“I never had to worry about a team talk, all I had to do was go shopping with my wife on Saturday morning. Every ten yards or so, people would stop me, tell me how we needed to play, who should be playing and why losing would not be acceptable." Barrie Davies, late Neath second row.
Prior to our long overdue return to The Gnoll to play Neath on August 17th in a pre-season friendly, Haydn Parry caught up with Mike Price who is entering his 21st year as Secretary of Neath RFC to reflect on past memories and future aspirations of the Welsh ‘All Blacks.’
What’s your background Mike, Neath boy born and bred?
Yes, I am a Neath boy through and through. I studied in Nottingham for three years but came back every weekend until graduating. So, I guess I am the classic, “born in Neath, bred in Neath and one day I will be buried under Neath!”
What are your earliest memories of Neath v London Welsh?
I am young enough to remember the last Christmas Day game, which would have been 1966, and we lost 3-6, John Dawes I think cutting through to set up a try. That was also memorable for the weather, it snowed heavily and my Dad and I were late home and I can remember him having a ticking off for being late and saying ‘but Mike didn’t want to leave.’ After that I recall a really good fly half, Bev Davies playing for London Welsh - he had played for Neath and Nice, never got a cap but a cracking player. London Welsh have always had exceptional backs.
Which Neath games live most in the memory?
So many! My favourite is a Neath v Newport game many years ago at The Gnoll which we won 3-0! It poured with rain but it was such a tense and exciting game, which put us one game away from winning the championship that year. It was also memorable because Walter Williams our prop had to keep leaving the field continually to have a head wound bandaged up. This was due to a head clash with the Newport second row Brian Price; Walter's forehead knocked Brian’s gold tooth out and the game had to be stopped so that the tooth could be retrieved. Despite all the players from both sides looking for it, it was never found, so it is still probably there to this day!
Another truly memorable game was when New Zealand came to The Gnoll. We had erected temporary stands one side of the pitch, and there were 15,000 people in the ground but it seemed like 50,000! The atmosphere was crackling throughout the game. Alan Edmunds scored in the second half, it was so close but New Zealand edged it on the day.
Since then both Sean Fitzpatrick and Warren Gatland have spoken at functions here. When I greeted Sean at Neath station and brought him to the ground, the first thing he asked me was ‘How is the door?’ Apparently, New Zealand had asked to arrive at the ground an hour before the game. This was unheard of in the late 1980’s. Unfortunately, the key to their dressing room was ‘accidentally’ lost and no one could find it. Frustration got the better of Grizz Wylie the New Zealand coach and he barged the door in! The door was left broken for some time, just to indicate to opposition teams how well we had intimidated the New Zealand boys!
Warren Gatland also told an engaging story of how hard it was for him to be selected to represent the junior All Blacks. He was so frustrated but his father kept telling him ‘son, selection is only one person’s opinion, keep on trying and you’ll get there.’ Eventually, Warren was selected to tour Argentina with the national team and he phoned his Dad to say, ‘Dad, I’m in, I have been selected for the national squad’ to which his father replied ‘son, as I told you, just remember, selection is just one person’s opinion!’
That went down well in Neath where we always feel our players have suffered at the hands of the Welsh selectors and where people are never allowed to get above themselves.
Who are the players that most evoke the Neath spirit?
When I think back to the characters we have had in the club, there are far too many to name. There are probably not as many around as in the amateur days when our players had to work an eight-hour shift and then play a full 80 minutes. That produced some rounded characters. As an example of how things have changed, I can remember an evening game at Pontypool and the coach picking our prop Glyn Shaw up at the Hirwaun roundabout. Glyn got in, work clothes still on with his face black from his work. I can recall him now running on the pitch, his face still black but his legs white, catching a kick off and charging 40 metres upfield on his own!
It would be wrong of me to single out any but most would nominate Brian Thomas. Brian was someone who could strike up a conversation with anyone, no matter what their background and was the personification of Neath - hard work, grit and honesty.
What about Neath-London Welsh links?
Recently London Welsh have benefited from the wit and wisdom of Rowland Phillips and Lyn Jones – serious rugby men with the Neath sense of humour. You had Jonathan Mills, Lee Beech and now Cai and Joel Ringer. Matthew Jones now back with us, Tim Waldron, Glyn Llewellyn, Chris Howcroft, Brian Rees, Dai Richards, Geoff Evans had one game for us, Hywel Williams and countless more. Going back to the start, your early captain A.E. Kempthorne was a Neath man as was an early chairman (Sir) J.M. Rees – Neath centre to royal surgeon.
Describe Neath in one word
‘Unique.’ Excuse me for my bias here but on field and off we have had so many characters and such great core supporters who follow us through thick and thin. Last season especially, they would follow the team knowing full well that we were going to be on the receiving end but never failed to support, encourage and also commiserate with our players when necessary.
What are challenges the club faces?
Professionalism has obviously brought us challenges. I wonder if one day there will be a clear line between the top flight professional game and our own. One thing I would like to see is national recognition at our level to give players who want to balance a career with good level rugby something more to strive for.
Social change has also brought challenges. BP Llandarcy, Metal Box and so on used to be huge local employers and the steelworks has scaled back significantly. A lot of rugby energy was driven in those places. There are also out of town retail outlets that result in fewer people coming in to the town.
Neath can still get busy in the afternoon but perhaps not like the old days when I remember one of our former locks Barrie Davies saying ‘I never had to worry about a team talk, all I had to do was go shopping with my wife on Saturday morning. Every ten yards or so, someone would stop me to talk about the game, tell me how we needed to play, who should be playing and why losing would not be acceptable.’
But Neath still retains a vibrancy and identity that is there for all to see. Traditional routes have been fractured since the Game went pro but Neath Schools U-15's and U-11's punch above their weight. Neath is still a rugby town and if we can get it right, get the town behind us and release the Neath rugby energy again everybody will benefit.
And, final question, thoughts for the coming season?
Well, I’m always a rugby optimist and believe that today's young players are tomorrow's heroes. Despite the troubles of last season, which was chastening to say the least, I am really looking forward to the season as I do every year. It won’t be easy with the likes of Pontypool, Bargoed, Cross Keys and others in our league where we will be a big scalp. I am pleased that many of the players we saw on permit last season are still with us. It is a big opportunity and they must be as ambitious as the club is.
And of course we are looking forward immensely to hosting London Welsh on the 17th. I know that our own supporters would wholeheartedly endorse a return game at Old Deer Park sometime during the season too. In the meantime, let’s look forward to the 17th and a most enjoyable day! Oh – and Denis Thatcher won't be refereeing it which he did in 1953!
Mike, Thank you. It’s great to know the spirit of Neath rugby lives on and I wish you every success for the coming season.
Roll on the 17th!