At long last…
7th March 2020 – the day the 2019-2020 met its premature end. Among the various and conflicting memories I have of that evening is a lasting image of the final kick of the match – a conversion attempt that, if successful, would have earned visitors Cardiff a draw at the Talbot Athletic Ground, veer off well to the right of the goalposts. Justice was done, as the Wizards had been the better of the two sides by some distance that evening and were looking ahead at a cup semi-final clash with Merthyr at the Gnoll, for which they were surely firm favourites, as well as being in with a shout of the league title.
Then there was the end-of-season tournament involving the Scottish Super-Six clubs, which was an eagerly anticipated innovation, with a considerable number of Aberavon supporters having already arranged their trips north of the border.
Such optimism was, of course, swiftly dashed as the inexorable march of COVID-19 led to the only possible conclusion. Thereafter, we could at least, as Aberavon supporters, see our beloved club hit the headlines for all the right reasons as squad members set about working alongside local charities to help ensure that the most vulnerable members of society received the support that was so essential during such unprecedented times.
Meanwhile, as lockdown continued, there was scant comfort on hand for rugby fans as first what remained of the Six Nations tournament was played out in empty stadia, with TV coverage overdubbed with recorded crowd noises. Similar was to follow as the professional game went ahead under similar circumstances, prompting many to question, I presume rhetorically, as to whether the virus was able to discriminate between professional players and the semi-pro and amateur ranks. Such televised rugby, stripped of its usual atmosphere, was a pretty scant diet for those accustomed to following their local club every weekend, which would go some way to explaining why our recent pre-season friendlies, taking place more than eighteen months after that premature last match of the 2019-2020 campaign, attracted surprisingly healthy audiences.
However, here we are, and while we must hope and pray that the approaching winter doesn’t herald the need for another lockdown, it has been a great relief to climb back into the saddle, as it were, and re-establish the Saturday afternoon routines that we all know so well. The season ahead takes on a new look, with the Indigo Group Premiership Cup occupying the first few months – two groups, east and west, of six clubs, with each club playing the other five in their group twice in a league format, then the top two from each group going through to a knockout phase comprising two semi-finals and a final. That will be followed by the league competition, but this will involve each of the twelve clubs playing one another once, either home or away. If I may be so bold as to suggest one potential criticism of this, it is that some clubs will have six home matches, while others will have only five. With these being spread across almost five months, it leaves home fixtures after mid-December looking very thin on the ground. It is, however, what it is, and we must make of it what we can.
Looking back to what I increasingly tend to regard as “the good old days”, seeing Llanelli here this early in the season reminds of those long-lost seasons of yore when the fixture list showed only minimal changes from one year to the next. Traditionally, before league rugby was introduced to replace the old Merit Table, we’d play Glamorgan Wanders at home on the first Saturday in September, and then Llanelli either home or away the following weekend, and Cardiff the weekend after that. Newbridge would be our opponents on the last weekend in September, and on the rare occasions when the month contained five Saturdays, an extra match against opponents such as Torquay or Moseley would bring a change from the intra-Welsh nature of the season as it was. How times have changed.
Enjoy the game.