Winning Premiership title would cap Merthyr RFC revolution

Sir Stanley Thomas
Benefactor Sir Stanley Thomas has helped transform the fortunes of Merthyr RFC

Should Merthyr win the Principality Premiership final on Sunday at the first attempt, it will complete a dramatic rise in fortunes for the club.

At the end of the 2001-02 season the club was in turmoil.

A second-string side was crushed 88-5 by Pontypool in Division One, with the first team on strike amid player sackings and coaching departures.

The cash-strapped club were relegated that year and it took three seasons before they returned to Division One.

It was a humbling experience for the Ironmen, who had been formed in 1876 and were one of the 11 founder clubs of the Welsh Rugby Union in 1881, along with Swansea, Lampeter, Llandeilo, Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Llandovery, Brecon, Pontypool and Bangor.

Merthyr again flirted with relegation in the 2012-13 season, but with current head coach Lee Jarvis installed for the following campaign they were crowned Division 1 East champions in 2013-14.

The club's fortunes continued to improve with the arrival of millionaire benefactor Sir Stanley Thomas as chairman.

Improvements at The Wern have included a state-of-the-art artificial pitch for this season
Improvements at The Wern have included a state-of-the-art artificial pitch for this season

The Merthyr native, brother of Cardiff Blues chairman Peter, supported a recruitment drive and helped finance a significant ground redevelopment at The Wern.

Former Cardiff Blues and Pontypridd coach Dale McIntosh joined Merthyr as forwards coach in November 2015, while the likes of ex-Wales forward Andy Powell arrived to bolster the playing squad.

Merthyr were promoted from the Championship in 2015-16, reaching the semi-professional Principality Premiership.

The club needed to secure an 'A' licence from the WRU to play in the top tier of domestic club rugby in Wales, but a £1.13m expansion at the ambitious club ensured facilities were up to scratch.

A new 4G pitch was laid in August 2016, as part of planned improvements that include a 700-seater stand, new floodlights, new changing rooms, weight-training facilities and a dedicated youth centre.

The plans have been helped by a £500,000 grant from a council-managed community fund, with Sir Stanley keen to help a wider regeneration of the town, a former powerhouse of iron and coal production.

Former Cardiff Blues fly-half Gareth Davies was one of 10 new players signed up by Championship winners Merthyr for their debut season in the Premiership.

Lee Jarvis
Merthyr coach Lee Jarvis won one Wales cap, off the bench against Romania in 1997

Merthyr have already recruited Ospreys back-row Joe Bearman and Scarlets prop Pete Edwards for the 2017-18 season, while former Scarlets, Gloucester and Ebbw Vale boss Nigel Davies is set to join the coaching set-up.

Unsurprisingly, there have been rumblings of discontent from other quarters and accusations that Merthyr are 'cheque-book Charlies' who have bought success.

"A lot of people say that, but I think if they came up and saw our group for a few weeks they'll understand what we're about really," Jarvis said.

"Obviously the players do get a little bit of shillings, but I'm not sure any player in Wales would turn that down.

"They work hard together, they're a good bunch of boys - no egos there.

"People will have their opinions but as long as we know in Merthyr what we're about, we're confident in our skill level."

Merthyr now face arguably the biggest game in the club's long history when they travel to Aberavon's Talbot Athletic Ground on Sunday, although Jarvis admits the Ironmen are way ahead of schedule.

"If you'd asked me at the start of the season I'd have said it would be a dream for us to play in the Premiership final our first year," Jarvis said.

"To think of where we were four years ago: we were bottom of Division One, a game away from being relegated and most probably the club would have plummeted down the leagues.

The town of Merthyr Tydfil is a former powerhouse of iron and coal production now fallen on hard times
The town of Merthyr Tydfil is a former powerhouse of iron and coal production fallen on hard times

"So four years later we're on the brink of winning the Premiership.

"It's been a great year and testament to everyone's hard work on and off the pitch.

"We've got a tight group there at the moment; it's exciting times and we're just looking forward to Sunday.

"Our first goal was to get top eight and we would have been pleased with that... it's been a great journey so far.

"We'd be ecstatic [to claim the title], I certainly didn't expect us to win this year - maybe two or three years down the line. It takes time to create things.

"It's our first year in the Premiership, Aberavon are an experienced Premiership side and they've been there for donkey's years.

"We'll turn up at the weekend, we'll be prepared and we'll just give it our best shot, and hopefully that will be enough."

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