As post-war transport difficulties eased in the early 1950’s, Neath RFC started to spread its wings with a series of short tours and, in October 1952, the Welsh All Blacks made their first visit to Ireland where they played three games in three days, winning the first two in Cork before moving onto Dublin where a very tired side lost its third game.


The party set off in high spirits on the back of a 5-3 win over Aberavon when outside-half Denzil Thomas scored a spectacular try for Neath that Viv Evans goaled before Avon scored a fine individual try of their own through scrum-half Onllwyn Brace.


But Neath travelled minus a couple of star men – prop Courtenay Meredith was not available and Roy John had missed the Aberavon game as he had married the previous day. Coincidentally (!) though, the lineout master christened “King John” by New Zealand in 1950 had taken his honeymoon in Ireland and so took his usual place in the Neath team !


After a civic reception hosted by the Lord Mayor of Cork, Alderman P. McGrath, Neath’s first game was against Dolphin and they “could not have had a tougher baptism to Irish rugby”. Keith Maddocks scored a hat-trick of tries and John Huins and Brian Sparks got one apiece with Viv Evans (2) and Elvet Jones adding conversions. The tourists led 13-nil at halftime but had to pull out all the stops to win 21-13 after holding off a strong home team rally in the second-half which produced tries for J. Horgan, N. McCormick and J. Reidy with Horgan and Coleman kicking conversions.


Neath fielded :- Viv Evans; John Huins, Cliff Cole, Morwyn Morgan, Keith Maddocks; Denzil Thomas; Gareth Thomas; Gwyn Lewis, Ray Jenkins, Ron Waldron; Len Harris, Roy John; Elvet Jones, Rees Stephens (captain), Brian Sparks


For their second game, Neath played Garryowen at Thomond Park and made three changes with Glen Evans, John Richards and Bill Brennan coming in for Morwyn Morgan, Ron Waldron and Brian Sparks. Writing in the Neath Centenary Brochure, the late Ron Griffiths of the “Evening Post” recalled that Bill Brennan did not expect to play and was restored to condition only by a plentiful application of black coffee. But he went on to play a real stormer and tries by John Huins, policeman Glen Evans and Gareth Thomas with a conversion by Viv Evans as against a solitary try by Bourke sent the All Blacks on their way with an 11-3 win.


Neath then journeyed north to Dublin for their final game against Bective Rangers at Donnybrook. Bill Brennan made a big impression on Ron Griffiths but Bill left even his own team-mates speechless when he arrived at the ground “driving a jaunting-cart and clad in the most immaculate top-hat and tails” which he had somehow borrowed off a friendly local.


Neath restored Morwyn Morgan and Ron Waldron and brought in John Harries for Brennan so 12 of the side had played in all three games. Alas, it was a game too far and the task was slightly beyond the All Blacks who lost 3-5. Rees Stephens plunged over from a lineout for the game’s first try but the 3,000 home crowd were ecstatic when international wing Mortell scored an equaliser and 6’6” second rower J. Murphy O’Connor boomed over the conversion.


Still, it had been a memorable trip – not least for Roy John – and another chapter had been added to the Neath club’s colourful history.  MP


NEATH  15  NEW ZEALAND 26 - OCT 1989 

For a Club that prides itself on its strong, winning mentality, it is perhaps unusual that nearly everyone who was there agrees that it was a defeat that provided probably the “greatest day” in Neath’s long and proud history.


For weeks, months, before there had been only one question on the lips of rugby supporters and even those less committed to the cause of the Welsh All Blacks in the locality – “Can Neath beat New Zealand ?”


The squad had been brought quietly to the boil by coaches Ron Waldron and Glen Ball, abetted by fitness instructor Alan Roper and team secretary David Shaw, and they then had the heart-breaking task of telling those who had not made the cut that they were not in the team.


But the measure of the men in the Neath squad was that they re-doubled their efforts in support of those who were. And the whole Town and its Valleys and neighbouring communities came together in, it seemed, one simmering, unified force to take on the mighty world champions from the other side of the globe.


The day could not arrive quickly enough. And when it finally dawned, we awoke to teeming rain. “How will it affect Neath’s chances ?” was the question that was asked a thousand and more times that morning.


Gradually, the Town came to life as pubs and clubs set a record for midweek trade; even the shoppers who stumbled into the town centre in blissful ignorance that the game was on were caught up in the sheer emotion of the day and they repaired home hurriedly to view the match on the box.


And what a treat they enjoyed ! Who will ever forget the sheer courage and exuberance of  Kevin Phillips and his men as they tore into the reigning world champions with a hunger, a passion and a relish that the New Zealanders would not encounter anywhere else on their short visit to Wales in 1989 ?


The Gnoll had not seen anything like it – although the brave precedents set by Tom James’ side against the Kiwis in 1945 and by Fred David’s side against the Springboks in 1912 must have run it pretty close.


