A SHORT HISTORY OF NEATH RUGBY
(BY MIKE PRICE)
It has long been thought that Neath Rugby Football Club was founded in 1871/72 when the first recorded rugby match in Wales took place, Neath against Swansea – the outcome was disputed ! However, delving through back-copies of the old "Cambrian" newspaper, the following appeared on November 4th, 1864 :-
FOOTBALL – It is with much pleasure that we announce the formation of a Club for playing this healthy game during the winter months at Neath. On Thursday a game was played in a field near Court Herbert, though the number of players was not so large as may be expected when the Club becomes more formed. As President, we notice the name of J.T.D. Llewellyn Esq., a gentleman well known in the neighbourhood for the interest he takes in all athletic games – under his auspices we think the Club cannot but succeed. The rules of the game, as played at Rugby, are being attended to, and would some other club in this locality adopt the same, a spirited match might soon be looked for.
Neath’s first appointed captain is held to have been Dr. T.P. Whittington who was capped for Scotland against England in 1873. In 1874, a 17 year old, Sam Clarke, started playing and he was to become the Club’s first Welsh international.
From the beginning, games were played at The Gnoll which was also used for cricket so other grounds were used in the Town, most notably the Bird-in-Hand Field where Neath’s Civic Centre is now situated.
In the early days, the team wore assorted dark jerseys and a player, allegedly E.C. Moxham, introduced the famous White Cross to break the monotony of their dark garb. Popular belief holds that the All Black jersey itself was adopted following the death of Dick Gordon after being injured while playing against Bridgend in 1880.
Neath’s status as one of the leading Welsh clubs was soon confirmed by their record in the South Wales Challenge Cup that did much to generate interest in the Game. In 1879/80, an amazing sequence of seven matches was fought with Swansea before Neath emerged victorious thanks to a Beth Heycock try before Neath lost in the final to Newport, a fate they suffered again in 1884/85.
In 1880, Neath representatives attended a meeting in Swansea to discuss the future organisation of the game in Wales. A year later, the WRU itself was formed in March, 1881 at the Castle Hotel, Neath but, oddly, Neath were not recorded as having been present at the inaugural Meeting although the Bird-in-Hand hosted the South Wales Challenge Cup final that day between Cardiff and Llanelly. Local reasoning for Neath’s alleged absence from the Meeting is that either Neath’s attendance was taken as read due to the venue or maybe Neath were not represented because their officials were too preoccupied with making arrangements for the final. Others, notably the WRU history “Fields of Praise”, imagine that it was due to the Neath’s strong links with the SWFU or even a dispute between Sam Clarke and Richard Mullock, the first secretary of the national Union.
As the game’s popularity increased and the railway system developed, so Neath’s horizons began to broaden. In 1887/88, the first northern tour took place with fixtures against Leeds Wortley, Manningham (Bradford) and Hartlepool Rovers. The following season, Neath hosted Widnes on Christmas Eve and then visited Leeds Parish Church, Bramley, Radcliffe, Brighouse Rangers and Huddersfield within the space of six days !
The annual tour to the South-West was introduced in 1890/1891 when the captain Dr. E.V. Pegge, a Welsh international, reportedly commandeered a train to join his team-mates while Northampton, London Welsh and Bristol were soon to join the fixture-list.
A RUGBY TOWN ESTABLISHED
In 1890, one of the great Neath characters made his bow. He was Bill Jones, originally a wing, who later moved into the pack allegedly due to failing eye-sight and captained the Club for some seven seasons before becoming its first Life Member. His brother Howel was capped by Wales but died at the tragically young age of 26 after leaving the field against Cardiff – Howel’s son Howie was also to be capped.
The colour of their strip and their association with tragedy led to Neath becoming known as “The Mourners” and the Club steadily built up a fearsome pack which included R.K. Green who toured New Zealand with the Anglo-Welsh XV in 1908. In 1909/1910, captained by centre Frank Rees, Neath broke the monopoly of the Welsh “Big Four” when they were beaten only twice in 37 games.
In the penultimate game of the season, Neath defeated Newport at The Gnoll in a game billed by the “Western Mail” as the Welsh championship decider. After Neath had won the match the visitors claimed that they were the real champions because Neath’s fixture-list did not bear comparison with theirs as fixtures with Llanelly and Swansea had been suspended.
However, in 1910/1911, there could be no denying Frank Rees and his men who became undisputed Welsh Club champions as they surged to the title by such a margin that even Newport could not pretend otherwise. The great Bill Jones retired to run the line and was installed as Neath’s first Life Member.
As early as 1908, Neath had joined with Aberavon to take on the touring Australians (such joint-ventures were oft-repeated but the combination rarely reflected the talent of its constituent parts – it is likely that either club would have done better on its own) and lost nil-15.
In 1911, Neath became one of the first Welsh clubs to play in France, beating Stade Francais 11-3 and Neath went it alone for the first time against an overseas touring team when they played the Springboks in 1912. Fred David’s team matched the mighty South African pack but narrowly lost 3–8 amidst some highly controversial refereeing.
By the time Britain followed the rest of Europe into the abyss of the Great War, Neath were well and truly established as a Welsh rugby force.
