington who played an International XV that included David Campese (Australia), Hugo Porta (Argentina) and All-Blacks Gary Whetton, Graham Mourie and Andy Haden. The International XV’s team list included a C. Dennehy (Wales) who was of course our No.8 and captain Carl. A Wales B cap, he captained the club in 1983/4 and was Player of the Year in the following season. A Rhymney man, Carl played for Brescia in 1988/9 and will be remembered as one of our best No. 8s.
Wales last beat New Zealand in 1953 and have failed in the next 28 games against them. Those who were at the Arms Park in December 1953 will treasure the moment when Ken Jones, a Blaenavon boy, scored the winning try but now they wonder if their grand-children will ever see Wales beat the All-Blacks again. The world champions first played the home nations in 1905 and their record against them is 133 played, 118 won, 4 drawn and 11 lost. ‘Nuff said.
CUP DRAMA, A GREAT WRITER AND A LAME REFEREE
Article for EV v Merthyr 30 September 2017
Coins are usually tossed before a game not after it but there were two memorable exceptions forty-six years ago which decided Cup results. Some bright spark at the old HQ decided that if the score was level at full-time in a Cup tie a toss of a coin would decide which side went through to the next round. On grounds without floodlights extra time on a winter’s day meant players would be roaming in the gloaming but flicking a shilling was an unfair way of deciding the winners as Waunarlwydd and Whitland rugby clubs found at tea-time Saturday 11th December 1971. Our game at Waunarlwydd ended 9-9 and Pontypridd drew 7-7 at Whitland but we both got through when captains Gareth Howls of Ebbw and Dennis John of Ponty made the right calls. Had they lost the toss they would have been ostracised, banned from the end of season tour and expelled from the beer kitty.
It was a situation journalists with a sense of humour loved, someone like John Billot who passed away eight years ago almost to the day. For 43 years he was rugby and cricket correspondent at the Western Mail and he has never been matched. A man of great wit he enjoyed visiting Ebbw Vale and he it was who called Clive Burgess ‘Steelclaw,’ Phil Gardner ‘Grey Wolf’ and our prop Peter Morgan ‘Buffalo.’ He was of the old school of journalism, he described the game and brought it to life, an art long gone but necessary at a time when the only way to see a game was to be at the ground.
Not much escaped his gaze, of the Welsh win in Dublin in 1982 John wrote “Englishman Tony Copsey with Made in England tattoed on his hind quarters made his debut for Wales” and more seriously summed up the 1989 All-Black’s 34-9 win at the Arms Park with, “the tourists historically had made the ruck their distinguishing mark but now they abandoned the ruck for the maul. They rolled it, walked it, galloped it and generally used it to keep possession and gain, 20, 30 or 40 yards. It was awesome forward power directed superbly by the ruthless Wayne Shelford.”
He sympathised with referees who in his day stood alone in the cauldron of important games, like Wales v Scotland in 1976 refereed by a 48 year old Frenchman who strained his right calf muscle when he was knocked over early in the second half. He refused to go off and said after “As long as I was in a position to observe clearly, I could continue to control play.” John Billot kindly summed it up, “it was refereeing by remote control for much of the time because he was limping and trailing far behind the play.” The poor chap didn’t have to see a doctor when he got home – he was one.
The last international at the Arms Park was on March 15th 1997, a sad day made even sadder when England with men like Will Carling, Austin Healy, Martin Johnson and Richard Hill won 34-13. John wrote, “The only home try came during the last few minutes with a skewering run by Rob Howley, the final international try on the much-loved Arms Park before demolition experts moved in. This was the ground where New Zealand lost in 1905, 1935 and 1953, where once the mud lay inches deep and where the crowds sang as never since; where more stood than sat and Wales often were a team of unmatchable magic. Goodbye, old friend!” Only John Billot could have written that.
PARADE OF THE FAMOUS
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Newport programme 16 September 2017
Rodney Parade has been the stage on which some of sport’s greatest have performed, especially in the halcyon days of tours by ‘Boks, Wallabies and Kiwis. Much has been written of Newport’s 3-0 win there over the 1963 All-Blacks when Uzzell dropped the winning goal and the Newport skipper was Brian Price, two Valley products like little Dai Watkins who began his brilliant rugby career with Cwmcelyn Youth in the metropolis known as Blaina. What is forgotten is that 39 years earlier a win over New Zealand was on the cards had a Newport touch finder found touch.
The 1924 All-Blacks had one of rugby’s all time greats in their team, full-back George Nepia described as “quick thinking, quick moving and daringly departed from orthodoxy.” The team was arguably the best that ever reached these shores, they played and won 32 games but they came within a whisker of losing the 6th game against Newport.
28,000 walked or went by bus and train to the game and they were certain the home side would keep their 10-8 lead with a few minutes left. Then and now All-Black teams might be down but never out, they were and are capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. In 1924 their right wing fielded the ball destined for touch, ran it back scored a try and the tourists won 13-10. Spectators from all parts of east Wales were shocked into silence except my uncle who had left early to catch his train believing Newport had won by two points.
There was no TV then or even radio so he went down Waunlwyd Colliery next morning telling everybody Newport had beaten the unbeatable. It wasn’t until he read the Daily Herald that evening that he knew the final score and resolved never to leave a ground again until the final whistle.
The most famous to appear at Rodney Parade was a private in the US Army who in 1944 topped the bill of a British/American Forces boxing exhibition. Admission was by uniform and that included Dad’s Army, Air Training Corps cadets and an aged boxing fan dressed as an air raid warden. The star attraction was G I Joe Louis who fought the champion of Oklahoma over three rounds, it ended in the second but it didn’t matter, we had seen the Brown Bomber.
Another sporting legend is Colin Meads who died recently. David Watkins will remember him and particularly their David and Goliath “encounter” in the 4th Test of the 1966 Lions tour in which all games were refereed by New Zealanders. Meads played once at Rodney Parade, in 1963 on the losing side but in his 55 international appearances he only experienced ten defeats, 5 by South Africa, three by the Lions and 2 by Australia. He played against Wales four times and in 1963 was in the first All-Black side to beat Wales at the Arms Park, New Zealand having lost in 1905, 1935 and 1953. It was not their first win in Wales, they won at Swansea in 1924 which poses a question, will we ever beat them again?
RICH IN BACK ROW FORWARDS
Extract from the programme for Ebbw Vale v Pontypridd 01/09/17
South Wales is the heartland of Welsh rugby with a history stretching over three centuries. It’s full of clubs and players who often switch from one to another; such a player was Richie Collins. We have always had backrowers with talent and Richie had plenty, he came to us from Pontypridd, a police officer who played for many teams some for long periods others briefly. Take a deep breath for they were, Barbarians, Bristol, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Glamorgan Wanderers, Newport, Pontypridd where he also coached, South Wales Police, Swansea, South Glamorgan Institute, Wales B and Wales 28 times. In his spare time he played basketball for Wales. A busy bobby.
It began for him at Cardiff District side St. Alban’s a name remembered by those who watched Wales at the Arms Park. Standing under the North Stand we listened to the St. Alban’s Band who entertained us and led the singing. Most of the crowd has gone to chapel so could sing in tune and follow the conductor, and St. Alban’s had a good one.
Rhys Shorney also joined us from Pontypridd, as fit now as he was when he scored seven tries for Ponty against Aberavon, a record shared by another former Steelman, Lennie Woodard who got seven for Pontypool v Treorchy. Lennie scored two and Josh Taumalolo three in our 44-10 semi-final win over Newport at Sardis Road which took us to the Swalec Cup Final at Ashton Gate, Bristol.
Our team was Siua Taumalolo; Alun Harries, Jonathan Hawker (replaced by Jason Strange), John Funnell, Lennie Woodard; Byron Hayward, David Llewellyn; Alun Phillips, Leighton Phillips (replaced by Steve Jones), Mike Wilson; Chay Billen, Kuli Faletau; Mark Jones, Kingsley Jones (captain) – and Richie Collins.
1976/1977 was the season these notes first appeared in the match programme and on Friday September 24th 1976 Pontypridd, Welsh champions in the previous season, were visitors and the first of forty-four articles about them appeared. We won 13-9 with both backrows outstanding, David Fryer, Clive Burgess and Graham Evans for Ebbw and Mike Shellard, Chris Seldon and Tommy David for Ponty. It was refereed by Clive Norling who didn’t need a TMO to tell him what happened or a clock to decide when time was up.
Clive reffed 35 international matches, the most unusual in Auckland in 1981 when the Springboks ended a tour full of demonstrations against them. Late in the game a light aircraft flew over the ground and dropped bags of flour one of them stunning a Kiwi prop! The score was 22-22 with time seemingly up but the incident had halted the match and extra time was added during which the All-Black full-back kicked a long range penalty to win the game and series. That was thirty-six years ago, today the pilot would be yellow carded for ungentlemanly behaviour, but only after consulting the TMO.
Ronny Kynes is the eighth back row forward to captain us in the last fifty seasons, a character who has turned catching, driving and scoring from lineouts into an art form. He’s cheeky with it, just like the last flanker to captain Ebbw, Kingsley Jones. Good luck Ronny, may the Force be with you.
THE MARCH OF TIME
Extracted from the match programme for Ebbw Vale v Merthyr, 060517
No team sport is more physical than rugby union, in no other is there anything as confrontational as the scrum, a private battle ground that referees find difficulty in unravelling and which leaves spectators baffled. 21st century scrums are so different to when Peter Morgan, known to us as Buffalo and to Merthyr rugby club as its Chairman, played for Ebbw. In the early 80s packs were not ordered to crouch, set and engage they just got on with the job in hand, formed the scrums quickly and knuckled down. Literally.
Peter faced the best in the UK. In February 1980 the Ebbw pack v Llanelli was Colin Williams, Jonathan Williams, Peter Morgan; Ashley Ellison, David Fryer; Phil Gardner (capt), Clive Burgess and Graham ‘Gomer’ Evans. Opposite were Lawrence Delaney, Howard Thomas, John Williams; Hefin Jenkins, Duncan Darch; Dennis Davey, Derrick Quinnell (capt) and Paul Ringer. We won 12-4.
In November 1981 against Newport our pack was Colin Williams, Jonathan Williams (capt), Peter Morgan; David Bidgood, Steve Duke; Phil Gardner, Gareth Davies and Clive Burgess who faced Jim McReedy, Paul Ransom, Rhys Morgan; John Widdecombe, David Waters; Kerry Williams (capt), David Fryer and Tony Aubin. We won 12-6.
Another Merthyr man who joined us was full-back Wayne Bow an entertainer on and off the field who among other achievements out-shone England and Gloucester full-back Peter Butler in our annual battles with the Cherry and Whites. Two games in particular are remembered, in September 1978 and October 1982, and we won both 18-9 and 45-18.
Burly front-row forwards can be gentle off the field, a view supported by one of our exiles Derek Pearce who has lived in Stockton-on-Tees for 27 years. A former pupil, like young Faletau, of the school near our ground, Pontygof-on-Ebbw, he remembers among others 1960s prop Len Dimmick “bursting like cannon fire out of the opposition side of a ruck or maul and dashing 20-30 yards with all his massive exuberance – and what a lovely gentle man (and gentleman) he was off the pitch.”
In Len’s days a game lasted 70 minutes and the referee was the sole timekeeper. In the 50s “time” was only called when pubs closed and no-one knew whether a game had ended early or over-ran. One Ebbw Vale home game, refereed by George Goldsworthy of Penarth, seemed endless which prompted our captain George Gwyn to politely ask when it would end. The ref checked his watch, blew his whistle and said, “Sorry skipper I was enjoying the game so much I forgot the time!”
It’s an incredible fact that in March and April this year we only played four games. Rugby has become more entertaining to the average watcher but fixtures fifty years ago were much more interesting and gave full value to season ticket holders. In March and April 1967 we played sixteen games, winning 13 and drawing one, including three on the Cornish tour, Bective Rangers of Ireland, Duendes of Argentina (at Ebbw by the way) and Pierre Albaladejo’s XV in Paris.
Pierre was a legend in France, an outside-half of class who had won his 29th and last cap three seasons before we faced his star studded side on the eve of an international. We won 25-13 which left skipper Des Winters with the task of finding somewhere tidy for his team to spend the night in Paris for they were homesick and longed for a bag of chips and a pint of Rhymney.
I may be suffering from a bad dose of nostalgia but fixture lists full of variety, averaging 45 games a season against teams from everywhere in the rugby world were simply great for players and spectators. That’s in the past and time marches on, but does anyone know where we are going?
TWO TIERS TEARS PREMIERSHIP APART
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Pontypridd Match Programme 17 March 2017
Five months into this strange season we eventually knew who our remaining opponents would be. In normal times the complete fixture list would be published in the summer which was important enough but necessary in selling season tickets and seeking sponsorship. We knew we would play four of the remaining seven games at home and it came as no surprise that we would have to make another trek north for the second time this season which was welcomed by every pub owner between Blaenau Gwent and and Blaenau Ffestiniog and Builth Wells RFC where the Addicts have bangers and chips on the way home.
The splitting of the Premier Division into two tiers brought tears to the eyes of former fixture secretaries and anyone with common sense and knowledge of club rugby in Wales. It must be the first league in sport where teams are relegated midway through a season.
However Pontypridd are here and another opportunity to mention one of their greatest players Bob Penberthy who literally towered over every opponent. Lineout jumpers consider it a sin and an embarrassment if they don’t catch a ball thrown at them. That never happened to Bob who was taller than any second-row in Wales, won every lineout whoever threw in and was a supreme clubman in the bargain. Never recognised by Welsh selectors who couldn’t select a darts team Bob played 876 times for Pontypridd in three decades and would play for the 2nd XV if Ponty firsts didn’t have a game.
Beating Ponty three times last season was rare indeed and only the second time we have managed to pull it off. The first was in 1982/83 when we won 9-8 at Sardis Road in October, 16-8 at home in the Schweppes Cup in January and 12-11 also at home in April. Not much between the sides but enough to please our captain and former Pontypridd centre Steve Flynn.
Ponty’s old ground, Ynysyngharad Park was where Bob Penberthy began his long career, where Tommy Farr who had been beaten on points by Joe Louis in 1937 fought one of his comeback bouts in September 1950 in pouring rain. A few years before the Park was where one of Wales’s most brilliant outside-halves, Glyn Davies from Cilfynydd, brought much needed light to the game.
After playing for Pontypridd Grammar School he got three Blues at Cambridge and was capped 11 times between 1947 and 1951 benefiting from master scrum-half Hadyn Tanner who was capped before and after the war. Davies could side-step on a sixpence and so did Cliff Morgan, an equally magical outside-half from the Rhondda, who followed him in the Welsh team.
There are more gaps in what’s left of the fixture list than Cliff created in his day. The game has changed since but it is still an achievement to win away from home. Especially on a Friday night in West Wales where three weeks ago we beat Carmarthen Quins 30-26 while Jason Strange’s Wales Under 20s hammered Scotland 65-34, a feast of scoring one point short of a century.
Our scoreboard has never displayed that number of points so the most at our ground remains 84-4 in the October 1973 win over San Francisco six months after we beat them in Golden Gate Park 47-6, a unique double as six thousand miles separated the teams. We left our hearts in San Francisco, the Californians left Ebbw downhearted.
THE MAGIC OF THE CUP
Extract from match programme EV v Merthyr 4 March 2017
I am reliably informed that men in blazers still rattle bags of balls when they make the Cup draw at HQ. Our eye-witness at High Noon on the 21st February kept a stiff upper lip while the balls emerged and refrained from jumping with joy which at his age is not advisable. There were two reasons, we drew a home game at a time when they are few and far between and our visitors would be Merthyr.
When the ”WRU Challenge Cup” was launched in the 1971/72 season it was not welcomed by everyone, there were no Leagues then and clubs arranged their own fixtures but the Cup changed that albeit for a few games. There was also a fear that the competition would be over vigorous like it was in the late 19th century, and not just on the field for the old Cup was discontinued after fighting occurred between spectators!
So the Challenge Cup in 1971 was not new it was revived and all the clubs would take part which encouraged many minnows to have a crack at the big boys. Fifty-eight years earlier the last of the original WRU Cup Finals was played at the Brewery Field when Aberavon beat Blaina 10-0, very different in many ways to the 1972 Final at the Arms Park when Neath beat Llanelli 15-9 before a 6000 crowd. The gate money was £6000 compared to £156 in 1914 but would have been more had the BBC not televised the Wembley Cup Final at the same time. Typical of the Beeb, they never get their priorities right.
The first game of the revived tournament was played on a Wednesday afternoon at Vardre and a good crowd turned up including all the Press looking forward to a David v Goliath clash because the visitors were Ebbw Vale captained by Gareth Howls and included Arthur Lewis whose centre partner Alan Tovey scored 20 tries in the 71/2 season, bettered by Glyn Turner who bagged 27. Not a bad side which after weathering a minor storm early on beat Vardre 40-10.
It was the season when Barry John, who had broken all the scoring records for a Lion in New Zealand in 1971, retired. Wales won the Championship but did not play in Dublin, Arthur Lewis partnered Roy Bergiers, Ebbw played Llanelli in the Floodlit Alliance two-leg Floodlight Alliance final and lost on an aggregate of nine tries to seven.
In 71/2 the Dewar Shield was flourishing, a competition between schools which should still be encouraged. Cardiff Schools were unbeaten and failed to win only once in 27 games when they drew a semi-final 11-11 at Merthyr. I wonder how many visitors here today will remember that or took part. The Ironmen had a good season and finished halfway in the Mid-District Championship with 10 wins, 2 draws and 7 defeats. The Mid-District champions were Beddau, who ran us close in this season’s Cup second round, with the Fenwick brothers prominent, flanker Chris and centre Steve. Knock-out rugby has never been a problem for Merthyr.
In the 1880s there were fourteen rugby teams in Merthyr like Dowlais Harlequins and Dowlais Proper whose battles on roughish turf was dangerous and a little bit physical. Referees were the bravest of the brave and one created history when in charge of Dowlais and Merthyr he sent off a Dowlais player who accused him of being “bought by Merthyr.” It was an early tin bath for the culprit whose Saturday was totally ruined and he was best avoided when the pubs closed.
EBBW AND ABERAVON ‘STEEL’ THE HEADLINES
Extract from the Ebbw Vale v Aberavon match programme 11 February 2017
Last April Ebbw Vale and Aberavon staged one of the best games of the season and one of the most important. The winner would make it to the semi-final play-off and by coincidence S4C selected it for one of their Sunday telecasts in contrast to other channels who are unaware Welsh club rugby exists. It turned out to be the first of three of our games televised in three weeks and each of them was worth saving. There were memorable moments and one was Chunky’s run and chase against the Wizards which showed how younger players can teach the old ones a trick or two.
The game had everything and would have graced a Cup final. We would have drawn a bigger crowd to the Stadium than the last one when there were more water carriers than spectators. Which reminds me, with all the awards presented these days why not one for the fastest water wallah? And don’t forget the lads and lasses who wipe the ball for the hooker.
Those who make cameo appearances in a game, like the water boys (in our case middle-aged men) are also secret agents for when they take water for the thirsty or a tee for a kicker they pass messages from the head coach. He has several assistants for there are almost as many coaches in our game these days as there are interpreters in a Premier League football club.
Many of rugby’s greatest characters are hookers and one was Albert Jackson who played for us in the Fifties. Sadly he passed away in January but memories of him will remain, not just because he was a fine player and was in two Ebbw sides that won the Championship in the 1950s but he was a really nice man and when the final whistle is blown that is how someone should be remembered.
Horace Matthews of the famous Cwm clan remembers Alby as a great hooker and friend and played with him for an Abertillery/Ebbw Vale side against the All-Blacks in 1954. The tourist’s hooker was Ron Hemi and the background of both hookers could not have been more different, Alby from Blaina in the north of the Western Valley and Hemi from Whangarei in the north of New Zealand.
Hemi was first capped against Wales on the tour and was in the last New Zealand side to lose to Wales on December 19th 1953. He went on to play 46 times for the All-Blacks, sixteen of them internationals at a time when there were fewer international matches but longer European tours which gave players like Albert Jackson an opportunity to play the best in the world without even having to catch a bus to the ground.
South Wales is where the national game prospers. We have more rugby posts than post offices and it’s where the game has thrived since the late 19th century when it was a friendly war between local tribes and where there are still volunteers who work their socks off to keep the club game alive despite the changes it has been subjected to.
Forty seasons ago our fixture list included teams from four other nations, Ireland, Argentina, England and Cornwall but only one against the Wizards which we won 3-0, not an inspiring scoreline and nothing to compare with 32-30 last April. Two citadels known over the years for quality rugby and steel meet again and once more it’s an important game so fasten your safety belts.
BIG GAMES WITH BEDWAS (120217)
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Bedwas 4 February 2017
There is a misguided belief that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain and gales in Wales fall mainly on the Vales, for last Easter Saturday we experienced a downpour at Bedwas which is nearer the equator than we are. The heavens opened at the wrong time at the wrong place because it affected an important game the result of which had a major influence on the play-offs.
Speaking of influence someone in Bedwas knew someone Up There because having played into the wind in the first half we played into a gale in the second! Drop outs resulted in the ball ending behind the kicker and only the genuine supporters stuck it out to the bitter end.
It was not a day for running, handling or kicking, spectators shivered but their problems were nothing compared to the task of the players who could not afford to make a mistake but somehow handled the ball that got more soap-like by the minute and defended like the 24th of Foot at Rorkes Drift. We won 16-8 but what an ordeal.
On Boxing Day 2016 we returned to Bedwas and although the temperature was low the heat from yet another close encounter kept the spectators warm. Local Derbies over Christmas are perfect for the heavier members of the teams who want to get back home quickly to play with their train sets and like a close Epsom Derby it was a neck and neck finish that resulted in a one point win for Bedwas which meant we had work to do to ensure a place among the gentry. Two more narrow wins did the trick and we avoided what can be described as relegation to the bottom eight while Bedwas romped home as runners-up. When the second edition of fixtures were eventually released in January, while pleased to draw Bedwas at Ebbw, we were not overjoyed to be the only Premier club to have to travel to the North Wales Riviera twice in a season.
Looking back is the norm in this column and the young will wonder how we put up with such low scores in the old days. For example a team leading 6-0 after an hour could keep it and close the game down by kicking directly to touch from anywhere. Wales v England games in the 1950s included a 3-0 victory and a 3-3 draw and in that decade the average score when the old rivals met was 8-3 despite the presence of clever backs of the calibre of Lewis Jones, Bleddyn Williams and Cliff Morgan of Wales and Jeff Butterfield, Peter Jackson and Dickie Jeeps of England. Great players who would have flourished even more under the current Laws of the Game.
he game needed brightening up and we played our part, but compare the fixture situation in 1976/77 to the mix-up forty seasons later. We played 44 games, won 35, drew 1 and lost 8, met 33 clubs, nine of them Welsh home and away and twelve outside Wales, two Scottish, one New Zealand and nine English. Because of new Laws rugby might be more attractive now but nothing will be as good as the old fixture system, full of variety, matches galore and real value for season ticket holders.
Wales got the Grand Slam in 1976 and won three of the four Five Nations games in 1977 and where did the players come from? The clubs of course.
TIME FOR ANOTHER CUPPA (290117)
Exract from the Ebbw Vale v Skewen programme 28 January 2017
When Cup ties were played on grounds new to us it was an adventure into the unknown. So-called smaller clubs rose to the occasion on their own patch and there was a great atmosphere but now, sadly in my opinion, the Cup is restricted to clubs in the two top Divisions. Nigel Davies will recall those days, he played in nine finals for Llanelli winning six including one at Ashton Gate in 1998, our only Cup Final which we lost 19-12 although our totally unbiased Chairman still claims we wuz robbed.
Winning on strange grounds in midwinter was tough, like the game at Hendy a few days before Christmas 1978 when even brass monkeys froze. Skipper Phil Gardner shivered like Scott of the Antarctic in the dressing room after we scraped a 4-0 win but got no sympathy from the Club Treasurer alias Scrooge who flatly refused to buy him a bottle of brandy. It was warmer at Cwmgrach two seasons before where we won 41-6, met Max Boyce and headed home around midnight leaving eight members of the committee behind.
We like making new friends and were pleased this season’s first round draw brought Skewen to Ebbw Vale to renew games with them that began on March 27th 1920 when we won 9-0. Thanks to Ray Ruddick of Pontypool a leading rugby statistician we know the fixture was sandwiched between Machen who we beat 6-0 and Cardiff Scottish who we demolished 43-0. With so many foreigners playing in Wales nowadays it would be difficult to field a team called Cardiff Welsh.
Skewen are enjoying their first season in the Championship and are one of many vibrant clubs in a heartland of the game. Among their former players is prop Paul James who played over sixty times for Wales and also Bath in the Aviva Premiership. There are industrial connections between us, Skewen in the County Borough of Neath once had a number of collieries in the village and it was from the pits both our clubs drew the men who made rugby football the Welsh national sport. Just a thought, if we hadn’t made steel as well would be known as the Coalmen?
A Cup tie is the time to recall exciting, dramatic and unusual ties of the past and there were two in the second round of the new Challenge Cup in 1971/2 when Ebbw drew 9-9 at Waunarlwydd and Pontypridd 7-7 at Whitland. As the competition developed extra time would be played, results decided on try count or the away team would go through so it’s incredible now to believe that forty years ago Ebbw and Ponty went through on the toss of a coin.
This season the Premiership is different to say the least. After playing every other club once we didn’t know who we would play in the remaining seven fixtures. To say the campaign has been disjointed is an under-statement and former Fixture Secretaries view it in disbelief. Before Leagues they arranged an average of 45 fixtures a season without fuss using a telephone, a pen, paper and a book of stamps, but there was a competition they had no control over – the Cup.
The ties were decided by men in blazers picking small balls from a cloth bag watched by televiewers who kept fingers crossed hoping for a home draw. Skewen play Ebbw Vale for the first time since the 1920s, a long time ago but worth waiting for
FROM CLUBS TO CAPS (160117)
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Cross Keys 7 January 2017
Why is there no Welsh name for Cross Keys? We are Glyn Ebwy, there’s a Castell Nedd, Abertawe and Aberflyarff but not even S4C describes our neighbours in Welsh. With respect to the Mother Tongue it doesn’t really matter to those who come from Pandy Park where away wins are rare, especially in Western Valley Derbies. It was there that the first Floodlit game in Wales was played in the 1950s, quite a novelty which heralded a new era of midweek games throughout the season.
The Lion’s next tour is a year away and they will be going to New Zealand which is no problem for the players who have nothing better to do in the summer and would be honoured to be selected and would like some extra pay. They haven’t got to take time off from work because rugby is their work, but it was different in 1938 when the Lions went to South Africa. Those with posh jobs, understanding employers or were students put their names down but it must have been a difficult decision for a bobby in Monmouthshire to make. Welsh international Russell Taylor was a Cross Keys forward and one of nine Welshmen in the Lions party which sailed to Durban from Southampton on a Castle Line vessel in a fleet which two years later carried troops. Russell a Monmouthshire man beginning his career with the Keys and ending it with Abergavenny where he died aged 51.
It meant a lot to clubs all over the rugby world when one of their kind was capped, a means of identification that began for Wales in their first international in 1881 against England at Blackheath. Some of the England side came from clubs with strange names like Queen’s House and Malborough Nomads but the most unusual of the time was The Gypsies formed in 1863 which supplied five players to England between 1871 and 1876. One of them was a former Epsom schoolboy Jefferson Vennor Brewer who got one cap against Ireland and is mentioned here because his father was a doctor in Ebbw Vale.
Gypsies RFC was disbanded in 1880 and it still holds the record of being the club with the shortest life but Brewer junior didn’t finish with rugby, he was one of seven who reviewed and re-wrote the Laws of the game. It would take seventy to unravel the present Laws but at least we can claim that a gypsy from Ebbw Vale played for England.
Cross Keys was one of the powerful Welsh clubs in the Twenties and Thirties but of the eleven players capped from the Club there was only one post-WW2 and that was Rex Richards, capped once against France in 1956 who went to Hollywood as a stunt man. In that Welsh side that beat France 5-3 there were ten from Gwent clubs, in the famous team that beat the All-Blacks in 1935 there were only two, one from Newport and the other from Cross Keys.
There were four from the Swansea club which had already beaten the tourists and one of them was hooker Don Tarr of the Royal Navy who played the Kiwis four times that season. With Wales leading 13-12 and defending desperately Tarr went down injured and lay motionless. English referee Gadney ensured no-one moved him and that he was placed face down on the stretcher which many believed saved his life. It was the end of a promising rugby career but Tarr stayed in the Royal Navy and retired as a Lieutenant Commander, thanks to Cyril Gadney who refereed thirteen international matches, but none more important than that one.
FROM RASSAU TO WESTGATE STREET (060117)
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Cardiff 311216
When Cardiff are visitors the programme will always mention Bleddyn Williams the Prince of Centres who turned side-stepping into an art form we no longer see. One of seven brothers who played for Cardiff he and his centre partner Dr Jack Matthews dominated every game they played in. Bleddyn would dazzle the opposition, Doctor Jack would stop them in their tracks and then help them recover. Bleddyn’s reign as Prince drew huge crowds to the Arms Park on which Cardiff, Cardiff Athletic, Wales, the Barbarians and lots of other teams played. A groundsman’s nightmare.
It was in the Arms Park that Bleddyn side-stepped like no one else, where Barry John who had emigrated from West Wales dropped four goals for Cardiff against Llanelli, where Gareth Edwards scored memorable tries for the Barbarians v New Zealand and Wales v Scotland, where the All-Blacks were beaten by Wales in 1905, 1935 and 1953.
Many of the Davies clan have represented Cardiff RFC for Wales and others deserved to but didn’t. One was a second row from Rassau, Ebbw Vale – Alandale Road to be exact – who played his first senior game with the Steelmen. Graham Davies went to Ebbw Vale Grammar School and was selected by the Welsh Senior Schools to go on a youngster’s dream trip – South Africa. Graham played 177 1st XV games for Cardiff and two of them were against the best in the world, the 60/61 Springboks and the 63/4 All-Blacks. He partnered Keith Rowlands in the first opposing Pelser and Classen and with clubmate Danny Harris against the Kiwis who faced, literally, Colin Meads and A J Stewart. No other former pupil of Rasssau Infants School can match that.
When Graham took the field on a famous pitch he followed in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest. It’s a different pitch now and in a slightly different location but traditions never change and neither does the need for a powerful pack. It is very rare that a side beaten up front will win a game, but some Cardiff players did just that in their heyday. There was no tougher series of Derby games than Cardiff v Newport, four games every season packing their grounds. Cardiff were never beaten four times by their rivals despite being out-gunned in the forwards sometimes. A heading in the Argus said it all after a Cardiff win at Rodney Parade – “Newport got the ball, that’s all.”
What better way to end the year than playing at home to Cardiff? 2016 might not be remembered for Welsh international success but our final game last season will not be forgotten. It concluded a six year campaign to climb to the top and showed that the game is alive, well and flourishing in our parish.
