The only son of a steelworker and a hospital cook, Alan Spencer Hughes who writes for Sport Wales was born in 1948 and has lived in the small village of Tonna, near Neath in South Wales for almost all of his life. An interest in opera, sport and english literature has led to the publication of various newspaper and magazine articles and other prose writings. 



The somewhat mysterious origins of the game of rugby union began here in Wales in the latter part of the nineteenth century and are linked, as ever in the history of the game to the public schools.

          In England , legend has it that the game had begun fifty years earlier at Rugby , the famous public school in Warwickshire, when William Webb Ellis, during an inter house football match “picked up the ball and ran with it”. thus did rugby begin, due to an impromptu act by a schoolboy who’s name now resonates throughout the sporting world.

          William Webb Ellis never went on to play the game he almost unwittingly founded by that spontaneous and symbolic act. After leaving Rugby school he went on to study at Oxford , and was later ordained into the clergy.

          The reverend William Webb Ellis ended his days in France , where his final resting place overlooks the sea at Menton in Provence and where, in a yearly ceremony, his memory is honoured and his grave tended by the French Rugby Union.

          In 1870, the annual school holidays brought those Neath pupils who were domiciled at the English public schools back to their homes in the town, and legend has it that on a patch of land near Cadoxton during a weekly social gathering, one of them produced a rugby ball. They and others, men and boys, played with and against each other with scratch sides in a game that was new to the town.

          Thus was rugby first played at Neath, and thus, in 1871, was founded one of the worlds most famous clubs- Neath RFC.

          One of the first mentions, in a newspaper of the time in February 1872 describes a game between Neath and Swansea in which “the interest displayed was very great, although the result was undecided, both sides claiming victory”.

          Among those young men gathered during the early days was T. P. Whittington (illustrated left), reputed to be the founder of the Neath club. Whittington (later to become doctor), a scot, was an accomplished and wholehearted player of rare ability who became, in 1873 in a game between Scotland and England, Neath’s first international, and this eight years before the Welsh Rugby Union was formed, almost inevitably it seems, at the Castle Hotel in the heart of the town in 1881.

          In 1874 a newcomer to the district, a young man of just seventeen years called Sam Clarke had joined in a practice session with the Neath team, and was so impressive that he was immediately asked to join the club. Sam Clarke(later major) went on to captain Neath and became, in 1882 the first Neath player to represent Wales when he played in the three-quarters for his country against Ireland in Dublin . It was only the second game that Wales had played, and the first they were to win.

          Neath’s next international was Dr Vernon Pegge, who was capped by Wales against England in 1891. Thus was the precedent set and the forerunners in place for the many others that were to follow.

          Some years earlier the famous all black strip was worn for the first time. Assorted coloured jerseys were the order of the day until, in a match against Bridgend in 1880 the Neath wing three-quarter and Welsh quarter mile athletics champion Dick Gordon was killed. The team resorted to funereal black as a tribute in his honour, and has been worn ever since, perhaps the most famous garb in rugby football.

          The Maltese cross had its origins some years later as a result of  badge worn in the cap of a player called Richard Moxham, who wore the emblem as an adornment, whereupon it was decided to adopt the crest, in order to relieve the monotonous black.

          The first home was the Gnoll grounds, until a dispute with the local cricket club led to a move to superintendent Evan’s field near the old Gnoll cinema in Gnoll Park Road . Other grounds followed, including Cadoxton, Tricks field in King Street and the famous Bird in Hand Pitch near the old Fairfield, before in 1898 re-establishment back at the Gnoll, where, some thirty years earlier, it had all began.

          The next twenty years saw the club gain in importance and prestige, aided in no small part by an administrator of rare talent and foresight in the shape of Walter Rees.

          First appointed by Neath in 1896, he then became secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union for the next fifty years, and is rightly regarded as being one of the central figures in the early development of the game in the principality.

          At Neath, fixtures were organised against many of the leading English clubs of the day, and a steady flow of representative and international players brought honour to the club and the town.