BETWEEN THE WARS
Immediately after the Great War, Glyn Stephens became the first Neath man to captain Wales, leading his country against the New Zealand Armed Forces but he missed his Club’s narrow 3–10 defeat by the tourists. England’s legendary W.W. Wakefield married a Neath girl and played holiday games for the Club whose most impressive performances came in defeating the Barbarians twice. That rare character Dai Hiddlestone captained the Club and earned international honours, leading the Wales team in an impromptu war-dance in response to New Zealand’s “haka” at Swansea before becoming a top referee.
In 1928/1929, Tom Evans led Neath to the Welsh championship again. They set a Welsh record of 930 points and wing Dan Jones established a world record 59 tries. Despite a drain of players into rugby league ranks, Neath carried off the Welsh title twice in succession in 1933/1934 (led by Arthur Hickman) and 1934/1935 (led by Glyn Daniels). Again, forward strength was the key and great names like Tom Arthur, Arthur Lemon, the brothers Glyn and Dai Prosser and Harold and David Leyshon Thomas were capped by Wales.
During the “phoney war”, Neath played almost a full Welsh fixture-list in 1939/1940 and might have been champions as they had a fine record and defeated Swansea on no less than six occasions. As war intensified, fixtures were suspended although the great Cardiff and Wales centre Bleddyn Williams put in an appearance for Neath against an RAF XV in 1941/1942. Thereafter, The Gnoll hosted schoolboy games during the war.
When rugby resumed, Tom James led Neath in a valiant 15–22 defeat against the New Zealand Kiwis and in 1946/1947 they became the first post-war Welsh champions under the leadership of hooker Cliff Williams.
Neath’s reputation as “the place where all the best forwards come from” was enhanced when Rees Stephens (son of Glyn) and the prince of lineout play Roy John became Neath’s first British Lions in 1950 where they were joined by Lewis Jones, then of Devonport Services, but who had equalled the Club scoring record at Penarth in 1949. An interesting rugby character who emerged in 1950/51 was centre Billy Boston who later found fame with Wigan RLFC, then a fine forward, prop Courtenay Meredith was accorded the Lions honour when he toured South Africa in 1955 and for many seasons Stephens held the record for most Welsh caps (32) in an international career spanning 1947-1957.
Forward power was the key in the post-war period but Neath endured further tragedy in 1959/60 when young flanker Alun Davies suffered a broken neck playing against Pontypool. Neath won the Snelling Sevens in 1964 and 1970 and, led by Brian Thomas, recaptured the Welsh championship as well as the Anglo-Welsh “Sunday Telegraph” pennant in 1966/1967.
Neath became the first senior Welsh club to celebrate its centenary in 1971/1972 – the Club was given the “Freedom of the Borough” and played the Barbarians, the Irish Wolfhounds and a WRU President’s XV. But the icing on the birthday cake came when scrum-half Martyn Davies became the first captain to lift the new WRU Cup when Neath beat Llanelli 15–9.
Dave Morris (34 caps) broke Rees Stephens’ record for international appearances but the rest of the 1970’s were largely barren years although John Poole established an individual record, scoring 38 points in a 90–10 win over Penarth in 1976/1977. New ground was broken in tours to Jamaica and Canada while wing Elgan Rees became the Club’s first double Lion in 1977 and 1980.
THE THOMAS REVOLUTION
In 1981, Brian Thomas returned in the then revolutionary post of Team Manager, ably assisted by two former captains in Ron Waldron and Glen Ball as coaches, David Shaw as team secretary and Alan Roper as fitness coach, and together they launched the Club on an era of unprecedented success. After losing a WRU Cup Final to Cardiff by 19–24 in 1984, Neath’s list of achievements gathered momentum :-
1986/1987 – Welsh Champions, Merit Table and “Sunday Telegraph” winners
– 5 players (Paul Thorburn, Jonathan Davies, Kevin Phillips,
Stuart Evans and Huw Richards) went to the first World Cup
1987/1988 – WRU Cup finalists 1987/1988, losing 13–28 to Llanelli
1988/1989 – Two world records – 1,917 points and 345 tries in 50 games,
Mark Jones scored 25 tries (a new record for a forward),
Welsh Champions & WRU Cup winners, beating Llanelli 14–13
1989/1990 – Welsh Champions, Merit Table winners & WRU Cup winners,
beating Bridgend 16–10
1990/1991 – Inaugural Champions of the WRU National League
1992/1993 – WRU Cup finalists, losing to Llanelli 18–21
1995/1996 – WRU National League Champions & WRU Cup finalists, losing to
Pontypridd 22–29, league record 95-17 win over Aberavon
With that legendary prop Brian Williams typifying their all-action approach, during this period Neath took on (and frightened the life out of) New Zealand (15–26), Australia (8–16) and South Africa (13–16) who all found The Gnoll the most demanding arena on their tours to Wales. Neath also beat Fiji (30-22) in 1995/1996.
**On the subject of overseas national sides, Neath had previously beaten the West German national side in 1969/1970 and subsequently the USA (1996/1997), Spain and Canada (1997/1998), Georgia (1998/1999), Uruguay (2001/2002) have been beaten.