Praise is due to the club for using the Challenge Cup games to view youngsters from local clubs who permit them to play mid-week. The best example of that policy was against Merthyr a few weeks ago: of the 23-man Ebbw Vale squad eighteen were on permit and they put on a great show. It’s not easy welding total strangers into a team so credit goes to those who pulled it off.
The road ahead is endless, there’ll be ups and downs, but sport is like that. To those who gave us great pleasure in 2016 and who take us into another year, good luck and a very happy and successful 2017.
DERBIES, BUFFALOES AND KIWIS (141216)
Extract from Ebbw Vale v Merthyr Challenge Cup programme 7 December 2016
In its early years rugby in the South Wales hinterland meant battles in which thirty men fought for 70 minutes without reward then declared a ceasefire when everyone shook hands and quenched thirsts together. The combatants were generally colliers and iron workers, men who worked hard, played harder and sought forgiveness on the Sabbath. One could describe a game between Merthyr and Ebbw Vale as a clash between Men of Iron and Men of Steel but Merthyr and Ebbw Vale are no longer heavy industry towns yet remain rugby strongholds and this season have launched a new local Derby.
It might come as a surprise to some but I did not see the first game between our clubs in 1885, a low scoring hard hitting affair after which “both teams enjoyed an excellent tea in the County Hotel.” So recounts David Boucher the historian of Ebbw’s early years who researched ancient copies of the Merthyr Express which was once our local paper.
Merthyr and Ebbw Vale played rugby league together at a time when the working man succumbed, understandably, to the temptation of getting paid for playing. In 1907 the WRU looked in to allegations that Merthyr was paying its players which caused apoplexy to the rugger types in richer Kerdiff. One hundred and nine years later sensation would be caused if there were allegations that clubs were NOT paying their players.
In the Tank Museum in Dorset is an armoured vehicle named SEVENOAKS and numbered 3. One of our props Robert Sevenoaks wears No.3 and we now find that the tank is known in the Army as a Buffalo. By coincidence we had a great No. 3 in the Eighties too, Peter Morgan now Merthyr’s chairman known to us as – Buffalo.
In the programme for our home game against Bargoed, Lyndon Miles was mentioned. A tiny outside-half from Tredegar he can claim to be one of the few Welsh players to be on a winning side against New Zealand opposition. On Tuesday 25th October 1977 we beat the Wellington Club whose No. 8 was Murray Mexted one of New Zealand’s greatest. He was capped in 1979 and won 34 in all at a time when there were far fewer internationals than there are now.
The 77/78 season had begun well, before the Wellington game we had played eleven, won 8, drawn 1 and lost twice but typically of the standards of the time the programme editor reflecting on a 7-3 defeat to Pontypool wrote, “What has gone wrong for Ebbw Vale ?” The Ebbw side against Wellington was Robert Evans; Russell Cole, Gary Lawrence, Arthur Lewis, Chris Edwards; Lyndon Miles, Ian Lewis; Colin Williams, Gerwyn Williams, Gareth Howls (capt); Elwyn Jones, Michael Van Der Loos; Peter Jones. David Fryer, Paul Ringer. The replacements were Nigel Osborne and Robert Holmes and Phil Gardner was unavailable due to “evening class commitments.”
The game was decided in the closing minutes with Ebbw playing towards the beer and little Lyndon poised to do something if he only got the ball. He did, dropped a goal, we won 10-8 and enjoyed the after match party when the club floor took a pounding as the Kiwis did the Haka.
LOCAL BOYS MAKING GOOD (291116)
Extract from match programme Ebbw Vale v Bargoed 25 November 2016
The last international in which Welsh players represented their clubs was played in Hamilton, New Zealand on June 21st 2003 and like every game against the All-Blacks since December 1953 it ended in defeat and a heavy one, 55-3. Martyn Williams captained Wales and after the mis-match said, “We struggled to live with them in the second half.” Pity the captains and coaches who have to face the media after a stuffing.
Dan Carter made his debut for New Zealand and the Wales team that conceded eight tries was made up of players from Llanelli (5), Cardiff (3), Swansea(2), Pontypridd (2), Neath (1), Saracens (1) and Bath (1). Two months later Wales played a friendly in Dublin and the players represented Cardiff Blues, Gwent Dragons, Celtic Warriors, Ospreys, Scarlets plus Alix Popham of Leeds. An era had ended and there was hope at HQ that the five regions would be the foundations on which future Welsh teams would bring success. Within a year one of the regions had vanished.
When clubs had internationals in their ranks supporters packed grounds to see them and team selections were eagerly read in the Western Mail which in those days was full of news of clubs at all levels. Cardiff usually had several in Welsh teams and on one occasion chose scrum-half Brynmor Williams for their game at Ebbw Vale. There were groans from the big crowd when Allan Foster our Secretary announced over the tannoy that Brynmor had withdrawn but cheers when, after a dramatic pause, he told us the replacement was Gareth Edwards!
Clubs whose players had moved into what was called the first class game were proud when their local lads made the big time. On October 30th 1963 supporters from the Darran and Rhymney Valleys went to Rodney Parade to watch Newport play the All-Blacks. It was a game to remember for the 25,000 present, won by Newport 3-0 through a drop goal by Dickie Uzzell (from Deri) after a break by Dai Watkins (from Blaina). Four of that Newport side which was captained by Brian Price (from Deri) were selected by Wales to play New Zealand just before Christmas, Uzzell, Watkins, Price and Alan Thomas which prompted preachers in Newport chapels to turn to the Psalms and proclaim, “I will lif up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.”
Imagine the sheer excitement that engulfed the village of Trefil when Denzil Williams won the first of his thirty-six caps for Wales at a time when fewer international matches were played. Denzil’s first game for Wales was against England in 1963 and his last was against France in 1971.
Local heroes were seen in our villages and towns and we felt close to the national team if one of ours was in it. Those days are long gone and are unlikely to return but the local connection remains. There are many in Trimsaran who were pleased when local boy Nigel Davies was capped for Wales against New Zealand in 1988 when he was thrown into the deepest of ends. This autumn we shared the pride of Nigel when his son Sam won his first cap a few weeks ago. There will be many more, so play it again Sam.
The names of clubs are no longer bracketed in the Welsh team list but there are still links between town or village clubs and local boys who make good. From mini to junior and youth rugby and then via clubs the stairway to stardom is climbed by home bred lads heading for the top, and not only those born locally. When seven year old Taulupe Faletau came from Tonga to join his family in the house inside our gates his first taste of the game was with RTB Ebbw Vale mini rugby.
But was he a ‘local’ boy? Of course he was, he went to Pontygof School and you can’t get more local than that.
DAVID NASH (161116)
Extract from the Ebbw Vale v Carmarthen Quins match programme 121116
David Nash who died a few weeks ago was a gentle giant, a great rugby footballer and a gentleman. His passing was mourned by all who had the privilege of playing with him in the Ebbw Vale side and those who watched him from the terrace which in his day was packed with spectators.
Born in Markham in 1939 David attended Hafod y Ddol Grammar School in Nantyglo, a rugby academy with a team unbeaten for two and half seasons. With two other school-mates David played for a successful Welsh Secondary Schools team and in 1958 was in the first Welsh Schools team of that age group to play England at Twickenham. Denzil Williams and Allan Foster were in the first Welsh Schools team to play there, the Under 15s, five years earlier in 1953.
David went to Cardiff Training College in Cyncoed, qualified as a teacher and joined Ebbw Vale playing against the best in Wales and England, many times for the County and for the Barbarians on their traditional Easter tour to South Wales in 1962. His debut for Wales was against the powerful 1960/61 Springboks who only lost once on their tour. The conditions were atrocious with a gale force wind and icy cold temperatures and only a penalty goal by South Africa was scored. There were five other new caps in the Welsh team, one being former Ebbw Vale three-quarter then with Llanelli, Denis Evans.
David’s second international was against England in January 1961 at Cardiff won by Wales 6-3, then came Murrayfield where Wales lost for the fourth successive time, 3-0 through a try by Arthur Smith who had rejoined Edinburgh Wanderers from Ebbw Vale. Wales beat Ireland at Cardiff 9-0 then lost in Paris 8-6 to end a poor Five Nations championship. Injuries kept David out of the international side until the last game of the 1961/62 season when he played in the second row against France, Wales winning 3-0. As a result he was selected for the Lions squad to tour South Africa in 1962 under the captaincy of Arthur Smith.
After a few games on the tour after impressing the South African media he was injured and became seriously ill. He was well cared for in South Africa and recuperated in the home of Danie Craven the leading figure in Springbok rugby. The illness ended what would have been a great career but he did not give the game up, he became coach of the club at a time when coaching was beginning to be taken seriously thanks to the pioneer work of Welshman Ray Williams who travelled to the Southern Hemisphere like a missionary spreading the gospel of squads and coaching.
In September 1967 the WRU General Committee appointed David Nash coach of the Welsh team but decided not to take a coach on the 1968 tour to Argentina. Alun Thomas, former international and Lion tried to persuade the General Committee to do so but failed. He resigned and so did David Nash, both men of principle but their decision was not wasted, the clubs in Wales at the WRU AGM applied pressure and a coach, Clive Rowlands, did go to Argentina.
When the sad news of David’s passing became known, former players were deeply saddened. Allan Foster said, “David in all respects was a bit special. A gentleman on and off the field with a huge talent that could occasionally turn on a performance that was world class and a performance that left everyone else in awe.” That was David Nash, a man great in so many ways who will never be forgotten.
Extracted from the Ebbw Vale v Carmarthen Quins match programme 121116
On Remembrance Day a wreath is laid on behalf of the club at the Ebbw Vale War Memorial, a short distance from our ground. For some with memories of wartime it will remind them of young men who played for Ebbw Vale and joined up. Not all of them came back.
September 1939 did not herald a new rugby season but the start of a six year war. The steel and coal produced in Ebbw Vale was vital to the war effort and men employed in the brand new steelworks and two collieries were retained in essential jobs. Some of them played rugby for Ebbw Vale and continued to do so even though regular fixtures were difficult to find. Many more joined the armed services, among them John James Merritt, a full back of quality and a native of Beaufort.
Royal Air Force aircrew were all volunteers, John was an air gunner in 51 Squadron flying Halifax bombers. His ‘plane took off on April 2nd 1943 for a raid on Essen. They headed for home but thirty minutes after midnight a fire developed in a circuit and the ‘plane crashed just north of Selby in North Yorkshire. Three of the seven man crew were killed, Sergeant Merritt was one of them and he is buried in Saint David’s Churchyard, Beaufort.
He was an outstanding full-back and played for the Royal Air Force in several charity games staged at St. Helen’s Ground, Swansea. The Ebbw Vale outside-half of the time was Benny Southway of Blaina, another top class player who in April 1941 was in a South Wales XV that played at Swansea against a RAF side that had John Merritt at full-back.
One of the great characters of pre-war international rugby was Alexander Obolensky, son of a Russian Prince. An Oxford Blue he scored two classic tries for England against New Zealand at Twickenham in 1936 and joined the RAF when war broke out. In March 1940 he was in an England XV that played a Wales XV at Cardiff Arms Park before 42,000 spectators. Twenty days later he was killed when his Hurricane fighter aircraft overshot the runway in Suffolk.
The Welsh scrum-half was the great Hadyn Tanner capped before and after the war. He joined up and became physical training instructor with the Training Battalion, Welsh Guards at Sandown Park Racecourse, Esher. He was partnered with Benny Southway in the South Wales XV that played the RAF in April 1941 and played for the Welsh Guards in the 1941 Middlesex Sevens final. They lost 6-0 to Cambridge University and in the seven was a young officer named Peter Hastings who became a famous trainer of racehorses. His son-in-law was another trainer, Ian Balding father of Claire.
Prince Obolensky’s brother Serge joined the Welsh Guards and was a tank commander. He survived the war but a fellow officer, Maurice Turnbull, Welsh international scrum-half, England and Glamorgan cricketer was killed in Normandy. There were hundreds of other rugby players from Britain and the Empire who were victims of both world wars.
In the morning and at the going down of the sun we will remember them.
RUGBY FROM TALGARTH TO TOULON (081116)
Extracted from the match programme for Ebbw Vale v Llandovery 29 October 2016
Last season our three games with Llandovery were so dramatic supporters took ages to recover from them but despite the intensity there was entertaining rugby and the result was that both clubs won trophies. All it needed was a Drovers/Ebbw Cup final which would have drawn a bigger crowd than usual because good teams have good supporters.
Rugby has taken decades to control its more aggressive participants who in the early years used the game to release tempers after a hard week’s work under and over the ground. Llandovery, as one of the founder members of the game, were not as rough as many of their opponents like Carmarthen Diamond Skull Crashers, and this was perhaps due to players who studied at Llandovery College. The College fielded a team in the first ever Welsh Cup competition in 1877 which compared to today’s Swalec Cup ties was most unusual: Talgarth v Merthyr, Cowbridge Grammar School v Llanelli, Llandeilo v Neath, Swansea v Abergavenny and Glamorgan 10th Rifle Volunteers v Llandovery College.
The club in Talgarth these days is Gwernyfed and several former Ebbw Vale players are running it, but I can’t see them doing well against the 2016 Merthyr side can you?<
In this century the emphasis has been on Leagues, professionalism and in Wales regionalism but very little on schools and youth rugby. End of the season schools international matches were very important and big crowds watched stars of the future graduating by playing regularly. In 1949 the Welsh Senior Schools team that played Yorkshire Schools at Rodney Parade included future Welsh greats Bryn Meredith, hooker, Cliff Morgan outside-half, Russell Robins lock and Gareth Griffiths, centre. At full back was Clive Best of Brynmawr Grammar School who joined Ebbw Vale, had a successful Rugby League career and on retirement was involved with our club and is still mourned and greatly missed.
When Saracens won at Toulon in October in the European Cup the anglicised press reported it was the first win there by a British club which of course was a load of cobblers as Chris Kirwan of the Argus pointed out because in 1999/2000 we got the double over Toulon 21-19 away and 56-26 at home. It was the biggest shock in the port since Admiral Nelson anchored his men of war offshore. Nelson was noted for his inspirational leadership, superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics which aptly describes Mark Jones our captain in 1999/2000. He excelled in unconventional tactics even the Admiral would have feared.
Our team that lost 20-21 to London Irish in the European Shield semi-final when a late Shaun Connor drop goal was not allowed by the French referee was Jonathan Williams; Rhys Shorney, Siua Taumalolo, Jonathan Hawker, Andrew Wagstaffe; Jason Strange, Guy Easterby; Alun Phillips, Leighton Phillips, Andrew Metcalf; Glyn Llewellyn, Kuli Faletau; Nathan Budgett, Mark Jones (capt), Paul Williams. Shaun Connor, Richard Smith, Iestyn Thomas and Lee Banks. Eight of them were or would become internationals. Those were the days my friend, those were the days but one day they will say the same of the Hudd Era
A DECADE OF DOWNS AND UPS (251016)
Extract from the match programme Ebbw Vale v Bargoed 19 October 2016
We are here tonight as Premier Division clubs, membership of which came after years of toil and determination and histories that go back a long way. It hasn’t been easy and it certainly was not for our predecessors who kept the game alive between the two World Wars. It was the unemployed who literally created the sporting complex we call Eugene Cross Park and no doubt Bargoed can say the same of their ground. It wasn’t money that created us and today those behind the scenes carry on the tradition supported by genuine rugby folk who, to misquote a famous US President, ask not what their club can do for them but what they can do for their club.
Right, having stepped down from my soap box, let’s look back over the past ten years. Our seasons in Division One 2010/11 and 2011/12 and the Championship 2012/13 and 2013/14 brought incredible results, we played 96, won 88 and lost 8 for a win ratio of 91.17%. The eight defeats were at the hands of Newbridge thrice, Merthyr, Narberth, Whitland and tonight’s visitors Bargoed twice. The games at Narberth, Merthyr and Whitland should have been won but Newbridge traditionally were always difficult and the games at Bargoed were intense, gripping and a lot more.
2006 was an eventful year for Welsh rugby but it was not all good news. In February Mike Ruddock met the Union’s Chief Executive Officer Steve Lewis and told him he did not wish to renew his contract coaching Wales at the end of the season. The response was quick and sharp, Mike would end a successful period as Welsh coach at once. End of story? Not really but we should remember that when Mike was national coach Wales won the Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years and six of the seven defeats by Wales under his command were by Southern Hemisphere countries, a fate suffered by almost every European coach.
2006 was a sad year for us, Clive Burgess died aged 55, one of six former internationals who passed away, four of them men of Gwent: Clive, Ray Cale (Pontypool), Glyn Davidge (Newport) and winger Ken Jones (Newport) who was also a silver medallist in the 1948 Olympic Games.
Threatened with relegation in season 2005/06 we needed a Messiah to lead us out of the mire and along came an England international lock forward we had never heard of – Alex Codling. He saved us at the last and we survived a Premier Division season of 10 wins, a draw and 19 defeats. Our record in all games was 36%, dismal and damned disappointing but in 2006/07 we finished second to Neath with a 67% result.
We are playing in this mid-week tournament because the British and Irish Cup games take over Saturdays, another new “attraction” which doesn’t seem to attract crowds. Sad to say big attendances are now confined to the Principality Stadium and even sadder is the fact that many of those who go there enjoy waving at the cameras more than watching the game.Those lads from Liverpool sang “Can’t Buy Me Love” and once upon a time rugby people believed that money can’t buy success, but this is the 21st century and money can buy everything. Having said that if someone wants to buy me a pint afterwards I won’t say no.
FOSTERING WELSH TALENT (161016)
Spotting young players is a pleasure and duty of those running clubs and now we have the Fosters Challenge Cup to help. It’s a Wales Has Talent show when clubs field their own youngsters and others on permit from neighbouring clubs whose cooperation is greatly appreciated. Not everyone has looked at it that way however, on one occasion a replacement for an opposing club was forty years old! Another benefit for the new Cup is the return of mid-week rugby albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past when it was necessary to fit in 45-50 fixtures a season. For example in our busy 1979/80 Centenary season we played 52 games and only 28 were on Saturdays.
There were several off the field celebrations in 79/80 topped by the Centenary Dinner which was considered by guests from all over the UK as the best of its kind, and we even had a competition for a Centenary logo. It ended with a second tour of California where the natives were very impressed when told our Patron was the Duke of Beaufort. He attended the Centenary Dinner at the Gwernvale Manor Hotel, Crickhowell and he enjoyed himself so much we were asked to go to Badminton House on his 80th birthday. The lunch was nice, the welcome warm and the Duke enjoyed our hymn singing, reinforced by members of Ebbw Vale Male Voice, and invited us to the Badminton Horse Trials a month later. The entire Royal Family was also there.
Because of the crowded fixture list we only played Pontypridd once in 1979/80 and it was our heaviest defeat for some time, 33-0 at Ebbw after a pointless first half. Tommy David scored three tries and we had no excuses but in fairness it was our tenth fixture in 34 days! Welsh players were used to heavy fixture lists and they all worked for a living, but end of seasons tours were worth waiting for, especially Cornwall. Our first tour to California in 1973 set a precedent for later flights across the Pond and one who went on it, Graham ‘Gomer’ Evans, an outstanding wing forward, celebrates his 70th birthday on Saturday in his home town Nantyglo a rugby hotbed that produced great players and he was certainly one of them. Happy birthday Gomer!
Schools rugby prospered in an area that is now Blaenau Gwent especially in its five Grammar Schools. Two years ago Ebbw Fawr Learning Community Under 16s played Whitchurch Grammar School in a Cup Final at the Millenium Stadium. Supported by their school friends all smartly dressed in school uniforms our lads lost but did us proud and Dawid Rubasniak, player of the match, is now in the Ebbw squad. He made his Premiership debut as a replacement against Bridgend, scoring a try, and started at The Gnoll where he also scored a try. Another local boy making good.
It’s not only schoolboys that play rugby; the Jesters, a new girls’ team, played on Cae Canol recently and will be looking for more fixtures. But a word of warning, if St. Trinians ask for a game say thanks but no thanks.
WHEN FLOODLIT RUGBY BRIGHTENED OUR GAME (260916)
A visit by Bridgend always reminds me of the greatest game ever seen at our ground. In the 60s and 70s, in order to liven things up and encourage more open rugby, a Floodlit Alliance was created and only tries counted. In a memorable game to reach the final we had to beat Bridgend and score seven tries, a tough task, but we did it and Glyn Turner crossed their line three time.
Llanelli dominated the Alliance in its nine years of existence but never won at Ebbw Vale where we only lost once, to Cardiff in the inaugural season of 1964/5. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, players began to concede penalties knowing kicks at goal were verboten so in the final season of the competition penalty goals were allowed and in the last Alliance final Llanelli beat Swansea 6-3, all penalty goals.
Every point will count next year when the Lions go to New Zealand where visitors hardly ever win. They will be tired when they return so will they recover in time for the domestic game? In amateur days Lions rested for a month or two when they came home but loyal clubmen like Bridgend’s Steve Fenwick of Bridgend didn’t. Seven weeks after a tough tour he was back in Bridgend colours.He went with the 1977 Lions to New Zealand, played in the four test matches and seventeen other games on a tour that began in May and ended in August. The Lions captained by Phil Bennett lost the series 3-1 but during the wettest season for many years almost won the fourth test losing 10-9, a scoreline that many current touring sides in New Zealand would be satisfied wit
Six weeks today Wales play Australia and the television interviews will bore us as they always do and losing coaches will trot out the same excuses. They should react as Welsh skipper Mike Watkins did in 1984 after Australia beat Wales, when asked “What next for Wales?” he said “Over The Angel for a pint!”
In the summer England white-washed the Aussies, Ireland won a Test match in South Africa, Wales lost every game in New Zealand but they faced the world champions and the most successful team in any sport. It was several bridges too far for Wales who played an incredible eighteen Test matches in a season but they put on a better show against the All-Blacks than Australia did.
Equally incredible was photographic evidence of an exhibit in the Tank Museum in Dorset with the name SEVENOAKS on it and Number 3. A war machine named after an Ebbw Vale tight-head does not mean props are aggressive, frightening and dangerous because the human Sevenoaks like his mates in the front row is a peaceful character. Most of the time
When Hollywood churned out musicals in the 30s one was called “Flying Down To Rio” which is what Rhys Shorney did in August as a physio to the successful GB swimming squad. One day he was treating bronzed beauties in Brazil and a few days later in Bedlinog he was treating husky hulks whose idea of beauty is a driving maul. Well done Rhys, we look forward to see you doing the samba at the annual dinner.
MON UNITED v SOUTH AFRICA (190916)
Travelling by train from Ebbw Vale up Llanhilleth Incline to Pontypool might not be as exciting as going to Istanbul on the Orient Express but in November 1957 it was quite an adventure. The line was normally used for goods traffic but GWR specials were laid on for rugby enthusiasts going to see the Wallabies play a Pontypool/Cross Keys XV who narrowly lost. A few days later another big crowd went by train to see the tourists play Newport who narrowly won.
We came from every club, large and small, local allegiances were forgotten for the reputation of Monmouthshire rugby was at stake and we were a part of it. Whoever played a touring team got our support and we went to all their games wherever they were.
The 1960/61 Springboks who beat the four home countries were unpopular on and off the field. They had won 28 and drawn one of their games in the British Isles part of the tour with the traditional Barbarians finale left. The tour ended in Paris with a 0-0 draw in a game so ferocious diminutive Welsh referee Gwyn Walters threatened to abandon it.
Sixteen thousand saw them beat Pontypool-Cross Keys 30-3 and they attracted 20,000 at Ebbw Vale and 22,000 at Rodney Parade. The Ebbw Vale/Abertillery XV had a strong pack which gave as good as they got and there was no score until well into the second half when Ebbw Vale scrum-half Roy Evans had his head cut open and went off for five minutes.
No.8 Alun Pask took over at scrum-half and with him out of position the Springbok left wing Hennie van Zyl scored a try in the corner. Hadyn Morgan came near to getting an equaliser but the Boks won 3-0 after a game described as “one of the finest exhibitions of spirit and determination by a Combined side in any part of the Commonwealth since the War.”
The 24th match of the tour was against Newport whose full-back Norman Morgan their exceptionally gifted place-kicker was injured and could not play. He was badly missed for in the first quarter three penalty kicks at goal failed, one in front of the posts. The Springboks scored in the first five minutes and rarely looked dangerous afterwards. Glyn Davidge led the Newport pack and post-match critics declared they were the first eight to get the better of the tourists in every phase. The Springboks won 3-0 but did not deserve to.
Undefeated the 5th ‘Boks expected to beat the Barbarians but two Monmouthshire men had other ideas. Abertillery’s Hadyn Morgan and Derek Morgan who played in England but came from Newbridge scored a try each, the Barbarians won 6-0 and future Newport full-back Hadyn Mainwaring, a former Royal Marine, became a legend when he tackled the ‘Boks captain Avril Malan so heavily it prevented a try. No-one has shoulder charged like that since.
The 1960/61 Springboks lost one game, but it could have been three.
OUR FINEST HOUR (160516)
In the 1950s and 60s Ebbw Vale won the Welsh Championship four times. The first was in 1951/2 and a survivor of that great team, Horace Matthews one of several brothers who played for Ebbw, has telephoned to say how proud he was of our performance at Sardis Road on Sunday. He sensed the atmosphere, a packed ground and great spirit between the supporters which took him back to days when Welsh club rugby could not be matched anywhere in the world. Both teams on Sunday showed how good it can be, and when the final whistle was blown and spectators quenched their thirsts it was also pleasing to be told by Ponty faithfuls that we deserved to win.
It was a remarkable 38-12 scoreline the game ending with a breakaway try by Ebbw full-back Dan Haymond who took flight as he touched down after an 80 metre dash. Ronny Kynes smuggled his way over for his 18th and 19th tries of the season and David Williams crossed twice in Tigerish fashion as a graduate of Leicester’s academy should. To top it all Dai Langdon converted four in cool Carter like style.
Before the kick-off the ground was buzzing, a male voice choir sang, the weather was fine and the crowds mingled happily in Ponty’s answer to Gloucester’s famous Shed. What followed was a game to remember, it was our finest hour for not only did we defeat a side that had won the Premiership title in the previous five seasons, but we scored five tries to Ponty’s two. The Sardis Road fans are not used to suffering defeat and only lost two League games there this season, both at the hands of Ebbw.
The road to the play-off final began back in September but after a few set-backs a run of ten consecutive wins kept us in the hunt. Our defence was outstanding, typified at Bedwas with the clock running down in torrential rain and on a pitch turning into a morass. We were wrongly reduced to fourteen men but we won.
The 32-30 win over Aberavon in a great game was a credit to both sides and was preceded by an emotional tribute to the steelmakers of Port Talbot. Llandovery away when a Chris Thomas tackle denied the Drovers a try and a Cameron Regan steal of the ball at a lineout in the danger zone will also be remembered as will the final at Sardis Road. One of the hundreds of Ebbw supporters at the ground said, “There are real rugby people here.”
Sunday’s grand finale was won by coaches, support staff, administrators, volunteers who do all sorts of tasks, clubhouse staff, sponsors and supporters but above all by the players who wore the jersey with pride and rose again to the big occasion. Thus endeth our 136th season and it will be remembered as one of the best.
A TALE OF TWO RUGBY CITADELS – PART TWO (090516)
By coach, mini-bus and car a happy horde headed west on Sunday hoping to turn the tables on Llandovery and prove that west is not best. We hadn’t won there in seven years, had lost heavily there last September but this was a different Ebbw Vale, one full of confidence and well equipped fore and aft to defeat a highly rated side fresh from winning the Swalec Cup.
The game was a credit to Premiership rugby, we even got a mention on Scrum Four, and our bilingual duo of Nigel Davies and Adam Jones once more said all the right things on the tele, so I’m told. There were several turning points in a thrilling game that was often agonising to watch for supporters the majority wearing Ebbw colours. Try saving tackles, lineout steals, shrewd game management, power up front, enterprise behind saw us through but above all it was the total commitment by the players that takes us to the Rhondda again for the final which should show to the Upper Crust in the game how good the club game can be.
Ol’ Blue Eyes once sang a song about the Big Apple, “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere, New York. New York.” I don’t know the colour of Damien Hudd’s eyes or if he can sing but he can say of Llandovery, “If we can make it there we’ll make it anywhere, Ponty, Ponty.”
2015/16 has been another success, like the previous campaign we won the play-off semi-final and ended the regular season with 16 wins and 6 defeats marginally better than the 15 wins and 7 defeats the campaign before. In two Premier seasons we averaged 70% an answer to those who expected us to struggle when we returned to the top flight. The winning habit that began in Division One and Championship seasons has continued in the Premiership, those easy wins were the building bricks for the serious challenges to be met when we won promotion. So many on and off the field have taken us to where we are but there’s one more game to play, the most important of them all.
The Premiership will change next season for the umpteenth time with the addition of the top four clubs in the Championship and we know who three of them are, Merthyr, Swansea and Bargoed. The fourth place will be go to RGC 1404 if they win at Glynneath on Saturday, if they don’t Pontypool will come up. We will re-visit St. Helen’s, Bargoed Park where we used to play Championship games and Merthyr where we once lost a Division One East fixture. It’s going to be a busy time.
There was important voting in Wales last week but the one result that really counted was by the Welsh Rugby Writers who named Ronny Kynes Premiership Player of the Year. Ronny is our chief smuggler whose hidden activities has aroused the interest of H M Customs & Excise. He has scored so many tries it needs a calculator to decide how many.
Snuggled in the middle of his fellow forwards, clutching the ball and never losing it, the Catch ‘n Kynes ploy has brought us many tries and has an air of inevitability about it when the opposition line is within striking distance, and that’s only one of his specialities. If England had a Ronny in the last minute lineout on the Welsh line in the 2015 World Cup they and not Wales would have reached the quarter-finals.
Congratulation Ronny, keep on smuggling.
STEELMEN AND DROVERS GO NECK AND NECK (030516)
Some believe a team that tops the Premiership at the end of the season should be declared the champions there and then, thus rewarding consistency throughout a season without having to play-off. The fact is that a play-off system exists and for the second year running we are involved in the mini-series of games that for us begin at Llandovery on Sunday. Last year we were home in the semi-final but wherever the game is played it will not bother coaches and players or the supporters who on a very cold Boxing Day in 2006 wore Hawaiian clobber at Llandovery and will be there in numbers again to cheer their lads on.
Memories of September 2015 will have no effect, that 50-0 drubbing at Llandovery took some getting over but we did and gained some satisfaction when we won the return fixture 14-6 in January, not as impressive but valuable at a time when the battle for play-off places was heating up.
The Drovers like all home teams will be favourites on Sunday but that too is irrelevant because the league statistics show that there is very little between us :-
Won Lost Bonus Pts Points
2nd Llandovery 15 7 18 78
3rd Ebbw Vale 16 6 10 74
Six of Llandovery’s defeats were away, one at home to Pontypridd who got the double. But the major difference, and the reason we did not finish second, lies in the bonus points. Our highest scores were 40 over Bridgend followed by 36 over Llanelli and 34 over Cardiff (twice) and Pontypridd and it’s the last one that is most interesting, for we did something very few clubs have done in recent times: a double over the self-styled Valley Commandos.