          Albert Freethy had taken up an appointment as a teacher at the Alderman Davies School at Neath in 1919 and was an enthusiastic advocate of schoolboy rugby. Later to gain worldwide repute as an international referee, he was fondly regarded locally for his guidance of the Neath Schoolboy team who won the Dewar Shield, in 1922 with a side regarded as perhaps the finest ever. In an invincible season they played 19 games, winning them all, and scored 385 points with only 35 against. The team, under Freethy’s control and influence was kept together to become the famous Freethys ex-schoolboys, known throughout Wales as the invincibles.


          Some years later one of the greatest players ever to wear the famous black jersey was to appear for Neath.

          Dan Jones was, and is the most prolific try scorer in the history of the game. It is a sad testimony to the social prejudice inherent at the time that he was only to play once for Wales , in 1927.

          Certainly not a man with the benefit of higher education, a similarity can be found with one of Llanelli’s all time greats, the legendary Albert Jenkins, who also won a meagre number of caps not commensurate with his undoubted ability. The old school tie mentality, nurtured and promoted by an establishment sympathetic to the universities, was manifested in a nepotism among national selectors whose tendencies were to look after their own.

           A measure of the greatness of Dan Jones can be gauged by a comparison with one of Neath’s modern greats, the mercurial genius that is Shane Williams. In Shane Williams’ most prolific season for Neath and Wales in 2002/3 he scored 29 tries. In 1928/29 Dan Jones scored 73.

          The years before and after the second world war saw the club, under the chairmanship of Arthur Griffiths consolidate its position as one of the country’s leading  centres of Rugby Union. All the leading rugby playing nations played at the Gnoll, among them Australia , South Africa and New Zealand . Championships were won, and titles earned, chiefly it must be said, based on the clubs enviable reputation for producing forwards of passionate commitment.

          There were gifted three-quarters, half backs and full backs of talent and composure, but it was the forwards, those indomitable packs, those obdurate people, that seemingly inexhaustible supply of hard, uncompromising men for which the club was rightly famed.

          In the first rugby international to be televised live, there were three Neath forwards in the Welsh pack that withstood a fierce onslaught against New Zealand to win for Wales at Cardiff in 1953. Courtney Meredith was to win 14 caps, the peerless Roy John 19 and Rees Stephens 32. The three were later to tour with the British Lions in the antipodes where Roy John was dubbed “The King”. Rees Stephens, like his father before him was later to captain Neath and Wales.

          The sixties were, for the most part an undistinguished decade, although the championship was won in 1966 under the captaincy of Martyn Davies, a man from my own village of Tonna , who went on to play a record number of games for the club. The Welsh sevens were won at Cardiff Arms Park, and the club unearthed, in Grahame Hodgson, their greatest ever full back. Dave Morris, unheralded and unassuming was to become the most capped Welsh flanker of all time, whilst Ron Waldron and Brian Thomas first appeared in a playing capacity for Neath and Wales .

          Both were destined to become an integral part of coaching and administration during the halcyon days that were yet to come, almost a quarter of a century later.

          It was fitting that almost exactly a hundred years after that initial gathering by those public schoolboys near Cadoxton that Neath would become the first winners of the Welsh cup by defeating Llanelli at Cardiff Arms Park in 1972, and would later become the first official champions of Wales.

          Thus ended over a century of achievement by this great club, interwoven as it is, in spirit and identity with the lives of so many people in and around the town. 

          To us, the committed, we believe, rightly or wrongly that we are different. We perceive, in its intrinsic character an almost Shakespearian trait by recognising within it something of ourselves. We are different, and after all, why shouldn’t we believe that we are different? … We are Neath.   




"we are different.............. we are Neath"




June 2011 - Alan Hughes presents the Managing Director of the Castle Hotel Sally Rowlands with a framed presentation of his story 'An Opening Century' which covers the early days of Neath rugby and the birth of the Welsh Rugby Union at the Castle Hotel. For more information about the formation of the WRU at the Castle Hotel and other info please.............