Initially in the professional era Neath struggled to retain the services of players. Unlike many other clubs the Blacks did not have the advantage of a financial backer and naturally Neath’s considerable talents soon attracted others. A host of players flowed to other clubs - Scott Gibbs, Leigh Davies, Arwel Thomas, Steve Williams, Chris Wyatt, Darren Morris, Ben Evans and John Davies among them - while those now “amnestied” from Rugby League did not immediately return although Allan Bateman, Stuart Evans, Rowland Phillips and Mark Jones eventually found their way “home” to The Gnoll.
Barry Williams was selected for the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa before joining Richmond and financial problems in 1997/98 saw Neath seek temporary assistance from the WRU. But the ship was soon steadied and in 2000/01 Neath reached the final of the Principality Cup for the eighth time only to lose to Newport 8–13.
That year Lee Jarvis broke Paul Thorburn’s long-standing record for points in a season when he accumulated 446 in just 25 games as the Blacks ended the season in third spot after losing their final game at Swansea – victory would have seen them crowned champions again ! Consolation was achieved by the Under-21’s who unearthed several All Blacks and internationals-in-waiting, finished second in the Welsh Premier League and emulated the seniors by becoming inaugural winners of the Welsh Cup in a pulsating final against Cardiff.
Neath signed off the professional club era in 2002/2003 by becoming the only club side ever to reach a Celtic final when they lost to Munster and in the domestic League finished runners-up to Bridgend. Five Neath players – Shane Williams, Duncan Jones, Paul James, Adam Jones and Gareth Llewellyn – were in the 2004 Wales World Cup squad.
STANDARD-BEARERS OF A NEW AGE
2003/2004 saw the introduction of regional rugby to Wales with the Ospreys, a joint-venture between Neath and Swansea representing West Glamorgan. The Neath club is now owned and run locally under the energetic and go-ahead chairmanship of Geraint Hawkes and independent Neath, led by Paul Jones, won the WRU Cup in the first season of “semi-pro” rugby.
Coached by Rowland Phillips, Neath then embarked upon an unprecedented run of 4 consecutive Welsh championships and won the Cup again in 2007/08 for the first double of the semi-pro age but the shine was tarnished by the tragic loss of scrum-half Gareth Jones after being injured at Cardiff. Neath repeated their Cup success in 2008/09 and captain for the second year was Lee Beach who also led Wales to its first RWC Sevens success.
In 2009/10, Patrick Horgan took over as coach and Arwel Thomas led the side to a fifth League title in 7 years and added the play-off title for good measure.
Several records have fallen during the semi-pro era, notably James Hook gathering 466 points in season 2004/05 and Howard Thomas scoring 40 points against luckless Llandovery in 2007/08. In 2009/10, Richard Smith scored 7 tries in a friendly at Kidwelly and the team set a new League record beating Bedwas 109-21. Neath have now been Welsh champions more times (17) than any other club since recognisable tables were first published in 1900.
Since the semi-pro era, the Welsh All Blacks have continued to churn out Welsh international stars with caps being won by Aled Brew, Jon Spratt, Andrew Bishop, Matthew Jones, James Hook, Martin Roberts, Tavis Knoyle, Craig Mitchell and Ian Evans while Neath products of the pre-regional days Shane Williams, Duncan Jones, Paul James, Adam Jones, Mefin Davies and Steve Jones are still plying their trade at regional level. Shane Williams (his second tour), James Hook and Adam Jones formed a three-man All Black representation in the Lions squad of 2009.
And, as Wales head for the 2011 World Cup, Neath has its own "Magnificent Seven" with Aled Brew, Shane Williams, James Hook, Tavis Knoyle, Paul James, Adam Jones and Craig Mitchell in Warren Gatland's squad (Leigh Halfpenny, another who started with Neath, is also going).
Over the years, 87 players have been capped by Wales (the majority in the last 25 years) and Neath’s most capped player is Gareth Llewellyn (96) while it is interesting to note that well over a hundred further internationals have played for Neath, being capped either after or before their Neath days (see INTERNATIONALS section).
Neath’s contribution to the game is not restricted purely to playing. Six international referees associated with the Club – Albert Freethy, Harold Phillips, Ivor David, Clive Norling, Clayton Thomas and Nigel Williams – are from the Town and Derek Bevan played for the club. Neath has provided WRU secretaries in the incomparable Captain Walter E. Rees (1896-1948) and Eric Evans, WRU president Dennis Gethin hails from nearby Seven Sisters and also played for Neath as did WRU chairman David Pickering.
It is appropriate to pay tribute here to the many stalwarts who have served Neath off the field as officers and committeemen and especially to two dedicated club secretaries in Arthur Griffiths and Allan Benjamin who between them guided the Club’s fortunes for more than half of its proud history.
The current crop of Neath players fully maintains the Club’s proudest traditions. Unlike several established clubs, Neath is still strongly supported by the rugby public of Neath and beyond and, as its 140th Anniversary (or is the 147th ?) beckons, Neath rugby is alive and kicking !
© Mike Price 2011