The chip van man at the Gnoll is trying to make things work. He’s going to give it another season and see what happens. The £14 electricity bill isn’t helping, margins are tight, but he’ll persevere, for now. Besides, it’s Neath v Pontypool today, so there should be a good crowd.
Sinkholes have been known to appear in Neath. There was one only last year, with the local paper reporting that residents were ‘shocked’ as a large part of the road disappeared. As you would be.
It wasn’t the first sinkhole the town in south Wales has experienced either, there was one only the year before and – given the presence of apparently 20-odd mine shafts down below – it might not be the last either.
But it wasn’t always left to long-forgotten old mines to make the earth move for the people of Neath, that was the job of the rugby club. With the stands full, the roars of the crowd, coupled with the traipsing of thousands of fans through the streets, rugby had always sent tremors through the town. Especially when giants of rugby were sent crashing to the ground at the Gnoll by the local heroes.
All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies have all had their noses bloodied here, while countless knockout blows have been handed out to the biggest clubs in both Wales and England.
Today’s opponents Pontypool were once arch rivals, but now a division separates them. “They were like us really,” says Mike Price, Neath’s secretary and historian, who meets us by the chippy van at the Gnoll. “We were one of the first sides to break up the big four and they followed us.
“We’ve never been the most fashionable or popular club,” he continues, “I think it was because Neath didn’t benefit from having a local newspaper. Swansea had a couple based there, Cardiff had some based there, Newport did, and Llanelli had one – so they became the big four.”
Rugby though, has always been part of the fabric of Neath, right from the very beginning, which is where Mike picks up the story. “Coal-mining and tinplate manufacturing built the town,” he says. “Those industries kicked off a population boom and the railway line helped too. After it opened, the railway companies started organising excursions to all the places dotted along the Paddington line and that was when the game took off down here, in the late 1870s and early 1880s.
“Up there,” he says, pointing to the hill that towers over the ground, “was Gnoll House, on top of the Gnoll, where the local gentry used to live, and this ground was the lower end of the Gnoll Estate, it was owned by the Mackworth family who came down here from Derbyshire when all the mining started.
“There were lots of small coal mines dotted all over the place,” he says, picking up that thread. “These days, if you buy a house in these parts it comes with a warning that there may be coal workings underneath.”
“When rugby started here in 1864,” explains Mike, as he gets back on track, “it was public schoolboys who started it, a doctor, a surveyor and a plague of solicitors! But soon the tinplate workers and miners just seized upon it, like they did in other valley towns, and it rapidly gained more and more popularity. The papers loved it too, they would give column inch after column inch to rugby.”
The metallic clanking of barrels being noisily bundled down the pathway in front of the main stand breaks the chain of thought.
They’re expecting a bigger day than the usual crowd for pre-season, pre-match hospitality has returned with a bargain opening offer of £10 for two-courses and guest speakers too, Graham Price and Lyn Jones – there’s 90 people signed up.
Before that though, the bigger issue right now is parking, with the attendant seizing his opportunity to ask Mike who is and isn’t allowed one of the few prized spaces squeezed in around the nooks of the stands. “We’ve got enough for the opposition and a few of our own, we don’t have many,” explains Mike. “But that’s the same with a lot of the grounds in south Wales, because they’ve all become land-locked by houses – most of the grounds were here first.”
Mike would know, there’s not much he doesn’t know when it comes to Neath or even rugby history in general. He talks about the first recorded club game in Wales between Neath and Swansea, a keen rivalry even then. “The result was disputed as both sides claimed victory,” he says of the 1872 game. “We have both been doing the same ever since.”
He also tells us of how the black kit was confirmed following the death of a player, Dick Gordon, who passed away after injuries on the field in 1880. The Maltese cross, he believes, is another throwback to the public schoolboy influence. “One of the houses at Rugby School has the Maltese cross as a badge and it was thought to have been brought here by former player, E.C. Moxham, who turned up one day wearing it on his cap,” explains Mike. “I imagine him walking into the dressing rooms and someone asking him what is was, and him responding, ‘it’s a rugby cap’ whereupon they all adopted it from there on in. Lots of clubs once used the Maltese cross, and I understand when soccer’s Manchester City first started as Gorton Athletic, they wore black jerseys with a Maltese cross.”
And there’s the whole setting up of the WRU at a hotel in Neath, the Castle Hotel, in 1881, but at which Neath were apparently not in attendance. “That was just lazy journalism,” he says of a debate that has probably vexed many a Neath historian over the years. “The one report that went to every newspaper said that the inaugural meeting was held at Neath and then listed the clubs present. Having said that the meeting was at Neath, the writer clearly thought he didn’t need to mention Neath again. At the AGM the following year, Neath attended, spoke and voted, so to have been allowed to do that, we must have been there when it was formed.”
