IT'S THE WEEKEND: Fever pitch: The beating hearts of rugby in Gwent
THE new rugby season is already upon us and fans of the domestic game have been chomping at the bit ever since the final whistle went at the end of the last.
But to the supporters, their team is more than just a rugby club; it is the heartbeat of the local community.
Many of them have dedicated a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears to their clubs. Some have even reached into their own pockets when their club’s very existence hanged in the balance.
And as the new season kicks off in earnest, renewed optimism fills the air across the Gwent valleys once again.
Dilwyn Bull, 44, and Roger Thomas, 67, are lifelong Ebbw Vale fans. Both recently made the journey to north Wales to see their club win impressively against RGC 1404 at Eirias Park in Colwyn Bay on the opening day of the SWALEC Championship.
Dilwyn remembers his beloved Steelmen playing in Europe, but has since got used to life limited to domestic league and cup competitions.
He said: “I’ve travelled all over the country to go and watch them. Roger and I take it in turns to drive to away matches.
“We played in the Heineken Cup in the good old days. The highlight I guess was beating Toulouse.
“I’ve been a fan ever since I was a kid, when I went with my father. I’ve been through the highs and to the depths of despair.
“But things are being run more professionally off the pitch now and after we got relegated, it was a fresh start for everyone.”
Ebbw Vale is now seen as the people’s club, and a fairer representation of the rugby-mad followers of the valley.
Dilwyn added: “The big thing this year is that there is a chance for promotion. In the past we have won the league but haven’t been able to get promoted – it all depends if we get the A Licence for the ground and that is the big incentive for us.
“Our aim this season has to be promotion to the Premiership and then stay there. It’s probably between us and Bargoed. I’m quietly confident.”
Roger cannot remember a time when he was not the avid Ebbw Vale fan he is today. He said: “I started watching when I was a kid, and when I retired in 1999 I bought a season ticket. I will always be an Ebbw Vale boy.
“When the club went down, it was unknown territory for us. Even not being in the Premiership you miss the type of rugby against the likes of Cardiff, Swansea and all them, although we have beaten them all in the past few years. You do miss it, because you like to pitch yourselves against the best.
“The club was in dire straits three or four three years ago. But a bunch of us went to the committees and we dipped into our own pockets to keep the club going. That’s how much it means to us.”
Having overcome the threat of liquidation a few years ago, things are looking up for Ebbw Vale.
“You’ve got so much talent in the team now, and there are a lot of them who are young and local,” he added. “The boys are brilliant – they play for the badge and for the club and all its history.”
Horace Jefferies, who turns 76 later this month, has followed Cross Keys all his life, and once played for the club’s youth team until a spinal injury during work at the colliery hampered his career.
He went on to become a long-serving committee member at the club. He was finally made an honorary life member by the club in 1985.
Mr Jefferies said: “The club has played a big part in my life. Cross Keys won by three points in a thriller on the day I was born, but obviously I can’t remember it!
“The club helped me a lot when I suffered with a back injury. A specialist doctor who treated ‘Merv the Swerve’ (Mervyn Davies) told me once that I would never walk again.
“But the club kept me mentally active. I did their programmes and collated records for the club after records had been lost during the Second World War.
“It is a club with heart, people love it. For ordinary Joes like myself, the club means so much,” he added.
“There was an open training session held recently and I’ve never seen so many people there.
“It’s exciting times at the minute. We’re playing good rugby, real expansive stuff which is great to see.”
Horace’s grandchildren, Millie, nine, and Daniel, seven, are also Keys fans. He added: “They are young but they like to go and watch. It’s nice to see them enjoying it as well.”
Over in Pontypool, Andy Giles has been stewarding for the club voluntarily for over 20 years and, like so many other fans, has been through the ups and downs that come with following his much-loved Poolers.
He said: “I am Pontypool through and through. I have seen Pontypool at their best, and I’ve seen Pontypool at their lowest.
“The last ten years, you don’t know what’s going to happen next from one year to the next.
“I still get a buzz to this day, because so many of us get together for a laugh, we have a drink and a chat and we just can’t wait for Saturday to come.
“I still think that if the club is doing well, the town will do well.
“This year, the team means business – they’re looking fit and their looking gutsy.”
Newport-mad Michael Frost, 24, attended his first match as a toddler and remains a season ticket holder to this day.
He said: “I’ve been going with my dad since I was two, and I still go with him now. The club has that identity and history of beating teams like South Africa and Australia – it’s one of the world’s best clubs.
“Winning the cup in 2001 at the Millennium Stadium was a great day because it was the first time I ever saw Newport lifting a cup.
“It’s a family club, everyone seems to know near enough everybody at the ground and it’s great to be with supporters who have been following the club for over 50 years and to hear the stories they remember so vividly.
“Ahead of the new season you just have that optimism, and you hope that the players go out there and wear their shirts with pride.”
Dave Minty also follows Newport RFC and said: “I’ve been following the club long before the regions came in.
“But I just want to see both of them do well. I can understand why people won’t come and support the Dragons, but to me, you want to go and see the best players. Newport is a good club.”
Neil Barber has a long-standing association with Blackwood RFC, having played over 200 games for the seniors and captained its youth team.
Now 48, Neil is content with life on the touchline as a supporter, along with his six-year-old son.
He said: “We are very realistic about the future here. For us, we want to be the best club we can be and play at the highest level we can but we are very much a community club first.
“A lot of work has been done in recent years to improve the facilities we’ve got and we are all very proud of the set up here.
“I’m a local boy and been involved with the club for over 30 years. It is very much a part of me. I care deeply about the club.
“We have seen a lot of change in local rugby during the years. When I started there seemed to be a lot more local players playing for their clubs and more supporters.
“But we are really proud of the fact that we cater for a lot of age groups and recently set up a ladies team as well. It does still feel like a family club.”
Leon Rose is a lifelong Newbridge RFC fan, and, at just 32, is the secretary of the 130-strong supporters’ club.
He said: “The rugby club is something I’ve grown up with and is a massive part of my life.
“When the fixtures come out at the start of the season, the first thing you do is put them in the diary and work everything else around it then, regardless of what the wife says!
“A lot of it is the banter off the field and that feeling of being connected with something in your local community.
“The supporters’ club give us a voice at the club’s monthly exec meeting. We try to look after the club as a building, and as a part of the community, and not just on what’s happening on the field.
“It’s a bit of an unknown this season because we’ve lost a couple of real good players. But it’s promising.”
These supporters have seen a lot of change over the years. They have stood by their clubs through thick and thin, and many have been close to losing their clubs altogether.
But a new season brings with it a new sense of hope. Let the season commence.
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