Last Saturday in an all-West Wales Swalec Cup Final the Drovers, 2nd in the Premiership table defeated Carmarthen Quins who finished 11th. The Quins salvaged some pride after a disappointing season but it was a final that bore no comparison to the finals before regional rugby down-graded the club game. Playing at the Principality Stadium was a great experience for the players but they drew an audience of hundred not thousands. A great pity, yet another traditional event that has gone down the Taff.
Rugby comes to Manchester in the summer where the Under 20s World Championships take place with European champions Wales under Jason Strange facing the world’s best. Outstanding players have graduated from the under 20s, one was Sam Davies currently with the Ospreys, son of Nigel, who in 2013 was named the International Rugby Board’s Junior Player of the Year. We expect Harrison Keddie to go far in the game too and he will relish the challenges of the other teams in Pool A of the Championship, New Zealand, Georgia and Ireland. The crucial pool game is on June 15th when Jason’s boys try to do what Wales senior teams have failed to do since 1953 – beat a team in all-black wearing the silver fern.
A THRILLING SHOWDOWN AT THE EV CORRAL (270416)
It takes two to tango and two teams of the same calibre and rugby philosophy to produce a game that was pulsating, fascinating, enthralling with a finale that shattered what nerves supporters of both sides had left. On a nippy Sunday evening with a stiff breeze billowing from Beaufort the scene was set for the final act of the very competitive Premier Division regular season.
It was the most absorbing game seen at our ground for some time, we expected the Wizards to pull some tricks out of their bag but not as many as they did. They kept playing rugby as it should be played, in the second half threatened our line too much for the comfort of the home crowd and in the end it was an early penalty kick that decided which side would go to Llandovery for the play-off semi-final although a great Ebbw team effort defensively and in attack had something to do with it too!
We only needed a win but added a bonus point to confirm third place in the final placings. Several former players were there and one, hooker Martin Preece took particular notice of our No. 2 whose speed around the park, whose total commitment and all-round performance was that of a club legend. Mathew Williams, alias Chunky, was one of a team that have trained hard to get us in the play-offs again and a combination of powerful forwards and imaginative backs augurs well for the future. You know what they say, if you see one augur you see ‘em all, but next season promises to be another cracker.
The liveliness of both sides was a credit to their fitness and enterprise at the end of a long disjointed season that, as far as attendances were concerned, never recovered from the World Cup which nailed watchers to their sofas from which they never rose. The Premiership regular season resulted in sixteen wins and six defeats, a good return and enough to take us into the west where Damien & His Merry Men are determined the sun will not set on our ambition to take on Ponty in the final.
Recording TV programmes is now very simple but there are snags. Our game on Sunday was S4C’s answer to Songs of Praise but the red button was out of action, not that the commentaries were missed because where I sit in the stand I hear lots of them in several languages, English, Welsh, Wenglish and Bad. We knew that Nigel Davies, native of Trimsaran, would be interviewed in Welsh but it was a surprise, to me at least, to discover that our centre and Man of the Match, Adam Jones – who penetrates defences like a Chieftain tank – also speaks the Mother Tongue. S4C remember is a Welsh language channel but it shows club rugby unlike another which shall remain nameless and concentrates solely on the icing on the Welsh cake and not the cake itself.
Martin Preece was in the Ebbw Vale-Abertillery front-row who in 1961 out-played a Springbok front-row on our ground. He was also a Welsh reserve and was in a Welsh Under 23 team in December 1962 which beat Canada 8-0. The Under 23s only played one game then the age groups were changed but sadly we don’t even have an A team anymore. Instead we spend money on a Sevens squad that tours the world, doesn’t do well and contributes nothing to the real game.
On Saturday TV brought us European competition rugby and a classy try by a classy player who began his career with Ebbw, Carl Meyer. Another example of the importance of clubs for it is with them that players like Carl are nurtured.
THE GAME’S AFOOT (160416)
A disjointed season as far as fixtures were concerned, and the typhoons we had didn’t help either, leaves play-off hopes on the brink. But let’s forget all that for the moment and concentrate on Sunday’s game at home to Aberavon which will be televised by S4C. To those at the ground please don’t wave to the cameras, to those chained to their sofas don’t forget the red button.
Aberavon have had a good season and we found them tough nuts to crack at the Talbot Athletic Ground last November but won 20-16. Three doubles over them in forty years is nothing to write home about not even on a postcard but a fourth is possible on Sunday. After a welcome and much needed break the players are keener than ever, all we need is Shakespeare’s Henry V (alias Hank the Cinq) to get on the PA and say, “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot.” In other words, the boys are up for it. Aberavon will be too so it’s likely to be a cracker and for viewers even better than Thunderbirds.
We have secured doubles over Bridgend, Bedwas, Cardiff, Neath and Pontypridd and wherever we finish in the table we will celebrate a good season on Awards Night but no celebration will equal Victory in Europe Day in 1945 which meant peace – and a return to regular rugby.
The war in Europe had ended and troops far from home wanted to return as quickly as possible. Regular rugby returned but needed a spark to set the game alight again and the arrival in Britain from the Italian campaign of rugby players in the New Zealand Division not only lit the fire but showed us how the game should be played. The 1945/6 Kiwis were one of the greatest touring sides ever to come here, thirty-two soldiers of the New Zealand Division in the famous 8th Army who had fought their way from the Western Desert of North Africa to the mountains of Italy.
New Zealanders were not only fine soldiers they were also rugby men and agreed to a tour which included unofficial international matches against Wales, England, Scotland and France. They had been away from New Zealand for a very long time but volunteered to put off going home straight away for as their leader said, “Why go home? This was a rugby tour, it was much more important!”
Their policy was to minimise a tactical approach and exploit passing and running in the style of the legendary 1905 first All-Blacks. Sixteen of the tour party were later capped including the first attacking full-back we had seen, Bob Scott. They played 39 games, won 35, drew 2 and only lost to Scotland at Murrayfield and Monmouthshire at Pontypool. They had beaten Wales 11-3 but the County had a match-winner in Newport centre Hedley “Poacher” Rowlands who scored three tries. Outside-half Benny Southway, a Blaina boy, was the only Ebbw Vale player in the side after one of our best ever wings Doug Percival withdrew late through injury.
No future tourists were liked as much as the 1945/6 Kiwis, adventure was their password and they were wonderful to watch. New Zealand troops have always played rugby and in 1919 one of their teams played at Ebbw Vale. That year the Kiwis won a tournament for the King’s Cup the story of which is brilliantly told in a book by Howard Evans who describes it as the first “World Cup” competed for by service teams from the Empire and France. The 1945/6 Kiwis finally embarked on a long journey home but they interrupted it to play in South Africa! No wonder New Zealand was and is still the greatest rugby nation.
A FIVE MONTH WINNING RUN ENDS BUT THE SEASON DOESN’T (110416)
Three games in eight days and except for a narrow win at Carmarthen nothing to be pleased about. The only thing Grand about Saturday was the horse race at Aintree unless you are a Drover or Keys adherent, the former rejoicing in reaching the Swalec Cup semis and the latter celebrating two wins over Gwent neighbours Ebbw and Newport. Good luck to them, their successes were deserved.
At Pandy Park we suffered our first defeat since 7th November, on Saturday we suffered our first home defeat since 24th October and I blame our chaplain who obviously has no power Up There anymore, the sudden outburst of Spring, Blaenau Gwent Council’s new re-cycling system and the opposition who admittedly played a part too. There will be serious discussions in Basini’s Chip Shop and the Free Church Council who are searching the Old Testament for guidelines on governing driving scrums and mauls because no-one on earth seems to know.
The battle for places in the play-off continues but the bookies are not taking bets yet, the show is not over and some challenging clubs have games in hand. Our final fixture in the regular season is home to Aberavon on April 24th giving us a fortnight to heal wounds and show what the Ebbw side of 2015/16 can really do and has done for most of the season.
Before the game a supporter who collects club memorabilia produced a little medallion on which was inscribed “Ebbw Vale RFC Winners 1944-1945.” Very interesting but puzzling, what did the club win? There were no leagues then, it was war-time and fixtures were haphazard, it wasn’t our invincible season because that was in 1940/41. Answers on a beer mat please, Webbs preferably.
When this season, which has been fragmented so often by the World Cup, the Foster’s Challenge Cup and the Six Nations, staggers to its end our players will go home. Their predecessors went to Cornwall and places like California, Florida, Canada and Cyprus where like missionaries they spread the Gospel according to Webb Ellis. They never lost a game but occasionally lost their way in strange places with strange sounding names.
Players at the top level travel far and wide these days. Those in the World Sevens are the luckiest, they go to red hot rugby strongholds like Las Vegas, and play the shorter game only. But London Irish played an Aviva Premiership fixture against Saracens in New York recently and we now learn that Australia and Argentina will play a southern hemisphere Championship game in Twickenham, interesting for the players, bad for the supporters. The Swalec Cup has lost a lot of its interest but as an incentive why not stage the final in Hawaii the Pacific’s answer to Trecco Bay.
Soon the muddy oafs will be replaced by flannelled fools, but there’s a lot to be done before then. Since the Premier title depended on a play-off there has never been a closer contest than this one. When the curtain does fall we have the Awards Dinner a sort of Election Night but much more important than the political version. The voting papers are out which tax the brain of voters because we have so much talent to select from. Who will be Best Player, Player’s Player, Clubman and Most Promising? The latter is generally young of age but if it’s of heart I’ll go for Chunky as usual.
A ‘W’ – BUT ONLY JUST (030416)
After rain overnight and all morning, the weather was fine at Carmarthen, the result was even finer but it was not a fine game. It was though, our 10th League win in a row against a side that has been in the lower regions of the Premiership for most of the season, but no-one is complaining for a win is so important at this time with play-offs the target for several clubs. Surprisingly, considering the vast gap between us and the Quins in the table, it was a close run thing, a war of attrition in some ways but a side that wins when playing below par has got to be doing something right. As for the Quins they did what they always have done since we first played them fifteen years ago: give us a hard time!
On Saturday we are home to Llandovery in the Swalec Cup quarter-finals and we revert to the traditional scoring system. Winning is all that matters, it’s a knock-out competition, there’s no second chance and a welcome change from league rugby, although success in the latter is more important.
The coaches at Llandovery and and Ebbw Vale don’t need clipboards to help them plan for Saturday’s Cup game, they have been there and done it and have become experts at match management, another modernity. With a small army of support staff on the touchlines our game is getting to be similar to American Football but without cheer leaders.
Which somehow brings us to The Bench which, when replacements were introduced, was occupied by two from each side who only went on when a player was officially declared unfit to continue. It called for a doctor’s note but now players are replaced when a coach thinks a change is required. A strong bench now means more than a sturdy piece of furniture and we have one IKEA would be proud of.
We have played Llandovery three times in the Cup and the first encounter was in 2000/01 and we won down there 27-5 as we did a year later, 43-15. Then Leagues brought us together permanently only to be severed when our relegation intervened. During our four years absence we did however play eight Cup ties against Premier clubs winning four, drawing one and losing three which was evidence that if the pearly gates of the Premiership were unlocked we could enter and settle in the promised land comfortably.
In those Cup ties we beat Newport and Cardiff away and Quins and Swansea at home, but then came up against the side dominating the Welsh club scene at the time, Pontypridd who won the 2012/13 quarter-final 23-22. The following season the Drovers came to us and won a cracker 16-13, another in a series of good games between us that is expected to continue on Saturday.
Our illustrious webmaster and editor will ‘twitter’ events from Pandy Park on Tuesday evening and send the result to us within seconds of the final whistle. He is not the Hollywood type editor wearing a fedora and champing a cigar, he is a bilingual sit-down comedian who reported on April the 1st that the referee at Carmarthen was an Argentinian name of Palo Flori, and fooled us all. Pity really because if there had been an international exchange of refs I was going to suggest one for webmasters.
BEDWAS AND EBBW BRAVE THE ELEMENTS (270316)
Easter Saturday, Springtime in Bedwas where the rain and a wind was so strong those with brollies were sent flying like Mary Poppins. Conditions could not have been worse, courage could not have been higher as both sides fought the elements. Credit goes to the players for giving their all, and to the supporters who shivered and shouted to the final dramatic seconds. Every tackle and every kick mattered; four penalty goals for Bedwas by Richard Powell and two conversions by Ian Smerdon, given the conditions, were remarkable.
Once again the pack rose to the occasion and the side was, as usual, led by example by the skipper who was described by one reporter as “a fine as player as there was for either side.” Physically it was a severe trial but the players at least adapted to conditions which were abnormal and called for understanding.
Just a thought for the Rev, he’s the chap who, tieless, watches every match and who should be our connection Up There. We decided to play into the wind in the first half so why was it that the wind, which had increased to a gale, turned around and we had to face it again? If the weather had been sensible we would have had a great game, for both sides had the players and the intent to lay on a Bank Holiday treat.
We play at Carmarthen Quins on Saturday who are low in the table but have never been easy to beat on their own patch. The first two games we played against them were in the Cup at their ground and we won both. That was in 2000/1 and 2002/3 and we kept our Cup record over them in 2011/12 when we were in Division One and they were in the Premiership. That’s the good news, not so good is our record against them in eleven Premier games: just two wins.
A few days after making the long journey to Carmarthen we will make a short one to Pandy Park where we won the Premiership game last season 34-20. It will be the last of twelve Gwent Derbies this season, unless the play-offs produce another.
Kevin Noble, who once played outside-half for us, recently asked if we knew the result of a game he played in at Sale on the 11th February 1989, our only fixture with a club that is now doing well in the Aviva Premiership and whose most capped player is Fran Cotton. We won 6-3 so can boast an undefeated record against them.
A typical Ebbw side in Kevin’s time was one that played Bath in March 1990 which included two forwards who would later be capped, Nigel Meek for Wales and Fred Smit for the Springboks (and another who should have been, Alun Phillips – Ed). Remember these? Darren Worgan; Ian Jeffreys, Carwyn Hopkins, Des Parry, Chris Hillman; Kevin Noble, David Llewellyn; Alun Phillips, Nigel Meek, Mark Lloyd; Neil Jones, F C Smit; Neil Robinson, Robert Stephens, Mark Thomas (capt). Replacements – David Love, Andrew Dibble, Phil Easley. We lost 26-7 but we generally did to Bath who inspired the programme author to use the headline “Friday night is Bath Night” when we played them on the eve of an international match.
Robert Stephens, once an outstanding Ebbw flanker who featured in the team above, is chairman of Gwernyfed RFC, who have published a superb history of the club on its 50th anniversary. The links with our club are featured in detail and there are reminiscences of their time with us by Robert, Des Parry, Brian Thomas, Alun Phillips, Chay Billen, Vin Stephens, Chris Hughes, Will Skyrme and Melvyn Cooper. Kevin Noble was at Christ’s College, Brecon with Robert Stephens who remembers him as an “outstanding No. 10 with good looks” until Rob gave him a hospital pass in a friendly which changed Kevin’s nose. In times when “accident lawyers” are on the prowl will the day come when we see an advert reading “Had a hospital pass recently?”?
STEELMEN STEAL THE HEADLINES (200316)
It’s back to basics on Saturday when we play at Bedwas, a club we have found difficulty mastering in nine seasons of the Premiership. Of the seventeen games we won eight, drew two and lost seven. At Bedwas we won three and lost five but on our last visit, Boxing Day 2014, we won 12-11 with everything depending on a late conversion attempt by Bedwas which sadly for them and happily for us went wide. Every point counted in an end of season battle for a place in the play-offs and it’s the same this year.
Saturday’s game is important to both clubs and will be the fourth time we have met this season, twice in the Foster’s Challenge Cup (22-22 down there and a 36-6 win for them in Ebbw) and in the more important Premier game on Boxing Day which we won 24-10 at a time when we had recovered from five defeats and were heading in the right direction. We are on a winning run in the final furlong of a race to get into the play-offs, on Saturday we face a real challenge but what’s new?
There was an Ebbw flavour about Friday’s international rugby which added to the entertainment provided by the Wales seniors and the Under 20s. Jason Strange is Head Coach to the Under 20s who won the Grand Slam and Geraint Lewis is one of his assistants. Harrison Keddie was again outstanding and scored two of the four Welsh tries and Nigel Davies and Kingsley Jones were commentators. Then on Saturday former Steelman Dan Lydiate captained Wales.
In Colwyn Bay Jason’s team started slowly but stormed home in the second half with some forward drives Damien Hudd & Co would be proud of. Next stop is the World Rugby Under 20s Championship in Manchester where Wales, the best in Europe, will face the might of the southern hemisphere. Present holders are New Zealand who have won the tournament five times. Among the World Rugby Junior Players of the Year have been All-Black Cruden, Ford of England and in 2013 Sam Davies of Wales. His father is Nigel, you’ll meet him on Saturday in Bedwas.
Listening to the referees can be interesting and a whole new rugby vocabulary has emerged. Refs now guide scrums through four stages beginning with “crouch” or if the game is televised on S4C “cwtsh.” Refs no longer have the final word, there is now a Court of Appeal called the TMO who is hidden away and often has to decide among other things whether a try had been scored or not. Collision is another new word and also “breakdown“ which a team has to master and the ref has to unravel.
A “breakdown” did occur in our club forty years ago when, en route to Galashiels, our luxury coach (it had brakes) broke down not once but twice. A lot of tall tales have been told about rugby tours but it is a fact that when the bus came to a halt at Lancaster a wheel fell off. Players and committee scattered to look for help in pubs, chip shops and even a dance. They didn’t find any.
Hiring a local bus we arrived in the Borders around 2am on Saturday and to the disgust of the forwards the bar in the hotel was closed which kept them fresh for the game which we won easily but the Incredible Journey did not end there. Our original bus, having been repaired, brought us home on the Sunday and almost made it. Its third breakdown of the week-end came just below Garnlydan.
STEELMEN GET A RARE DOUBLE OVER PONTY (130316)
Not only did Ebbw Vale get a double over Pontypridd for the first time in eight years, bag a bonus point and win for the eighth time in succession, they put on a show that was the best of the season. We didn’t start well, not unusual, but repelled dangerous first-half attacks by Ponty and proceeded to demolish them up front and tested them with some clever back play.
Both sets of supporters were in good voice, excitement grew as the team rose to what in Premiership terms was an important occasion. We have played eighteen of the twenty-two league fixtures, winning thirteen and losing five the last of which was in November and are nicely placed for the play-offs with Saturday’s 34-8 win undoubtedly the most impressive so far. Our bench plays an important role and the complete replacement of the front-row proved too much for the opposition and showed the strength in depth the club now has.
It was a major scalp, worth 31-7 by the regular scoring method, and the first time in sixteen years for us to score thirty or more points against Pontypridd. There were other winning bonus points in Saturday’s Premiership fixtures, but ours was against the title-holders and current table toppers. It was a game involving coaches, players and supporters dedicated to the game in their areas and who despite indifference from the national media press on regardless.
In our last two games we started poorly but finished victorious. Against Ireland and England Wales took a long time to find their true form and finished with a draw and a defeat. The comeback at Twickenham salvaged considerable pride and amazingly a situation in which the losers scored three tries to the winner’s one but conceding too many penalties proved fatal.
There will be a Welsh Grand Slam this season if our Under 20s beat Italy in Colwyn Bay. They have won their four games and are in great form under head coach Jason Strange whose philosophy is to handle not kick the ball. His side scored six tries against England at Ashton Gate, Bristol where Jason was in the Ebbw Vale squad that played in the 1998 Cup Final. This time it was smiles all around after a 42-16 win and Ebbw Vale’s Harrison Keddie was Man of the Match.
As the match commentator said he plays his rugby at Ebbw Vale but that is not always acknowledged by the printed media. It would give the clubs considerable encouragement if the names of clubs a well as regions was shown in match reports for it is at club level that the young players get their experience. Harri’s performance at Bristol was simply outstanding and he will get a great welcome when he returns to Ebbw Vale colours.
One report of the Ponty game described it as a curtain-riser for the Twickenham clash that followed, but for those who work hard and faithfully support the two clubs it was the main feature. Two teams from the heartland of two valleys, Rhondda and Gwent fulfilled their duty to the national game on Saturday and will continue to do so.
We have a break until March 26th when we play at Bedwas and a week later we play the postponed Swalec Cup quarter-final home to Llandovery. The season is drawing to a close and from now on every game will be very important and highly competitive.
COCKLES AND MUSCLES (060316)
The temperature at ECP during the first half of Saturday’s game with Llanelli was low enough to freeze brass monkeys but it got higher in the last forty minutes when the Magnificent Eight took hold of the game and muscled their way to a bonus point win that warmed the cockles of Ebbw Vale hearts. We did not play well in the first forty, Llanelli were full of Western promise but set piece superiority laid down the path to our 7th League win in a row.
The Ebbw forwards did more shunting than steam engines did in the GWR goods yard, a few hundred yards from our ground when Llanelli were Llanelly and real Scarlets played at Parc y Strade. Our winning bonus point was the only one in Saturday’s Premiership programme which was closely fought with margins of four and three twos compared to our twenty-eight. Match management, on field leadership and 100% effort by the whole squad brought us victory over a good side.
When Kingsley Jones captained us he said he wanted our ground to be known as Fortress Ebbw. Our home record in competitive games from September 2012 to last Saturday is good: 53 played, 44 won, 9 lost, 83% success rate. Only Saturday’s visitors Pontypridd have consistently breached our walls in recent times, twice in the Cup and once in the Premiership. In return last October we penetrated Fortress Sardis and came away with a well deserved win of great significance because we had lost the previous three games.
A double over Pontypridd is rare, our last was in 2007/8 when we won at Sardis Road 16-12 and 13-6 at home. Patrick Hogan, Will Thomas and Gareth Walton were the coaches in a good season which also brought doubles over Newport, Llanelli and Aberavon. Ponty come to Ebbw Vale on Saturday determined not to concede the double, a rare situation for them to be in.
The win at Sardis Road in October got us back on track but it was as tight as a treasurer dishing out expenses. Ceri Sweeney, 35 times capped by Wales between 2003 and 2007, scored a try and kicked well for Ponty, Luke Crocker and David Williams scored our tries to add to a penalty goal and Dai Langdon kicked six valuable points.
Once our game is over on Saturday it’s back to the box and the biggest game of the 2016 Six Nations at Twickers. Since the first game between the countries in 1881 England have won 58 and Wales 57 and in each game style came second to winning whether earned or not. One example is the February 1993 Wales v England at Cardiff Arms Park, England were firm favourites having won the Grand Slam in 1992 and fielded backs like Guscott, Carling and Rory Underwood and a front-row of Leonard, Moore and Probyn but as good as they were one magic moment decided the game.
The Welsh No. 8 Emyr Lewis kicked ahead more in hope than anticipation, Ieuan Evans headed the chase out-pacing Rory Underwood, a fighter pilot by profession, crossed for a try converted by Neil Jenkins and Wales won 10-9. We didn’t deserve to win but we did to the joy of former Steelman Nigel Meek then with Pontypool, he had played for Wales against Brian Moore and was on the winning side. As the Rev would say, blessed are the Meek for they shall inherit the earth.
STEELMEN HERALD THE SPRING (280216)
While Ebbw Vale were scoring 61 points and nine tries at Newcastle Emlyn not far away Llandovery were piling 59 and eight tries on Newbridge which makes the quarter final between the winners a tasty one indeed. Winning is what matters in Cup rugby but if Spring brings firm grounds we can expect a cracker when Ebbw and the Drovers meet for the third time this season on a date to be arranged in a period when League fixtures get priority and free Saturdays are few.
Our supporters and players expected a good welcome at Newcastle Emlyn but were over-whelmed with hospitality par excellence in a clubhouse that would be envied by many Premier clubs. In a great atmosphere acting skipper Ashley Sweet reckoned that the best try of the game was scored by the home scrum-half Mike Jones after a glorious run. Our No. 9 another Jones, also scored a try and to the joy of those at the coal-face so did Rob Sevenoaks whose family killed a fatted calf when he got home.
On a fine, dry day it was a pleasant change to see players gambolling like lambs in the Spring but leaving a great club and genuine rugby people was not easy. We sincerely hope the WRU will arrange the same tie next season, if they do a week-end in Newcastle Emlyn will be considered.
In the same part of Wales at the cavernous Parc y Scarlets Merthyr got through to the quarters with a 17-14 win over Llanelli who are our visitors on Saturday. Three of the four games will be all Premiership, the fourth is going to be very interesting, Pontypridd and Merthyr.
Llanelli have a 50% record in the Premiership this season but have the pace and the enthusiasm to test our defence on Saturday, if they get enough possession. The fixture was always one of the best and the mature will recall Carwyn James causing us trouble followed by Phil Bennett and the Floodlit Alliance, a tries only competition dominated by Ebbw, Bridgend and the Scarlets. Last season we got the double over Llanelli, they come on Saturday hoping to do the same.
The Six Nations games over the week-end were only enjoyed by supporters of the winning teams but for sheer excitement and quality rugby the Wales v France Under 20s game in Colwyn Bay took some beating. A French side playing like French sides of old came undefeated, but so did Wales who had to make a second half comeback to win for the third time.
The French were down to fourteen but they still threatened in the Welsh 22. Wales gained possession and a brilliant move covering 80 metres resulted in the winning try, one doubts if there will be a better try in this year’s Six Nations and that includes the seniors. Our lad Keddie harried (!) the opposition in a fine back-row and the handling and running by every player was a joy to see and a lesson to the seniors. Knowing the coach there was nothing Strange in that.
FINGERS CROSSED FOR SATURDAY (220216)
If at first you don’t succeed try, try again, whether it’s hammering the enemy line until you get a penalty try or playing a re-arranged Cup tie. Newcastle Emlyn awaits us on Saturday, our first game there after a nineteen year interval and the prize will be a home tie against Llandovery or Newbridge. The news on the street is that the Newcastle Emlyn team that played us in 1997 will be reunited which will add to the occasion, an important one for both clubs.
We have played one game since the postponement and Newcastle Emlyn played and defeated TATA Steel last Saturday, one of the few that survived another Noah-like deluge. Our Friday night win at the Arms Park 34-14 was a team effort but it was the pack that made the headlines, not as prominent as headlines used to be in days when the Western Mail was a must, and Saturday night’s Football Echo and Argus had a dual purpose, giving results and wrapping up chips.
Eighteen or so hours before we head west thousands will boost the profits of Cardiff pubs, restaurants and chippies and, festooned in scarlet, will fill the Principality Stadium. The minority, but perhaps the noisiest, will be in red, white and blue and will bring everything except the cockerels they used to smuggle in to let loose on the Arms Park. The police, firemen, St. John’s and assorted stewards were joined by the RSPCA who, to the amusement of the crowd, tried in vain to catch the birds, and were given the bird when they did.
A win over France and we will be in the mood for another at Twickers. The Championship is there for the taking for three sides, but first the French and then the Anglo Saxons will have to be mastered. Former international players have criticised this year’s Six Nations, they say it lacks quality, style and although entertaining does not get the north nearer to the south where the All-Blacks await Wales this summer for a three Test visit, rugby’s ultimate assault course.
The Wales Under 20s have beaten Ireland and Scotland much to the satisfaction of Jason Strange whose foot on the WRU ladder is well established. Harrison Keddie is prominent and if, as it has been suggested, Wales revive their ’A’ team, players like him will benefit. There’s more value in that than the world tour by specialists in Sevens and nothing else.
One of Wales’s most successful coaching exports is Dai Young who has transformed the Wasps who are stinging opponents in the Aviva Premiership. A player has to work hard to get into teams like the Wasps and one who has done so is Dai’s son Thomas. Born in Aberdare in 1992, Thomas is a backrow forward to watch. In March 2014, our second and last season in the Championship, his brother, Lewis, was in our team that played Tondu in a park. We won 59-6 and Dai Young watched from the side, a slight difference from viewing an Aviva Premiership game in the coaches’ box. He must be proud of his off-spring and so are we, after all one of them is a former Steelman.
VALE GET KEYED UP FOR PANDY PARK
Last Friday evening the BBC sports website declared that Ebbw Vale, having led Cardiff 18-8 at half-time, lost 34-14 which made no sense but set off alarm bells among those not at the match. The cloud soon lifted, the real score came through and WE won 34-14, our fifth successive victory over Cardiff, a sixth successive win in the Premiership and for a short while we were on top of the table.
Any away win is a prize and this one, our fifth of the season, produced five tries engineered by the forwards. Two were penalty tries that this season do not have to be converted and the other three touchdowns also unconverted were scored to no-one’s surprise by Ronnie Kynes who the Guinness Book of Records statisticians are keeping an eye on. For some time he has prospered in a powerful Ebbw Vale pack and when he gets his greedy hands on the ball near the enemy’s line with the Force behind him not even Darth Vader can stop him.
As expected Wales beat Scotland but it was not easy, England won in Rome and the moody French pipped Ireland. This year’s Six Nations will depend on England’s home games with Wales and Ireland, but no matter how hard the Scots try when they play Wales they come second. They last won in Cardiff in 2002 against a Welsh team consisting of players representing clubs including Nathan Budgett (Bridgend but once Ebbw Vale) and Iestyn Thomas (Ebbw Vale but later Llanelli).
Last season we had to beat Cross Keys to reach the Premiership final play-off, twenty years earlier we had to win our last seven Division Two games to gain promotion and the second of those games was at Pandy Park, a mini fortress alongside the River Ebbw where the drawbridge is always down and crossing it is difficult. As it will be on Saturday when another Ebbw-Keys clash will influence our future.
At the end of the 1994/95 season Aberavon were certain to gain promotion but there were two clubs jostling to go up with them, Ebbw Vale and Abercynon. The latter were outsiders who had stayed in the pack and were confident of becoming a Division One side. We had to work hard to join the Wizards, but we had a good all-round side and a midfield player no other club in Wales had – Mike Boys, a mini-Mastermind who puzzled opponents and even his team-mates. Tiny he may have been but we remember him facing Scott Quinnell and signalling “C’mon, C’mon” as the giant bore down on him.
Our win at Pandy Park 34-9 got us off on the right foot and we returned home confident but uncertain of the challenge Abercynon would present. They brought a crowd and a coach that also contained celebratory champers, there were only two points in it but that was enough and then we faced a game at one of the most difficult venues to play let alone win at, Maesteg. With Mike Boys in impressible mood we won by twenty-one points which left Narberth.
They had to win to avoid relegation, we had to win to get promoted. We even looked better in the warm-up and by half-time our clubhouse back home was preparing an end of season promotion party. It was a great finale and many still say the win at Pandy Park was the turning point. In the end it was our try count that made the difference and finally clinched promotion, Ebbw and Abercynon won 16, drew one and lost 5 games but we scored 59 tries to their 38. With Mike Boys in our backline that is no surprise.
That 1994/5 team had to win their last seven games to gain promotion and they did with style, flair and adventure thanks to players like Mike, unpredictable sometimes but a danger to the opposition always. But like today, and this will be the main ingredient on Saturday, forwards win matches. Damien & Co are keyed up for what is currently THE Gwent Derby and maybe this time the Beeb will get the score right.
