RUGBY WRITINGS

WITH US THROUGH THICK AND THIN (article for Rod Snow testimonial match programme- 17/05/05)

We are gathered here today to pay homage to a true Newport rugby legend – Gerald Arthur Rod Snow.  From Come-by-chance he came by chance to Rodney Parade and from the time he first put on the Black and Amber shirt against Chepstow in November 1995 he has served the club unfailingly and with great distinction. From Newfoundland Dogs to ‘who let the dogs out’ Rod can reflect today on a wonderful career with Newport and with Canada.

As a supporter of recent vintage there is no player that has given me more pleasure to watch. There is no player that has got me out of my seat and almost on the field as he has charged towards the opposition with, it seemed, the whole of the city of Newport behind him!

In the ten-year period at Newport he has seen the club experience many changes. When he joined the Black and Ambers it was only three months after the Chairman of the International Rugby Board, Vernon Pugh, had declared the game professional. He took his place alongside compatriot Gareth Rees, facing Pontypridd in his first game proper. There were some difficult seasons including 1997-98 when every League game was lost. But (thankfully) he has stayed loyal throughout despite the obvious temptation of playing in England or in France. And then he flourished as Tony Brown brought some of rugby’s greatest names to Newport and set the Welsh rugby scene alight. Many of those stars will be here today to afford their respects to Snowy.

Rod Snow has embodied the spirit of Newport rugby in the last decade. He is the favourite of many of the terraces and his popularity has transcended the difficult move to so-called regional rugby. He has been a clubman in an era when those bygone values have succumbed to market forces. It is particularly poignant that David Waters, Newport’s greatest clubman, will be donning Black and Amber or a version of it again today.

Rod’s style of play combines the grit and hard work associated with the powerful props who have played for Newport over the years. But he has the modern flair for open spaces. I am not sure if he is a winger’s prop or a prop’s winger but there are many occasions when he has taken the ball off the outside centre or full back on his way to the try-line.

The tries have been prolific including a memorable double on the right wing at Sardis Road and a crucial score in the rain-swept cup win over the old enemy, Cardiff greeted by a clenched fist salute to the Hazell Stand.

Never mind the mythical “tarw” Snowy is the original rampaging bull.  Whether scattering the Bath defence or deflecting away Pat Lam in their oft-replayed Heineken Cup collision his attacking charges have brought forth the Rodney Parade roar.

As an overseas player he has not always met with the approval of our petty officialdom. At Stradey Park, Gareth Simmonds unfairly adjudged that Snowy had late-tackled on two occasions and was red-carded. But the lapses have been few. And in the manner of every good prop if there is a “shoot-out” amongst the forwards Snowy will be in the thick of it. I am just glad he has been our side.

As an adopted Newportonian he shares many of our City’s characteristics. He is rough-hewn, dogged, determined, generous of spirit, a fighter, and ultimately a winner. I am sure these are Canadian characteristics too.

Rod has been the complete professional with supporters throughout his time here. He has always had time for us and shown considerable commitment to the many community initiatives developed by Newport Rugby. He has played his part in spreading the message of this wonderful game and our proud club.

This game also marks the end of a marvellous era. The end of the glittering array of overseas stars who have entertained us so richly and a fitting end to the involvement of the man who made it possible, Tony Brown.

It has been a superb testimonial season for Rod Snow. Today will be another great event.

From all Newport supporters – Rod, thank you, remember us and enjoy your retirement from the game. 

 

HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD part 2 (Newport v Caerphilly prograame article written 07/12/04)

The long road away from Rodney Parade is seemingly over. We were last here on October 16th for Llanharan. Since then the Black and Amber faithful have visited all parts of South Wales in support of their side. The experience has been a wearying and disappointing one without the respite afforded by a home game. While we have achieved good victories at Pontypridd, Swansea and Carmarthen we have also lost to Neath and Pontypool. Supporters have had the unedifying pleasure of paying £10 (normal price?) to stand in the field at Eugene Cross Park to watch our team lose in a match that could have been played at Rodney Parade. Add to this Llandovery’s “helpful” intervention and the loss of three points and you can see why our title hopes hang by a thread. Despite the surfeit of home games in the second half of the campaign it is difficult to see Neath spilling the points required. Our best hope of success this year starts next week with the Konica Minolta Cup.

