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Llanelli Star - - Front Page - Rob Lloyd @Roblloyd2 rob­[email protected]­ 01792 545559

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.

Pic­ture: Dar­ren Grif­fiths/Huw Evans Agency

Ashley Evans of Llanelli scores a try against Car­marthen Quins last sea­son.

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