It’s been a strange summer of sport. Four months have passed since we wrapped-up our successful London North West 3 campaign with a tense 10-7 victory over Datchworth, yet the Ashes series only began last week, on the same weekend as the 2019-20 Football League season. And with the Rugby World Cup starting in Japan in late-September, we have a glut of warm-up fixtures to enjoy over the coming month, although the Premiership season doesn’t begin until the World Cup reaches the knockout stages in mid-October. So it is something of a delight for London Welsh to be able to launch our pre-season campaign with a visit to play Neath at The Gnoll on Saturday 17th August.
The press of the day weren’t particularly enthused by the first meeting of the two clubs at the Bird-in-Hand on 22nd December 1890, with The Times, Sportsman and Morning Post all simply reporting two short sentences along the lines of ‘London Welsh played Neath at the latter’s ground yesterday. An even match ended in a draw.’ But a letter from a London Welsh member was published in the Western Mail on the morning of the game condemning the decision of the WRU selection committee to announce the team to play England on January 3rd before they had seen the Exiles perform on their Christmas tour. Club captain Rowley Thomas, who had won three caps over the last two seasons, was named on the reserve list, although the writer suggested that this was because he had been seen by the committee playing a single game for Llanelly (sic). In the Christmas Eve edition a second letter, written after the game on the Monday afternoon, was printed in which a Neath supporter endorsed the views of the previous correspondent, suggesting that at least three of the visiting forwards comfortably outplayed the home players who had been selected for the upcoming international. In the event, Thomas played in all three fixtures in the 1891 championship, appearing in the back row alongside Neath’s Edward Pegge in the defeat to England at Newport.
You may have seen images of the matchday programme from our clash in Richmond in February 1974 on the club’s Twitter feed last week, a game in which the Welsh fielded nine full internationals - including five British Lions plus another (Clive Rees) who would travel to South Africa later that year - and still lost 12-13. But arguably our best performance against Neath came in 1967-68 when the All Blacks travelled to ODP as reigning Welsh champions and were trounced 45-3 - and this at a time when tries were still worth only three points. Admittedly they were effectively reduced to 13 men for much of the game, losing No.8 Truman to injury midway through the first half while a limping Williams was practically a spectator on the left wing. Tony Gray scored four tries, John Taylor and Andy Morgan two apiece, Noel Thomas and Cliff Yorath one each; Gareth James kicked five conversions, with another from Taylor, while Yorath also land a drop-goal. In the Times, Gordon Allen wrote ‘It is doubtful if [Neath] could have checked London Welsh, even with a full team… They do more than play rugby; they revel in it’, while Robert Oxby in the Daily Telegraph simply said ‘Perhaps once in a lifetime one sees such a performance of sheer perfection.’
Saturday’s game will be our first visit to The Gnoll since we played a dead-rubber in the British & Irish Cup on a Friday night in February 2011. The All Blacks - bizarrely playing in green on the night - won 14-7 in a game played in shocking conditions, although the Welsh had a taken an early lead with a try from the versatile James Lewis, playing on the wing, which was converted by Jamie Leonard. But home centre Stephen Thomas dived over on the half-hour, with fly-half Dai Langdon (not that one!) drawing his team level with a simple conversion. Mike Powell was binned just before the interval, and while we were still down to 14 men Thomas crossed for his second try, again converted by Langdon, to secure the win. We’ve also faced Neath twice in pre-season friendlies in the professional era, winning 13-3 at the Gnoll in August 2005 courtesy of two tries from Alex Cadwallader and a penalty from Dylan Pugh, and then 29-24 in a ‘home’ game at Ealing Trailfinders twelve months later, with James Strong, Dan Beard, Cadwallader and Pugh all crossing and Tom Marks adding nine points from the boot.
Like ourselves, Neath have endured well-publicised financial struggles in recent seasons, and last season were relegated to the Swalec National Championship for the first time. Since leagues were introduced in 1990-91, Neath have won more Premiership titles than any other club (seven) although the last of those came ten years ago when Patrick Horgan’s side secured a fifth title in six years with a 109-21 victory over Bedwas. They were also the winners of the inaugural WRU Challenge Cup in 1972, beating Llanelli 15-9 at the old Arms Park, and have claimed the silverware on a further five occasions, plus making seven more appearances in the final, most recently in 2013, when they lost 34-13 to Pontypridd, But they approach the new season, which kicks off with a short trip to Trebanos on 7th September, with renewed optimism, and the feel-good factor was very much in evidence when the club hosted a testimonial for Paul James earlier this month. Former Exiles Rowland Phillips, Dylan Pugh, Jon Mills, Richie Pugh, Hywel Jenkins, Neil Briggs, Ian Nimmo, Guy Mercer and Mike Denbee joined Direcor of Rugby Cai Griffiths to celebrate the career of the 66-times capped Wales prop in front of a 5,000-strong crowd. We can’t guarantee that Saturday’s game will be that popular, but it’s certainly got supporters of both sides digging out their old programmes and reminiscing of times when our clubs were amongst the best in Britain. The Supporters Club will be running a bus from Old Deer Park, leaving at 7:30 am - book here: http://www.londonwelshsupportersclub.co.uk/Away.php