Neath RFC: History of the club facing an uncertain future

The Gnoll, home of Neath RFC
The Gnoll, home of Neath RFC

Neath Rugby Club was once the domestic power in Wales.

They dominated the amateur domestic game in the late 1980s and provided more than half of the Wales team for a match against the Barbarians in 1990.

Now the club's trading company, Neath Rugby Limited, has survived a winding up order in spite of being declared insolvent.

So the famous Welsh All Blacks - one of Wales' oldest and famed clubs - face an uncertain future.

They are among a number of the former great Welsh rugby clubs who have run into trouble in the 23 years since the game became professional.

On the field, Swansea and Llanelli are struggling in the Principality Premiership, where Neath are bottom of the table.

Off the field, Pontypool, long-since relegated from the Premiership, are looking for a new permanent home ground.

History has shown no respect for reputation since regional rugby took over the professional arm of the domestic game in 2003.

But behind the news headline is a sporting tradition.

If you want to measure the importance of Neath Rugby Club in the history of the game in Wales then a quick roll-call of former players provides the answer.

Roy John, Courtenay Meredith, Brian Thomas, Dai Morris, Elgan Rees, Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs, Adam Jones and Shane Williams all broke into the mainstream wearing the famous black shirt and Maltese cross.

Billy Boston, the most famous of rugby league wings, played some of his few games in top-flight rugby union for Neath.

This is a small sample. There are many more.

On the field they were the first winners of the Welsh Cup in 1971-72, beating Llanelli in the final.

In the decade leading up to the game becoming professional in 1995 a Neath squad built by Brian Thomas and Ron Waldron was among the most powerful in the land.

They won the Welsh championship in 1987, 1988 and 1990.

Neath captain Kevin Phillips lifts the Schweppes Cup in 1990
Kevin Phillips lifts the Welsh Cup in 1990

A packed Gnoll shook to its foundations to the familiar roar of "Neath, Neath, Neath" as they swept domestic opposition aside gave serious frights to New Zealand in 1989 and South Africa in 1994.

The club always revelled in its role as the outsider, if not always the underdog.

The Welsh Rugby Union was born in a Neath Hotel but Neath RFC were not among the founder members.

They were outside the ranks of Welsh rugby's big four - Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport and Swansea - and enjoyed knocking them off their perceived pedestals.

So here are three highlights from the history of one of Wales' great clubs.

Neath 15-9 Llanelli, Welsh Cup Final 1972

Neath claimed the first WRU Challenge Cup crown when they beat Llanelli 15-9 at Cardiff Arms Park.

The Scarlets went on to dominate the Cup, and it was 17 years before the Welsh All Blacks won the trophy again.

That day they edged the Scarlets 14-13 and were back again a year later to beat Bridgend 16-10.

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Jonathan Davies try against Bath

Neath 26-9 Bath, 29 November 1986

Bath were the top English club of their day while Neath, under Brian Thomas, were a rising power in Wales.

Fly-half Jonathan Davies announced himself to the world outside Wales with a mesmerising display culminating in an outstanding individual try shown repeatedly on national television.

That followed an Elgan Rees interception try - reward for a player who had stuck by the club through difficult times.

A bouncing home crowd left happy that their team had lifted a dull day with some scintillating play.

Neath and Australia players trade blows in 1992
Neath and Wallaby players trade blows in 1992

The tourists at the Gnoll

Neath were involved in three titanic battles with touring teams between 1989 and 1994.

First the All Blacks came to the Gnoll as world champions and were given a run for their money before pulling away to win 26-15 in front of a packed house.

In 1992 Australia had taken over as world champions and were also pushed hard before emerging 16-8 winners amid accusation by their coach Bob Dwyer of underhand tactics by the home team.

There was no love lost either when South Africa - soon-to-be world champions - were 16-13 winners in 1994 of a match later labelled the "Battle of the Gnoll".

In the professional era, several players would have seen red. In the amateur era, no one did.

How times change.

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