When confronted with their first truly competitive match on over a year and a half, any sports team seeking to ‘pick up where they left off’ is surely faced with the most enormous of challenges, as all momentum has surely been lost, and finding that rarer-than-hens’-teeth commodity, continuity, is surely the most challenging aspect of the lot.
Aberavon, however, took a long view of the situation, and when the world ground to a halt following that hard-earned win over Cardiff in March 2000, the club brought its unique sense of community to the fore, providing care to those struggling to come to terms with the lockdown, delivering provisions to those unable to venture our into a virus-infected world, and providing moral support for any and all who needed it. I got the distinct impression, from regular conversations with Head Coach Jason Hyatt, that the strong team spirit that has brought with it a degree of success to the old club of ours, it a moveable feast, with the playing squad working together off the field as well as they did on it.
That the entire squad from the aborted 2019-2020 season had been retained for 2021-22 therefore came as no surprise. Quite few of the additional signings, however, were pleasant surprises, as several familiar faces made welcome returns to the fold, complementing the customary crop of academy and development players seeking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Justin Tipuric (a man who, incidentally, has never forgotten the seasons he spent here at Aberavon, however much the media choose to ignore that stage of his playing career).
And so, following three tough pre-season friendlies that gave the coaching staff the chance to run the rule over all and sundry, at last came a ‘proper’ Saturday afternoon fixture as traditionally enjoyed at this time of the year – a match played out before a healthy live audience, tired of televised rugby from empty stadia with a recorded soundtrack of crowd noises. Here was ‘real’ club rugby at long last, and for many of us, I think, it brought home the reality of what we’d missed these past eighteen months – a full-blooded encounter played out with a crowd cheering on their heroes, and a post-match drink and chat any anyone who happened to be in the clubhouse.
Not surprisingly, that oh-so-precious continuity wasn’t immediately apparent. It took almost a quarter of the match before the Wizards got properly going on all cylinders, and over half the game before they finally hit top gear, but when they did there was no stopping them. At the end of eighty-plus minutes the best efforts of a young, fit, spirited and fast-moving Llanelli team were not sufficient to overcome the continuity of another rare commodity – team spirit. Aberavon have had it in spades; the players play for one another, and their enthusiasm spreads throughout the club’s loyal supporter base, more so when squad members turn up en bloc in the public bar following their post-match meal. Team spirit was preserved during lockdown due to all that work in the community, and, as I gathered from a short conversation with returning hero Nicky Thomas after last Saturday’s match, is being fully embraced by those recent additions to the squad. When I said it was good to see him back at the club, his response was, “I wanted to come back to Aberavon because this is where I really enjoyed my rugby.”
Let’s hope for continuity of enjoyment, for us all. It’s been a long wait.
A brief but sincere message of thanks from the backroom boys…
Jon Nightingale, after many years of providing a welcome pair of matchday hands in and around the Aberavon dressing room, has stepped down from the role, but doesn’t go without the thanks of his colleagues. While this was mentioned in last week’s programme, in particular Dai Beaton, Jeff Thomas and Max Waliczek would like to personally express their sincere thanks to Jon for all his hard work over the years.