With that cleared up, our history lesson picks up pace. Mike has been a regular at the Gnoll for more than 60 years. “Virtually my whole life,” he says. “Ever since I can remember I have been coming here and seeing a packed ground, a sea of faces, the smell of tobacco, and the noise that went with it all. Characters off the field and characters on the field. The first season I remember properly was 1966/67. Brian Thomas was captain and we won the championship, a strong Neath pack playing traditional Neath rugby and there were so many good players, too many to mention, but firmly based on fantastic forward play.”
Over the years, Mike has seen that forward play – and some pretty nifty work from the backs too – help Neath to become a household name in rugby, even as far afield as South Africa. “Rugby has always been the standard bearer for the town,” he says. “I was in South Africa once and went into a sports shop wearing my Neath cap and this giant South African walked up to me, pointed at my hat, and said ‘Neath, that was the side that beat up the Springboks’.”
Aside from the countless famous wins in Wales, it was the games against the southern hemisphere sides that propelled Neath into the consciousness of rugby fans the world over. “The New Zealand game always stands out,” he says of the day the All Blacks came to town in 1989, their fourth visit. “They’d just won the 1987 World Cup and we had a real go at them. I watched the game over there [he points to the opposite end of the ground] and the noise was bouncing off the stand from one side of the ground to the other. It was a dark, cloudy old day too, the floodlights lit up the gloom, but the air had this crackle of electricity – it was just fantastic. “New Zealand won in the end [15-26], but we gave them by far the toughest game of their tour and we did the same to Australia [8-16] and South Africa [13-16] afterwards.”
Twelve thousand had packed into the ground that day (at least officially, Mike thinks it was closer to 15,000), but it wasn’t even the biggest crowd the town had seen, those had happened in the post-war years when 20,000 would somehow cram into the Gnoll when there was more standing room and perhaps slightly less thought for spectator safety.
Martyn Morris was one of the players who faced the haka at the Gnoll. After our brief Neath history from Mike, he sends us to the man putting out the corner flags. Martyn has been team manager for three years, but he played for the club in the late-80s and early 90s. Like Mike, he’d been a fan of the club first. “I was coming here as a boy when I was ten,” he says. “It would have the sides of the early 70s, always full houses, and I knew from then that if I was going to be a rugby player, then it was going to be for Neath.”
Although actually making his debut in 1981, he left soon after having been offered a full-time job with the South Wales Police, for whom he also played rugby, winning a few caps in the process. He came back to the club in 1987, but unable to find a starting spot, went back to play for the police again. Returning for a third time in 1990, this was the right time. “That night was absolutely awesome,” he says of the All Blacks game. “The town was buzzing, people were hanging off trees trying to get a glimpse of the game, there was no space for standing and to play against the best side in the world and be unlucky not to win, that was incredible.
“We didn’t face the haka though,” he admits. “They did the haka, but it wasn’t the thing then to face it, you’d stand in a circle so that’s what we did. There were stories we sang Men of Harlech, but we didn’t. At least I can always say I was on the field when the All Blacks did the haka.”
Back then, Neath had seemed unstoppable, racking up a world points record the season before with 1,917 points and 345 tries. It was the time of the legendary forwards coach Ron Waldron. “He would make us run up that mountain every session before we even did any rugby,” explains Martyn, pointing to the steep hillside behind. “That would take us at least 30 minutes, we’d even do sprint training at the top, and then come back down and do the rugby. Our fitness levels went through the roof – we were the fittest side around.
“You didn’t do gyms in those days so there had to be other methods, which is why you had [prop] Brian Williams bicep curling and bench pressing calves on his farm.”
The Neath side of this era cleaned up. From 1986/87 to 1995/96, they won cups and leagues almost at whim, and broke records at every turn. Part of it was down to treating every opponent the same. “Ron had this ability to get every last effort out of you,” says Martyn, “it wasn’t so much the tactical side, he didn’t concentrate on that bit as much. He expected us to give everything, to make every last tackle and whether it was against New Zealand or Timbuktu in a pre-season warm-up, the commitment had to be the same. We had some real hard men mixed with a few skilful men, and it was always a joint effort.
“This was one of the biggest fixtures,” he adds, changing the topic to today’s match with Pontypool. “It’d be one of the most important games on the calendar, we’d have some awesome battles with no quarter asked or given, fantastic, real tough rugby.”