The ground was packed to the rafters and the atmosphere positively crackled. To the delight of those seated in the “open” stand on the cricket field side of the ground, the rains eased a little as kick off approached.


As they entered the cauldron, the New Zealand All Blacks looked like the rugby giants they were but, when Neath took the field in specially designed if unfamiliar white jerseys with a black band, the huge roar was such that it could have shaken the ornaments off the TV sets in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington.


Rumour has it that when the All Blacks lined up to perform their famous “haka”, the Neath players formed a defensive circle so as not to be intimidated. One home player countered the Maori chant by starting to sing “Men of Harlech” only to be told in no uncertain terms by his captain Kevin Phillips to, “Shut up ! This isn’t ‘Zulu’ !”

For once though Neath’s inspirational leader was not fully on target. For a start, it was not to be a wholly defensive effort. And there again, it did not see quite as much blood as the South African veldt as portrayed by Stanley Baker and his boys; moreover, nobody actually died – although some Neath fans professed later that now they would happy.

Because for sheer determination, wholehearted commitment to the cause and battling against the odds, what unfolded that day at The Gnoll was not far short. For peaceful times, it was heroic - it was Rorke’s Drift without the spears, if you like !  


Although the final score-line suggests a comfortable win for the tourists, nothing could be further from the truth. For this was the one game on tour that shook the New Zealanders’ air of invincibility and, had it not been for one or two crucial decisions going (as they so often do) for the tourists, Neath fans might have had even more reasons for remembering October 25th, 1989.


New Zealand took the lead inside 10 minutes when Graeme Bachop’s inside flip found John Gallagher whose angled run yielded a try at the posts that Frano Botica converted. As the Neath pack got into their stride against a distinctly ruffled-looking New Zealand, Paul Thorburn got the Welsh All Blacks on the board with a penalty.


But New Zealand were not world champions for nothing and that man Gallagher, at the height of his powers, made the running for a try by Craig Innes and Botica landed a penalty before halftime to make it 3-13.


But directly after the re-start came the moment that has been played and re-played countless times on videos throughout the ancient Borough of Neath.


A typical barnstorming run by Mark Jones saw the ball moved swiftly via Thorburn and Allan Bateman to Alan Edmunds who slid in at the corner for perhaps the most famous try in Neath’s history and The Gnoll went wild.


Thorburn goaled the conversion from wide out and, as the chants of “NEATH ! NEATH ! NEATH !” echoed around the ground and up the nearby valleys to awaken the spirits of Neath players long since past, the home side kept up the attack.


When Thorburn added a penalty soon afterwards, The Gnoll went even wilder. There was only one point in it and even the most unbelieving of Neath fans began to believe the impossible was possible.


If they didn’t know before, New Zealand now knew that they were right in a battle. Neath continued to press but the tourists were awarded yet another penalty that Botica kicked and then Gallagher raced in for his second try as, for virtually the first time that afternoon, the tourists found some space at a Gnoll made claustrophobic by the rampaging Neath forwards who spared not a yard.


Back came Neath and Thorburn “cool as ever in the maelstrom that was The Gnoll” (as Rod Rees described it) banged over another penalty to make it 15-20. It could still have gone either way but, as the final whistle neared, Zinzan Brooke touched down for a clinching pushover try that Botica converted to give New Zealand a slightly flattering victory against the “best in Wales” as they later reflected.


Wayne Shelford, New Zealand’s tour captain, who sat out the match (perhaps avoiding a “re-union” with Huw Richards ?) said :-


“Wales is the only country where rugby fans can make the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers look like choir boys. If you reckon we’re crazy about rugby in New Zealand, you only need a tour over here to realise we’re not in the same paddock as the Welsh. They are fanatics.


“The atmosphere at the Neath ground in that midweek match was unbelievable. They were packed into that little ground like sardines and although there were only 10,000 of them it sounded like 100,000.


“I don’t usually find crowds and the noise they generate that daunting. But I have to admit sitting in the stands watching the boys against a fired-up Neath was a real experience. The grandstand was almost rocking.”


Ron Waldron, Neath’s coach, said :-

“Kevin and the boys on that October day gave everybody a reason to be proud – they gave the New Zealanders their toughest game on tour.”


And the Neath team ? As if anyone could forget :-

Paul Thorburn; Chris Higgs, Colin Laity, Allan Bateman, Alan Edmunds; Paul Williams, Chris Bridges; Brian Williams, Kevin Phillips (captain), Jeremy Pugh; Mike Whitson, Gareth Llewellyn; Phil Pugh, Mark Jones, Martyn Morris


Post-match, inevitably, there were inquests of the “what if ?” variety. But had not this self-same New Zealand become the first-ever winners of the World Cup ? Had not their ‘professionalism before professionalism’ seen Wales’ 1988 Triple Crown winners blown into the Tasman Sea in 1988 ? Neath had come closer than anyone.


It WAS a great day – and, as we sought silver-linings, there was always the consolation that it was a team in Black that won !




© Mike Price, Oct. 2008


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