SAD DEMISE OF A GREAT RUGBY CLUB
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AS the Scarlets were celebrating taking the scalp of Guinness PRO14 and European champions Leinster on Saturday evening, the young players of Llanelli RFC were dusting themselves down after a sobering afternoon at Sardis Road.
A 43-0 hammering at the hands of Pontypridd has left the men from West Wales rooted to the foot of the Principality Premiership table. A week earlier they had shipped six tries in a 43-10 home loss to Ebbw Vale.
These are testing times for one of Welsh rugby’s greatest clubs.
With four, possibly five, teams relegated from the semi-pro tier at the end of the season, Llanelli have an almighty fight on their hands to avoid falling into the Championship, where former ‘feeder’ sides like Narberth and Newcastle Emlyn currently play.
In name, they are the club that downed the mighty All Blacks in 1972, the side that claimed the prized scalp of the world champion Wallabies 20 years later and who reached European semifinals in 2000 and 2002.
But the reality is, in the eyes of supporters, that side now play under the banner of the Scarlets.
And those who cheered on the likes of Phil Bennett, Ray Gravell, Rupert Moon, Ieuan Evans, Scott Quinnell and Stephen Jones now follow the fortunes of Ken Owens and Co.
For Llanelli, the past few seasons have been a struggle. Success brings in the fans, as the Scarlets have found, but Llanelli have experienced the opposite. Their average crowd last season was just shy of 300.
They have also had to borrow players from local clubs like Kidwelly, Felinfoel, Llanelli Wanderers and Llangennech.
It hasn’t always been that way in their semi-professional guise.
But the advent of the controversial new A-team competition, the Celtic Cup, has hit them like a thunderbolt.
At least 10 players who could have been playing for Llanelli in the Premiership will be involved in the Scarlets A team over the next seven weeks.
The club are hoping they will return to bolster their ranks once A-team commitments are over, but by then they could have a mountain to climb.
Unsurprisingly, there are very real fears for the future of the club side.
Garan Evans played close to 350 games in a Scarlets jersey, the majority before the arrival of the regional revolution.
He went on to become the Scarlets’ team manager, and as well as still being employed by the region is Llanelli RFC’s commercial manager.
“We always knew it was going to be tough for us this season,” he admits.
“It is not just Llanelli; you have Swansea, Neath, Bridgend, who are traditionally some of the biggest names in Welsh rugby in a similar position.
“It was always going to be a fear that we would be one of the favourites for relegation.
“We understood that, but it didn’t change anything, we still had the same budget to work to, we couldn’t put any more in.
“The Welsh Rugby Union have decided the A-team competition is the way forward and we have to go with it. The Scarlets are going as strong as they can with the A-team fixtures which means it is a challenge for us.
“But the boys we have here are giving everything for the jersey and we do believe we have enough core players that we can get a couple of wins in this block of matches and then we will reassess, see where we are and hopefully be able to utilise the nine or 10 players we will have returning from A rugby.”
It certainly doesn’t get any easier this weekend with defending champions Merthyr arriving at Parc y Scarlets on Sunday.
It is all a far cry from the days when the Shingler brothers, Ben Morgan, and a youthful Liam Williams, Gareth Davies, Scott Williams and Samson Lee used to pull on the jersey.
“We have always understood our role in the pathway and we are proud of the huge contribution we have made to Welsh rugby over the years; just look at the Wales squad in the past couple of seasons and how many have played for Llanelli RFC — we have played a big part in their development,” adds Evans. “Unfortunately, that role may well bite us with four, possibly five, teams being relegated this season. Where that leaves us, if the worst should happen, I don’t know.”
In a way, the recent success story of Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets has also had its impact. Off the field, the club side find it hard to attract new sponsors.
“We have a core group of sponsors who are very supportive, they have been long-term supporters of Llanelli as well as the Scarlets. Without them we would have gone long ago,” admits Evans.
“I do think reducing the Premiership to 12 teams is the right way to go, it will definitely improve the competition.
“But we know we are really going to have dig in to be in it next season.”
Mark Thomas has been supporting Llanelli since the birth of the Premiership in 2003.
“It’s probably the toughest it’s been here,” he said.
“I remember the first game at Parc y Scarlets. I know there was the novelty factor of the new stadium, but Llanelli played Cardiff in front of more than 4,000 fans and you had the likes of Ken Owens, Jon Davies, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull and Rhys Priestland playing. Hopefully, they can turn it around, but I do fear for the club.”
There is no doubt, if the relegation trapdoor did open and Llanelli went tumbling through, there will be many questions asked.
Will they still play at Parc y Scarlets with the costs of security, etc?
Where will they fit in in terms of the so-called pathway? Will there still be a Llanelli RFC?
For sure, these are troubled times for one of Welsh rugby’s most historic names.
Ashley Evans of Llanelli scores a try against Carmarthen Quins last season.