The defeat at Pontypool was deserved. Our depleted side was no match for the Eastern Valley side, particularly upfront. The yellow card for Will Waldron gave Pontypool the impetus needed. But, as ever, Pooler had only one game plan and despite the majority of possession made so many basic handling errors that we could have capitalised. Wales-under 21 hero Ricky Williams added much needed zip to our three-quarter line in the final quarter but it was too little too late.

Off the field at Pontypool the facilities left a lot to be desired. A poorly lit public park with dark entrance-ways, no bar or clubhouse facilities at the ground, minimal refreshment outlets in the town etc. Leaving aside the wider issues of accessibility, transport and accommodation, the contrast with Rodney Parade was startling. Regional venue - there is absolutely no contest! 

Today’s opponents Caerphilly have recorded only one win this season, in October when they upset neighbours Bedwas at the Bridge Field. They have had some narrow losses and were unlucky last weekend against Bridgend conceding a late try. Newport, therefore, need to be on their mettle this afternoon. They must win to start rebuilding their confidence.

As the season of goodwill approaches let us hope the Welsh Rugby Union see sense and resolves the “Charter” negotiations with Newport. As good chartists Newport are seeking a fair deal. But charters, loyalty agreements come and go. Yet Welsh rugby faces the same problem - the WRU continues to have too much influence on our professional rugby. If only they would give the clubs the autonomy to act as businesses and allow them to negotiate their own television rights for competitions.

In the absence of revenue due from television rights (being withheld by the WRU) we have a benefactor willing to protect rugby at Rodney Parade. Thanks to Tony Brown and our business supporters Newport Gwent Dragons are leading the Welsh challenge in the Heineken Cup.

The win against Perpignan was magnificent in front of fans in traditional voice and it was particularly pleasing to hear the “Newport” chant re-emerging on the Corporation Road terrace. Welsh rugby needs more passion and club identity not less!

Cardiff’s financial position revealed at the end of last week must have provided David Moffett with food for thought. The club is heavily reliant on its business supporters and losing income. Add in the half-hearted attitude of the Irish to the Celtic League and meltdown of the regional experiment in Scotland and you may come to the conclusion that current set up is not working. A rethink is urgently required – more proper clubs at the professional level and closer links with England should now be on the agenda.

What should we aspire to? The extraordinary match between Leicester and Wasps last Sunday provided ample evidence of the test-match quality and atmosphere of English club rugby.

 

THINKING AHEAD (Newport v Swansea programme article 18/04/05)

The win at Church Bank continued the recent pattern - an open, attacking Newport performance throwing caution to the wind. Daniel Griffiths was impeccable with the boot. Tries were scored from long range against a Drovers outfit that cannot wait to get to the season’s end. The Black and Ambers meanwhile have found championship form a little too late to catch our friends from Neath. Our Monmouthshire neighbours have failed to halt the progress of the men from the Gnoll – Pooler were humbled and Cross Keys trounced in recent matches. We can content ourselves with a tilt at the Welsh All Blacks next weekend.

The relegation battle is also decided – Caerphilly, Newbridge and Llanharan are going down. Two familiar faces look set to return to the Premiership – Maesteg and Glamorgan Wanderers, the latter impressive opponents in the Welsh Cup.

This afternoon’s opponents, Swansea, have had an inconsistent season. The brilliant double against Llanelli should be balanced against a shock defeat at Caerphilly and a draw at Llanharan. They seem destined to finish mid-table and may reflect on another campaign of under-achievement. Our boys will no doubt be all out to defend our ground record (last defeat 5th February 2003).

