Paul Williams (Newport Programme Notes)

Professional Rugby Union – our part in its upkeep

Setting aside the fact that the concept of rugby union becoming a professional sport was a complete anathema for a century or so, and that its first stumbling steps into that arena were, in Wales, somewhat uninspiring, the thought struck me (while stuck in an horrendous traffic jam on the M4 the other evening) that, since the domestic game was restructured during the early part of this century, things have changed massively, particularly with regard to the role played by we, the clubs whose ambitions were somewhat savagely curtailed with the creation of the new professional “regions”.

At Aberavon, we first had to overcome the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that we weren’t wanted. While accusations of paranoia rained down, we went through a period of reflection on the fact that we were kept out of the top tier by various competition rule changes implemented in successive seasons, and were then told we could now go and support a new team bearing the names of two of our fiercest rivals – not a big selling-point for the Aberavon faithful. At the same time, voices from a few miles to our west were critical of the fact that we weren’t “buying into” the regional concept.

Undeterred, we soldiered on, and slowly but surely bridges were built between the Talbot Athletic Ground and what was then called Liberty Stadium. Occasionally a professional player or two would make an appearance in an Aberavon jersey, some very successfully, others (it must be said) looking as though they didn’t want to be there.

Eventually, however, the barriers came down. A 17-year old Academy centre by the name of Ashley Beck made his debut for Aberavon and produced a devastating second-half performance against Pontypridd that inspired the Wizards to victory. He eventually went on to represent Wales, although his international career was shorter than he deserved due to cruel luck with injuries.

Hard on his heels came Justin Tipuric, whose B&I Lions jersey adorns the clubhouse wall here, and then James King. The critics were silenced as Aberavon were working hand in glove with the Ospreys to provide the stars of tomorrow with competitive match experience.

And so it continues. Current Wales incumbent and recent Lions tourist Adam Beard passed this way en route to international stardom, and as we watch, the next generation are warming up – look out for Academy half-backs Dan Edwards, whose Aberavon debut at Carmarthen earlier this season saw an accomplished display that belied the fact that he had only just turned eighteen, and 17-year-old Rhodri Lewis, now the youngest player to represent the club in the professional era, who provided a spectacular side-stepping finale to last week’s match against Swansea – so much so that it’s already being touted in sections of the Welsh media as the “try of the season”.

But we have recently seen another side to the Premiership underpinning the professional game. A cry for help recently was heard, from the direction of Wales’ Capital City. Cardiff Rugby (formerly, of course, Cardiff Blues) faced the prospect of meeting the mighty Stade Toulousain, reigning European Champions including World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont. Most crucially, they were facing it with a huge chunk of their squad missing for a variety of reasons, not least the ongoing pandemic and related quarantine matters. They were looking for the loan of a couple of props. Never a club to stand in the way of opportunities for our players, Rowan “Dink” Jenkins and Geraint James were released to join the hastily assembled throng at the Arms Park, with Rowan selected to start and Geraint drafted in for bench duty.

It came as no surprise that the French outfit emerged as convincing winners, but what was perhaps surprising (albeit not to Aberavon supporters who’d been paying attention) was the credit with which both emerged from probably the biggest challenge of their respective lives. When Rowan left the field during the second half he received a standing ovation from the Cardiff crowd, while Geraint, who finished the match, was warmly applauded along with the rest of the team. Recognition, ladies and gentlemen, is all we ask. We do our bit for the top tier, in whatever way we can. Rowan and Geraint, Aberavon RFC are proud of you both.