AN UNSPECTACULAR BUT VERY DRAMATIC 5th PREMIER WIN IN A ROW (310116)
Low on scoring but high on drama, not a spectacle but Ebbw’s game with the Drovers was gripping and was not decided until the last ten minutes. Only three tries were scored, two by the inimitable Ronnie Kynes who is not the biggest backrower but is dangerous near the opposition line just as Neil Back was for Tigers and England. The Llandovery try was a little gem and a draw seemed likely with anxious supporters checking watches and heartbeats. At 6-6 every set-piece, every tackle and decision by the busy referee was crucial until another Kynes special settled it. His Catch N’Kynes should be registered in the Patent Office.
Next Saturday is Cup day, a competition that still has its magic and was very important when we spent four seasons in Division One and the Championship. In that period we played 97 League games, won 88 and lost 9, a remarkable 91% success rate but with promotion in view at last cynics wondered if we would survive the Premier Division. Some great performances in the Cup showed we could.
In 2011/12 we raised some eyebrows beating Newport away and Carmarthen Quins 25-19 and Swansea 16-6 at home. We returned to Rodney Parade to play Cross Keys in the semi-final which was drawn 19-19, Keys going through having scored two tries to our one.
In 2012/13 we enjoyed another Cup run, winning at Cardiff away 16-11 and although losing in the next round home to prolific Premiership and Cup winners Pontypridd we came so very, very near. It was a thriller, we led 22-16 with minutes left and conceded a try which was converted and lost with some pride 22-23. The results were most encouraging and also reminders that in Cup rugby status does not guarantee automatic success.
Many recall very good Ebbw Vale teams struggling to win at Llanhilleth (12-3), Pembroke (6-0), Llandaff (12-9), Hendy (4-0), Laugharne (3-0), Maesteg Celtic (10-9), Narberth (12-9), Tredegar (10-9) and Hirwaun (6-0). In the first season of the Cup, 1971/2 we drew 9-9 at Waunarlwydd but got to the next round on the toss of a coin! Between 1991 and 1996 we lost to Tondu, Dunvant, Talywain, Old Illtydians and Penarth but then came six seasons of Cup success, five semi-finals one of which, a 44-10 victory over Newport at Sardis Road, took us to the Final in Bristol won by Llanelli 19-12.
In 1996/7 when we played at Newcastle Emlyn we were in Division One, later known as the Premiership, and they were in Division Six. Our Cup run that season began at Aberavon where we won 32-8 and after beating Newcastle Emlyn 43-0 were at home to Bridgend in the quarter-finals. Byron Hayward’s goal-kicking was outstanding in all the ties and his four penalty goals against Bridgend ensured a 17-16 win, the only try coming from Steve Jones one of the most formidable hookers in Wales at the time.
Full of hope we headed for the Arms Park to play Mike Ruddock’s Swansea but went down 26-13 despite a great come-back in the second half when Alun Harries and Ian Jefferies scored tries, Byron converting one and kicking a penalty goal. 1996/7 was a great season for him, he was third in the points scored table with 239.
We expect a major challenge at Newcastle Emlyn on Saturday, they are in the Championship and recently gave Merthyr a hard game, losing 19-7. Reaching the play-offs is still the main target, but winning the Swalec Cup is another and the road to that begins in West Wales on Saturday.
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE METICULOUS (240116)
Only one League game since Boxing Day did not satisfy the appetites of coaches, players and supporters but they were not idle. Training went ahead in what can only be called the monsoon season, we won a Foster’s Challenge Cup game and for non-combatants there were two points of interest, one in Paris and the other in Ystrad Mynach.
It’s surprising what you see on the box, a few weeks ago I even saw a scrum-half put the ball in straight! Then in Paris Racing 92 were expected to beat the Scarlets and indeed they did 64-14 which was not pleasant watching for West Walians. Then came a surprise, the name Llangennech RFC was seen on the back of the Scarlet’s jerseys.
‘Ullo, ‘Ullo there’s a story here says I and sure enough there was. Worthington’s of brewery fame had given all 49 clubs in the Scarlets region an opportunity to feature on the back of the regional jersey. Three clubs, Furnace, Narberth and Llangennech were short-listed and here’s where the supporters played their part, the winner was decided by the volume of Worthington’s sold in the region. Llangennech sold the most and were chuffed to see their name so prominently displayed. It must be the only occasion when recognition of a rugby club was awarded by the number of pints its supporters quaffed. If the idea comes east I reckon our Addicts would win hands down.
The word exquisite is not used in rugby, in croquet maybe, but not rugby but it was a masterly description of an artistic incident in the game at Ystrad Mynach. Not by a Brylcreem Boy in the backs but a young (well, youngish) flashy hooker named Williams. In the well chosen words of our web manager, he provided a “moment of sublime skill when he took the ball in the outside-half position in his own half and put in an exquisite touch-finder deep in the Keys half.” And that wasn’t all, meticulous Mathew “Chunky” Williams was the first Steelman to arrive on the scene to prevent a quick throw-in. Thank goodness he’s on our side.
Now for Saturday’s key game in the Premiership, Ebbw in 6th place versus Drovers in 1st but with only seven points separating us. Llandovery in September is a lovely place to be unless one’s team ships fifty points and scores none. Recovery was called for and followed diligently, steadily and positively, it was not the end of the world after all, we never thought it was, and in fact there have been mixed fortunes for both clubs since then. We have now won nine and lost five, they have won ten and lost four all away at Pontypridd, Aberavon, Newport and Cross Keys.
Armchair rugby followers are looking forward to the Six Nations which this year will be televised by the Beeb and ITV, the first cluttered by pundits the second by adverts but we have much more to enjoy, two Saturdays when East meets West, the Drovers in Ebbw and a long awaited return to Newcastle Emlyn in the Swalec Cup a week later.
We have eight League games left, Llandovery (h), Cardiff (a), Cross Keys (a), Llanelli (h), Pontypridd (h), Bedwas (a), Carmarthen Quins (a) and Aberavon (h). Add one remaining Challenge Cup tie, the Swalec Cup and the ultimate target, the play-offs, and we are in for a busy and enjoyable time.
WHEN EBBW ‘DID’ EUROPE (180116)
When Leagues were introduced the variety went out of Welsh club rugby and we no longer arranged our own fixtures. For example in the last non-League season, 1989/90 we played all the top Welsh clubs and Moseley, Nottingham, Gloucester, Saracens, Coventry and Bath. Variety added spice to every season, it’s much more serious and predictable now. And arguably less interesting.
In 1996/7 European rugby added variety and gave club treasurers sleepless nights. We played Gloucester, Begles and Bourgoin and a new cross border Cup revived fixtures with London Irish who we used to play on Good Friday. We once exchanged visits with Irish clubs like Bective Rangers but did not play a provincial team until Euro rugby matched us against Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht.
We played Connacht twice in the European Shield in 1999/2000, a time when we had a great squad that included two leading 10s in Jason Strange and Shaun Connor and international scrum-halves Richard Smith and Irishman Guy Easterby. We won our Pool with doubles over Connacht (32-9 & 42-19), Toulon (21-19 & 56-26) and Bucharest (58-27 and 43-27) and were heading for the semi-finals when Shaun Connor dropped a winning goal against London Irish. Cheers turned to jeers when the French referee thought otherwise, we lost 21-20 and diplomatic relations between Ebbw Vale and France were so low it would have taken a visit by Brigitte Bardot to restore them.
At the time Connacht were under threat from the Irish Rugby Union who seemed to favour three not four provinces. The welcome in Galway, despite Connacht’s heavy defeat was warm and those present remember an impassioned plea by Connacht outside-half Eric Ellwood to the Union not to ditch them. Their current form shows how right he was.
Ellwood was capped 35 times for Ireland and after 168 games for the province became head coach. He was succeeded by Samoan international Pat Lam who has brought Connacht to the forefront of British Isles rugby with a successful Pro 12 team.
Their 2nd XV, the Eagles, come to Ebbw Vale on Saturday in a British & Irish Cup game against the Dragons Premiership Select and we hope to see Ebbw players in action and enjoy an afternoon without tension. It will be a short journey for the Eagles but their senior’s European Challenge Cup fixtures have taken them across the world to places like Krasnoyarsk which we all know is the third largest city in Siberia. That’s a long way to go to play a game of rugby and almost as demanding as our trip to Colwyn Bay a few years ago.
Saturday’s game will bring variety to the fixture list and a warm-up for supporters who are preparing for the next Premiership game on January 30th when we are home to Llandovery. A week after we join the Swalec Cup competition in the second round and have drawn Newcastle Emlyn away. It will be our second visit there, the first in 1996/7 was a great success on and off the field, we won 43-0 and were reluctant to leave. A happy day which we hope to repeat.
THE DAY THE KING CAME TO RODNEY PARADE (120116)
With heavy rain persisting and many games postponed the best laid plans of computers and men are washed away and the next round of fixtures are often in doubt. Our immediate interest is in the Foster’s Challenge Cup games we have left at Rodney Parade and home to Cross Keys. The former is now the most used pitch in Wales with the Dragons, Newport RFC and Newport County AFC playing on it.
It has a great history, Springboks, Aussies and All-Blacks have lost there and just before the Second World War the great English batsman Wally Hammond of Gloucestershire created records on the cricket ground which was behind the modern changing rooms area.
Many of the world’s greatest rugby players appeared at Rodney Parade but only one heavyweight champion of the world – Joe Louis. In 1943 British and American Forces staged a boxing exhibition there and it was packed with serving soldiers, cadets and Home Guard who wanted to see The King of Boxing, the Brown Bomber. He was Exhibit One and “fought” a three-rounder with the champion of Oklahoma, another GI, which didn’t go the distance. No matter, we saw Joe Louis.
What Joe Louis was to boxing Brian Price was to Welsh rugby. Second row Brian will be in most people’s Wales all-star XV and was mentioned for the umpteenth time in the Ebbw v Newport match programme in November 1983, “The brightest event in 1936 came in Rhymney Valley’s Costa Del Sol, the village of Deri. On October 30th the Price family rejoiced at the arrival of a male child destined to captain Newport and Wales, play with the Lions and most important of all to become a butty of Denzil Williams. By coincidence exactly 27 years later Brian Price celebrated his birthday leading Newport to a 3-0 win over New Zealand. The only score was a drop goal and another Deri product popped it over. John Uzzell is Brian’s brother-in-law and the Newport side included other Valley players like Brian Jones, Dai Watkins, Algie Thomas and Keith Poole.”
Brian Price will be 80 years young this year and like so many Welsh greats is a man whose roots were in rugby hotbeds.
Our final Challenge Cup Pool game at home is on Wednesday January 20th when, weather permitting, we play Cross Keys. Mid-week games allow us to play youngsters from local clubs and those who have done well so far might well be regulars next term.
On Saturday January 23rd the Dragons Premiership Select XV will play Connacht on our ground in a B & I game. It will be Connacht’s second appearance here, we shared a pool in the 1999/2000 European Shield and won all six games. The squad travelled to Galway, Toulon and Bucharest and came home tired and longing for egg and chips and a pint of Rhymney’s Best.
A little variety on our Saturdays is very welcome as special games are few and far between. In August 2014 the Dragons played Northampton here and London Welsh came a year after. The B & I game must be supported, we owe it to the players, some of them Steelmen, and the visitors. When we played in Connacht in 1999/2000, like the song we saw the sun go down on Galway Bay. We can’t match that, no-one will see the sun go down on the Domen. Not in January.
VALE BRING HOME THE BACON AGAIN (030116)
Winning away was never easy, home advantage still helps but the modern player performs on any stage and for the fourth time this season the Steelmen pulled off a win on the road. Neath having avoided defeat a week before for the first time this campaign, were expected to ask some questions of us and they did, they led 8-6 at halftime. As it turned out we had most of the answers, especially Jared Rosser who scored three tries in a 22-16 victory. When did a Vale wing last get a hat-trick of tries in the top Division? Answers on a Webbs Brewery beer mat please.
Despite the weather we have fulfilled all our fixtures and now enter one of those “half-terms” when the Premiership takes a whiff and the Foster’s Challenge Cup takes over. Our next two games are in the competition at Newport on Saturday January 16th and Cross Keys home on Wednesday 20th. Next Saturday the 1st Round of the Swalec Cup takes place and we have a bye and although the Premiership will lie idle on Saturday 23rd our ground will host the Dragons Premiership Select XV who play Connacht, their first game in Ebbw since November 1999. We must support that.
On the last week-end of 2015 the English Aviva Premiership and Welsh Pro 12 sides were in action with varied attendances but none could match the 70,000 at Twickenham for Harlequins v Gloucester. Even allowing for the huge population in and around London that is something to be envied and those who went to the game had their money’s worth, a 39-39 thriller and ten tries.
In the 50s no games produced 78 points, in our first Welsh Championship season 1951/2 scores were low and tries were fewer but wing John Pugh got 31 tries and the best uncapped forward in Wales Eric Finney 18. That season was possibly the first for Graham Powell whose recent death has been received with great sadness. He and Peter Clubb were centres par excellence and key players in the 51/2 Welsh Championship side that played 39 games, won 31, drew 3 and lost six for a win-ratio of 82.05%. In the last home game of a great season we beat Neath, the programme just a leaflet cost three-pence and among the advertisers were Saxon & Co (Agents for all leading ciders, Aerated Water Manufacturers and suppliers of Pure Malt Vinegar) and Webbs Welsh Ale (Clearly the Best).
In the Neath pack were two of the greatest Welsh international forwards Roy John and Rees Stephens and Len Harris who later joined us. Full-backs wore the No. 1 jersey then and Neath’s was another Welsh cap, Viv Evans one of several international class players in that position in Wales at the time. The Ebbw side was Clive Best; John Pugh, Peter Clubb, Graham Powell, Bernard Williams; Ernie Lewis, Ivor Evans; Len Coldrick, Albert Jackson, Ron Cameron; George Gwynne (capt), Islwyn Williams; Horace Matthews, Eric Finney, Gwyn Griffiths.
I am sure it was in that game hooker Albie Jackson collected a cross-kick and scored under the posts at the southern end of the ground, there being no clubhouse at the time. The crowd was immense and the match created so much interest the Neath team-list was posted in Proles sport shop, where coincidentally Clive Best worked.
Television did not come to Wales until August 1952 and when it did there was very little sport on it. Inclined as I am to exaggerate I would not be far out if I estimate the attendance at the game with Neath on Monday 28th April 1952 was ten thousand. A tanner to go in, 3d for the programme, Webbs a bob a pint and we had the perfect night out.
EBBW AND BEDWAS PULL A CHRISTMAS CRACKER (271215)
Thanks to our groundsman, who should be in the New Year’s Honours list, our Premiership game with Bedwas was salvaged from the ravages of the heaviest rainfall since Noah. The pitch was in good condition which left the gale force wind the only element to be mastered. In the first half that’s what Ebbw did facing it, but didn’t utilise its force in the second when Bedwas showed their spirit by launching attack after attack on Fort Hudd. To no avail.
A win was all Ebbw Valians asked Father Christmas for but three tries in the first forty minutes raised hopes of a bonus point as well. Only four points were scored in the second half but it was forty minutes of total commitment by two teams utterly determined to win. You could sense it on the terrace and in the stand, it was real rugby, a Christmas cracker that drained the bodies on the field and the minds of supporters. Relief was on hand when Neil Hennessy finally blew his whistle to end the game and his career as a referee and we trooped shaken and stirred into the warmth of the clubhouse packed out as such places should be on Boxing Day. Rugby Union is full of variety, its followers can enjoy the thrill of attack and the sheer defiance and determination of defence equally and we had a taste of both on Saturday. Well done both teams.
Before the Bedwas Saga which has dominated December 2015 there was a Friday night treat at the ground when Blaenau Gwent Schools played Newport Schools in a friendly and a warm-up for the famous schools Dewar Trophy which has brought to light some of the great Welsh players. Newport lads won 17-12 with a late try but the BG side played really well and showed great potential.
Then came the first of three successive games with Bedwas, a 22-22 finish at their ground and a 36-6 defeat for us at ours. Challenge Cup games have given our coaches opportunities to field all the squad and players on permit from various clubs, so far averaging nine per game.
Our New Year begins at The Gnoll where Neath are striving to regain their traditional form. In the previous ten Premier seasons we played them 18 times, won 9 drew 2 and lost 11, in 06/07 we drew twice with the same score 23-23. Having avoided defeat for the first time this season when they drew 26-26 with 4th placed Aberavon on Boxing Day Neath will be steamed up on Saturday.
A few days before Christmas came the sad news that Graham Powell the first Ebbw Vale player to be capped directly from the club had passed away aged 83. Graham from Waunlwyd was a centre whose partnership with Peter Clubb is still regarded as one of the club’s best. Graham was in the winning Welsh Championship side in 1953/4 and the Ebbw Vale/Newbridge XV that beat South African Universities, full of future ‘Boks’ at our ground. It was a great winter for Graham, a young player who faced some of the best centres in the game including the Prince of them all Bleddyn Williams.
In 1957 Wales lost to England and Scotland and four new caps were awarded for the game against Ireland at Cardiff, Graham among them. Wales won 6-5 on a muddy Arms Park and went to Paris in the Spring to win 19-13 which turned out to be Graham’s second and last cap due to injury. A great shame because he was clearly international quality. When the all-time greatest Ebbw Vale team is picked there are many who would have Graham Powell and Arthur Lewis in the centre. Imagine those two together!
STEELMEN AND RAVENS HAVE A TRYING AFTERNOON (061215)
Nostalgia hits a new high when survivors of Merit Table days talk about all-action exciting games between Ebbw Vale and Bridgend, especially in the Floodlit Alliance when only tries counted. Too many traditions have been lost in Welsh club rugby over the last dozen years but on Saturday one was revived, a high scoring Ebbw Vale v Bridgend game which resulted in ten tries and seventy points. We deserved to win and did particularly well into the gale force wind but there were moments when home hearts fluttered a little.
The Ravens never gave up, they snapped up their few chances and reduced the deficit from 34-14 to 34-30 after Ebbw looked like running away with it. They took advantage of lapses of concentration until once again our forwards decided enough was enough. There were many candidates for our Man of the Match in both departments and some delightful passages of play which resulted in the double over Bridgend for the second season running.
Some old friends from Bridgend were at the game, a pleasing feature of Welsh club rugby and in our journeys we share memories and the odd jug with them and recall the “good old days” when men were men but smaller and lighter, balls were leather and tries were fewer. To be honest the game has improved no end. At Aberavon recently we met a man who captained the Wizards in the 70s when they were a mighty force with Alan Martin in the side. Morton Howells hooked against the best in the land and at a time when selection for the Barbarians really meant something he was chosen for their Easter tour of South Wales.
Four games were played in five days and there was no time to rest, going to bed was considered infra dig and a waste of time, fitness to survive the playing and after game frolics demanded a great deal especially of Welsh players who were coming to the end of a season in which they often played forty times. Morton like so many other front-row forwards we meet remembered one particular Ebbw player, prop Len Dimmick, who had it not been for injury would have been picked for Wales after a thundering performance against the dour 1960/1 Springboks.
More recently former Steelmen are doing great things in Talgarth where Gwernyfed RFC are celebrating their 50th anniversary, Club chairman is Robert Stephens, four of the Skyrme family are active Life members, Chay Billen is Head coach and Des Parry is Head of Rugby. Every week they field two senior sides, a Youth XV, several junior teams and the ladies section are in the Ladies Welsh Premiership. Apart from sorting all that out the coaches and players work for a living as most do in the glorious county of Powys. A pre-season visit there would be nice.
Ken Hewitt was one of those rugby men who devoted a great deal of his life to the game. He was one of three District A representatives on the WRU and with his colleague Mal Beynon of Brynmawr was at the centre of many changes in Welsh rugby not only on the field but off it as well. He was a loyal supporter of Monmouthshire rugby and was pleased we won two Division East trophies and two in the Championship before returning to the Premiership. It was only right that our WRU representatives should present Damien Hudd with the trophies and they joined in the celebrations that followed. Ken will be missed but not forgotten for all he did for us over many years.
WET, WINDY & A WIZARD WIN (011215)
It was wet, it was windy at Aberavon but somehow we had a wonderful contest and a win in the bargain particularly enjoyed by Ebbw Valians who work in the steelworks nearby. The usual huge travelling support ignored the elements and again won the Premier Chant Contest by a considerable margin of decibels. Both sides deserve campaign medals for doing so well in such weather and producing a genuine Welsh club game full of spirit and a lot of skill.
We played with the gale behind us in the first half, those in the grandstand spent it looking to their right and the brave ones on the bob bank spent it looking cold. It was a team effort and we played some great rugby, handling with confidence and in the latter stages defending like men possessed even in the seemingly never ending injury time when we were reduced to thirteen – shades of the Cardiff Cup tie in 2013!
We must hope that the weather on Saturday will be dry and calm so that we can continue to play in the same positive and exciting manner. Bridgend always pose problems and last season caused some surprises; they were the only side to beat Pontypridd in the Premiership, and in May got a rare double when they also pipped them in the Swalec Cup Final, so our double over the Ravens last term was quite an achievement. In November 2014 on a very wet night we had headed for the Brewery Field quietly confident but left it very late to win 27-20. In the 65th minute Bridgend led 17-15 but in what was left of the game our pack sorted things out in their usual gentlemanly manner. Two tries engineered by the forwards and scored by Damien and Ronnie Kynes who, on form, is unique and dangerous when in possession near the enemy line, just as another smallish back-row forward name of Neil Back was, wearing the same coloured jersey. Our other try that night was scored by the impressive Josh Jacas, son of the man who when playing for Tredegar caused us a lot of problems in intensive local Derbies.
That game could have gone either way but the return in March was one-sided, our 45-3 win over Bridgend was probably the biggest over them. Seven tries were scored, one a penalty and the others by four forwards, that man Kynes again with two, the mobile speedy and irrepressible Ross Jones, Ashley Sweet and Gareth Williams. The other was scored by Adam Jones who converted five and who is currently showing great form in the Dragons Premiership B & I team.
The third game with Bridgend since we returned to the Premiership opened this season but our visit to the Brewery Field was in dry weather, ideal for the fast men on the both sides. It was 8-8 at the break and with both coaches making their debuts thinking hard, supporters crushing their fingers the end result was in doubt. Then our pack decided to rise to the occasion and again produced three tries, one a penalty and the others by the unstoppable Damien Hudd and the equally effective Rhys Clarke.
December is all Bs, Bridgend once and Bedwas thrice so let’s hope the b***** weather doesn’t interfere. At the moment of penning (tapping actually) this missive the forecast is grim so get on your knees, give up sinning, ask for forgiveness and pray for blue skies.
NORMAL SERVICE RESUMES ON SATURDAY (251115)
Only three men named Jones have played for England but now the name has re-appeared at Twickers with the appointment of Eddie Jones who has been bought, sorry brought, in to put things right there. After a highly successful career coaching Aussies and Japanese, he will find the natives of Surrey rather different but at least they now call the game rugby not rugger.
One of his assistants in the memorable Japanese World Cup side was also a Jones, Leigh who was our coach at a time when we too brought in a foreigner, Richard Hill. There are more Joneses in Welsh regiments than there are Irish players whose surnames begin with O’ but English rugby has never been a place for a Jones, until now.
All of which has nothing to do with us, our immediate task is the next game and on Saturday things get serious again when we play at the Talbot Athletic Ground where the Wizards have made a good start. It’s pointless comparing results, we were put under and then pounded by a hammer at Llandovery a team the Wizards beat 22-8, we won at Pontypridd where they lost 40-16 and so on.
There is also no comparison with Aberavon’s last season and the present one but whatever the form we treat every game the same, it’s there to be won and – providing the temperature rises – it will be a 100% effort on Saturday when normal service resumes.
Aberavon have won ten of the last sixteen League games between us and our last win at Port Talbot was in 2007/08 when we got the double 48-20 at home and 22-17 away. We conceded two early tries in the home game but then shook ourselves up, started all over again and ran in seven by Kristian Owen (2), Nio Aiono, Andrew Bevan, Gareth Williams, James Lewis and Anthony Lott, scrum-half Bryan Shelbourne converting five and a penalty goal. The away game was much closer but we scored three tries by South African prop Alistair Lyon, Kristian Owen and of course Andrew Bevan.
The new England coach says his players will come from Aviva Premiership teams and he will watch a lot of games in that competitive tournament over the next month or so. Gone are the days when Welsh selectors and coaches came to watch club players. The last to represent Ebbw Vale was prop Iestyn Thomas in the second Test of the 2002 South African tour, the last from Aberavon was hooker Billy James in the Scottish match of 1987. Long ago and far away, but we did get a kick of watching our own lads in a Welsh jersey.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK WEATHER THE STORM (191115)
The Foster’s Challenge Cup was launched at Pandy Park on a wet, windy Wednesday last week and conditions were so aquatic Noah could have launched his Ark as well. Horrendous was how one reporter described the weather but like all good troupers the players saw to it that the show went on. Keys won 22-2 but our boys “put in a good shift” and boys they were for there can be no harder task for a recruit than playing in a Western Valley Derby in heavy rain.
There were ten young players on permit in our squad at Pandy Park and we thank the nine clubs for making that possible and hope they will benefit from the experience. It was community rugby in its true meaning and made clear our approach to the Challenge Cup which will be used as a development tournament. As usual in an all-Gwent game we faced former Steelmen, Ethan Davies and Polu Uhi played for Keys as they did when the teams met in the Premier Division last month. Ethan trains with the WRU Sevens squad which will shortly set out on another world tour to rugby mad venues like Dubai, Hong Kong and Las Vegas as well as Glasgow and London but not Cardiff where the Millenium Stadium waits in all its glory and the pubs are a few minutes away.
It was a night of driving mauls and persistent squalls at Keys and a week later the weather was not much better when we played Newport for the third, and not the last, time this season. The faithful of both clubs like the players weathered the storm and put on a show as good as any in tropical conditions. Ebbw won 48-6 having led at the break 40-6, playing into a wind of North Sea proportions in the second half they managed one last try but both sides deserve great credit. Our Man of the Match was outside-half Simon Veall who looked the real thing and his partner was Jac Jonathan the son of Ceri a former Steelmen of high quality back in the Eighties.
In our two Challenge Cup games we have introduced players from other clubs and they have enjoyed the experience as much as we have enjoyed watching them. Wednesday night games under lights with Newport were once watched by thousands with supporters and players of the many local clubs taking the opportunity to watch Merit Table rugby between ancient rivals. The lack of variety in fixture lists is still bemoaned by those who watched us play Gloucester, Gala and goodness knows how many other non-Welsh teams but those days will never, ever return.
The rugby world was shaken by the news that Jonah Lamu has died aged forty. We had the privilege of seeing him in an Ebbw Vale jersey when he played in a special game arranged by his close friend and manager Phil Kingsley Jones on December 4th 1996. Just sharing the same air as such a great player and person was enough, to watch him run out on our ground was a memory we will cherish for ever. Jonah was a great rugby player but also a very nice man. We will pay tribute to him at our next home game on December 5th and will remember the day nineteen years ago when he came to Ebbw Vale and honoured us with his presence.
NEWPORT TURN THE TABLES (101115)
Newport won decisively on Saturday, they had a perfect start and were in command for most of the game. Arguably the most intense Derby in Gwent, it inspired the players and excited their supporters in two games in eight weeks with both clubs claiming a win and a bonus point.
There were many changes in the starting lineups from those in the game at Ebbw Vale in September and of added interest, which is an under-statement, the referee was Scottish who had a very busy afternoon and will have experienced a club clash of huge proportions which rugby in his country no longer enjoys.
Already the Premiership table has a new look from last season and competition is a keen as ever although there will be no relegation to avoid. Ebbw have won five, three conclusively and lost five, two emphatically but it’s been that sort of season. Sharing the spoils in Gwent Derbies is not unusual, the two with Newport this season produced an aggregate difference of only six points which makes the Foster’s Challenge Cup games between us very appetising.
Scarcely a season goes by without a new initiative emerging from the most important business centre in Wales – WRU HQ. That citadel of the national game has expanded as the game has worldwide and a leading figure is Josh Lewsey, once of Wasps and England who is WRU Head of Rugby. We love committees in Wales – most of them excuses for chin-wagging over a cuppa – but the Union’s latest means business, it’s called the Competition Pathway Working Group. An impressive title but it has produced a plan that sorts out the B & I Cup and adds a Premiership Challenge Cup to our fixture list. That will “strengthen the development pathway into the Premiership through schools, college and youth rugby” and according to Josh Lewsey “will help players to develop their talent through teams they can identify with as part of the fabric and history of the game in Wales.” We will have no problem with that, we have been bringing local youngsters into the senior game for some time, and in the lower age groups RTB Ebbw Vale RFC has done the same and still does. Note the emphasis on identifying with a club.
The Challenge Cup will be an opportunity for players and coaches to develop their careers. It is also an opportunity for those who have already been there and done it. Our role is threefold, we work for a successful team that keeps the game alive in our patch, we develop the young and we provide enjoyment in a social environment. In other words we have a good time.
Every game at our level is also an opportunity to referees who have a stairway to the stars to aim for and they have a role model in a Welsh speaking world class official who, a week after he did the Rugby World Cup Final, refereed a village game.
Earlier this year we mourned the death of our former outside-half Ernie Lewis who became an international referee and was thought to be the only Ebbw Vale player to achieve that. But there was another who will only be remembered by the ancients among us: Cyril Joynson of Brynmawr was an Ebbw wing of renown and refereed a Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham in 1955. He had no assistant referees or a TMO to advise him and was reimbursed by the barest expenses including his bus fare to Newport railway station.
EBBW LAY A BOGEY TO REST (031115)
Not many teams have won at Sardis Road where visitors arrive more in hope than expectation. But Ebbw Vale are not known as Steelmen for nothing, last Saturday they went there with three narrow defeats behind them, eager to meet the challenge that lay before them. They believed they could win, and they did. It was our first win there since January 2003, 10-6, by a Scott Mitchell try converted by Bryan Shelbourne who also kicked a penalty goal. Ponty’s coach Lynn Howells, now coaxing Romania, wasn’t used to losing and called his team “inept.” We thought ours was in the groove but it has taken a long time to get in it again and having done so aim to stay there.
The squad rose to a big occasion, scored three tries and showed defiance and skill throughout. Celebrating such a win is a tribute to a club that has dominated Welsh club rugby for many seasons and by happy coincidence a pre-game interview with Nigel Davies was shown on Scrum Five a day later when the Addicts were still recovering. Not only New Zealanders had hangovers last Sunday.
The best Rugby World Cup ended in style with a clash of titans under the control of Nigel Owens whose quips and advice to players will go down in rugby history. We all knew he would be the Chosen One for the Final unless Wales got there but the southern hemisphere big four dominated the whole show and one wonders whether we will ever achieve parity.
We play at Rodney Parade on Saturday where we won 31-29 last season having lost at home to Newport 25-22 resulting in an aggregate of 54-53 in their favour. It’s not aggregates that matter, only results but we have a 30-6 start this time, our highest score against ‘Port since 1998/9 when we won 57-17 at home and lost 30-29 away when Shaun Connor dropped a late goal.