On the regional front Newport Gwent Dragons provided Cardiff Blues with the ultimate favour, a chance of qualification for the Heineken Cup. They scarcely deserve it but it is not the first time in recent history that the Arms Park club have been given a second chance. They will need to overturn Calvisano to progress to next year’s competition. The match at Rodney Parade last Saturday was not without its moments, many of which were provided by a sparky Connacht side who brought it to life with their late scoring spree. However, the atmosphere off the field was as lifeless and non-descript as ever. Supporters are not stupid. The fact that a side is professional and has a funny nickname is insufficient to inspire a raucous chant from the terraces.

The loudest cheer was reserved for a true talisman of Newport rugby, Rod Snow, as he led the team on to the field.

The “Western Mail” provided a predictably upbeat survey of the Celtic League in its Monday edition. Average crowds for this season are 4,277 - an increase of 10 per cent overall. While this is certainly a positive improvement, the attendances are still dwarfed by the Zurich Premiership. This has an average crowd of 9,900 – an increase of 16 per cent. There have been 52 sell-outs in the Zurich thus far. Little surprise, therefore, that Guinness has decided to back the English competition for the next four seasons to the tune of £20 million in preference to the Celtic alternative.

It is welcome news that the Welsh Rugby Union appears to have struck a deal with Premier Rugby for our four teams to play their English counterparts in a cup competition next year. This should certainly excite spectator interest and provide an opportunity to renew old rivalries.

The countdown to the British Lions tour continues. Jonny Wilkinson looked sharp in his return for Newcastle at Northampton last Friday and looks set to make the squad if he stays injury-free. Robin Davey has blasted Sir Clive for his squad selection. That should have him quaking in his boots! Not sure he gets the Argus though. Still it made the rest of us feel better. Graham Henry has offered us the benefit of his advice. The squad is likely to be divided and unhappy at the English representation. Obviously, experiencing a touch of short-term memory loss. Graham’s own tenure as Lions coach was harmony itself. Ask Austin Healey (or was that Eddie Butler?). Gareth Jenkins has lambasted the WRU for its apparently lukewarm support of the tour. Well done, Gareth - we are always up for a bit of WRU-bashing. If the rugby on the field is as good as the off the field antics we are in for an unforgettable summer. 

 

 

AIMING FOR EUROPE (Newport Gwent Dragons v Celtic Warriors 22/03/04)

 

The Welsh performance at Twickenham was heartening despite defeat. For an hour we managed to compete with England scoring tries by playing with pace and width. However, our shortcomings in the front row were cruelly exposed particularly late in the game. The line out was also a major disappointment. The World Champions stuttered, struggling to find any fluency or confidence after their defeat against Ireland. They were there for the taking but we lacked the composure or killer touch to win the game. We may not have a similar chance for some time. In the end, England found the resources to finish us off. But it would be churlish not to admit that limited progress has been made this season. To put it in perspective however we have only won one match thus far against a very poor Scottish side and we still need to despatch Italy tomorrow to claim our position as top of the second rank in the Six Nations.

There is, therefore, some small foundation for new coach Mike Ruddock to build on. Despite the familiar WRU-inspired farce surrounding the selection process nothing should detract from the quality of Mike Ruddock as a coach. There were initial misgivings but I believe supporters of Newport Gwent Dragons have grown to appreciate the hard work that he has put in to developing our current squad and establishing the regional entity. Despite a comparative lack of resources and numerous off-field distractions he has produced a team capable of achieving Heineken Cup qualification and possibly more. Hopefully, he will apply the same skill and judgement on the international stage. I am sure he has the firm backing of all supporters at Rodney Parade.

Mike is still with us for the immediate future but that has not stopped our friends in the press from pontificating about his successor and trying to run the affairs of Newport Gwent Dragons. Simon Roberts in ‘Wales on Sunday’ has warned us that we should employ a Welsh coach at all costs. If he thought about it he would realise that business decisions such as this are critical to the success of the club and the company. The Directors should select the best person for the job and no doubt they will. But then at Newport we are used to being lectured by journalists about what is best for us. For example, Eddie Butler’s unfortunate and sad outburst about the regional team did not reflect well on him at a time when there is evidence that increasing numbers are supporting Newport Gwent Dragons adding to regional rugby’s most passionate audience. The BBC and others might be better advised to focus on action taking place on the field including the Welsh Premiership an excellent competition that seems to receive little or no coverage.