The autograph, tangible provenance of one’s meetings, however fleeting the moment, with the great and the good, the famous and the infamous, within our midst.

          My first autograph book, given by my mother when I was a small boy was a somewhat garish affair. On its front was the Union Jack, surrounding a picture of the Queen, in the opulent and ceremonial garb of her 1953 coronation, smiling benignly from a cover made from thinly rolled tin. Its outward, armour plated resilience however, belied the flimsiness of the succeeding pages within, and I remember being rather crestfallen on discovering, after page one, that the scrawled signatures, in anything other than an uncommon lightness of touch would ruin the following pages by their indentations. In the fullness of time, I learnt that a piece of cardboard, positioned between the leaves, could somewhat alleviate this effect.

          The great and the good, for me, were sportsmen. My hero’s were cricketers and rugby players, who were pursued with a competitive intensity shared with many others of my own age in and around the town. Winter Saturdays were of course rugby match days during which an unruly posse of us would gather outside the dressing rooms at the Gnoll, there to thrust pen and book at the perceived celebrities as they embarked on the post match walk to the clubhouse at the other end of the ground. There were of course targets to achieve, some of them more unlikely than others.

          When Penarth for example came to town it was their inside half and captain called Bernard Templeman, affectionately known as Slogger who was the prized signature. He spent his entire career with the tiny, though prosperous club in the Cardiff suburbs except for one season, when he succumbed to the pressures and overtures from the Cardiff club, their big city neighbours and played for them before rejoining Penarth, where he was most appreciated and perhaps most at ease. ‘I wasn’t the Cardiff type’. For over a decade he was courted by other, more prestigious clubs but stayed loyal to Penarth as their finest player and talisman and thus the most prized autograph, indeed, among his peers in the Penarth ranks his was the only autograph, to the exclusion of all others that the posse of assembled schoolboys rather cruelly sought.

          Diminutive,  squat, and later rotund, he was to be found after he retired and on a daily basis at a corner table in The Old Arcade pub in the centre of Cardiff, where he held court, and where, even to this day there is a plaque which proclaims it to be, simply and appropriately Slogger’s Corner.




Another target was to be found among the ranks of an equally unlikely club in Cross Keys. This time it was a prop forward called Rex Richards who had once played for Wales against France . To be capped for Wales from Cross Keys was in itself worthy of note, but his brief moment of fame extended not only among the rugby fraternity of the Monmouthshie valleys but to Hollywood .

          Richards, endowed with film star good looks at the outset, with a bronzed swarthiness coupled with a mighty physique, had, on a lengthy visit to America shortly afterwards found his way to the Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where he auditioned for the role of Tarzan in an epic Hollywood film in which he almost co-starred with the glamorous American actress Esther Williams. “Me Tarzan, you Jane”, and also appeared in a long running television series with the fearsome title of "The Wild Women of Wongo".  



From the Gwent valleys he had become an icon of the silver screen, in which he swam in the jungle lagoons and swung from tree to tree with a beautiful woman on his arm whilst dressed only in a loincloth. The colourful path of his life’s journey had taken him from the wintry pastures of Pandy Park in Cross Keys to being befriended by the tropical apes. Some journey. Some guy. His autograph, and sadly for his team mates hardly anyone else was the signature we wanted. He signed it "Rex TARZAN Richards".


Seasons passed and changed, as did the dynamic within our group. I had progressed from being one of the youngest and smallest to a mid-range position as younger autograph hunters joined and older ones left in order to pursue the mystery of girls. We were to find, as the seasons unfolded that it was the lesser known English clubs, unaccustomed to adulation that were the most receptive to our demands. We were sometimes invited into their dressing room, there to be occasionally taken aback at seeing them in the flesh as it were. The leading English clubs, and all the Welsh, kept their doors firmly shut.

          At the end of a fruitful Saturday I would go home with news of the match, and the autographs obtained.

          Life at home was ordered, peaceful and for the most part uneventful. Dinner (later to be called lunch), tea (unchanged), and supper (later to become dinner), were taken in the middle room on a table laid with the obligatory white table cloth. In keeping with the constancy which permeated those days of calmness there were some meals which were eaten only on certain days and were inviolate in the patterned and inflexible structure of the week.