Now though, it’s a bit different. Since being controversially demoted to the Championship in 2012, Pontypool have remained in the second division of club rugby. They’ve topped the table for the past two seasons but ring-fencing of the Premiership has stopped them from going up. In theory, if Pontypool top the division again, they could go up this year but with the top flight being reduced from 16 to 12 clubs, they could have another hoop to jump through with a play-off against the fifth from bottom side.
Given that Neath haven’t managed to finish out of the bottom three in the Premiership, let alone the bottom five, since 2012, the odds are the two sides could be swapping places next season.
Neath hospitality is the kind which would even gain Roy Keane’s approval. It’s full of diehard Neath fans, the compere is full of old-school wit, and the speakers are former players and coach Lyn Jones and Pontypool icon Graham Price. There’s optimism too. For the first time in a long time, there are tables of people sat down for a pre-match feed of roast pork and host Gerald Morris seems confident, it’s the start of many, he hopes after a ‘tough seven years.’ The lunches are a bargain too; £100 for a whole season of two-course meals, with 15 home games, that’s value even Wetherspoons would struggle to match. And if you get lucky with the bonus ball – £2 a play, 20 pints the prize – then you’re in for a cracking day out, whatever the outcome of the rugby.
Gerald steers us around the tables, so we can meet some of the regulars. Mark and his nephew Logan – decked out in full Neath kit – are more regular than most, attending every match, away games and even training sessions. Mark’s passion for his Neath is fervent. Like others, he talks of the All Blacks; of Barry John getting ‘dicky stomachs’ before facing Neath; of the legendary ‘Neath flu’, which players caught as they got to Briton Ferry and decided to get off the bus rather than face Neath; he talks about the infamous runs up the mountain; and also of the buses packed with supporters going to the Welsh Cup finals, ‘15’, he says he counted more than once. “We were the best club side in the world,” he says.
On the next table, another regular, Gail Lewis, has been coming to the Gnoll since childhood, when her mum worked in the bar and her dad coached. Arguably she not only matched her parents’ commitment to the club, but took it to another level. “I’m divorced because of Neath rugby actually,” she states. Really? “Yeah, it’s on my divorce petition. I‘ve got five children – I started having children in 1985 – and I couldn’t come here every week because of them, so when I got to number four and five, I started going to the games again and bringing them along. My ex used to go to the football and I came here because I loved it and he didn’t like it. So, after 30 years of marriage, we got divorced. Neath rugby has got a lot to answer for.
“It’s the supporters that make it different,” she adds. “I just think the supporters are so true to Neath, that’s why there’s the saying, ‘you’ve got black blood running through you’. If you’ve been involved in Neath you never go anywhere else, even if you move away, you always want to know what’s happening here.”
Gail is full of stories of the past, and how rugby was always woven into the fabric of Neath, whether it was the players switching on the Christmas lights, or getting behind the side on cup final day.
“I used to love the cup finals,” she says. “We used to have a blast when we came back here, there’d be a marquee up and we’d be still going at six o’clock in the morning.
“When we got to a Welsh cup final you’d see every shop window decked out in black and white, and you could fill buses and buses with supporters, even just ten years ago.
“Now if they got to a final, we’d struggle to fill a large bus.”
She explains that the supporters’ bus to away games was cancelled three season ago, due to a lack of numbers, so now they go for group tickets on the train. “They got a 16-seater going the other week though,” she says. “Now we’ll try and get it up to a 30-seater.”
Perhaps the lesser-known victim of Neath’s recent troubles has been the missing mascot. “Everybody used to love Bully the mascot [official name, Brian the Bull],” says Gail, adding, “he had an inflatable guitar and sang Bully, Bully. He’d be down at the Cowshed [the Town End Terrace] with all the kids, who would bring their inflatable guitars to games too. They used to love him.
“But we haven’t seen him for a few years now,” she continues. “We keep asking all the time if anyone is going to be the bull, but nobody has agreed yet.”
With the club so close to her heart, Gail has seen how far the club has fallen. “It’s sad, it is really sad,” she says. “I feel regional rugby isn’t working either, the Ospreys had some good years but last year they were terrible, and you just look and think, ‘what’s happening to Welsh rugby?’ I mean this year, they’re relegating four or five teams, and it doesn’t bear thinking about if it happens to this club and we finish bottom. It’s heartbreaking to think we could be one of them.
“I fear if we go down we’ll never get back up.”
Lyn Jones knows Neath better than most. As a flanker at the club during the 80s, he returned in the 90s to coach the side, taking them into professionalism and to the league title, before making the step into regional rugby with the newly formed Neath-Swansea Ospreys, a side he also took to the top of the regional game. Last season, he came back to Neath as a consultant trying to arrest their slide, before leaving for a third time to take on the head coach role of Russia. His return this weekend is only brief, and in a guest capacity only. As Neath v Pontypool kicks off in front of us, Lyn, is happy to talk, at first, of the past. “During that great spell in the 80s, Brian Thomas [the team manager] was all about recruiting people with the right character. If they didn’t have the right values that aligned with how he saw the club being – ferociously hard working and determined – then he wouldn’t sign them, even if they were good enough to play for Wales.”