The journey from the valleys to Newport is short and those who recall pre-League days will remember the players who went south, among them two greats Dai Watkins of Blaina and Ken Jones of Blaenavon. When the new enclosure behind the clubhouse was officially opened in September 1958 Ken brought an all-star side to celebrate it.
In it were Graham Hodgson (Bridgend, St. Lukes and later Wales); C Davies (Cardiff & Wales), Jack Hurrell (Newport and later Wales), Gareth Griffiths (Cardiff, Wales & Lions), Trevor Brewer (London Welsh & Wales); Harry Morgan (Newport & Wales), R Dash (Bristol); G Hastings (Gloucester & England), John Phillips (Newport), Ray Prosser (Pontypool, Wales & later Lions); Russell Robins (Pontypridd & Wales); Vic Leadbeater (Gloucester & England); Noel Murphy (Cork Constitution & Ireland), J Greenwood (Dunfermline & Scotland) and A Robson (Hawick & Scotland).
The Ebbw side was Tommy Carpenter; Gwyn Austin, Graham Powell, Dave Barrett, Mel Williams; Wilf Hunt, Roy Evans; Des Winters, Bill Rogers, Len Dimmick; Malcolm Collins, Denzil Williams; Doug Ackerman, Ron Morgan and Bill Morgan. Can’t remember the score but what a game!
Wing Ken Jones played 44 times for Wales, starred in the 1950 Lions and was a 4×100 relay silver medalist in the 1948 London Olympics. He played against us in many Derbies which drew thousands of supporters, but on Saturday watchers will be in their hundreds. It’s another important game of course but our players need no reminding of that.
ONE PASS TOO MANY (251015)
An interception try brings joy to some and breaks the hearts of others, especially when it decides the result of a game. Unimpressive in the first half against the well organised Quins we recovered, took the lead, played some nice rugby and even looked like scoring a fourth try but then learned a lesson the hard way. When leading in the dying moments and in possession keep control and give nothing, especially the ball, away. We worked hard against a dangerous side to get that lead, but one pass too many and the quick Quins took advantage.
They relished their second win of the season and we did not enjoy our fourth defeat in an autumn lacking consistency, apart from the nightmare at Llandovery we have lost by an average of four points and won by an average of seventeen. Winning the World Cup is every nation’s hope, however it is done and the consistently successful All-Blacks again showed how to get in the lead and keep it to the end. That comes with experience.
While we were beaten in such a dramatic finale the Champions Elect, Pontypridd, struggled to a two point win at out of form Neath. We play at Sardis Road on Saturday where to succeed a mighty effort is needed. It is a pitch visitors have to run on with purpose and intent, the better the start the better result. Too many late dramas are not good for the nerves, heart or mind.
One special game against Pontypridd in the last few years springs to mind as we prepare for another excursion to the Rhondda, a rugby stronghold with only one Premier club. Next season there will be five in our region and three in the Blues. Should one from Gwent turn Blue so there will be four in each region? If so who?
The memorable Swalec Cup game with Ponty in March 2013 showed we were good enough to be a Premier club. A thriller between the top sides in their divisions was decided by a touchline conversion 60 seconds from time to end our 11 month old ground record, a fitting finale to a magnificent game won by Ponty 23-22. Post-match comments summed the game up, “a pulsating, old-fashioned Cup shoot-out……every player who wore the red, white and green can feel an immense amount of pride……….on the week-end when the clocks went forward it is no exaggeration to say that we did too.”
After two all-Southern Hemisphere semis New Zealand and Australia will meet for the first time in the final which will bring down the curtain on a superb sporting tournament. We do not expect the unnecessary furore and misguided comments by those who should know better after the quarter-final between Scotland, who scored three tries and Australia who got five, which brought memories of a contentious decision by an Irish referee at the 1974 Wales game at Twickers. J J Williams chased a ball, scored a perfectly good try but the ref did not give it and England won 16-12. We soon got over it and laughed listening to the Max Boyce ditty about a blind Irish referee. Thank goodness we are a humorous nation.
Finally something only taxpayers in the Borough will appreciate. In Saturday’s programme editorial Iain Swanson said of the Cross Keys match, “The score was about as popular as the new Blaenau Gwent recycling bins!”
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF PREMIER RUGBY (191015)
The World Cup scene is unravelling with Wales out but not down and the Premiership is something of a tangled web with last season’s form in bits and pieces. A week after Cross Keys narrowly, but deservedly, beat us by two points they did what few clubs have done in recent times, defeat Pontypridd. Well done, neighbours. We got an easy double over Llanelli last season but lost by four points to them on Saturday at their cavernous stadium where we had scored 51 without reply in April. Carmarthen Quins put a cricket score on Llanelli in 2014/15 but were beaten there 30-16 this season. Llandovery looked championship material when they over-ran us last month but have lost two games since. They say variety is the spice of life but give me consistency anytime.
We found some last season but even so lost seven of the twenty-two regular League fixtures experiencing the vagaries and ups and downs of a highly competitive division. Two losing bonus points in the last two games is no compensation and we face another challenge at home on Saturday, a “must win” game against the Quins who have played seven and lost six to our four wins and three defeats. It has been a disappointing start for both sides and the Quins will be keen to get their show back on the road. There should be no need to motivate the Steelmen.
Wales can be pleased and proud of their performances in the World Cup, some of the younger players who were thrown into the deep end when injuries struck did well and will benefit from the experience. It was touch and go against the Springboks whose winning try came from an offload which players down south specialise in. The handling of the great sides is amazing, when they have possession they don’t waste it they turn it into points and it stems from confidence which is something all teams at all levels need. The All-Blacks were magnificent, did you spot that cheeky off-load by Carter? Talk about sleight of hand!
Our first two games with Quins were Cup ties in Carmarthen, we won 35-25 in 2000/01 but two seasons later scraped home 13-8. Quins captain and former international lock Paul Arnold was proud of his team and commented “it was another massive performance, if we had found just one open space in their defence when we were on top it might have been a different story.”
Finding open spaces even then was not easy and with modern defences is often impossible. Our coach at Carmarthen that day was Mike Ruddock who said, “We got what we expected, a hard physical battle against a well-drilled and organised side.” Conditions were unpleasant, wet and heavy underfoot but thanks to an excellent referee, Huw F Lewis, it was a good game to watch if not to play in.
The Ebbw side was Richard Davies; Aaron Takarangi, Rhys Shorney, Ed Binham (repl. By Tim Bagg 76 minutes), Andrew Bevan; Mark Meenan, Brian Shelbourne; Adam Black, Leighton Phillips, Martin Jones; Chay Billen (repl. Ockert Booyse 70 m), Peter Sidoli; Will Thomas, Tyron Morris (repl. Paul Williams 60 m), Kati Tupulotu. Kati and Paul Williams scored tries and Brian Shelbourne kicked a penalty goal.
It was a season when Carmarthen rugby began its climb to the top, their Youth and under 21s won titles and, as we found in the Cup tie, the Quins were difficult to beat. Last season we had two outstanding games which were important in league terms, Saturday’s will be just as crucial.
LOST WEEK-END (111015)
And not the happiest, unless you are a Cross Keys or Australian supporter. The game with Keys began at 1.30pm and by 2 o’clock they looked like running away with it. Vale had scored a great try in the first half but in the second trailed 26-8 until they hit back with two more sparklers to make it 26-24 and that’s the way it finished. A deserved win for Keys, three tries apiece with just a penalty goal between the sides and a real Gwent Derby which as usual was followed by sharing drinks and opinions with the visitors while the more technical discussed controversial aspects of modern rugby like the breakdown and how it should be controlled. Serious stuff but a pint in the hand helps!
There are always plus points even in defeat and on Saturday our backs showed what they can do given the chance, Ebbw’s first try by wing Ryan Gardner is a candidate for try of the year. The result was a particular disappointment for Mathew Williams, alias Chunky, who played his 250th game for Ebbw Vale and led the side out. As a player and a clubman he rates with the best and with another Gwent valley stalwart Andrew Bevan stayed with us when others left after we were relegated. He is not a clubman of the year but of the decade.
Also honoured recently is Alan Gall, Club Treasurer, one of many volunteers who work behind the scenes of a rugby club. Dove, WRU sponsors, recognise them and to his great surprise Alan was presented with two tickets for Wales v Australia by Welsh centre Scott Williams in our clubhouse. It was an honour to have Scott with us but it would have been better if he had been fit and playing for Wales as he assuredly will for many years to come.
The World Cup has been a great success with minnows representing their countries with pride. Japan’s win over South Africa will long be celebrated and the three Pacific islands, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have done exceptionally well. Wales were not favourites to reach the quarter-finals when injuries hit them even before the competition began but we have risen above all that and have earned a quarter-final game against South Africa. That will be of great interest to former Steelmen and Springbok internationals, Balie Swart and Fred Smit.
Giant prop Balie Swart was in the World Cup winning Springbok team in 1995 which came as no surprise to those who played with and against him at Ebbw Vale including my postman who was our hooker with Balie at Aberavon and had great difficulty in getting his arm around him! Balie played once against Wales in September 1995 at Johannesburg, seventy days after the Boks won the Cup. We lost 40-11 in a bad year for Wales losing seven times and beating Japan and Fiji. It’s more than likely that the 1995 Welsh team would lose to the 2015 Japanese team.
What is also likely is that the Llanelli club of Stradey Parc days would not have lost 51-0 to us last April. The current crop have two wins so far this season and will be seeking our scalp on Saturday at Parc y Scarlets. The tide appears to be turning in Llanelli and there are fast, young and dangerous runners in that part of Wales as we found at Llandovery. They relish fielding those aimless kicks so prevalent in the modern game and counter-attack at will. And not just at Will.
Following the matinee on our ground and the main feature at Twickenham Saturday ended with a B movie at Manchester where highly paid pros beat an all amateur Uruguayan side. They fly home with pride, their victors trudge back to the drawing board.
FORTY EIGHT HOURS OF WENGLISH DELIGHT (041015)
Just after tea on Thursday, Wales played Fiji in a packed Millennium Stadium and had to work very hard to subdue players who looked like Chieftain tanks with the speed of Formula One racing cars. At the same venue twenty-four hours later New Zealand with all their big names beat Georgia as expected but the Man of the Match was a Georgian, selected by someone we know. Being Man of the Match against Aberflyarff is one thing, getting chosen instead of an All-Black is special.
Saturday night at Twickenham, another ridiculous 8pm kick-off and the host country faced Australia traditionally not strong in the set piece. That’s what they thought and they were wrong the Wallabies walloped the home side and the Sweet Chariot lost a wheel or two. As a result Wales go through to the quarter-finals which was overlooked by the media press who spent too much time discussing why England lost and not enough on why Wales and Australia won.
In between these very important games was another in our parish which in our minds was equally important. Losing 50-0 at Llandovery called for a mighty effort to get the show back on the road and we got it in a first half of all out attack which brought 32 points. Then something strange happened, we only scored two points in the second period while conceding twenty-two. Fair play Cardiff took advantage and ran in three tries but the gap was too great although there were some furrowed brows up on the terrace where the Steeler Chorale chanted harmoniously.
We have another week-end of rugby to look forward to starting at 1.30pm on Saturday and ending when the ref blows the final whistle at dear old Twickers around half past six. Those who leave their sofas and go out to watch rugby have the best of both worlds, supporting their side in the fresh air and then watching World Cup games while supping tea (Earl Grey of course) in the clubhouse. We last played Cross Keys in May in the Premiership play-off semi-final which we won 27-17. It was our fourth game with Keys last season, we lost there in the B & I Cup, lost at our ground and won at Pandy Park. They have begun well and will be in Gwent Derby mood on Saturday.
Famous rugby grounds are changing their names but Pandy Park is not. It is a short stroll from Cross Keys railway station, Eugene Cross Park is an even shorter walk from Ebbw Vale Town station and hopefully will be traversed on Saturday by Keys supporters. A train ride to Cross Keys makes life easier for imbibing Ebbw Valians who leave their Bentleys and Rolls at home and travel courtesy of Arriva.
Increasing a try to eight points has pushed the scores up but has not affected results. The incentive to go for tries remains and bonus points count when final league places are decided. There was an attempt to go even further in 1996/7 but it needed a degree in mathematics to understand it. Thanks to journalist and rugby historian Howard Evans we can contemplate its complexity. One bonus point was awarded to a winning team IF it scored three tries more than the opposition, or scored more tries than the opposition in a draw.
Two bonus points were awarded if a team scored six tries or more than the opposition and one bonus point for the losers IF they scored three or more tries and ended within fifteen (in 1997/8 it was reduced to ten) points of the winners. All points were forfeited if uncontested scrums were used. Still with me?
A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM (280915)
Statistics don’t often tell the real story but on Saturday they did. It was the numbers game, in the last six minutes of an even first half fourteen man Llandovery with five of their dazzling back division Welsh sevens players, scored three tries. When the game mercifully ended the only numbers on the scoreboard were alongside the Drovers name, fifty, seven tries had been scored and five points went to the winners and zero to the losers.
The result was declared by half-time and the danger presented by the best back line we have faced in recent years, never ceased. We could not cope with the pace of the young Drovers and their pack did the business too. It came as a shock, not that we lost because we have rarely done well at the ground, but the manner of it. But it must be said there was great admiration for the Drovers’ backs whose pace was quite amazing. It was our heaviest defeat since we lost at Llanelli 64-0 in April 2005.
After conceding only two tries in the three previous games we conceded three in six minutes when Llandovery were a man down. Only Pontypridd have scored more points this season, 210 to the Drover’s 152 and their game at Sardis Road on Saturday should be a scorcher.
Nothing went right for Ebbw and for the supporters, who again out-numbered the home crowd, it was a new experience. A defeat of that proportion takes some understanding and getting over but a good team does not turn into a poor one in a week. This defeat makes Saturday’s home game with Cardiff even more important.
If pace won the game at Llandovery, sheer determination, fitness and skill brought Wales a win at Twickenham despite taking the field without some of Europe’s best players and suffering injuries at a crucial point in the game. A victory the nation can be proud of and one that has kept the door to a quarter-final place wide open. All we needed was John Wayne coming off the bench and there would have been a re-run of ‘True Grit.’
ITV rarely shows rugby but they have done a good job so far, pity about the adverts though, with some of the game’s greatest like Fitzpatrick, Gregan, Dallaglio, Lynagh and Pienaar commenting. So why didn’t Welsh viewers see and hear them after the most important World Cup game so far? When they appear it’s not a chat show they know everything about the game having played it at the highest level many times. Second best is not good enough.
Cardiff will be encouraged by our result at Llandovery and have begun the season well, losing once at Aberavon and winning at Cross Keys, Llanelli and Neath. This season they are accustomed to playing away because their ground will not be used until the World Cup is over, and their first eight fixtures are on foreign soil. How strange, but no doubt they will be compensated.
Backed by an active region and with a great tradition behind them Cardiff will be keen to improve their recent games against us. When we were in the Championship we won a memorable Cup tie at the Arms Park 16-11 and last season got the double, 36-18 at home and 16-0 away so we have won the last three games against them. Let’s make sure it’s four in a row on Saturday.
VICTORY IN A LOW KEY (200915)
When the final whistle was mercifully blown on Saturday after ninety minutes of forgettable rugby, players and supporters were relieved, disappointed and puzzled. How was it that a side in the Premiership won 22-0, almost got a bonus point but didn’t play well? The scene was set, the cameras were in place, the sun shone on our picturesque ground but the result was a B movie.
There were more penalties than passes taken, almost thirty or one every three minutes, we had most of the ball and territory but the game never took off, it had no shape and although we were by far the best side and our line was never threatened we took twenty minutes to score a try and seventy to get another, both scored by Man of the Match Steffan Jones.
They were examples of what might have been had we taken countless other chances. Both showed what accurate passing can bring and in the 80th minute we got a third with little time left for a fourth but two late runs could and should have brought a bonus point. Not a great performance but a valuable win. It was nothing to write home about, not even on a postcard, but the players know they can do so much better.
If we were low after a patchy win how did South Africans feel four hours later after Japan pulled off the shock result of the century? Flags were half-mast in the Republic, saki sales hit new records in Japan and they showed what quick ball and clean passing can do. And who was their defence coach? Leigh Jones, one of many who once coached us and went on to higher things.
Our supporters have brought technicolour to all the major grounds in Wales except the Millenium Stadium and look forward to strutting their stuff at a Cup Final there one day in May. Whether in red, white, green, purple or pink our all-weather supporters are always on parade come rain or come shine. They did their best to liven things up on Saturday and their “Ebbw, Ebbw” chant will be heard at Llandovery on Saturday. The locals will remember them clad in Hawaiian gear on a cold Boxing Day in 2006 braving the elements and different beer as if they were on Waikiki Beach.
We beat the Drovers twice last season, 30-29 at home and 22-13 away. The former was exciting and both sides produced a spectacular that was not decided until the very last minute. Leading 30-24 and under siege what nerves were left on the newly named Clive Burgess terrace were shattered when the visitor’s wing scored a try wide out. Thanks to our scrum-half Chris Thomas who kept the scorer out wide the conversion was difficult and just failed, we won by a point and collected five.
The week-end World Cup results, apart from the Japanese triumph were expected but consider the difficulties the so-called Second Grade nations face. They play very few internationals, Fiji for example have played twenty-six this century compared to England’s one hundred and seventy-eight. The Fijians did well on Friday and their scrum-half is Man of The Tournament so far.
To get into the quarters Wales need to win on Saturday evening at Twickenham. We shan’t be as naive or as inexperienced as Fiji were but our Six Nations record at the ground is not encouraging, two wins in the last ten visits. Referees are often insulted unfairly, TMOs are often consulted unnecessarily so one can only hope that Saturday’s game will be free of both. With the right result of course.
DRAMA AT GWENT’S HIGH VELDT (140915)
Classy it wasn’t, dramatic it was, a genuine Derby and Ebbw had to work hard to win it. Newport’s attack threatened early on, there was an outbreak of penalties, five yellow cards and a host of chances were missed. We dominated the second half, one 60 metre forward drive deserved an entry in the Guinness Book of Records and carried more with it than Eddie Stobart. A win, which seemed unlikely in the first act of the drama, was not only achieved but we got a bonus point as well.
The Front Row Union were chuffed when Ross Jones was named Man of the Match and the quality of our bench was evident yet again, one of them Ashley Sweet made a welcome return and as a result the lineout flourished. The forwards have a familiar look and the backs are new but there is evidence that everything will fit into place soon. We did not play as well as we can in both opening games but emerged 50-14 on aggregate.
We are home to Neath on Saturday but will be wary of them. We got the double over them last season but at The Gnoll had to make a comeback to win it. Neath led 15-0 after 15 minutes, Vale responded to 15-12, it was 18-18 with the game in the balance and time for Hudd’s Heavies to do the business. A penalty try awarded by a very promising referee named Nigel Owens clinched it and we won 29-18. Job done.
There have been exciting games with Neath and for many years winning at The Gnoll was rare, they were the first winners of the Welsh Cup when it was revived n 1971/2, but we did pip them in a tense tie in 77/78, a game that featured a solo performance by Steve Lewis who was rated No. 3 scrum-half in England at the time.
We had scraped a 10-6 home win over Pyle in Round One and were very lucky to win 12-9 at Llandaff thanks to a Dai Fryer penalty goal in the last minute. If the River Taff had been near Ebbw supporters would have jumped in it until he casually put it over. Then came The Gnoll, a fortress at the time, but Steve dropped three goals, kicked a penalty and we won 16-10.
We are reminded of the quarter-final home to Cardiff in February 1978 every time we look at our membership card which portrays Clive Burgess charging at Gareth Edwards, but the result is best forgotten. Led by Gerald Davies and including internationals galore Cardiff hit back from 10-4 down to win 29-10.
There were several important head-to-heads in the game, Steve Lewis v Gareth Edwards, our skipper Gareth Howls playing his 500th game for us v England cap Barry Nelmes, Clive Burgess v Terry Charles and several more. Gerald Davies, 46 caps for Wales, was Cardiff captain and in the previous round before 15,000 at Pontypool Park won the game single-handed. Cardiff put together only five “worthwhile” attacks in the game and he scored tries from four of them.
That was the Cup that was, full of drama, full of memories.
WHATEVER THE POINTS SYSTEM A WIN IS WHAT MATTERS (070915)
When the value of a drop goal was reduced from four to three in 1948 it was considered a revolutionary move but long overdue. The try was only worth three points and did not rise to four until 1971/72, this season in the Premiership it increases from five to six. The bonus point incentive has always encouraged tries not penalty kicks but in rugby’s showpiece, the World Cup, finals have been dominated by penalty goals. In seven World Cup finals there have been 11 tries, 6 conversions, 5 drop goals and 42 penalty goals. Winning is what matters in competitions and why not if the prize is so important. Losing a thriller is not an option.
The temptation under pressure to concede two points through a penalty will be closely watched but in a League or a Cup game only the final score matters. Combine desire to win by playing fifteen man rugby has been the policy of Ebbw Vale and Bridgend from the three-point try era through the Floodlit Alliance which was decided on tries only. Saturday’s game was not enthralling and our three tries were products of the coal-face but it was the first serious game of the season and both sides will take a lot from it.
At Bridgend it seems that only the scoreboard operator was affected by the experiment and there was only one penalty kick at goal. Our 20-8 victory, or in old money 17-7, was very acceptable although there was disappointment on both sides at not getting a bonus point. The innovation has not been welcomed by everyone but it is an experiment for this season only and might be binned after that. Everyone looks for improvements so perhaps attention should then be directed to achieving consistency in the interpretation of the Laws.
We are home to Newport on Saturday and remember the exciting game at Rodney Parade last season when their enclosure was packed with red, white and green clad men, women, boys and girls. In the middle was a local lad whose T shirt read “Newport For Ever,” which in this bi-lingual world should be “Casnewydd Am Byth,” but despite seeing his team pipped at the post he enjoyed being surrounded by visiting addicts at his own ground.
Those who had left early to get a pint missed an end only matched by an Indiana Jones adventure. One Ebbw Valian remained seated and when it sank in got up and shouted “We’ve won, we’ve won!” He didn’t know but he was repeating what the WRU Secretary said in 1893 after the second Welsh win over England and the first in Wales which didn’t go down well with the Twickers rugger chappies. Can’t see the WRU President shouting that at Twickenham on October 31 when Wales beat New Zealand can you?
On Saturday the voice of our announcer will be heard at the top of Newtown and Beaufort Hill as he introduces Damien and his men with “The St e e e l Men.’ Just another day at the office for PA operators throughout Wales but spare a thought for the man with the mike at the Millie when Uruguay and Fiji trot out in the World Cup. He’s probably practising already and so is the band which has to play anthems which often sound like losers in the Eurovision Song Contest.
THE REHEARSALS ARE OVER (300815)
This year’s pre-season fixtures were the toughest Ebbw Vale took on for some time, two of them against fully professional English Championship sides. Two features were our attack at Moseley which brought five tries and our defence against London Welsh which kept us within ten points until we conceded a last minute interception try. In both games our spirit and fitness stood out and the purpose of such games was achieved. The coach learned a lot and so did the players who are now rarin’ to go on Saturday when the season kicks-off.
London Welsh, who played in the Aviva Premiership last season, had to work hard for their win. They were big, strong and fast but had it not been for unforced errors the score would have been closer. The changes made by both sides contributed to a scrappy encounter but Vale can take a lot of positives out of it. Steve Lewis, former Steelman and now Director of Rugby at Old Deer Park, praised his old club. “Ebbw Vale did very well, “ he said, “they defended superbly; we thought they would crack but they didn’t.” The Lewis twins came home and it was nice to see them playing on our ground again as it was to greet a great of the past, John Dawes.
The three August friendlies brought challenges and opportunities for players and coaches and some good rugby was played against varied and strong opponents. It was a change to play teams in the English Championship which is fully professional with promotion to the Aviva Premiership a major incentive. As one supporter said, it’s more rewarding to play a side of the calibre of London Welsh than easier opposition. As usual the team was well supported at the three games and Friday’s crowd would have made many Premiership club treasurers very happy.
In our first year in Division One East the Premiership was not ring-fenced and promotion was a possibility. To get it we had to win Division One East which we did, then beat the bottom club in the Premiership, Glamorgan Wanderers which we did not. The Wanderers met winners of Division West, Bridgend, in a final play-off won by the Ravens who had earlier beaten us 27-6 in the Cup. We were not quite ready for the big time then but it didn’t take long before we were.
Doubles over Bridgend have been rare, we did it in 1977/78 and 1996/7 but hopes of another were far from our minds on a rainy night last November. It was a cracking game and with four minutes left we trailed 20-15. A month before we were in the same perilous situation at Newport but made a comeback and won by two points very late. At the Brewery Field, inspiringly led by Damien Hudd, we first drew level and, with seconds to spare, got the winner. We emerged shaken and stirred with a 27-20 result. Those watching Ebbw always get eighty minutes’ worth.
Having lost our three previous games we needed a win over Bridgend at ECP in March and recorded our highest score over them, 45-3, bettered a few games later at an almost deserted (well, deserted by home supporters) Parc y Scarlets where we strolled to a comfortable 51-0 win. The double over Bridgend was an achievement because they were the only side to beat Pontypridd in the Premiership and went one better by defeating them in the Swalec Cup Final.
Organising a knees-up in a Brewery is one thing, winning at the Brewery Field is another and opening the League season there is a real challenge but every game we play in this campaign will be the same. We kick-off at 1:30 on Saturday and expect a few more changes of time while the World Cup is on. Will this be the winter of content for Wales? Will we make the quarters? The first game is against all-amateur Uruguay who draw their players from 28 local clubs which will boost the game in a soccer-mad nation. Their supporters will enjoy watching their players in the national team, something we in Wales have not experienced since 2003. And it’s likely we never will again.
THE ANGLO-WELSH CONNECTION (230815)
New faces, new combinations and a useful tester at Pontypool Park where once forwards reigned, that was the scenario for the second pre-season friendly. Pontypool away was always a tough one, local pride and sheer determination still remains but sheer pace produced an amazing 33-0 win for Ebbw whose defensive form was much improved from that at Moseley a week before.
Amazing because no Ebbw Vale side has ever won by such a margin at The Park and for Ponty to fail to score a point was unusual to say the least. Pooler showed spirit and endeavour but their breaks were met by crunching tackles. Their pack will serve them well in what should be a competitive Championship this season while Nigel Davies will be satisfied with the strength in depth Ebbw posseses. There was a good crowd, one which several Premiership clubs would like to draw and all is set for Friday’s visit of London Welsh, a game not to be missed.
Gone are the days when the three Exile London clubs, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, were filled with players from those countries. There’s hardly an O’ in London Irish but we know for certain that there are two Welshmen named Lewis in the London Welsh side.
In the late 70s London Welsh recruited an English outside-half, Neil Bennett, from Bedford which upset members who believed that only Welshmen should play for the club. Bennett won seven English caps between 1975 and 1979 and played once against Wales who won 27-3 but according to one journalist he “often lacked confidence in the Welshmen around him and overdid the kicking.” How strange, but maybe his team-mates spoke Welsh.
A problem Welsh sides had in England was local interpretation of the rules but only one referee worried us. When he took a game in the Midlands one of our lads did a Bogart and said “Of all the games in all the world he has to referee ours.” We had no problems at The Stoop in March 1979 when we beat Harlequins 8-4, the ref was Paul Russell from Rassau well known in English rugby. His brother Marcus became well known when he discovered Oasis in a Manchester pub.
English players in Wales also had to adapt to local customs and vociferous crowds but our referees did not meet with everyone’s approval, the 1926 touring Maoris refused to play under Welsh referees in Wales, probably because they lost here. The more gentlemanly attitude over the border was typified by a famous English referee Cyril Gadney who scolded Leicester and Northampton players engaged in tribal conflict by saying, “Gentlemen, when you have quite finished there is a lineout that needs your attention and a game of football to complete.”
The last time the Welsh played at Ebbw Vale was on Saint David’s Day 1969 when they won 6-0 and took our ground record. Wales won the Championship and the Triple Crown in 68/9 and London Welsh were the top side in London. Wales beat England 30-9, winger Maurice Richards scoring four tries and Denzil Williams scored one against Ireland. It was a time of off-field change, Wales became the first Home Union to adopt a squad system and national coaching, all founded on club rugby which was the final stepping stone to international selection.
Those were the days my friends, those were the days.
PLAYING IN THE PARK (160815)
Four Gwent sides played English opposition on the weekend: the Dragons and Ebbw Vale played Championship sides Nottingham and Moseley while Newport and Bedwas played Division One Rosslyn Park and Henley. In the Rhondda another English Championship side Ealing won at Sardis Road 40-11.
We were in with a shout at Moseley right to the end but two late tries by the home side clinched a deserved 49-31 win. Eighty points provided the entertainment while the performance of their players provided the coaches with plenty to think about. Nigel Davies and his assistants were encouraged by what they saw and the five tries we scored, two of them by Ryan Gardiner and Patric Lewis on their debut. There were positive signs in our attack although half a dozen missed tackles cost us dearly. All in all a positive exercise, played in excellent conditions.
Pontypool’s return to the top flight in 2016/17 is assured wherever they finish in the Championship, they have an A certificate and will be included in the enlarged Premiership. We last played them in The Park in October 2013 in a Championship game and won 19-13 but it was too close for comfort. We led 12-0 after 10 minutes but in the second half Pooler hit back and went 13-12 ahead. Two tries and Meyer’s goal-kicking decided the result and while it was not a great performance, those with long memories of games there were quite satisfied. We go there again on Saturday and although it’s a friendly it will not be a stroll in the Park.
The preliminaries will soon be over and the season proper will start. There has been much activity within the club in what is laughingly called summer, more season tickets sold then ever, the new merchandise came early and was quickly grabbed by the patriotic and we even have a list of mascots.
Supporters have enjoyed watching the training sessions on French’s Field which some may remember as a mudheap in Grammar School days. Competition for places will be keen and fulfils the club motto “Iach Gorff Iach Feddwl” which for those south of Beaufort means “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind.” We can be assured that the bodies of our players are very healthy indeed. And no doubt so are their minds.
In the World Cup Wales will play their Pool A games at Twickenham and Cardiff. In the summer the Welsh squad trained at altitude in the Alps but we resisted the temptation to follow suit and train on the Domen. The players did everything in the Alps but yodel, and Welsh captain Sam Warburton called the experience ‘horrendous’ and the toughest he had known. But he hasn’t experienced training on Cae Canol on a wet January night.
The glory of Brecon Beacons National Park attracts thousands of tourists annually. On Tuesday 6th, October Americans will experience it when the California Bald Eagles Veterans team on their World Cup tour play at Gwernyfed, a club with strong Ebbw Vale connections. Some of our best players started there and are active in coaching and management. Robert Stephens, Des Parry, Alan Phillips, Chay Billen and others are still honoured and highly regarded by Ebbw Valians.Playing in the Brecon Beacons National Park will be rather different from playing in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, but knowing Rob, Des, Chay, Alan and their club, the Eagles will leave their hearts in Gwernyfed.
