Today is traditionally one of the longstanding highlights of any rugby season. The Boxing Day encounter between Aberavon and Neath is something with which I grew up hearing all about. During the days leading up to the festive season, much of the talk amongst my home town’s menfolk revolved around ‘the match’. Nobody needed to ask, ‘What match?’. There was only the one topic when conversation turned to Christmas sporting matters within the bubble of these two conjoined towns.
Sadly, the days when what seemed to be the entire population of those towns converged, alternatively, on the Talbot Athletic Ground or the Gnoll, crossing the invisible border between Baglan and Briton Ferry in their hordes, are long since gone. The winds of change that have blown through Wales’ national sport over the past two decades have seen to it that the most powerful emotion surrounding any club fixture these days is that of nostalgia, particularly amongst those of us older than a certain age.
Even more sadly, at the time of writing these words, I cannot even be sure that this afternoon’s match will take place. Something more akin to a hurricane of change has been blowing around the Gnoll, threatening to leave nothing but debris in its wake. As a lifelong Aberavon fan, I feel so desperately sorry to see this happen – setting the age-old rivalry, as described in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion by a certain Aberavon coach some fifteen years ago – to one side, to witness ANY club suffer the kind of problems currently afflicting the Welsh All Blacks concentrates the mind on how I’d feel if it were Aberavon going through this nightmare. We’ve been through our share of bad times at Aberavon over the years, but never has the spectre of total desolation loomed as close over the Talbot Athletic Ground as it has of late over the Gnoll.
As well as some good rugby people such as Gareth Howells, Simon King, Neil White and Mike Price, all of whom have been affected in one way or another by the situation, I have any number of dedicated, lifelong Neath supporters – not the bandwagon-jumpers who packed out the Gnoll during their heady, successful days before disappearing as soon as that success began to wane, but genuine, core supporters who stick with their club come what may – amongst my friends, and while it is not appropriate for me to express any kind of opinion regarding the causes of their club’s current plight here in these pages, I can and will express genuine sympathy for how I can imagine they must feel – what we at Aberavon went through during our narrow and nerve-wracking avoidance of relegation in 2014 surely doesn’t come close. We should all sincerely hope that the situation can be happily resolved sooner rather than later.
Here at Aberavon our worries are considerably fewer, the biggest of which would appear to be the usual mid-season injury-list, augmented by Matthew Jenkins being side-lined until next season following knee surgery. By the time you read this, we’ll know how much of an effect this will have had on the pre-Christmas match against Ebbw Vale, and will be looking forward to as tough a January schedule as there could be at this level, featuring Cup and League encounters with Merthyr (who will doubtless remember all too well the Wizards arriving at The Wern on a September afternoon before leaving with a notable scalp) either side of a trip to Sardis Road.
Here’s hoping that those to pull on the respective jerseys of our two clubs can do justice to the history of this fixture.
Enjoy the game.