When choosing a topic for these blog posts, I ask myself two things: firstly, is it something I’d be interested in writing about and, secondly, will anybody else be interested to read it? The answer to the first question is usually ‘Yes’ as there aren’t many facets of rugby union that I don’t find interesting. The second is more difficult to judge and there are often times, as I press the ‘Publish’ button, when I’m still not sure how a post will be received. Handily, these modern-fangled blog-writing thingamabobs have an in-built ‘Stats’ function so you can see how often a post is read, over the space of a week or two. By crunching the numbers (i.e. looking at a ready-made graph), I’ve found that readers are more responsive to posts about international team selection, predictions or an upcoming ‘Big Game’ rather than pieces about specific clubs, positions, or political issues.
It is with great personal excitement then that I introduce this week’s topic – the Lazarus-like story of my beloved hometown club Abertillery BG RFC. No doubt a lot of you won’t be interested in the recent history of this club nestled in the Ebbw Valley, and the blog’s in-built statistician has probably already had a minor coronary just from me broaching the subject. But hey, it’s my club and my blog so the topic stays. Anyway, the story of the ‘Green and Whites’ (as they’re known) is worth sticking around for…honest! It’s a story that, in the main, will be startlingly familiar for any fan of the ‘old clubs’ (i.e. a tale of a once famous team and its attempts to avoid becoming a footnote in the annals of rugby history in the post-professional era). But while many of those grand old clubs (from both sides of the Severn) have gone to the wall, there is cause for optimism among Abertillery supporters…and perhaps a glint of a brighter and steadier future for the club game itself.
Abertillery Rugby Football Club was formed in September 1883 when, according to available records, local teams Abertillery Harlequins and Abertillery Old Town decided to merge. The team experienced success in its early years with League Titles in 1906 and 1908, with the latter prompting the WRU to award the club ‘First Class’ status. Such a distinction was invaluable in the making of Abertillery RFC as it gave them the opportunity to play touring International sides. During their existence, Abertillery (sometimes in combination with a neighbouring team) have faced the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks with a 1958 6-5 victory against the Australians being a highlight (what a game that must have been)! The club has produced plenty of internationals of their own, with Jim Webb being the first (in the early twentieth century). Since then, the Green and Whites (so called after the club adopted the colours of the Welsh Flag in 1948) have boasted a roster of international players that include Jake Blackmore, Albert Fear, Rupert Moon, Allan Lewis, Haydyn Morgan and Alun Pask, with the last three all representing the British and Irish Lions on their 1966 tour to Australia and New Zealand. Other notable players who have run out for Abertillery include Great Britain rugby league international Raymond Price, former Osprey Shaun Connor (who has recently returned to play for the club) and Lions legend Willie John McBride (who donned the local shirt once after staying in Wales after a tour with Ballymena). Add their Welsh Championship win from 1930/31 into the mix of achievements mentioned above and you’ll appreciate that the Green and Whites were a widely-recognised team by the time rugby union went professional in 1995. It was the dawn of open professionalism, however, that would threaten the existence of the club.
It’s true to say that Aber had faced their share of struggles over the preceding century but the mid-to-late 1990s posed a greater and more dangerous threat. The club had established itself as a Division One (second tier) side, but off the field the team was laden with historic debt. The coal-mining industry had lone gone and potential sponsorship/revenue streams with it. At the same time, clubs with money began to spend more of it on securing players. In a domino effect, the practice of paying players filtered down the league structure until it became common-place. During this period, the purpose of spending money was clear for all clubs – it was all about rising through the leagues to take your place at the top-table of Welsh rugby. However, when Regional Rugby was created in 2003, the Welsh Leagues became, at best, semi-professional. Clubs could now only rise as high as the newly created Welsh Premiership – a feeder league for the handful of professional (regional) sides that now existed. With no major financial incentives (e.g. TV coverage, route to European competition) and no chance of international call-ups, the purpose of the National Leagues changed overnight – they reverted to amateur competitions.
Yet players continued to be paid, despite several WRU statements declaring it as unnecessary below semi-pro level. Rather than improving standards (as it had arguably done so before) money now created a culture of mediocrity amongst the lower leagues with some players turning up on a Saturday for the cash rather than a sense of loyalty to the team. Given their financial problems, Abertillery decided to take a stand in 2003 and told players they would not be paid. As a result, many left the team and The Green and Whites struggled to fulfil their fixture commitments. An Extraordinary General Meeting was called at the town’s clubhouse to discuss the future. I was at that meeting and, although there was resilience from those who spoke, there was a sense in the room that we could be seeing the end of the club as we knew it. In the end, the Green and Whites exited the league that season (having been unable to get a side together) with the aim of re-entering the following year at Division Five level (they had been in Division Two at the time). However, whether Tillery would have a team ready before the new season was uncertain.
Thankfully a merger came to their rescue. Just as a coming together of two teams had created Abertillery RFC, the union of Aber and Blaenau Gwent RFC (est. 1870) saved the Green and Whites. The newly-formed club became known as Abertillery BG RFC and, with new found vigour and determination, the side gradually climbed the league ladder. There were some setbacks (i.e. relegation) along the way but this season the club were declared champions of Division Three East. Next year, they will be playing in Division Two – the very league they had to exit a decade ago. Can they go further? Who knows, but they should be applauded for making that difficult decision ten years back, which inevitably saved the club and allowed it to prosper. Other teams were slower to act and are paying the price for it now, but with the recently reinstated Abertillery Youth side also winning their league this season, there are signs that the future is bright for The Green and Whites.
But what about Welsh club rugby as a whole? Many say it’s doomed – an anachronistic idea that will become insignificant in future years. I’m not too sure. A month ago, BBC’s Scrum V programme broadcast an excellent interview with Wales and Lions star Justin Tipuric in his guise as forwards coach for Trebanos RFC. It was a timely reminder of the unique character and draw of Welsh club rugby. Tipuric does not get paid for his time with Trebanos. He gives up his free time because Trebanos is his local club and he wants to give something back. Neither do the players get paid – they simply turn up for a game, to socialise and get a bit of free kit. It seems that club rugby is beginning to find its confidence again. It’s moved on from the chaos of those early days of professionalism and is now more settled in its role and purpose in Welsh rugby life. The spirit of amateur rugby appears to be coming back to the leagues after an unhealthy fling with money. The only danger, as I see it, is the semi-pro Premiership and the Icarus effect it still has on some clubs, i.e. teams that fly too close to the sun in their search for success and inevitably get their financial wings burnt (as was seen with Pontypool RFC recently).
I also see Welsh club rugby as fulfilling an important role for fans as the years progress. Critics will say it’s too parochial or it’s not like it once was, but I would argue it still has something that the regional sides have yet to generate – recogniseable identities. Without a team identity, fans can not truly connect with a side and it’s that connection to a team that will create loyalty amongst the fan-base during the scarcer times and the unforgettable ones. As an Abertillery supporter, my top moment will always be the last day of the season, away to Swansea in the mid-1990s where we won a truly great match to avoid relegation. It’s still the only time I’ve been involved in a pitch invasion, albeit an enforced one (the St Helens groundstaff held an end-of-season fire drill). It’s a type of moment that you won’t find anywhere else – not at regional or even international level. Here’s hoping there are plenty more Green and White moments to cherish over the next few years. ABER! ABER!