Autumn (the thoughts of a grumpy old man)
Once upon a time, this time of the year would see the arrival of one (just one) of a number of overseas teams, who would play matches against the four home nations, interspersed with games against selected clubs, provinces, divisional and military representative teams over a period of several weeks. One year we’d see the All Blacks, the next it may be Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Romania or one of the South Pacific teams. Thus, one’s opportunities to see, say, New Zealand in the flesh would be restricted to once every few years. The counterbalance to this would be the midweek games between the touring team and ‘lesser’ opposition, be it certain clubs selected for historic reasons, or clubs celebrating a centenary. It was a situation that brought a level of interest to the early part of the season from which any disruption to domestic rugby was minimal.
Nowadays it seems to be the sporting equivalent of the retail festival that used to be Christmas. Online ticket sales are relentlessly promoted via social media (and don’t get me started on the clubs that end up desperately trying to offload their non-returnable ticket allocations while all this is going on), the ‘international window’ during which clubs, regions and provinces are obliged to release their players, is filled with a plethora of live televised internationals (sadly this year not on free-to-air TV), and then, in Wales, we have an ‘extra’ match, outside that window, in which numerous players are unavailable as their domestic teams are under no obligation to release them, and are treated to the spectacle of a below-full-strength Welsh team taking on the best in the world, with predictable results.
All this may be great for the home unions, whose coffers receive a welcome boost, and for those happy to pay the (considerable) ticket price and enjoy a day out – good luck to them (except for any complete idiots who decide to stage a one-man pitch invasion), but I’m afraid, for me, the attraction has long since disappeared, and I remain unconvinced as to how the grass roots of the game, in Wales at least, benefit.
Enough, however, of this negativity. The Premiership Cup group stage is fast approaching its conclusion, with the Wizards still clinging to a narrow lead at the top of the table. That this tournament has produced an intensely competitive environment was evidenced a week ago at a rain-swept St Helen’s, where Aberavon finished strongly to record a victory over a Swansea team that were tough opposition in a match that could, at one stage, have gone either way. It was ultimately a good team performance in dreadful conditions, but I must highlight what a pleasure it was to see Matthew Jenkins back on top form after returning from what at one stage looked like being a career-ending injury. A searing first-half break off a delicate inside pass (take a bow, Ieuan Davies) set up an attacking position for a try, while his finishing for those two late, match-clinching scores after great work by the pack and Rhodri Cole, was absolute top-drawer stuff.
So onto today, and the visit of Bridgend Ravens this afternoon for what has in recent years become our big local derby, what with Maesteg and Neath respectively having fallen from grace. Boxing Day, it would seem, has become a regular fixture alternating between here and the Brewery Field, thankfully giving us the opportunity to catch up with rugby friends rather than being condemned to watching whatever festive fare the TV programme schedulers have tried to thrust upon us.
Aberavon managed to record a hard-earned win at Bridgend in this competition six weeks ago (is it really that long? – seems like just the other day) but will be well advised to remember events of that afternoon and consider the wisdom or otherwise of giving away kickable penalties – the accurate siege-gun boot of Owen Howe had the scoreboard regularly ticking over keeping the Ravens in contention throughout. Speaking personally, it was a genuine pleasure to run into Nathan Strong in the clubhouse before the match that afternoon. Nathan was a popular player at Aberavon for an all-too-brief period, but of course his son Morgan is frequently to be seen wearing Bridgend colours and was in fact nominated Man of the Match on that occasion.
Enjoy the game.