I recently turned on the TV one evening to be greeted by a trailer for what sounded like some or other sports coverage. “The rugby season begins tomorrow”, boomed the voice-over. Wondering briefly whether or not to reach for a calendar to confirm my understanding that we were in the final week of September, I then awaited the punchline, which was something along the lines of The United Rugby Championship, being broadcast live on BBC2 Wales.
What began life as The Celtic League back in the early 2000s has now morphed, via the Pro-12 and Pro-14 etc., into the United Rugby Championship, with the inclusion of the top four South African provincial teams. Now I have no problem with this, per-se. We have become accustomed to the Welsh Regions, Irish Provinces, Scottish and Italian superclubs, and anyone else who comes along, forming the fully professional tier of our sport, and gaining the bulk of media exposure.
What I do have a problem with, however, is a mainstream broadcaster proclaiming that the rugby season began only when those teams started to take part in competitive matches, completely ignoring the fact that club sides, from the Indigo Premiership right down through the divisions that encompass the very many community clubs where the stars of tomorrow are even now learning the rudiments of the sport under the guidance of dedicated volunteers and parents giving up their valuable time, have been toiling away for weeks, with some competitions kicking off in late August and even the semi-professional tier playing preparatory ‘friendly’ fixtures before our season began in earnest a week earlier than the BBC would have us believe.
At the risk of repeating myself, my own commitment to the sport of Rugby Union is as a lifelong follower of Aberavon RFC. I grew up listening to tales of family members past and present who’d played for the Wizards, and have the emotional attachment to my club that only comes from having spent most of my life following the fortunes of the men in Blood and Black. This has culminated in a current situation in which both my wife Elaine and I are amongst the small army of voluntary workers who help in some small way to keep the wheels of the club turning. While intending no disrespect, I cannot summon the same affection for a team that was formed less than twenty years ago, and although I have been known to attend rugby at what was at the time called the Liberty Stadium, I remain Aberavon through and through.
What is disappointing, however, is the apparent reluctance of the media to spare the sport, at our level, anything more than the odd mention. Now I know that our epic 2021-22 season promotional video, featuring an impassioned performance from the one and only Michael Sheen, raised a few eyebrows and inspired the odd news article, but the main rugby-related item I happened across in the Welsh media was an article bemoaning the fact that the Ospreys v Cardiff ‘local derby’ a couple of weeks ago only pulled in 5700-odd spectators, segueing into a long post mortem as to why this should be the case. Now I’ve already help up my hand in the previous paragraph as to why I wasn’t there, but that isn’t the point I’m trying to make here. Try and find anything more than the most basic coverage of club rugby in Wales and you’re guaranteed to draw a blank. I stopped buying the South Wales Evening Post when they stopped covering the club game, even though our resident gentleman of the press and good friend of mine Howard Evans was prepared to furnish them with match reports and news from the Talbot Athletic Ground free of charge, after they’d decided they would no longer pay him for his efforts.
On a related matter, it is with great disappointment that I note Phil Steele is no longer a feature of our diet of televised rugby. Phil has been a fairly frequent visitor to Aberavon in recent seasons – a genuine guy with a genuine passion for club rugby at all its levels, and a man who had played the sport during the era when club rugby was all there was, and therefore possesses an understanding of what the Aberavons and the Llandoverys of this world are all about. He has an empathy for the club game that goes way beyond the role of a commentator – to provide an example of this, having been told by another of Aberavon’s matchday volunteers of the devastating bereavement that my wife and I went through in February of last year, he took the trouble to get hold of my phone number and called me, at home, to express his condolences. And I’d be prepared to bet he’d have done the same for any of the many people with whom he’s acquainted across the length and breadth of the club game in Wales.
Enjoy the game.