Not only did he recruit exceptionally well, Brian would look after his players too – even using his Cambridge University contacts to get players interviews, and then travel up with them to help them through it. When the players later jumped ship, he wouldn’t be annoyed though. “He always felt it was credit in the emotional bank and they’d eventually repay it to the club,” explains Lyn.
“Because of the way he went about his business, Brian was really the first team manager in club rugby,” continues Lyn. “For what he did for the town they should have a bust made for him, it’s a tragedy they don’t if you ask me.
“Rugby was always the best but cheapest advert for Neath,” continues Lyn. “Brian was hoping to sue Neath Council because they gave Glamorgan cricket so much money for bringing Australia here to the Gnoll to play. He said to them, ‘well, we do this every other Saturday and you don’t give us a penny’.
“Rugby was putting the name of the town on the world map, and when you travel the world you can say the five letter word, and everyone recognises it and understands what it means, Neath means rugby.”
At this point in the conversation, Lyn is done with the past. “All of this conversation is about yesterday but I want to talk about tomorrow,” he says. “I’m more interested in talking about the future because so many people want to remind themselves of former glories, what life was like in the 70s and 80s, but it’s gone, it’s finished, the world has changed, and if you don’t adapt and you don’t change, you’re going to die.
“The game has to adapt, the club has to adapt, and in some ways it’s starting to wake up to that fact,” he says. “My time for the next few years is with Russia but I see myself coming back here and setting something up which is long-term, coaching in schools and helping to lay a foundation for a more successful conveyor belt of players for the town.”
The benefit of having a strong second tier is something Lyn is passionate about, having seen it work so well in England. “The young players need to play rugby, they need to play games, and when I was at London Welsh in the Championship, I remember Kieran Brookes coming down to play for us. He was like a lot of guys in Premiership academies who came down to a division wanting to get 50 games under their belt. When he left us, he went to Newcastle and ended up playing for England, it shows that England have got a great model. I don’t think they know it, but in the Championship they’ve got a real gem.”
What Lyn does want to see is more support for the clubs like Neath and to help avoid losing so much talent that doesn’t make the grade for the regions. “I understand the development route [taken by regions], but, just like the fishing industry trawling the oceans, what happens if you scoop up all the players, how many are going to make it? 10 per cent? What happens to the rest?
“Rugby is so important to communities throughout the world, it’s not just in Wales,” says Lyn, “but we all share the same challenges and there needs to be more empathy for the clubs rather than just have the regions trawling anything and everything and throwing things over the edge of the boat when they realise the fish isn’t big enough.
“There has to be a better balance, people are trawling the seas too early, just allow young people to play, get them up to 17 at least, someone who’s good at 16 is not necessarily someone who’s going to be good at 20, because it’s such a late development sport. Allow people time to develop, their skills, their physicality.”
Lyn’s passion for player development can’t be doubted, but right now it can’t immediately help the situation Neath find themselves in, although the very specific immediate situation is actually quite a good one. As we talk, the game that’s being played out in front of us has progressed into an old school humdinger, with both sides scoring five tries. But it’s Neath who makes it count as they take the winning score in the eighth minute of injury time, to win 31-29.
Pre-season wins though, count for little, the reality is Neath are going to struggle. What happens if they do find themselves in the Championship next year? “They have to reinvent themselves,” says Lyn succinctly.
What reinvention means will depend on the rugby world around; the funding available from governing bodies, the support of individual investors, but, aside from a glorious past, perhaps one tangible thing Neath can rely on is the likes of Gail and Mark. As long as there’s at least a few Gails or Marks at the Gnoll, there’ll always be a club.
And, besides, as Mike points out when we chat after the game, rugby is cyclical. “I’m always optimistic,” he says. “If you start looking backwards, you’re going to get in trouble, just as you do on the pitch. Whatever the future holds, there’s always going to be enough rugby talent in this area to sustain us and hold us in good stead.
“It is a bit of a tragedy that we once had the finest club system, it was the envy of the world, but the world is changing.
“I always tell supporters that we’ve been spoilt over the last 30 or 40 years, there have been fallow periods in our history before. We were the first club to win the championship after the war but it took 20 years or so to win the next one – I think that’s the longest Neath went without winning one. I’m sure our time will come again, I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Nick Dawe