THE INS AND OUTS OF WELSH RUGBY (110815)
“Ring-fencing” is not a term we speak of in polite company; we suffered from it a few seasons ago as we faced a barrier to the Promised Land like potential escapees contemplating the Iron Curtain. It’s back again, but with an important difference. In the season about to begin instead of barring the entrance to the Premiership, it will bar a club from getting out of it.
There was no relegation last season because the winners of the Championship, Bargoed, did not have an A Licence, so no one was promoted and there will be no drop-out in 2015/16 because in 2016/17 the division will be enlarged to sixteen clubs. It might be fifteen because as I tap the keys only Swansea, RGC 1404 and Pontypool qualify on criteria. For three seasons of the 16-club Premiership there will be no relegation, i.e. ring-fencing.
As we quickly discovered, but soon avoided, there are banana skins in Premiership games and having surprised everyone but ourselves last term we will be targeted from Day One. However we will tread familiar grounds against familiar clubs. Last season the new kids on the block who not long before were piling on the points in the Championship and Division 1 East, whilst not wearing out scoreboards so much – our highest score was 45-3 against Bridgend – surprised the cynics and came near to taking the spoils.
We still take an interest in the Championship and note with pleasure the promotion to it of Beddau and Newcastle Emlyn. We always enjoyed our time at Beddau, before, during and after the game and although we won all the eight League and two Cup games against them found them honest, gallant opponents. We are pleased they have returned to the Championship. In 1996/7 we journeyed into the unknown for a cup tie at Newcastle Emlyn which we won 43-0. The hospitality in a huge marquee was outstanding and the beer was good too, a genuine rugby club who deserve their elevation.
Birmingham is a major city but there is only one major rugby club in it and we play them on Saturday. Moseley RFC was formed in 1874 and for most of its history played at The Reddings where the amazing points scorer Sam Doble once reigned supreme – he scored 581 points in 1971/2. The club went through very difficult times at the turn of the century and only avoided a move to Oxford by a narrow margin at a special meeting. Since 2004 it has played at Billesley Common with 1300 seats and plenty of standing room. We can expect a warm welcome and a tough game; it’s England v Wales in miniature after all. Regular fixtures with Moseley were once very popular and there were several Welsh exiles on their committee including a team-mate of Alan Foster in the same Wales Secondary Schools side. Moseley chairman and Secretary Alun Evans was centre and captain of the schools team that in 1953 beat Scotland at Cardiff and England at Twickenham. Denzil Williams also played in those games and eight years later Alan Foster played at Twickenham again for the RAF in the Inter-Services Championship and it pains me to say this but they beat The Army. Brylcreem Boys 19 Squaddies 11.
WARMING UP IN AUGUST (040815)
Pre-season games have not always been friendly or encouraging. In the 50s in a trial match on our ground a local referee sent a player off and the culprit spent September kicking his heels, grumbling about officials in general and one in particular. In August 2009 we played Barking at Brynmawr, their coach Alex Codling was welcomed back but we lost 20-5 to an Essex side not highly rated. We did much better a week later at Worcester losing by one point but the season that followed was disastrous. Last August we played Moseley at Abertillery and lost 21-18. We checked their results throughout the season that followed and to our surprise they finished 11th out of 12 in the English Championship, which is a fully pro competition heavily funded by the RFU. They won the friendly but finished next to bottom in their league, we lost but finished next to top in ours. Moseley however are a very ambitious and well organised club and we face a real challenge when we go there for the first time in seven years.
Among the personal battles fought in games against Moseley was that between two renowned backrow forwards, Clive Burgess and Nick Jeavons, thirteen times capped for England. They faced each once internationally, at Twickenham in 1982 when England won 17-7, a game influenced by the shoulder injury to Terry Holmes in the 46th minute. The end of season tour of South Wales by the Barbarians brought rivals together and at Easter 1981 Clive and Nick Jeavons were on the same side that played Cardiff.
Budgie and Nick Jeavons
On August 22nd we play at Pontypool Park where a warm reception awaits us. Last season Pooler’s expectations were not realised and they finished 5thin the Championship. But they have an A Licence and with the prospect of the Premiership increasing to sixteen clubs in 2016 are gearing up for a return.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (220715)
Prop forwards are not jumpers, leaping to great heights is not their forte. They might take a short throw now and then but their duty in the lineout melee is to support and when necessary lift one of the tall men and generally be a nuisance. They also handle the ball a lot, run with it, score occasionally and when in possession turn into human bull-dozers thus causing havoc. Props love causing havoc.
Ceri Jones our forwards coach has done all that and occasionally still does because he still has “a few run outs for Usk but is getting old and slow.” You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. His father Lyn was one of the tall men, known as The Leap due to his lineout dominance. He played superbly for Ebbw Vale and Newport in the 60s and 70s, also for the Barbarians and was worthy of even greater honours.
Lyn was one of three Ebbw Vale players who played for the Baa Baas in 1970/71, Arthur Lewis and Denzil Williams were the others and they captained the Easter tourists who played four games in five days. Lyn played against Newport who were beaten 16-11 in front of a packed house on Easter Tuesday.
Ceri was born in Newport in June 1977, played for Newport High School Old Boys most of whom were young, Usk mostly farmers and 98 games for Newport mostly players from the Western and Eastern Valleys. After playing 98 games for Newport he went to Harlequins and became a cult figure there. This is not an exaggeration, after his 232nd and last game for Quins he was given a standing ovation from the crowd at The Stoop. Not only did he prop against the best in the game he scored twenty-four tries for Quins so being a prop who spends a lot of the game bending one might say he “Stooped to conquer.”
He was capped twice for Wales when with Quins, playing in two Tests in Australia in 2007. In the first he eagerly went off the bench to replaced Iestyn Thomas and dejectedly left it after Wales led 17-0, then 23-22 with 52 seconds remaining but lost 29-23. That was in Sydney, a week later the starting Welsh front row was Iestyn Thomas, Mefin Davies and Ceri but a 31-0 Aussie win says it all.
Aged 19 he once played for an Ebbw Vale Development XV and against us several times, notably in the 2001 Cup semi-final under the captaincy of Gary Teichman. One report said that Ebbw had Newport on the ropes for a while but four penalty goals and a conversion by another import Howarth against four penalty goals by Jason Strange did the trick and Newport won 19-12.
Ceri played before huge crowds at the Stoop and then Worcester Six Ways and appreciates the importance of support on the terraces and in the stands. In 2007 he became the 74th Jones to be capped for Wales and the clan still dominates the Welsh international’s list.
The Jones family are farmers in Usk and on a family farm everyone chips in. In these days of sports science, lifting weights instead of pints, physios and diets even City gents are big, strong and powerful, but combine a forward with a farmer and you still get somebody special.
When the last orders are taken, when it’s time to call it a day and the nostalgic indulge in picking their dream Ebbw side one certain choice at lock is Lyn Jones, a legend and someone to look up to. Literally.
FROM SCARLET TO STEELMAN (050715)
(But it all began in Trimsaran)
Over sixty of the Davies clan have played for Wales. One of them, Jonathan was raised in Trimsaran and another, Nigel was born there. They played in the same Welsh team twice, against New Zealand in Auckland in 1988 and in the last international played at the Arms Park against England in 1997. The scores are best forgotten. Nigel had the toughest international debut, against the All-Blacks in New Zealand, in the same game Ebbw Vale’s Ian Watkins didn’t find it easy either, he faced Sean Fitzpatrick.
Few play 500 times for their clubs, Nigel was two short for Llanelli a tremendous achievement in itself bearing in mind his representative commitments. He played on our ground many times generally on the winning side, and once against us on foreign soil in the 1998 Swalec Cup Final.
The Severn Bridge trembled under the weight of cars and buses from Ebbw Vale and Llanelli heading for Ashton Gate in Bristol. The final could not be played in Cardiff as the new stadium was being built, a pity because the narrow pitch and the unusual surroundings did not encourage the right atmosphere. The Llanelli centres were Nigel and Neil Boobyer, opposing them were Jonathan Hawker and John Funnell. At half-back Craig Warlow and Rupert Moon faced Byron Hayward and David Llewellyn and Jason Strange went on to replace Hawker.
Injuries hit the Llanelli prop department so Matthew Madden of Penzance-Newlyn was pirated in “on loan.” He must be the only borrowed player to appear in a Cup Final but he earned his fee by scoring the only try of the afternoon which was inspired by Rupert Moon, now Laird of Colwyn Bay who must be noting the changes to the Premier Division with great interest.
16,000 saw the game won by the Scarlets 19-12, our only compensation was Josh Taumalolo being named Man of the Match, unusual because very few won that award in a losing team. It was 12-12 for a long time before Madden touched down and Craig Warlow converted from the touchline. We had an off day, Llanelli didn’t.
In the match report in the Rugby Annual for Wales, Nigel Davies was described as an “Old general in his eighth final, always thinking of ways to worry the opposition.” He played in nine, winning six of them, and when he graduated to coaching stood on countless touchlines. We look forward to him worrying the opposition for us.
Trimsaran is a rugby village, from it came internationals Les Williams, Derek Quinnell, Garan Evans and the two Davies boys. If they had a church bell it would have rung twice in March 1965, one for the arrival of Nigel and the other to celebrate Wales winning the Triple Crown for the first time in thirteen years.
The decision to add four clubs to the Premiership will also affect the divisions below it. Our local clubs will be affected, they cultivate the grass roots of the national game as they always did. There are many in Gwent, especially in our Borough, and in the west are clubs like Trimsaran where as we now know future Welsh internationals were born and bred. It is rugby country through and through, and the presence of Felinfoel Brewery helps as well.
It was from Trimsaran that Nigel Davies joined the original Scarlets in Stradey Parc of happy memory. He has disproved Rudyard Kipling’s claim that “east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet,” and is now a Steelman. Welcome to the club.
LOCAL BOY MAKES VERY GOOD (280615)
We are used to our coaches moving on to higher places, Mike Ruddock, Richard Hill, Kingsley Jones and Byron Hayward spring to mind. But it is with mixed feelings that we say goodbye to Jason Strange who moves up two levels from club rugby to join the WRU. Max Boyce sang of the Welsh outside-half factory, we have one for coaches but Jason’s era was different, it followed relegation and we had to fight our way back to the top flight and revive the entire club on and off the field. Those coaching and playing joined with those administering, working and supporting and between them the tide was turned. The on-field combination of Jason and Damien Hudd led the way and the club got back where it belonged.
Jason was born in Tredegar almost 42 years ago and was an influential – meaning he won matches – player for Ebbw. The pupils of Ebbw Fawr Learning Community have also benefited from his coaching and he has been part of a crusade to bring back the glory schools rugby once enjoyed. Experience? He has loads of it as a player for us, Pontypridd and Newport in Wales and Rotherham, Leeds and Bristol in the top English division. He’s been there, done that and has an attic full of jerseys and tracksuits to prove it.
Jason the Coach is well known, Jason the Outside-half should not be forgotten. Here is a typical Ebbw Vale side he played in during the 1999/2000 season – Jonathan Williams; Rhys Shorney, Josh Taumalolo, Jonathan Hawker, Stephen John; Jason Strange, Richard Smith; Iestyn Thomas, Leighton Phillips, Andrew Metcalf; Lee Banks, Kuli Faletau; Chay Billen, Brad Clark, Mark Jones (captain). And take note of the bench – Damien Pencini, Andrew Peacock, Gareth Green, Paul Williams, Guy Easterby, Shaun Connor, Jon Harrison.
In 1999/20 we played in the Welsh/Scottish League and European Shield in which we got the double over Toulon 21-19 away and a massive 56-26 at home. Shaun Connor kicked all the points in France, Jason kicked 33 at home when Richard Smith crossed twice and Andrew Wagstaff once. Coaches Leigh Jones and Richard Hill were over several moons as Toulon met their Waterloo.
It’s a long way from kicking a ball around back lanes in Brynmawr, playing bowls for the town’s first team when a teenager (which got him his first mention on a sports page) and at the highest level of club rugby to the elite WRU coaching staff and it could not have come at a better time with the World Cup approaching. Perhaps for some it will mark the end of an era, for Jason it will be the beginning of a distinguished rugby career at international level. He has been recognised by those that matter, but after all he is Premiership Coach of the Year.
Successfully climbing the ladder of Welsh rugby calls for talent, experience and hard work. Not all coaches and players in Wales get the recognition they deserve, but Jason’s CV tells it all, from club coaching to the Wales Under 20s and now the top of the heap. To adapt a song by Ol’ Blue Eyes if you can make it in Ebbw you can make it anywhere.
Jason was Ebbw’s answer to the Sphinx, not that he lacked emotion but unlike football coaches he didn’t rampage along touchlines. Among countless memories of Jason is that hint of a smile on his face when he walked down from his eyrie in the grandstand after another win. With an 87% success League record as head coach he had plenty to smile about, but I suspect that immediately one game ended he was planning the next one.
Congratulations on your appointment Jason, and thanks for the memory.
BRING THE SPARKLE BACK TO RUGBY WRITING (21/06/15)
On a week-end in May there were six live telecasts of rugby matches. We didn’t need a newspaper to tell us what happened, we had seen the games, listened to an army of pundits and made our own minds up. Indirectly “we were there” which is in total contrast to the days when the only sport on the box was Racing From Kempton Park and we relied on the verbal reports of those who had gone to Murrayfield, Twickers and Dublin. Otherwise we turned, literally, to the back pages of Monday’s Western Mail and the South Wales Argus.
Newspaper reports were well written, to the point and there were no flashy headlines. After the England-Wales game at Twickenham in 1950 the Sunday Times article was headed “How Wales Beat England.” The reports were also witty and the master of that style was the Western Mail’s John Billot who added sparkle to his reports and whose death six years ago was mourned by all who follow the game in Wales.
Has the fun gone out of rugby writing? Are the pundits taking the game too seriously? Can they combine humour with hard facts as he did? Only those who still buy newspapers know but we should realise that modern journalists have to find something different to write about a game that millions have already seen.
John was born in Brecon and enjoyed his many visits to Ebbw Vale. He it was who called Clive Burgess ‘Steelclaw,’ Phil Gardner ‘Grey Wolf’ and prop Peter Morgan ‘Buffalo.’ He lived in Cardiff but unlike his successors knew the game outside the capital.
In 1950 when Wales won the Grand Slam for the first time since 1911 he described the Golden Boy of the time, Lewis Jones, as a full back “who ran when everyone especially his own team expected him to kick.” Three years later at the Arms Park when Wales played New Zealand the final drama which brought us a win he wrote, “One of the most astonishing strokes of inspiration by a forward playing for Wales brought victory yet again over the All-Blacks. From the touchline on the south stand side, Clem Thomas, hemmed in by hostile New Zealanders, kicked the ball far across into midfield. It bounced. And there was wing Ken Jones, scooping up his gift from the ground and sending a mighty roar to the skies from the 56,000 crowd as he raced over at the river end with the winning try.” Note “yet again,” we had beaten the Blacks in 1905 and 1935 but since 1953 we have lost to them 26 times on the run.
When Wales lost 3-0 to the Springboks at the Arms Park in December 1960 it coincided with a typhonic downpour and the mail reported “a sea of mud and a fierce gale swept icy stinging rain across the Arms Park.” Pre-war Welsh full-back Vivien Jenkins wrote in the Sunday Times, “the Welsh crowd supported their team and sang every hymn except the one that mattered, ‘For Those In Peril On the Sea.’” In 1997 Wales lost 42-7 to New Zealand in Wembley and John wrote, “The twin towers stared down stonily as Wales met their inevitable doom.” But he was in jubilant mood two years later when we beat England 32-31 at the same stadium with a tribute to a great centre, “Next time a volunteer is required to storm an impregnable fortress call for Scott Gibbs.”
Words cannot express our pleasure watching Jason Strange among the coaches and Harrison Keddy on the field during the Under 20s Championships in Italy. The team’s coaching co-ordinator Allan Lewis commented “The young coaches encouraged the players to play with ball in hand,” no problem to one of the “young” coaches Jason Strange.
Very soon they will be training on their own ground and as usual will draw more watchers than some clubs have on their terraces.
A COLLEGE OF RUGBY KNOWLEDGE (15/06/15)
Where once steel was made education now rules. In Coleg Gwent is Lewis Roberts a former Steelman who hung on to his boots when he finished playing. Born in Newport raised in Pontypool, studied at UWIC he is Rugby Development Officer at the college and Fitness Coach for our club where his brief career as inside-half ended through injury. He played three years with Pontypool United, one with Newbridge and then after joining Ebbw dislocated a knee cap in training but it did not end his involvement with rugby.
Working with budding youngsters by day and seniors by night keeps Lewis busy and fit, a quality he shares with Rhys Shorney who looks as nimble now as he was with Ponty and Ebbw, two of an elite coaching team whose efforts, expertise and belief took us to second place last season. Total fitness contributed to the success of a team mainly consisting of men who work for a living.
Lewis had his first taste of competitive rugby with Pontypool Under 11s in the 1999 D C Thomas Cup Final at Ninian Park. They lost 20-5 to Bridgend but the try of the match was scored by Pontypool No.8 Owain Fisher who finished off a spectacular 60 yard move. 1999 brought mixed fortunes for Graham Henry’s Wales, they lost in Scotland and in the final game played at the Arms Park to an Irish team coached by Warren Gatland, won in Paris and Rome and in our second game at Wembley beat England 32-31. English coach Clive Woodward said “I still won’t believe we lost this game until I wake up in the morning.” Scott Gibbs believed it.
Lewis’s ambition is to develop schools rugby and get the Coleg Gwent team recognised. They played and won ten games last season and are the Region’s champions. Those of us who have long memories bemoan the apparent demise of schools rugby, some say it ended with grammar schools, but there are genuine efforts in our Borough to encourage the game at youth level.
We enjoy reliving 2014/15 but we did have two brief periods when we slipped up temporarily. Lessons were learnt says Lewis, “every game must be considered important, the desire and motivation to win must be 100% every time.” Is home advantage what it used to be? “Yes,” says Lewis, “but even when playing away we get such great support we always feel at home, the roar from the supporters when we take the field is a great boost to the players.”
He admires Jonny Wilkinson, who he once met in an airport’s passport control, for his coolness under pressure as he showed in extra time of the 2013 World Cup Final by dropping the winning goal. That dramatic victory was not only due to Wilko, Martin Johnson’s calm leadership of the drive that set up the position was a great example of controlling a game when it was most needed. Lewis recalls Damien Hudd doing the same at Bridgend last season.
The emphasis in Welsh rugby is naturally on the national team but the development of the young is of equal importance. Lewis Roberts believes colleges like his could be “junior academies” which would widen the scope and opportunities for youngsters. There’s no doubt about it, Ebbw Vale is becoming a Mecca for ambitious rugby players of all ages and at the same site where we once turned out quality steel we now produce quality rugby talent.
The passing of Ivor Parry our groundsman at Eugene Cross Park for many years will be mourned by all who knew him. Caring for our sports complex calls for expertise, hard work and total dedication involving as it does rugby, football and cricket pitches and two bowling greens. Those who play or watch appreciate its spaciousness and on a sunny day it is a sight to behold. It was created many years ago by local volunteers and has been nurtured and lovingly maintained by groundsmen of great character. Ivor’s contribution will long be remembered.
HONOURING A LEGEND (06/06/15)
The Welsh Championship of the 50s and 60s was not a perfect competition and bears no comparison to the 21st Century Premiership. Clubs arranged their own fixtures and did not play the same number of games, there were no Cup ties and not even a Merit Table which came later. That, too, was decided on average and only games against “first class” teams counted.
To win the Championship though was difficult, it called for consistency over at least forty games and when floodlights were installed, the first in Wales was at Pandy Park, more games were arranged and training in winter was made easier. In the 1980/81 season Ebbw Vale played 52 and Breconian Des Parry played in 50 of them!
The players worked for a living and in industrial Ebbw Vale that could mean one of three shifts, days, afternoons or nights and they got to the ground on foot or by bus. It might seem to be an unlikely environment to create good players or play great rugby but the clubs produced Welsh internationals and Lions and often played against All-Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies.
There are very few survivors of the Ebbw Vale teams that won four Welsh Championships between 1951 and 1960 a great period with an average success rate of 80%, but last month one of them celebrated his 90th birthday in his home village of Cwm. Horace Matthews is one of eight in his family who wore the Ebbw Vale jersey and he had a special cake baked for him showing a rugby player in the narrow striped red, white and green of his club.
As a tribute to a living legend of the club an autographed photograph of the 2014/15 Ebbw Vale team was presented to Horace by Ross Jones on behalf of the modern generation of Steelmen. It was a link between the old and the new, something that current players enjoy. In the season just over several former Ebbw players have attended matches to support those who followed in their footsteps wearing what Horace & Co would describe as “daps.” Different days, different boots but the same loyalties.
It’s nice to end a season with a party and meeting Horace Matthews at his birthday tea was a treat, He has a wonderful memory and told many stories including one of his first game at Stradey Parc when an opponent “sledged” him in Welsh, playing for Ebbw Vale & Abertillery against the 1953 All-Blacks and encounters of the close kind which wing-forwards revelled in.
Watching Ross presenting Horace with the photograph was special, not only did it connect the past with the present but it’s not often a prop forward gets the chance to speak publicly to anyone except the referee. Ross the Prop was the perfect modern Steelmen to honour one of the legends of the past and he and Horace share something in common, they have both worn Ebbw’s jersey of narrow red, white and green stripes.
I am looking forward to the pre-season friendlies and have the feeling this year’s might be particularly interesting. The squad increases weekly, now we have twins for the first time since the Lewis boys were with us. Our webmaster goes one better, he claims he played in Blaina’s cricket team that included triplets! If you believe that you’ll believe anything. (Except it’s genuinely true – Ed)
And finally a little bird has told me that one of our experienced hookers, no names no pack drill, is a workmate of a well known referee. Which explains why he rarely gets whistled at.
HONOURS GALORE (280515)
When great film actors retire their achievements and contributions to the industry are recognised by the award of a special ‘Oscar.’ One of our great captains, Damien Hudd, will lead the side for the sixth successive season in September but when he does retire – and I hope to be still around to attend the party – his contribution to the Club should be recognised by the award of a ‘Damien.’
At our Awards night he received the Captain’s and Clubman of the Year trophies and was congratulated on being one of three players nominated for Premiership Player of the Year. To cap it all he and Ashley Sweet, Dai Langdon and John Lavender will play for Crawshay’s Welsh in Georgia, the one near Russia not the one in America’s Deep South. If it was there I would go as a supporter as I still have Georgia on my mind.
In pre-League days Crawshay’s Welsh were our answer to the Barbarians. It was a touring side formed in the 20s in the Guards Depot by a Welsh Guards officer, Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, a Monmouthshire man who was asked to send a team to the West Country to play Devonport Services. A great tradition was started and we know the Steelmen in the party will uphold it, after a long season they are ready for Georgia. But is Georgia ready for them?
The Player of the Year is the inimitable Cameron Reagan (Player’s Player last year) and Harrison Keddie as the Most Promising has promised to return from the Wales Under 20s World Cup in Italy in the same condition he went. To win the Player’s Player award is a particular honour because a man is judged by his mates and Dan Haymond was an inspired choice.
England have a Twelvetrees, we have a Sevenoaks called Rob or Robert and other names by opponents. He won the coveted Man of Steel Award named after Clive Burgess and those who watch Rob and his front row mates from the Clive Burgess Terrace were chuffed when a member of the Union won it. A new award was made on a happy night and it was decided by supporters and given to one of their own. The Ebbw Vale Addicts Volunteer of the Year award went to Angharad Simpson. It was richly deserved, modestly received and was one of the highlights of the night. Perhaps there should be another presentation to Ryan Shepherd as Caterer of the Year who together with his wonderful staff did a great job.
More honours followed. The Principality Building Society Premiership Awards Night was held in the Millenium Stadium and as expected the Premiership Coach of the Year is Jason Strange, another boost for inland Gwent club rugby because the other two nominees were Greg Woods of Cross Keys and Steve Law of Bedwas both strong challengers.
There are two other special Steelmen to be mentioned in an immediate post-season Honours List that is the biggest ever. Ron Taylor is one of the Famous Four along with John Williams, Dilwyn Snelgrove and Alan Hancock who in all weathers are on duty for training or at matches and without whom the machine would not tick over. Ron won the Premiership ‘Unsung Hero’ award at the Millie bash, and mercifully he did not celebrate by singing.
Let us not forget the Premiership is sponsored by the Principality Building Society whose Ebbw Vale branch office is modern, efficient and has a very helpful staff. The Premiership Player of the Month in May was our centre Jordan Howells who was photographed with the photogenic staff and is now certain of a mortgage when he wants one.
I would like to list all the players who have signed for next season but it’s so long I would run out of ink.
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS (230515)
Was our 2014/15 season the best ever? The game has changed so much that we should only judge it on 21st Century results which were varied to say the least. The season just ended was the most dramatic because we rose from the ashes of 2010 and it took four seasons before we were “allowed” back in the top Division. The other season that compares favourably was 2006/07 when Alex Codling was coach and Craig Cleaver was captain. There are similarities but the opposition varied, in Codling’s time we played the Wanderers, Maesteg and Swansea but not Carmarthen Quins. Twenty-two games were scheduled for 2014/15 with two play-offs added. In both seasons Ebbw Vale were runners-up, to Neath in 06/07 and Pontypridd in 14/15.
Results of regular season games against clubs we played in both seasons
W L W L
Aberavon 1 1 1 1
Bedwas 2 0 2 0
Bridgend 2 0 2 0
Cardiff 1 1 2 0
Cross Keys 2 0 1 1
Llandovery 2 0 2 0
Llanelli 1 1 2 0
Newport 0 2 1 1
Neath D D 2 0
Pontypridd 1 1 0 2
We had a 100% record over Bridgend and Llandovery, a rare win over Pontypridd in 06/07 and the two drawn games with Neath in the same season both ended 23-23. Other results in 06/07 against sides no longer in the Premier Division were Maesteg (lost away, won at home), Wanderers (won at home, drew away) and Swansea (won home and away).
Add the two recent play-off games and the Premiership results were:-
Played Won Drew Lost
2006/07 26 16 3 7 = 67.30%
2014/15 24 16 0 8 = 66.66%
The team that ensured second place when it beat Llanelli 19-12 at home in April 2007 was: Andrew McLaughlan; Simon Hunt, Kristian Owen, Gareth Miles, Andrew Bevan; Sam Mills, Bryan Shelbourne; Ian George, Mathew Williams, Lyn Williams; Will Jones, Neil Edwards; John Bowd, Nio Aonio, Craig Cleaver (capt). Replacements were Rhys Williams, Matthew Pettit, Craig Blunsdon, Hywel Jenkins, Dan Lydiate, Tom Edwards and Daniel Phillips.
Mathew Williams and his front-row cohorts are already preparing for more shifts at the coal-face and it is interesting to note that Ian George of the 06/07 side is back where he belongs. A week after the play-off final at Sardis Road our morale, which is never low whatever the results, was boosted higher when twenty-seven existing and new players signed on the dotted line for next season. One is a psychology student which will interest members of the Front Row Union who have been practising the science on referees for years.
Footnote. On May 29th one of our greatest forwards Horace Matthews celebrates his 90th birthday. He is one of eight in the family who played for Ebbw Vale, two before the Second World War. Happy Birthday Horace, you were one of the very best.
PRIDE AND PASSION (180515)
“Pulsating” is one description of Sunday’s big game before a packed crowd at Sardis Road; “disappointing” describes how the mass of Ebbw supporters felt when it, and the season, ended. After a battle royal watched by a crowd of genuine rugby followers of all ages – Scrum Four please note – there were a lot of positives for the Steelmen who Rhys Shellard, the Pontypridd captain said were “very competitive.” His side undoubtedly deserved to win but Ebbw kept battling despite an uncertain start and were pressing until the late interception try brought down the curtain on a drama which was a great advert for Premiership rugby.
The only team we failed to defeat in a memorable season is Pontypridd and they beat us four times! They were firm favourites before Sunday’s game and scored four tries to Ebbw’s one. We had earned our final place and it was fair that the title was fought out between the first and second placed sides in the Division. Assistant Ponty coach Gareth Wyatt called it a hard game played in a great atmosphere and a message from Ponty said that we brought a breath of fresh air to the Premiership. There’s honour in defeat and although it might be unfair to say, I’ll say it anyway, the Division was really a three (thoroughbred) horse race which ended with gold to Ponty, silver to Ebbw and bronze to Keys, one from the Rhondda and two from the Western Valley.
Unlike most other finals in sport the Premiership decider is not played on a neutral ground and Sardis Road is traditionally one of the most formidable fortresses in the game. This season they only lost once in the Division and that was at Bridgend and the only side to beat them at home was Bristol in the B & I Cup. It was a major challenge to our side and although we lost by fourteen points we lacked nothing in pride and with an army of Ebbw Valians behind the team there was plenty of passion too.
Nine months of total commitment off and on the field brought invaluable experience to everyone and there are wise heads already planning the next campaign. While disputes abound over regional rugby and the B & I Cup we concentrate on rugby in Ebbw Vale and its vast catchment area. We have no hidden agenda, we just want to keep the game alive where we live, to encourage rugby at all ages and provide a happy environment for players and supporters.
After the winter of our content we enter a summer of restfulness and relaxation before the battle recommences because competing in the Premier Division is a battle and rugby has been described as warfare without weapons. Jason Strange said last May that in every game in the Premiership you have to provide a performance. Which we did more often than not.
On Whitsun Sunday we will celebrate one of the best seasons the club has experienced, the Awards Night will be the biggest social event of our year but how the voters can decide on the winners is beyond belief as there are so many to pick from. The first Player of the Year was Gordon Main a top class prop from Abergavenny. That was in 1963 and the first Most Promising Player was scrum-half Glyn Turner in 1966 who fulfilled that promise by being Player of the Year in 1972. The first Clubman of the Year in 1980 was Colin Williams, another prop aka the Duke of Deri who was Clubman again in 1983.
Sunday was the end of the season but not the end of the campaign to cement our rightful place in the Premier Division. On and off the field there is steely determination to do as well in the future as we did in 2014/15 but with a slightly different finish, let’s have the Grand Final on our ground next time. To the players we who watched, supported and wrote about say thank you from the bottom of our hearts which are still pounding. To those who will carry on the good work may the force be with you.
V E NIGHT IN EBBW VALE 10-05-15
It is appropriate that last Friday we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day and on Saturday a Victory of Ebbw Night. The semi-final atmosphere was electric and the result was a traditional Gwent Derby with the added prize of a Premiership Grand Final place. We had mixed fortunes in Gwent Derbies in the regular season, losing at home to Newport, Cross Keys and Bedwas but winning at Rodney Parade, Pandy Park and the Bridge Field. On Saturday we won the one that mattered.
On a lovely evening – didn’t the ground look well on the box? – before our usual army of supporters we had to fight hard to win by a ten point margin, scoring two tries to one against a well coached side that in the last two seasons were runners-up in the Premiership and the Swalec Cup. Only Pontypridd have a better record than the Keys in recent years and on Saturday night they applied considerable pressure in an exciting second half.
