Battle to keep Welsh rugby clubs alive

Pontypool’s Welsh rugby heroes took on the best teams in the world, but are now weighed on by a regional rugby system.

“It’s where I live. It’s where my family live.”
Sometimes it’s not what people say, it’s the way they say it.
And when Welsh rugby legend Graham Price says this about Pontypool in South Wales, the context is clear.
It’s where he grew up, where he watched his heroes on the local rugby field, where he played his junior rugby, where he broke into the senior side and scored a try on his debut, where he played for twenty three years. Becoming an integral part of not just the successful Wales team of the 1970s, but a British Lions stalwart too.
Like many old rugby clubs, Pontypool RFC has been the focal point of the community for more than a century. More than a sports club, just like rugby is more than a game in this country.
But the glory days have long gone, as the emphasis was placed on regional rugby, marginalising the proud clubs in the valleys, making the world-class welsh club side a thing of the past.
The jobs in mining and steel disappeared in this town of under 40,000 people in South Wales, and Pontypool RFC would have gone the same way if it wasn’t for the Jeffreys family.
Pontypool were effectively left to fend for themselves and with support and finances drifting away they faced extinction two years ago. A legal battle with the Wales Rugby Board was lost and they lost their former status as a premiership club.

In the blood
But supporter Peter Jeffreys provided money that wasn’t forthcoming from the WRU. Pontypool RFC is in the blood, support passed from generation to generation like a rugby ball that no-one wants to drop. It means too much. What made this businessman did deep to save the club?
”It was an emotive thing. My father used to bring me to watch since age of five,” says Peter.

“The club was a week away from being wound up and I had the resources to do something about it. I couldn’t leave it floundering and disappearing, it would have been a great loss to the town  and community.”
No-one would blame his son Ben for taking a misty-eyed romantic approach to his role as Corporate Director of the club, instead I find him embracing  hard-nosed business. The community here have got hope with him looking to the future, as a recent polite but hard hitting letter to WRU chief Roger Lewis showed.
“I see Pontypool as a town that heavily dependent on the success of its rugby team for its future. Like a lot of places it’s faced difficult times because of economic crisis and the role of the rugby club to town of Pontypool is to give town a good community spirit. That’s difficult to come across in the times and were desperate to keep that going as long as we can.
“But we are running this as a business,” Ben adds.

“It’s a semi-professional club, and we are asking the WRU for some changes to help us.”
“It’s in your blood,” says Graham, as the four of us sit in a changing room he shared with friends and team mates for over two decades.

“My whole family has been involved with Pontypool Rugby Club. When my son played he became fourth member of family to have involvement with Pontypool going back for a century.”
But he warns the new system has left clubs like his floundering.
“When the WRU created regions they threw 100 years of history out of the window.”
The irony here is obvious – the national team in Wales is flourishing. In the Six Nations Championship which starts with a game against Italy at the famous Millennium stadium, this charismatic and talented group are favourites to created history by winning a third successive title. They also provided the core and the captain of the successful British Lions team that beat Australia on their turf last year.

Talent drain
“Our team was successful because of the club rugby talent coming through,” says Graham. “The current team is successful despite the system. And that talent will soon run out.”
Back in the 1970s Graham, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner formed a Pontypool ‘front row’ (three men you wouldn’t pick a fight with) who flourished for Wales and the lions too becoming so lauded they even had a song dedicated to them by welsh entertainer Max Boyce.
Their presence still shines across this small town, whether a mural above the main street, or a wooden sculpture outside the ground, or in the lovely museum run for the community and its visitors by fundraiser Sassy Hicks. Club Director Arthur Crane, like everyone we speak to a lifelong fan, shows us the old jerseys and the familiar model of the three local heroes in the scrum.
But Arthur and his townsfolk bemoan the move to regional rugby: “The WRU want us to support Newport Gwent Dragons,” he shrugs. “But look at the title. Newport were our big rivals. Why would we want to support them?”
The consolation is that the team are doing well in their league, third in the Championship, the second tier of Welsh club rugby, and daring to dream that one day they can beat the best again.
I look over the pitch that has hosted the All Blacks, the South African and Australian touring teams. Not any more, but try taking away the memories.
Al Jazeera had spent time at the Welsh training camp listening to the big issues that feed into the national picture.

Skipper staying on
World-class players are leaving Wales, prolific kicker Leigh Halfpenny the latest, but inspirational captain Sam Warburton has been kept in the country as their first very centrally contracted player, a coup for the RFU. Coach Warren Gatland, wise and pragmatic, doesn’t blame those who go.
“Toulon made Leigh a fantastic offer and when someone comes and offers double the money you’ve got to be realistic about those such an opportunity…I’m sure if someone offered all you journalists double money to go across the bridge and double your salary…”
Former Welsh international and broadcaster Jonathan Davies echoes Gatland’s realism.

“These are a great bunch of players but it’s difficult to keep them in Wales. It’s a short career as a rugby player and when you are offered twice as much money you are going to take that.”
He agrees with the assessment that Welsh rugby has become the opposite of English football – strong national team, clubs in decline is the situation on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge. And we talk of how the rise of Cardiff and Swansea’s football clubs has deflected some of the focus off the oval ball.
But nothing can ever replace rugby in this country’s affections. Few people will miss the start of the Six Nations defence. It’s the talk of every town and village. And the rugby clubs. The rugby clubs that still underpin many these communities long after the mining and steel works have gone.
“Will rugby ever lose its importance here?” I ask Jonathan.
“Never,” he says with a smile.

Source : Al Jazeera

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