Tonight’s opponents the Celtic Warriors have experienced a dip in their fortunes of late. They floundered in defeat away at Neath-Swansea Ospreys (23-11) and at home to Ulster (28-0). In the Celtic League they now stand five points adrift of us in fourth place. However, prior to the recent reversals the Warriors had won five on the bounce including the prize scalp of Llanelli Scarlets by 16-15 at the Brewery Field. Earlier in the season they beat us by 19-12 at Sardis Road. Despite squad call-ups they still represent a significant challenge and this fixture will go a long way to deciding Heineken Cup aspirations for both teams. A feature of recent weeks has been the improved form of the Ospreys and the Cardiff Blues (they meet in Sunday afternoon’s televised fixture). Our fantastic win at Munster eased the pressure on us a fortnight ago - we need to respond in the same way again tonight.

 

BACK TO OUR ROOTS (Article for Newport v Llanelli 25/01/05)

For any who missed it for one reason or another the trip to Pontycwmer was an extraordinary experience. Pontycwmer Rugby Football Club pulled out all the stops to make Newport supporters, players and officials welcome. The hospitality of their club and their locality put most regional and professional clubs in Wales to shame. They were delighted to welcome the famous Black and Ambers to Lawrence Park. They pronounced it the greatest day in their history and whatever the result or the weather conditions were going to make it a great day for all concerned. It was a timely reminder, despite the recent negative turn of events, that the values of Welsh club rugby remain intact.

I am sure Lawrence Park is in a beautiful setting. The unfortunate thing is that you could not see it for much of the game. The sky was dark and the brave supporters “lifted their heads to the blows of the rain” as it swept across the ground. Newport put on a thoroughly professional performance from the outset. With the wind at their backs they used their forward pack to good effect scoring a hat-trick of tries from the rolling maul. (Incidentally, how many tries have been scored from this tactic this season? It must be close to a record.) Pontycwmer put on a good show in the second half and got in to our twenty-two on a couple of occasions near the end by which time many supporters had headed, drenched, down the “long mile” to the clubhouse for their pasty and a pint.

It was strange to be elsewhere while a Newport related team was also playing at Rodney Parade. Let us hope such fixture clashes can be avoided in future.

This afternoon attention turns to Llanelli. Their Premiership team has out performed the Celtic League team in many respects this year and currently sits in second place in the table. This is a remarkable turnaround from last year’s fourteenth place. They remain the only team to have lowered Neath’s colours. This match starts an important run-in for the Black and Ambers. Ten of our remaining thirteen fixtures are at home including the rescheduled game against Newbridge next Tuesday evening.

The Heineken Cup has concluded for the Welsh entrants at least. For the first time in the competition’s history we have no representation in the quarter-finals of this competition. It was pleasing to read articles by both Robin Davey and Stephen Jones remarking on the progress or lack of it of our regional sides. Their words should resonate around the corridors of the Welsh Rugby Union. I have every confidence that David Moffett will take very little notice unfortunately. Of the teams only Newport Gwent Dragons had the remotest chance of qualification. They were found wanting upfront against a stronger, technically superior Newcastle pack. A stirring performance from our national team against England will not mask the deficiencies of the current structure or of supporter interest in it.

The match next Saturday is not the foregone conclusion of many England-Wales encounters of recent years. England have lost so many players due to injury that they may be found wanting. However, they have a talented squad and strength in depth particularly at forward. Wales have also lost some key players too but will be buoyed by their heroic Autumn defeats. A win is key to Mike Ruddock’s ambitions but do we have the forwards who can turn England over?

It promises to be an exciting and open Six Nations. Wales are the dark horses again. Favourites and champions France face tough trips to Dublin and to Twickenham. This may prove too daunting a task. It is difficult to part the Irish or the English and their encounter at Lansdowne Road should prove decisive.  

RUGBY WRITINGS