After a first quarter of sparring the second decided the game. Ponty might have their Tom Jones, we have our Tom James who crossed for our first touchdown and then the front row union decided to get into the act, John Lavender scented (!) a chance and with Ian Smerdon adding to his points total we were heading home. But Keys had other ideas and it took tremendous defence and three kicks by Carl Meyer to decide the issue, two penalty goals from just inside the Keys half and a touch-finder that landed a metre short of the corner flag. He must have thought he was back home on the Veldt where the rarified atmosphere carries the ball farther.
Three former club captains saw their old club in action, Gareth Howls (1971/2, 73/74, 76/5), Phil Gardner (75/6, 78/9, 79/80) and Neil Robinson (84/6, 87/8) and enjoyed one of the biggest occasions staged at the ground for some time. The coaches and the players will have learned a lot from the game and after watching a recording of S4C’s coverage we discovered a Welsh speaker in our squad. I don’t know what Rhys Downes said but I agreed with him entirely.
Ponty have lost four games this season, twice to Bridgend in League and Cup and twice to Bristol in the B&I Cup. As usual they finished top of the Premier Division with a 95.45 win/ratio.Their shock defeat to Bridgend in the Swalec Cup Final will have no effect on their performance at Sardis Road on Sunday, as their team manager said, “The play-off final will be massive and will be played on our own patch. It will give us the opportunity to put things right after the big disappointment of the Cup Final.” It is interesting to note that the Bridgend starting line-up in the Cup Final showed ten changes to the one well beaten at Ebbw Vale.
Dictionary definitions of green include ‘inexperienced’ and ‘naïve.’ It didn’t take us long to dispel fears of all that when we re-joined the top flight, and by the way it was only after four years absence, some pundits acted as if we had never been there before. Street-wisdom comes with experience but above all a mix of that and youthful exuberance is what wins matches.
One way to avoid feeling old is to hang around young people which is why so many of us enjoy the company of Matthew Williams, one of the first to re-sign for next season which is much better than re-tiring. A touch of class, that’s Chunky and I wouldn’t be surprised if he signed the contract with a fountain pen. There was a touch of sportsmanship after the game from Greg Woods of Cross Keys, one of the most successful coaches in the game. His generous message of congratulations added considerably to a great day for Western Valley rugby.
EAST IS BEST!
SATURDAY NIGHT RUGBY FEVER 04-05-15
Ebbw Vale supporters who have nails left will be biting them on Saturday night. Those still recovering from travel lag after demanding trips to Llandovery, Llanelli and Cardiff. will find energy from somewhere to be present at the most important home game of a very impressive season. Three away wins on the trot have brought us to the Premiership play-off semi-final which will be televised in glorious technicolour and two languages. A third language, Wenglish, will be heard on the bob bank. By the way what is “All the time ref” in Welsh?
In Premier rugby Cross Keys are our closest neighbours but we have been friendly rivals since the Game first penetrated the Welsh hinterland. Stats of the last sixty games between us show that we won 37 drew one and lost 23 but the results in the Premier Division are more relevant, nine wins for Keys, seven for Ebbw. From 1975, and no doubt many years before, games between us have been hard fought but for sheer drama the drawn Cup semi-final at Rodney Parade three years ago will be best remembered.
The under-statement of the year is to say that the 2014/15 season was full of interest with particular emphasis on our games with Pontypridd and Cross Keys. We have already played each of them three times and will make it four against Keys on Saturday. The winners will meet Pontypridd for the fourth time this term.
Our first competitive game of the season was at Pandy Park at the end of August and we were KOd from the British & Irish Cup a tournament that is difficult to describe or even admire. Five weeks later we returned to Pandy Park and after an uncertain start made the first of several comebacks. Not only did we win 34-20 but nailed a bonus point and how important that and others were can be seen in the final table. In February Keys turned the tables and won 10-0 at ECP which was unexpected and disappointing to say the least but the Pandy Park club have been runners-up in the League and Swalec Cup in the last two seasons and are a formidable outfit.
In typical Western Valley tradition players have played for more than one senior club and Shaun Connor has been around the circuit more than most. He hung up his boots and became a coach after a distinguished playing career in which he equalled a Premiership record playing for Ebbw against the Keys in September 2000, 39 points out of 49. He scored five, yes five, tries. Not many No.10s have done that.
Both teams will want to play before a big crowd on Saturday night and although the game will be televised on S4C nothing can compare to being at the ground. Our supporters out-numbered and out-chanted home fans at Llandovery, Llanelli and Cardiff and they will be there in force, on song and up for it. The coaches and players face their sternest task so far but are straining at the leash and ready for take-off. It should be a great night, I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.
CAPITAL PERFORMANCE 27-04-15
Our first Premier League game last September was a thriller and the best possible start. Our last game in the regular season was a minor thriller and the best possible finish. The show was watched by a decent sized crowd most of whom wore red, white, green and purple. Their allegiances were clear when the teams ran out, great cheering greeted one, polite applause the other. The spectators saw an absorbing encounter that only produced two tries but they were enough for us to come second in the Premier Division as we did in 2007 when Alex Codlng was coach.
We won with something to spare after a keenly contested game between two sides intent on playing good rugby. Cardiff wanted a win to ensure fourth place in the table, which was confirmed after Saturday’s results, and had won at Bedwas in their previous game bagging maximum points. They tried hard but never looked like scoring a try, the Steelmen put up a No Entry sign and that was that.
Although there were glances at the clock the result was never in doubt and while the win gives us home advantage in the play-off semi-final the prize of second place in the table will be regarded as our greatest achievement – so far! For Man of the Match Carl Meyer it was a perfect start to a busy week-end, 110 minutes of rugby in two days and in two jerseys. His co-centre in the purple, Jordan Howells had another super weekend, his two tries and penalty goals from Carl and Iain Smerdon sealed Cardiff’s fate.
The play-off semi on May 9th is an all-Gwent Western Valley affair, good for club rugby in our region and a reminder to the coastal clique that three of the four Gwent teams in the Premiership are in the top five of the final table. The top three are valley based so Ponty, Ebbw and Keys are entitled to claim that in the club scene East is Best.
We have got to know the Premiership and for the more mature there have been returns to clubs we played before we went into hibernation in 2010. It was a new experience for many when went to Parc y Scarlets and even the Arms Park has changed slightly, especially the artificial pitch which on Friday our lads soon got used to.
After great performances in the last three games of the regular season the players are in the right mood for a grand finale. There have been quite a few “firsts” this season and I believe there was another on Friday, playing three Premier games away on three successive weekends and winning each of them. Our win/loss ratio in the Premiership was our best ever, 68%. That’s the sort of statistic I like. A better one of course is 100%. We were heading for that a year ago but in the last game at Narberth we suffered our only Championship defeat. Bargoed were in the same situation last Saturday but lost at home to Merthyr and like us in April 2014 didn’t quite hit the full house. Bargoed are having a great season nevertheless and were clear title winners from the start, thus removing the threat of relegation from the Premier Division. There are now two targets for Championship clubs: winning the title and getting the WRU ‘A’ Licence.
VALE ARE BEST IN THE WEST 19-04-15
Fifty-one points, none conceded, eight tries, five match points, a stroll in the Parc for Ebbw and a most enjoyable afternoon for the supporters who filled the bar and made their presence felt whenever the team did something spectacular, which was often. The young Scarlets defended for most of the 80 minutes and were constantly over-run. With several stoppages for running repairs they had no answer to the searing breaks and power play of Hudd’s armoured division. It was a big score which accurately reflected our supremacy.
All the action was provided by the Steelmen and there were many outstanding individual performances, one by centre Jordan Howells brought him the Man of the Match award. Among the busy bees was Mathew Williams, not Peter Pan anymore, but Son of Peter Pan. He is incredible and is a candidate for the Most Promising Player of the Year award!
Doubles over Llanelli have been rare but we have notched two in the last forty years, 26-15 and 15-12 in 1997/8 and 16-0 and 28-13 in 2007/08. It was certainly our biggest score ever against what we still call a Scarlets team, and the biggest this season. We went west expecting to win there for the second time in a week and were fully rewarded.
It’s Judgement Night on Friday when the Premier regular season ends. On Saturday afternoon we will know who plays who and where in the play-offs, the winner going on to Sardis Road for the title decider on May 16th. Cardiff who had a five point win at Bedwas last Saturday are the only successful team of the three who play on the same pitch as a region. Our last League game there was in March 2010 and we lost 32-0, a scoreline typical of several in a dreadful season that ended in relegation. The last time we won a League game at the Arms Park was in October 2008, 26-25 when centre Aaron Bramwell converted a late try by James Lewis, his second of the game. Close but commendable. It doesn’t matter how close Friday’s game will be so long as we win it.
Ebbw supporters will synchronise their watches before Friday night’s game at the Arms Park and will fervently hope everybody else does. Just over two years ago one of the most dramatic games we played there, a Cup tie, went on so long most of the residents of Westgate Street had gone to bed when it ended. Arguments still rage over the time added, some say fifteen minutes, but for Valians the sight of thirteen Steelmen defending their front-line trenches and a 16-11 lead will never be forgotten. If we had lost in the 90th minute someone would never be forgiven, but all’s well that ended well.
Our starting lineup that afternoon was Charlie Simpson; Wes Cunliffe, Dan Deardon, Adam Jones, Polo Uhi; Josh Lewis, Chris Thomas; Ross Jones, Mathew Williams, Robert Sevenoaks; Damien Hudd (capt), Ashley Sweet; Gareth Williams, Ronnie Kynes, Spencer Gibson. The bench is worth remembering, Jonny Bowen, John Lavender, Joe Bartlett, Rhys Clarke, David Jones, Dan Haymond, Cameron Reagan and Tom Ashmead.
The 2015 Steelmen are ready for their biggest challenge of a great season. They have the opportunity of a lifetime and they are in the form to take it.
HAD A GOOD DAY 12-04-15
Cast not a clout ‘till May is out, wise words because it was ch-ch-chilly at Llandovery. The blue sky, impressive landscape and a nice welcome at a ground where we have rarely played well, provided the backcloth of a show that absorbed the attention of a crowd consisting mainly of visiting supporters. Playing into the strong wind in the first half we produced our best performance for some time. We discarded the habit of starting slowly but with the forwards laying down Damien’s Law, and the backs eager to show how good they can be we scored three tries in the first forty minutes and had a 19-3 interval lead to build on.
The second half of the show was full of action and the Drovers hit back with two tries by scrum-half Lee Rees who was a real livewire. We did more than enough to get a bonus point and many wondered why we didn’t. Players, especially captains, and officials are the game’s decision makers, some are explicable, some are not and with eyebrows furrowing and faces in questionable mode some watchers of both sides took to head scratching, not advisable for the hairless.
It was a frustrating second period with the wind at our backs and the beer in front of us. It was a blowing time, the wind did not relent, we blew several chances and adding a musical note was a whistle. Credit to the Drovers though, they gave a 100% but the first-half lead was too much for them.
It was a very important and valuable win thanks to the sheer determination of every player to get us back on track after a slight wobble a week before. The Premiership is a tough competition, even in pre-League days winning away was regarded as an achievement and doubles were rare. We have three so far with two more on offer in the next two weeks.
TV viewers have got to know Parc y Scarlets but wonder why there are so many empty seats. The words West is Best would not be noticed if the seats on which they are painted were occupied. A win on Saturday is necessary and although Llanelli’s record this season is below par no-one will take a trip to Scarlet territory complacently. One of the most startling results of the season was the 91-7 win by Carmarthen Quins there, seen with astonishment by S4C viewers which must have embarrassed Llanelli members who recall the great days at their beloved Stradey Parc. Our visit on Saturday might be the spur Llanelli need to salvage something from the campaign and with the region behind them we can expect an interesting encounter. Our last win in Llanelli was in 2007/08, it brought us the double 16-0 and 28-13 and it was also the last time we played at Stradey Parc.
Brian Moore, renowned hooker and equally famous as a straight-talking pundit, said of the Leinster v Bath European Cup game, “The Irish were more canny on the floor.” Only forwards who indulge in rucking and mauling (often mucking and brawling) will fully understand what that means. There’s a suggestion of illegality in the expression, so should officials be former forwards who can spot a bit of canniness, having indulged in it themselves?
NOT THE BEST WAY TO ENJOY EASTER SATURDAY 05-04-15
Disappointment for one side, joy for the other. That’s sport for you, but it wasn’t just the result that the faithful mourned it was losing to a side that despite conceding three yellow cards still won and deservedly so. They played well, we did not, and to add to the bad day at the office we failed to salvage a losing bonus point. Losing 34-20 at home is not quite the depths of despair, it is after all a game, but it has made our bid to reach the play-offs a bit harder. Both the Quins and Cross Keys have to play Pontypridd by the way.
Bedwas were the better side on the day and roamed the loose with great effect which the experts refereeing from the terrace noted with interest. One of our former players Richard Wilkes scored a try and was that Llyr Lane we saw in a Bedwas track suit? They move up the table while we drop to third, one point behind Cross Keys. We have three games, all away, to make amends starting at Llandovery on Saturday. It was a big win for Bedwas, it was a lesson learned by Ebbw and another examination awaits at the Drovers. It’s time for a good day at the office.
Whatever the final placings are it has been a successful season and it began in the best possible manner with a 30-29 home win over Llandovery. To the surprise of many outsiders but not those close to the scene, we not only won but got a bonus point. It was an emotional occasion, we officially opened the newly named Clive Burgess Terrace and held a minutes silence for a great forward Lee Banks. Nerves jangled for eighty minutes and the result depended on a Llandovery conversion attempt with the last kick of the game. It missed and we breathed again.
Among thousands coming to the UK for the World Cup will be a veterans team rejoicing in the name of the California Bald Eagles. They will play some games and give vocal support to the United States team who play in Brighton, Leeds, London’s Olympic Stadium and Gloucester only one of which is a real rugby ground. The US Eagles toured Wales in the autumn of 1987 beginning at Brecon against the County and a few days later at Ebbw Vale. Our outstanding flanker Robert Stephens played in both games.
The match programme went transatlantic with headlines like ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘Uncle Sam’s Nephews’ and three contributions by leading Welsh rugby writers, one of them a great friend of our club Brian Wall who wrote of props, my favourite protected species, in his familiar humorous way:
“Someone has to do the rotten jobs. Someone has to dig ditches, defuse bombs, check the sewers, collect taxes or man the mortuary. Someone has to play prop. Prop is not really a position – it’s a punishing penance for sins committed in an earlier life. All you get out of it is an arthritic neck, a cauliflower ear, a bent nose and an aching back.” Nothing changes.
One immense pleasure on Saturday was the return of two highly popular Tongans, Kuli Faletau and Kati Tuipulotu. The house in our car park was once known as the Tongan Embassy and the families brought sunshine to our club as well as outstanding players. Kati enjoyed his time at Eugene Cross Park so much he named his daughter Eugenie!
FOUR FINAL FIXTURES – AND THEN? 30-03-15
We have endured a lot of interruptions to our fixtures but no longer, four games in four week-ends will complete the regular season and if all goes well we’ll be playing extra time in May. Taking unwanted breaks is not ideal and could have been avoided, clubs used to play on the eve of internationals or the day after but it’s not only those games that upset the best laid plans, last autumn the British & Irish Cup intervened, a club competition in the preliminary stages but with regional overtones thereafter. It seems to me its only advantages would have been cultural visits to Jersey and Cornwall.
The Six Nations, autumn internationals and the Swalec Cup occupied several Saturdays but we had a run of five games from December 20th to January 24th. and won each of them. The last game of 2014 was at Bedwas but the game was anything but festive, it rained, there was a wind and it was muddy which was a great shame because both sides had runners. Bonus points were not on offer, a win was all that mattered (it always does really), and we got one, 12-11.
Chris Kirwan reports most of our games for the Argus as he did when we were in the Championship, a competition most of the media ignored. After the win at Bridge Park he wrote, “Ebbw Vale displayed the ability to win ugly, but Jason Strange has demanded more from his charges when they continue their Principality Premier title push in 2015.”
It’s very rare a newly promoted side pushes for a title, and we must admit that Pontypridd have pushed harder but there are the play-offs to go for. We got a penalty try at Bedwas and wing Tom James got a cracker but if a late Bedwas try had been converted valuable points would have been lost. A game lost in December can mean losing a play-off place in May.
In February Damien Hudd issued a rallying call to supporters saying “We work hard for each other, we rely on each other, and that has seen us through some really tough games – Bedwas away and Carmarthen Quins at home, definitely!”
We are currently second in the table and Bedwas are sixth just ten points less but we are both way ahead of the rest in bonus points, we have twelve (nine winning) and Bedwas have fourteen (seven winning) but on Saturday the only stat that matters will be four points for a win.
We have won twelve, Bedwas nine but one of their away defeats is worth noting. Sardis Road was where we lost 27-0 in March, earlier in the season Bedwas lost there 16-13 and only a late drop goal denied them an honourable draw. Saturday will be v-e-r-y interesting.
In the Bridgend match programme an announcement was made about the end of the season awards, Best Player, Most Promising and Clubman. It has been difficult in the past four years to select the best from a highly talented squad, this year it is almost impossible. The first Player of the Year award was made in 1963 to prop Gordon Main. In 1966 Glyn Turner, legendary scrum-half, was the first Most Promising Player and in 1980 the first Clubman of the Year was another prop, Colin Williams.
The programme contains excellent picture pages thanks to our own paparazzi and as the camera never lies we can boast the most handsome pack in the league. Being forwards they can look menacingly at times for as the Duke of Wellington said before the Battle of Waterloo kicked off, “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.”
RUGBY UNION – THE GREATEST TEAM GAME 22-03-15
The Six Nations that began quietly produced a thrilling finale and the final day broke records of points scored, 221 in all compared to 91 in the same fixtures in 2013. Wales scored 61 in Rome, Ireland 40 at Murrayfield and England 55 at Twickers, each game watched by millions the world over, a great advertisement for rugby union and strengthening its claim to be the best of all team games.
Wins by the leading three were predicted but not the scores and in our little corner of rugby world we felt the same about our game with Bridgend. Based on our positions in the Premiership we were favourites to win but not by such a margin. Seven tries and forty-five points in a Premier League game is unusual but Bridgend were a shadow of the side that set us a hard task at the Brewery Field in November. It took a thrilling late comeback to win on a wet and windy night but on Wednesday victory was assured by half-time and we were back on track.
There have been eight scores of 45 and over in Premier games this season and Bridgend were victims in five but none can compare with the astonishing and embarrassing 91-7 win by Carmarthen Quins at Parc y Scarlets. It was supposed to be a local Derby but it attracted a small crowd which prompted one of our ladies to make the quote of the season, “We have more people waiting to be served at our burger van.”
I find it safer to glorify packs than backs so it is appropriate to mention that five of the seven tries against Bridgend were scored by forwards who between them got another through a penalty try. The pack was dominant in what one report referred to as our “sledgehammer approach.” Wielding it with fervour was the Man of the Match Ross Jones who has a fan club One Direction would be proud of. Whoever they are.
One forward who is too classy to use anything as common as a sledgehammer did his usual job in scrum and lineout but also roamed the field like a backrow forward on the rampage. Mathew Williams enjoyed himself and his many fans did too, not all of them in the blue rinse brigade, and is our answer to New Zealand’s Mealamu.
The Welsh Under 20s also won in Italy and we have followed them especially closely this season because Jason Strange and Harri Keddie were involved. Well done both of them and everyone else working hard to develop the immense talent we have in the country. Many will reach the pinnacle and not only as players.
Spring officially began last Friday and I am looking forward to a good crop of dandelions this year. It’s a time for lambs to gambol and Ebbw supporters to gamble on where we’ll be in May. Before that we have the final home game of the regular season on Easter Saturday. The players won’t need to be egged on for that.
PLAYNG FOR THE PLAY-OFFS 16-03-15
Bridgend are the only side to beat Pontypridd in the League this season, 17-12 at the Brewery Field in January, a scalp few teams have taken in recent years. Their record to date is five wins and 12 defeats and they are in 11th place with 25 points just above bottom side Newport. Three of their wins were away at Aberavon, Neath and Newport. Those are the bare facts, but Wednesday’s game will be approached with care because we have lost our last three League fixtures while keeping second place in the table. It is a very important bridge we have to cross with three clubs, Cross Keys, Quins and Cardiff, hot on our heels.
The play-off system gives the top clubs something extra to aim for at the end of a season, but some believe a club that has shown consistency over nine months and tops the table should be automatic champions. There is a strong case against play-offs when promotion is at stake, a system used in the English Championship, but in Wales moving up to the top flight from the Championship is automatic if a club meets the WRU criteria, if it doesn’t it stays put bringing relief elsewhere. Meanwhile at t’other end of the table our pre-season target to win a play-off spot is still in sight.
Last November it was wet and windy at the Brewery Field and the outlook didn’t look good until the final ten minutes of the game which brought a comeback similar to those against the Drovers and Newport in the autumn. There was no luck in it, no ball hit the post and went over, no snap drop goal brought the win as it did in two World Cup Finals, it was down to patience and guidance by leaders on and off the field. With Oaksie in the bin, trailing 20-15 Cool Hand Damien got a try that levelled the score and then Ronnie Kynes got his second to clinch a win, 27-20. Amazing.
The Almighty had a job on His hands that night. In the Ravens’ programme the club chaplain confessed that he had lived in Ebbw Vale for 20 years and had supported the Steelmen. He then confessed, “I hope it’s a great game and while I still keep an eye on Ebbw’s results I won’t pray for them today.” Obviously our tie-less one had more pull Up There than theirs.
David Gallagher, first captain of a New Zealand touring team in 1905 was described as the personification of silence. Damien Hudd, first captain of an Ebbw Vale side to lead it for five consecutive seasons can be described as the personification of stony silence. His motto is actions speak louder than words and like the Mounties he always gets his man. Coaches do more than coach they become conductors when the show starts, managing their team via technology but the captain is the leader at the sharp end and leads by example.
There are plenty of books on rugby, most by players who thrilled us when we watched them but bore us when they “write” their stories. Long ago there were text books on the game under exciting titles like “How To Play Rugby” but they were useful and instructive. In 1952 a former RFU President wrote one and it included a chapter on captaincy. He said, “Since the influence of a captain is sensed by each member of his team, his temperament is of the utmost importance. An excitable nature is quite hopeless.” Nothing changes !
The Six Nations Championship will be decided next Saturday, the tournament has been given a boost by the Wales-Ireland thriller and on Friday night Wales Under 20s also won and aim for another in Rome. From fish and mushy peas in a North Wales resort backs coach Jason Strange and No. 6 Harri Keddie will have to celebrate with Pasta and Peroni. It’s tough at the top.
DISAPPOINTED BUT BY NO MEANS DISHEARTENED 09-03-15
There’s no real consolation after a defeat, especially when your team doesn’t score, and losing three times to the same team in a season does not make pleasant reading but Pontypridd are special. They are heading for a League and Cup double again and there doesn’t seem to be any side that can stop them. Playing Ponty, especially at Sardis Road, everything has to go right and lost penalty goal opportunities in the first half and two yellow cards in the second did not help.
Looking behind the 27-0 result there were plus points with our lineout and the backrow as usual worked well, Ponty’s report mentioned “hard graft” but even so not to get a point is disappointing although nothing can compare with being relegated five years ago. It was a very important game between the two top sides in the League but it was missed by the influential Carl Meyer who was called up by the Dragons.
Despite losing three Leagues games in a row we are still second in the table, those wins before Christmas were like money saved for a rainy day but socks must be pulled up if we are to achieve our pre-season aim of a place in the play-offs. Our next two games are against Bridgend and Bedwas at home, two opportunities to restore the form that has put us where we are.
There were no excuses on Saturday at the House of Pain and it is understandable that after a run of victories there is disappointment when we lose, but we are not in the Premier Division for one season. What we have achieved so far is a clear sign of things to come and already plans are in mind for the next campaign. There are five doubles to aim for before the curtain comes down, if we find the form we were in when we defeated Bridgend, Bedwas, Llandovery, Llanelli and Cardiff earlier in the season we will be playing off in May.
For some in the middle of the Division the end of the season can’t come too soon and those in the relegation zone must be getting more and more optimistic when they read Bargoed’s results. They are firm favourites to win the Championship but will not be promoted as they do not have an A Certificate which means that no Premier club will drop down. Bargoed have many well-wishers at the moment, and they don’t all come from Bargoed.
In days of yore clubs decided who they wanted to play (and who they didn’t) but now the fixtures are decided by the WRU who want to avoid clashes with international matches and others they regard as important. For example League fixtures set for Saturday 25th April will be played on Friday the 24th because Saturday is “Judgement Day” a double header involving the four regions which should attract a good crowd. The attendance figures will tell us.
Our game with Cardiff at the Arms Park will be the last in the regular season. The other re-arranged game is at Llandovery on Saturday April 11th – unless the Drovers are still in the Cup. To stay in the competition they must win a quarter final tie at Sardis Road. A major obstacle.
Jason Strange and his Wales Under 20s face a tough challenge from the Irish in Colwyn Bay on Friday night but their first 6 Nations game against England showed how good they are. If only Jason’s club supporters could be beamed up a Welsh win would be assured. But we’ll be there in spirit if not in body.
GO ALL YE FAITHFUL 01-03-15
Pontypridd and Ebbw Vale are the best supported clubs in the Premier Division. They have a multitude of devotees who will follow them to the ends of the earth and West Wales. Players feel comfortable away from home, their faithful followers are always there to cheer them on, encourage them when the chips are down and break the sound barrier when they win. A good example was the recent Cup tie at ECP when Ponty supporters made their presence felt as Ebbw Addicts will on Saturday.
Sardis Road is Rhondda’s holy of holies and was named after an ancient town in what is now Turkey. Sardis is mentioned in the Bible which describes its populace as being soft and faint-hearted. The Rhondda Sardis is not like that, it’s a stronghold of rugby which is for the hard and strong-hearted. There are many chapels called Sardis and as rugby is a religion in the South Wales valleys two places of worship have evolved, chapels and rugby grounds where the faithful gather to lift the spirit and stir the soul then reflect and relax in good company afterwards.
Pontypridd moved to Sardis Road in 1974 and in that season we came fourth in the Welsh Championship under the captaincy of the great Gomer Evans. Ponty finished close to the bottom but reached the Cup semi-finals losing 10-9 to Aberavon. Front-row forwards will sympathise with a Ponty prop in that tussle who needed 14 stitches after a handful of hair was torn from his scalp when a scrum collapsed. A hair-raising experience.
Ponty won the Championship in 1975/6 captained by a real legend Bob Penberthy. They lost only three times at their new Pwllgwaun ground, to Irish Wolfhounds 14-12, Ebbw Vale 15-12 and Cardiff 17-15, all in the autumn and ended a 39 game season averaging 79.48%. We continued our good fortune at Sardis Road in the next two seasons, winning 19-16 and 10-3.
Their new ground soon became a fortress but we go there on Saturday with the belief that we can meet the sternest challenge in Premier rugby and show what we can really do. It will be the third time we will have played Ponty this season, but it might not be the last.
The Scrum Five feature on the club was particularly enjoyed by exiles and a lady in Haverfordwest who said she felt homesick watching it. Rick O’Shea enjoyed his visit and was glad to see us back where we belong and the BBC did their homework and showed clips of our win in 2000 over Toulon (did you spot a young Rhys Shorney?) and Gwent’s over the 1969 Springboks. Incidentally we got the double over Toulon but I can’t see us doing it again.
AN UNMATCHED MATCH OF THE DAY 22-02-15
A Cup battle between the two top clubs in the Premier Division, a clash of titans, a mini-blizzard, you name it we had it on Saturday. A big crowd turned up, the atmosphere bordered on the electric and we witnessed a genuine Cup tie. Unlike international and other self-styled first class games there were no controversies, very few penalties with the winner destined to get to the final. That is what Pontypridd will do, they deserved to win and go to the quarter finals with our blessing. As their website says they had to “dig deep” and were “under pressure in set pieces” in a “hard fought uncompromising game.”
Nothing can hide the disappointment of a defeat but we competed from the start. The pack has been our strength over the last five years so going into a very important game without four key forwards and then losing Chunky and Gareth Rusby Davies did not help, but those who took their places rose to the challenge and will gain from the experience. Pontypridd have plenty of that in all positions, we made some mistakes and they didn’t and after a good first half the opening moments of the second changed everything.
Ponty have been by far the best club side in Wales over at least a decade and they are rarely beaten. In the closing stages we got into their 22 and launched several attacks with spirit and determination but Pontypridd’s iron curtain is one of the most difficult to penetrate and the final whistle blew leaving Ebbw Valians disappointed but proud of the team’s effort.
Watching was one of Pontypridd’s greatest forwards. Russell Robins played in the same 1949 Welsh Secondary Schools team as Clive Best who became our full-back and is fondly remembered. Also in that great team were Cliff Morgan and Newport hooker Bryn Meredith who Russell toured with in 1955 when the Lions went to South Africa and tied the series.
Russell was capped thirteen times for Wales (in ten winning sides) in the 50s and did his National Service in the Royal Signals where he played more rugby than signalling. On the Lions tour he played more games than anyone else, 17, and was selected for the four Test matches. He was the first Pontypridd player to be capped from the club in the post-WW2 years and remains a Pontypridd man through and through. He enjoyed his visit and commented, “Ebbw Vale is always a nice place to come to.”
Jason Strange will have a late night on Saturday and in a different environment to Pontygof. He takes the Wales Under 20s to Paris (the one in France not Texas) to get them back in the hunt for the Six Nations Championship. Earlier France will play Wales seniors and no doubt there will be controversy and the referee will make repeated calls on the TMO.
We have had very little experience of it but the system was used when we played Cross Keys, presumably because the game was televised but unless there are cameras at every corner and other positions it’s not much use, and it’s only in big games that an army of TV people are on hand. Hi-tech is not faultless, I recorded the Keys game but not the English commentary edition which was a pity as I understand some of the comments were very interesting.
One final comment on the Cup tie. Referee Ian Davies congratulated both clubs on a great game and there have been many other praises of supporters of both sides who contributed to what has been described as a wonderful advert for club rugby. One doubts if the final will match it.
LOST WEEK-END 16-02-15
Not the best week-end but we expect too much of our favoured teams and get disappointed when they lose. Taking a broader view before the campaign began we thought we would do pretty well in the Premiership and a final win/loss ratio of 50% would be very acceptable. With eleven wins from sixteen games we have achieved much more and the five defeats have been close, the biggest margin was ten at the hands of Cross Keys. Newcomers in a League in any sport fear relegation but any thought of that vanished in September and from then we have been involved in the top not the bottom of the table.
There are six League games left, four away and Bedwas and Bridgend at home. We are in the play-off race and one place behind Pontypridd who last Saturday won 51-14 at Bedwas. Our next League fixture is at Sardis Road on March 7th a few days into Spring when top positions in the Premiership will be clearer. It will get tougher but therein lies the challenge we always wanted.
Aberavon estimated a 600 crowd watched what they called “a splendid match” in which the lead changed hands several times. Losing to a side reduced to fourteen men in the first half is not unusual, teams weakened that way can rise to the occasion with determination as Aberavon did
after having a player sent off just before half-time. That reminds me of a game at Ebbw Vale in September 1997 when we had two players sent off in the first period. Despite losing Josh Taumalolo and Lennie Woodard we still beat Newport 24-19.
It’s a long time since we sold tickets in advance of a game but a big crowd is expected on Saturday. Both clubs have an army of supporters, a breed that has disappeared in some parts of South Wales, and they have similar backgrounds. Form has never been a factor in Cup ties and home advantage is very important. Two years ago we were in the Championship and the three League games before our Cup game with Pontypridd were against Whitland, Newbridge and Bonymaen who we defeated 66-0, 42-7 and 59-14 respectively. Those games bore no comparison with Ponty’s run up to the game but we had tasted Cup rugby and in the round before had won at the Arms Park 16-11. This time we have had mixed fortunes before the Cup tie, beating Neath 36-17, losing to Cross Keys 0-10 and Aberavon 21-27. But forget form, Cup ties are in a world of their own.
Our first Cup tie against Pontypridd was in 1982/3. We won 16-8 at home, scrum-half Kim Norkett scored two tries and Bob Penberthy who played the first of his 877 games for Pontypridd in November 1961 came out of retirement for the occasion. He is a legend at Ponty and so is prop Harry Walker at Coventry. He played for England in 1947-48 and was selected by the Barbarians for their historic first game against a touring side in 1948. We played Coventry eight times in pre-League days and won five and looked forward to meeting Harry who was always there home or away. He has just celebrated his 100th birthday and when comparing his playing days with the present said, “Our training equipment was three skipping ropes!”
DERBY GAMES ARE STILL DIFFERENT 09-02-15
Three important games and not one kicked off at civilised times. Wales and England began at 8.05, Wales and England Under 20s at 7.30 and Ebbw v Keys at 4pm. Not that those times had any influence on the results, England were the better side, the Welsh Under 20s were superb and we failed to score a point in a competitive match AT HOME for the first time since Ulster stopped us in August 2002.
For the first time at our ground a TMO was in attendance but he did not utter the famous phrase “you may award a try” when we claimed one in the first five minutes of the first half which we dominated but did not score. Chances in tough Derby games must be taken, Sunday’s bruiser was destined to be a low scoring encounter of the old kind with Keys on top in the second forty as we had been in the first.
There were several former Ebbw players present who understand how different Gwent Derbies are among them a contingent from Gwernyfed rugby club who kindly sponsored the game. It was great to see them again but disappointing that they, and the TV cameras, caught us on an off day. But credit to Cross Keys, they deserved the win and in doing so kept up their challenge for a top three spot. We won at Pandy Park, they won at Ebbw so honours are even.
The Wales Under 20s win at Colwyn Bay was simply terrific, the lads were well organised, highly motivated and superbly coached, not that there was anything Strange in that. There’s a huge gap between that age group and the seniors but there’s some quality talent coming through and the clubs play their part. Harrison Keddie, we know him as Harri, played in a very good backrow and contributed to the first win over England Under 20s since 2008. Next week they go to the Scottish Borders and will play in Galashiels where Ebbw Vale had some great games and even greater nights.
Duane Goodfield has joined Cardiff Blues and we wish him well. We have been sending coaches like missionaries to many places in these Islands and they have all been successful. We welcome former prop Ceri Jones the son of the great Lyn The Leap who would be in the second row of the best ever Ebbw side, alongside F C Smit. Props never grow too old to play, they only retire through injury. Ceri suffered an Achilles injury playing for Worcester against Saracens two years ago and then turned to coaching the forwards at Six Ways. He played 232 times for Harlequins who he joined after 98 games for Newport and was twice capped on the Australia tour in 2007.
Attendances at regional games in Wales do not compare with those elsewhere. Even though the LV Cup lacks general appeal there were 24,000 at Welford Road for the Tigers-Northampton game but only 5051 at Parc y Scarlets where the Scarlets played London Irish. A club game on the same ground a day later should have drawn a big crowd because it was a West Wales Derby, Llanelli v Carmarthen Quins. Just over 200 turned up, both sides were short of players, Quins won 91-7 and the Llanelli website admitted that “Wester was bester.” Try translating that into Welsh. [Or English! – ed]
Next Saturday we go to the Talbot Athletic Ground determined, really determined to play as we know we can. We have won 11 out of 15 games and the players want to get the show back on the road. After seeing our Sunday result the Wizards will relish the game on Saturday.
But so will we.
FROM FARMERS TO STEELMEN 01-02-15
Because television demanded it the Wales-England game will end at bed-time on Friday and we will play Cross Keys near tea-time on Sunday. Countries and clubs no longer control their affairs. For those living outside our territorial waters it will be an opportunity to see some decent rugby on Sunday but whenever Ebbw play our regulars will be there supporting them. Come rain, come shine they will stand on the terrace from where spectators have a perfect view, a place for wannabee referees who stand at the top and spot an infringement by an opposing player in the top corner on the other side of the pitch. Under floodlights.
The terrace is named after one of our great players of the 70s and 80s. Above it is Newtown which could also be re-named in memory of one of our great players of the 20s, Tommy Howley who went north to play for Wigan and is in that club’s Hall of Fame. A centre of the highest quality Tommy won four Wales rugby League caps and played in six Tests for Great Britain against Australia and New Zealand. He played 216 times for Wigan, scored 101 tries and amassed 359 points, a rugby great who would be the first in an Ebbw Vale rugby Hall of Fame.
Gwernyfed Rugby Club is celebrating its 50th anniversary and we send them congratulations and thanks because it was from there many fine players joined us. Some are still active in the club, Robert Stephens, Chay Billen and Des Parry who are chairman, head coach and head of rugby respectively. Without doubt one of our greatest prop forwards Alun Phillips is also a Gwernyfed man and so are other former Steelmen.
When people talk of the grass roots of Welsh rugby they think of valley clubs where coal and iron industries once prospered but some of the best players came from farming areas and Breconshire, later known as Powys, is one of them. We owe a great deal to the players who joined us and became the most loyal for they travelled a long way for training and playing and then went home to work hard on the land.
When Brynmawr was in Breconshire its players were selected for the County, outside-half Nick Hunt son of the great Wilf for example and prop Paul Knapp who joined us in the 80s and scored five tries in his first ten games, including a hat-trick against Penarth. .
Farmers like Robert Stephens were incredibly fit as he proved when he played twice against the US Eagles in four days The first, in the company of Brian Thomas and Des Parry, was for Breconshire at Brecon, the second was in the Ebbw Vale side that luckily beat the tourists and in between he worked on his farm. Incredible but typical of the Breconians who turned Steelmen.
Cross Keys have done well in the Premiership and the Swalec Cup in recent years. In the League this season they have won seven, drawn one and lost five. Our August defeat in the B & Cup at Pandy Park did not cause sleepless nights and we more than compensated a few weeks later when we made a great comeback to win 34-20. A Gwent Derby always draws a crowd even when televised and several former Ebbw Vale players are turning up, some from that wonderland beyond Llangynidr Moor.
There will be one major difference between the spectators at the Millenium Stadium on Friday and the Clive Burgess Terrace on Sunday afternoon. Those at our ground will be there because they understand and enjoy the game, and none will wear plastic daffodils around their heads.
A TOUCH OF CLASS 25-01-15
When this memorable season is over and we recall its most entertaining games Saturday’s six try win over Neath, who had run Pontypridd close a week before, will be one. It had everything, Neath opened the scoring and hit back in the second half to get within seven points then touches of class behind the powerhouse removed any doubts. The backs scored four of the tries, Ronny Kynes of course got one but to the delight of the Front Row Union so did Rob Sevenoaks who with his long serving butties Ross Jones and Mathew “Chunky” Williams came off the bench after John Lavender, Rhys Francis and Gethin Robinson had laid the foundations of victory. When a prop scores a try it’s time to celebrate which Sevenoaks Senior did. Had he not been sitting down he would have jumped for joy but to the relief of those near him he thought better of it.
The backs hungered for the ball and showed class with Wes Cunliffe’s early break setting an example. The pack laid down the law, dominated the close encounters and the backs took full advantage running like greyhounds off the leash. It was a great team performance against a very spirited Neath side who contributed to a rattling good game and adding to the show was the comeback after a brief “retirement” of our very own Peter Pan alias Mathew Williams.
Doug Ackerman who has died aged 85 was a wing-forward of the highest quality who played for Newport and Ebbw Vale. Those who remember the 1958 Snelling Sevens at the Arms Park still talk of the final between Ebbw and Newport which we won 10-5 before a packed house. He was in our Magnificent Seven with Francis Matthews, Ron Morgan, Mel Williams, David Barrett, Roy Evans and Graham Powell. The following season they were in a great Ebbw Vale team that won the Welsh Championship. Doug Ackerman whose son Robert played 22 times for Wales was not only an outstanding player but also a great character who will long be remembered.
Former RAF and Ebbw Vale prop Alan Foster reminds me that I did not include Ian Goslin in the list of Ebbw Valians who played in the Inter-Services Championship. Ian who with Gary Lawrence formed a powerful Ebbw Vale centre partnership, joined the RAF, was commissioned and captained its team in the Championship between 1984 and 1991. His wing was Rory Underwood, a full-time fighter pilot who thrived on speed on and off duty.
Congratulations to Luke Leddington and Harrison Keddie who are in the Wales Under 20s squad, two promising lads who are not the first Steelmen to win recognition at that level but certainly the first with such impressive names that will add a touch of class to the side. The Under 20s have replaced the Under 21s many of whom went on to greater things. In the side that played France at Ebbw Vale in 2002 were Gavin Henson (Swansea), Mike Phillips (Llanelli), Paul James (Neath), Adam Jones (Neath), Nicky Robinson (Cardiff) and Damien Hudd (Ebbw Vale).
2002 was a bad year for Wales who came fifth in the Six Nations and the Rugby Annual for Wales produced a “WRU Crisis Special.” It was pre-regional time and editor Arwyn Owen wrote, “The major clubs, as our shop window, must be satisfactorily funded and encouraged. They provide our international players (no more parachuted in from “Down Under” please!)” That strikes a chord doesn’t it?
We should not be surprised when leading Welsh players leave home and sign for English and French clubs. They make career moves just like New Zealand, Australian and South African coaches do when they leave home and come to Europe to advance their careers.
THE BEST UNCAPPED PLAYER IN WALES 19-01-15
A frustrated army of Addicts had their Sunday ruined when the game at Llandovery was postponed and a snapshot of the Drover’s ground showed why. The Drovers always give a welcome and follow our affairs very closely. There was an interesting item in their match programme for our game in October 2008, which we won 15-9, “Ebbw Vale seem to have overcome the potentially devastating loss of highly influential players Neil Edwards, captain John Bowd and Bryan Shelbourne to big spenders Neath who now appear to be making an assault on our squad.”
Strong stuff but there are imports as well exports and a week later (when we played and beat leaders Neath 29-10) we brought in Lyn Jones a former Wales and Neath forward as a consultant coach. His old club have not had a good start but after holding Pontypridd to 18-20 will be full of fire on Saturday. In May they escaped relegation by getting one point more than Swansea whose drop was lamented by pundits who had not said a word when we were relegated. Not that we were surprised of course.
A few weeks ago I mentioned a newspaper article which listed forty-five players who should have been capped. There were obvious omissions and one in particular, Eric Finney who in the late 40s and early 50s was regarded as the best uncapped forward in Wales. Cliff Morgan recalled Eric in his foreword to David Boucher’s excellent book “Steel, Skill & Survival.”
“We should never forget Eric,” wrote Cliff, “a number eight who was always at the heart of the Vale pack. His inspiration and masterful knowledge of rugby made him so highly respected by all opposition. Not only a terrific scrummager and lineout man, he was so good around the field.” That describes his successors in the present Ebbw eight. Cliff Morgan played with Eric in a Welsh trial at Abertillery and was “astounded that the Welsh selectors overlooked one of the finest forwards ever to play our game, they must have been mad!”
We are in the middle of a busy period and every League game is important. So is the Swalec Cup we have enjoyed in the last few seasons and now look forward to the tie to top all the others on February 21st when we repeat the epic of two seasons ago home to Pontypridd. Who plays who and where in Cup rugby is in the lap of the gods and it must have been one of them who decided the clubs currently at the top of the table should be drawn together. I shall ask the Rev, he will know.
Jason Strange has welcomed the challenge and Pontypridd team manager Richard Longmead commented, “We’ve got the toughest possible draw, but we just have to get on with it. It’s a bit of a cliché but if you want to win the Cup you have to beat the best.” We also regard it as the toughest draw and to use another cliché, if you want to beat Pontypridd you have to be at your best. With memories of the last Cup tie between us let’s give the English language another going over and say it’s déjà vu all over again!
Last Saturday was a blank as far as the great outdoors was concerned but there was plenty to watch on the box. Dai Young is doing well for Wasps and pulled off a cracking win over the Quins at The Stoop. What a headline that would make, Wasps Stoop To Conquer.
A MAGNIFICENT CONTEST 11-01-15
It wasn’t the usual enjoyable Saturday, it was much more than that. Thrills, spills, sheer excitement, awesome forward play, lightning running by backs, desperate defence and a finish to test the nerves of both sides as indeed there was when the sides met at Carmarthen in November. It is remarkable that both games with the Quins this season should end so dramatically and with such an influence on the results.
The pendulum swung to and fro in the second half and defence of the highest order was required. One tackle by Wes Cunliffe prevented what looked like a certain try by a Quins flier and it was the visitors who threatened in the dying moments. The Quins back three must be the quickest in the league, Lee Williams at full-back has played a lot of Sevens for Wales all around the world, and it took superb defence to keep them out. Another mighty performance by the Vale pack was called for and they rose to a big occasion because Quins after all were Premier runners-up last season. It takes two to tango and two like minded clubs to produce such a game.
Reporter Iwan Gabe Davies, obviously a true Welshman, wrote of a magnificent contest between “two quality sides” which was a “tremendous advert for the league.” Quins won at home and so did we but both occasions stirred the soul, shook the nerves and created a great thirst all round which was satisfied in the congenial company of the visitors who will always be welcome.
Damien Hudd has been described as talismatic and the Brad Thorn of Gwent rugby. Both are locks, long-serving and wear red, white and green jerseys, Damien for Ebbw and Brad for Leicester where he is now encamped after playing in a black jersey adorned with a fern leaf fifty-nine times. To add to his CV he is also a World Cup winner. On service alone, five times as captain so far, Damien will be remembered and honoured by the club he has served for so long and so well.
Honouring those who were not recognised in the past the WRU have awarded special President’s caps and with nostalgia running rampant a newspaper article has listed forty-five “talented Welsh players who probably should have played for Wales.” A futile exercise, a space filler during a quiet period and not to be taken seriously but I found it interesting that among the forty-five were full-back Paul ‘Pablo’ Rees and wing Lennie Woodard both of whom stole the limelight when they were in our colours and those of several other clubs. .
Mike Ruddock is also included but his playing career at Swansea ended when he sustained an injury at work. He was in such good form at the time it is almost certain he would have made the Welsh team but he made up for it by coaching the 2005 Grand Slam side. The rest is history, some of it yet to be explained.
Full-back Arthur Edwards, referred to last week, went to Ebbw Vale Grammar School, became a regular soldier and played seventeen times for the Army in the Inter-Services Championship. Another Ebbw Valian was in the same team that drew 6-6 with the RAF in 1955, Lance Corporal Roy Evans, Royal Signals, one of our greatest scrum-halves. Arthur played a few games for Ebbw Vale and is one of four of our club who have won Army Caps, the others being Dai Regan Jones (South Wales Borderers and Leicester) in the 20s and Tom Hiscock (Welsh Guards) who joined us this season. Alan Foster (RAF) is another Ebbw Valian who played in the Inter-Services which still draws big crowds to Twickers.
In Welsh club rugby we are the crowd-pullers and the Llandovery treasurer is already rubbing his hands in glee like Scrooge drooling over his winter heating allowance. Our last win at the Drovers was in October 2008, 15-9, a strange game for according to a report we were “devoid of possession.” We won’t be short of it on Sunday when Ebbw Vale and its Sunday Schools will be deserted. For those left behind S4C will cover the game so don’t forget to press the red button for the Wenglish translation.
EBBW GIVE CARDIFF A TRYING TIME 03-01-15
On a day when our bob bank was officially named the Clive Burgess Terrace, when Susan Burgess and her family were guests of the club and former players turned up, the current Ebbw Vale squad added to the celebrations with an outstanding all-round performance against Cardiff that not only brought us five more points but also showed that our backs are becoming the force we knew they were capable of. The pack of course lived up its reputation – awesome.
It was a reunion for Susan and those who remember her at the club in Clive’s glory days. We are a family and she was part of it. Some great names of our past were there, Alan Tovey who recently received a cap thirty-four years after playing for Wales is now a Life Member and Gareth Howls, a giant in every way who made over 600 appearances for the Vale. Also enjoying the party was one of our great hookers Martin Preece who played against the Springboks and every other top hooker in Britain. Memories flowed, tall tales were told and the past players praised their successors who now wear the red, white and green jersey with narrow hoops as they did.
Martin Preece, also an artist and jazz guitarist, paid particular praise to props Ross Jones and Robert Sevenoaks who added to Cardiff’s discomfort when they went on as replacements. They reminded Martin of two of the greatest Gwent props of all time, Len Dimmick and Charlie Faulkner. That is praise indeed.
Off the field it was a special day, on it was a triumph of will which resulted in our biggest win over Cardiff since we beat them 49-8 in September 2005. Not only did we dominate the game fore and aft but we scored six tries and kept our high place in the table. Bonus points were at a premium on Saturday but we put another one in our savings account and now have nine. There were outstanding performances all round but we must praise the spirit and never-say-die attitude of Cardiff who has Phil Bennett used to say were “under the ‘ammer” but never gave up.
Next up are Carmarthen Quins who almost won the Premiership last season. They were runners-up with 77 match points to Pontypridd’s 78 despite winning two more games. The difference was Ponty scored 84 tries to 58 by the ‘Quins and eleven winning bonus points to the Quins three. While we were romping home the Quins were at the House of Pain and did well to hold champions Pontypridd to 14-6. It’s going to be another tough one on Saturday.
After our match at Bedwas a reporter said we won ugly, to which I reply it was better than losing pretty. If a 12-11 result is considered ugly how does one describe England v Wales at Cardiff in 1955? Wales won 3-0 with a 10th minute penalty goal by Arthur Edwards of London Welsh on his debut. By comparison in 2002 in the same fixture England beat Wales 50-10 (five tries to one) which was not ugly except for the losers. I’ll take a 3-0 win anytime.
Wales begin their Six Nations with a bang next month when they play England at the Millenium Stadium at the ridiculous time of 8.05 pm. In Budgie’s time internationals were played on Saturday afternoons and players represented their clubs. In the English team that played at the Arms Park on Saturday March 5th 1977 were players from Harrogate, Rosslyn Park, Liverpool, Gosforth and Fylde. The Welsh players represented Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Aberavon, Pontypool, Swansea and Ebbw Vale.
The English pack had demolished the Scots and Irish and included Cotton, Wheeler, Beaumont and Uttley but Wales won 14-9 because they had four from Gwent in the pack: Clive Burgess, Terry Cobner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price. Coach John Dawes commented “Success begins and ends at scrummaging.” Nothing has changed thirty-eight years later.
STARTING THE NEW YEAR RIGHT 29-12-14
We are at the halfway stage of the season and with eight wins from eleven games can be contented. What a difference a year makes though, our last game in December 2013 brought us a 43-3 win over Beddau, last Saturday we ended the old year with a 12-11 nerve-racker at Bedwas. The four points were invaluable, money in the bank when we check our end of season accounts. Well done all concerned, let the good times keep rolling.
“White Christmas” was first sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn” and the song is still heard today. It sold millions of records and on the B side of the billion was “Let’s Start The New Year Right.” Three years later Bing had another hit with “Don’t Fence Me In” which could have been our anthem when we were winning leagues and the Premiership was ring-fenced. It is remarkable that despite sheer frustration we kept patient and soldiered on until our knocking on the door could no longer be ignored. There was another 40s song called “Open The Door Richard” but it was a Roger not a Richard that eventually answered our plea.
Starting 2015 right is the simple aim on Saturday when Cardiff pay their first visit since September 2009. We didn’t start that season right and paid the price when it ended, Cardiff’s 30-3 win was an early shot across our bows. The last game between us ended on a thrilling happy note. It was a Cup tie at the Arms Park on February 16th 2012 which we won 16-11.
That was the happy bit, the thrills came in the last ten minutes when we were reduced to thirteen men. To the mass of our supporters that was worrying enough but so was the time-keeping of the referee for the game seemed endless. We were 11-3 down at the break but then we broke the Cardiff defence when Man of the Match Polu Uhi got the ball thirty metres away, swerved and scored a try in such style Cardiff signed him up in the close season. Josh Lewis kicked three penalty goals and a conversion before a crowd dominated by Ebbw supporters. What’s new?
The squad we took to Cardiff that day was – Charlie Simpson; Wes Cunliffe, Josh Lewis, Adam Jones, Polu Uhi; Dan Haymond, Chris Thomas; Ross Jones, Matthew Williams, Robert Sevenoaks; Damien Hudd (capt), Ashley Sweet; Gareth Williams, Ronny Kynes, Spencer Gibson. Bench – John Lavender, Jonny Bowen, Rhys Clarke, Joe Bartlett, Cameron Regan, Dai Jones, Tom Ashmead, Luke Davies.
2014 was the year we got what we deserved and worked for. Rugby was the buzz word again in local schools, at RTB mini and junior level and at ECP. We wondered if Scrum Four would take notice and it did with highlights of Premier matches, but don’t blink because you might miss them.
Healthy New Year everyone.
A PRE-CHRISTMAS CRACKER 21-12-14
We knew it would be different in the Premier Division, faster, harder and close run encounters with no easy romps and bonus points in the bag by half-time. The Cup wins against Premier clubs had given us confidence that we could hold our own but with bonus points a rarity. Surprise, surprise in ten games we have eight which takes us to within five match points of leaders Pontypridd, an example of how important the added points are for we have lost three games and Ponty are undefeated. Victory is what matters and whatever presents Santa brings none will compare to a 31-24 win over the sprightly Scarlets. It was a Christmas cracker and a Hitchcock type thriller because although we had secured a bonus point in the 45th minute we still had to defend like demons to secure victory. Llanelli’s back three posed a threat which brought to mind an eleventh commandment, thou shalt not kicketh the ball to thine opponents. Two of the try scorers made history, it was the first at home for Josh Jacas whose father we remember playing for Tredegar and Tom Hiscock became the first Welsh Guardsman to score a home try for Ebbw. Just thought I would mention that.
There were a few neutrals present and they saw an all-action encounter with seven tries and excitement right to the end. Addicts Unlimited enjoyed the game but were glad to hear the final whistle. It was touch and go with minutes ticking away and hearts were pounding, our defence when it mattered most was Rorkes Drift re-visited. In Brecon is a museum honouring the exploits of the 24th of Foot with special emphasis on the defence of the Drift, not far away is Brecon RFC clubhouse which is an oasis for those seeking good beer and friendly company. Officials of the club, a founder member of the WRU, were guests at our game on Saturday thus reviving memories of the great Breconshire players who became Steelmen.
Llanelli included players with regional experience and an outside-half we know well. Josh Lewis came back and contributed fourteen points for them. Their speed merchants were a menace throughout but Damien’s men repelled boarders. It was another example of good club rugby with players wearing their jerseys with pride and the visitors certainly gave their all, even though they played in blue not the famous scarlet.
The main event was supported by a musical extravaganza that confirmed Dylan Thomas’s view that we are a musical nation. The Reverend Waggett created history by singing over the PA system at half-time and very tuneful he was too. “Silent Night” was listened to in silence and we wonder what he has in mind for Easter. Beaufort Male Choir added class and quality to the carol singing after the game for which we thank them very much but the impromptu all-singing, all-laughing gathering of the players in the Legends Bar topped it all. It was like the old days, the new generation of Steelmen reviving a rugby tradition of being together after a game and enjoying themselves. They might not realise it but they are creating their own legends.
On Saturday we play at Bedwas where we first visited in January 1976 for a Cup tie we won 29-3. In our backrow was Paul Ringer whose ritual when taking the field was to stare at the opposition as if picking out a victim. It was unusual for Merit Table sides to win Cup games in comfort against what the press misguidely called “small clubs,” but 23 years later when we re-visited Bedwas on Cup business we strolled to a 45-9 win. And that as the Rev often says endeth the first and second lessons. Bedwas joined the Premier Division on 2003/04 and quickly made their presence felt. Last season they finished sixth in the Premiership, two places ahead of Cardiff and Newport. This time around they have played nine games and have won four and remain difficult opponents. They present another hurdle to jump but the Premiership is rugby’s answer to the Grand National and we know what to expect.
Even Ebenezer Scrooge, Patron Saint of Club Treasurers, would have enjoyed the atmosphere in the clubhouse on Saturday. Real singing by the Choir, supporters dressed festively, sounds of whoosh from various bars and a sense of contentment. Very soon Santa will come down the central heating and wrapping paper will fill the re-cycling bag. Happy Christmas everyone.
LIVE RUGBY AT LAST 14-12-14
Ebbw at home to Llanelli five days before Christmas is the perfect way to return to action after a break that must not be repeated in future seasons. Our last game was November 21st and the last at home was a week earlier. The records of both clubs will count for nothing on Saturday but are worth looking at. We have played nine games, won six and lost three, Llanelli have played eight lost five and beat Aberavon and Neath at home and more interestingly, Bedwas away.
Not only coaches, players and supporters are preparing for the game, so are back-room staff who are stacking up bandages, tins of Vaseline, gallons of bottled water and towels because in modern rugby towels are carried by ball boys who are hardly noticed but should be. They were certainly noticed at St. James’s Park, Newcastle a week or so ago when the Geordies win over multi-national Chelsea brought the usual excuses from the losers. Highly paid managers never blame themselves or their players when they lose, generally it’s the referee, but the Chelsea boss, Jose something, complained that the ball boys were slow in getting the ball to his players!
Llanelli last played at Ebbw Vale on 9th October 2009, our fifth League game of the season and we were already floundering which led to a sinking feeling the following April when we were relegated. We had lost the first four games but rose to the occasion winning 25-19 thanks to twenty points from the boot of ex-Scarlet Gareth Bowen.
One of many exciting Christmas games between the clubs was played at Parc-Y-Strade on Saturday 13th December 1980, thirty-four years ago but with the aid of the match programme is still remembered. We lost 22-17 and scored three tries to two but were edged in the kicking battle. Wayne Bow, Phil Gardner and Clive Burgess got our tries, Martin Gravelle and David Nicholas crossed for the Scarlets. Bowie kicked one conversion and a penalty goal and a useful outside-half name of Phil Bennett put over two penalty goals and two conversions.
Llanelli – Martin Gravelle; Mark Jones, Ray Gravell (capt), Peter Morgan, David Nicholas; Phil Bennett, Mark Douglas; Lawrence Delaney, Howard Thomas, Charles Thomas; Derek Quinnell, Russell Cornelious; Paul Ringer, Alun Davies and Nick Saunders. .
Ebbw Vale – Wayne Bow; Mark Hughes, Des Parry, Ian Goslin, Ian Evans; Jeff Stephenson, Nigel Osborne; Colin Williams, Jonathan Williams, Peter Morgan; Gareth Howls (capt), David Fryer; Phil Gardner, Clive Burgess and Eddie Brooks.
Llanelli fielded nine internationals to our one at a time when followers of club rugby were used to seeing top players at their grounds. Last August we witnessed a rare parade of current internationals at Eugene Cross Park when the Dragons played, and won, a pre-season friendly against Northampton Saints. It poured with rain but there was a big crowd including a Saints supporter who earns a living baking cakes on television. Paul Hollywood saw his team lose that night but they have done well since and so has he. He doesn’t do Welsh cakes though.
The clubhouse is trimmed with decorations, the supporters are trimmed with yuletide gear bordering on the bizarre but cwtchy and the players are brimming with confidence and a hunger to play. The referee has tested his whistle, may he be blessed with wisdom, all and sundry are ready for the resumption of normal service and all we watchers have to do is wrap up warm and turn up. Weather permitting, put a good word in for us Rev, we will be spending the next four Saturdays watching our team live, three times at home.
The Festive season kicks off on Saturday. Be there.
ALL CONQUERING ALL BLACKS 06-12-14
Tours by All-Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies to England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales began in 1905. The results have been consistent – they generally won and we generally lost. Playing at home was no advantage; despite having to make long journeys, until the 60s by ship, the tourists were never homesick. Once European missionaries went to far away places like New Zealand, now a different mission is needed, to study the entire set-up there and find the secret of the success of rugby’s masters of sustained excellence.
That Ol’ Black Magic still has us in its spell, the Kiwis were the only southern hemisphere team to go home unbeaten this autumn. As New Zealander Hammett, the new Cardiff Blues coach recently said, they are light years ahead of us. He referred to the preparation and planning of games but we have good coaches and good players so perhaps the difference lies in the infrastructure because the Junior All-Blacks are world beaters too.
Before the Boks game Warren Gatland was unfairly criticised by ex-players who should know better and interviewers who know nothing. It was wrong to judge him on results against the Big Three who have dominated encounters with European sides for over a hundred years. However, with the Boks and the Wallabies currently looking anything but supermen maybe, just maybe, the tide, while not turning, no longer swamps us. But we cannot ignore the results of test matches played in Britain and Ireland against the Big Three which make unpleasant reading. Our away record is even worse, for example home and away the All-Blacks have played 128 games against the four Home Unions winning 114, drawing 4 and losing TEN! Not bad for a bunch of colonials.
Club rugby will shortly return after a break caused by the autumn internationals and fixtures in the British & Irish Cup in which four Welsh sides masquerade as clubs but are regionally selected. Wales should be represented either by genuine clubs who get through the August preliminaries or by regional A sides just like Leinster who are B & I Cup holders and are likely to keep it when the competition shudders to a halt leaving a trail of heavy losers.
I hope Sunday February 8th turns out to be a sunny day. Why? Because our home game with Cross Keys that day will be televised by S4C and if the weather is inclement the half-hearted will stay indoors and watch it on the box. Even if it’s stormy, bitterly cold and lashing with rain the Addicts will be there because they are supporters of the game and the club. An English commentary is available of course but the opinions of the pundits will not be understood by the majority of viewers, understandably because S4C is a Welsh Language channel. It shows a lot of club rugby which is greatly appreciated because the main channels ignore us so we’ll keep a welcome for them in our hillside.
We will be billed as Glynebwy v Cross Keys because there do not appear to be Welsh words for Cross and Keys. Our January fixture at Llandovery will also be shown on S4C as a Sunday alternative to Songs of Praise and in anticipation our supporters are rehearsing for their first television appearance for some time and will mark the occasion with a new chant.
Altogether now – EBWY EBWY.