          Supper on Mondays (later to become dinner) was always bacon and laverbread. Dinner on Wednesdays (later to become lunch) would be faggots and peas, and tea on Saturdays (unchangeable) would be tinned salmon and bread and butter.

          As an only child in those years of innocence my parents took a supportive interest in everything I did. They encouraged my aspirations, shared my fantasies, and indulged my whims. They loved me of course, with the kind of unequivocal tenderness that perhaps only a single child can know.

          I later took up the somewhat unusual hobby of collecting different cigarette packets, which necessitated my father, a heavy smoker throughout his life, uncomplainingly having to buy any number of obscure brands which he was obliged to smoke in order to further my collection.

          It was in the mid sixties that one of the foremost English clubs in the shape of Northampton came to play Neath at the Gnoll. Within their ranks were three English internationals of fame and repute, the tough and uncompromising prop forward Ron Jacobs, the elegant, flaxen haired centre three quarter Jeff Butterfield and, holy of holy’s the captain of England called Dicky Jeeps. Jeeps had orchestrated, in his capacity as leader, a victory over Wales at Twickenham and was generally regarded as being one of the games finest players. Allied to that was the easy resonance with which his name tripped off the tongue, thereby adding to his perceived aura of importance.



          Northampton were soundly beaten by 14 points to nil.

          Dicky Jeeps was interviewed about the game on the following Wednesday on Sportsview then the flagship programme for sport on the BBC and hosted by the Reith-like Peter Dymock ‘yes well, they are very hard to beat down there at Neath’. At the end of the game at the Gnoll, the usual large group, and perhaps a few more had gathered, me among them, outside the visiting dressing room, pens and books at the ready, for the emergence of the Northampton team. First out among those targeted came Jeff Butterfield, suave and composed, who happily obliged in an almost classical, unhurried sort of way, followed sometime later by target two, the redoubtable prop forward Ron Jacobs who signed for us all without feeling the need to elaborate on the game or the environment.

          Some time elapsed, until eventually the door opened to reveal the holy of holy’s, Dicky Jeeps.

          He emerged whilst in deep conversation with someone who appeared to be a senior committee member of the Northampton club, a conversation so obviously meaningful as to render our presence invisible. They continued walking toward the clubhouse, oblivious to the clammer of young boys with which they were surrounded before disappearing into the beery fug of the bar. We had failed.

          Some time elapsed during which a somewhat muted mood pervaded the atmosphere within our disappointed group, me among them, until one boy, certainly a little older than us and possibly a little rougher than us and destined one assumed to become a trade unionist of militant tendency suddenly burst into life ‘We gorra fuckin’ do sumfin boys, follow me’. This we dutifully did, but not without a degree of trepidation, fuelled by the fact that we were unsure as to his course of action, or indeed what sort of ‘sumfin’ he had in mind. We noisily marched, straggled and assembled behind him at the closed clubhouse door, where he began to chant, unaccompanied at first, but quickly followed by the brave, then everyone else ‘We want Jeeps, we want Jeeps, we want Jeeps’, we were all in this together now ‘We want Jeeps, we want Jeeps’, louder, louder, ‘We want Jeeps, we want Jeeps, we want Jeeps’. The door swung open to reveal the astonished faces of the men in the crowded club. On tip-toe I could see the slightly balding head of Jeeps in the centre of the room. He alone, in a bar full of men smoking woodbines and drinking pints of bitter or brown ale had his hand curled around what appeared to be a single malt.

          That fact alone set him as a man apart.

          It’s you they want Dicky’ said a Northampton voice as the chants outside continued, whereupon Jeeps walked briskly and magisterially towards the door. The crowd parted, as with Moses at the red sea, ‘Now what’s all this? Be quiet all of you!’ even the future shop steward fell instantly silent. Jeeps then asked for, nay ordered a chair from inside the room to enable him to sit at the front of our now chastened group outside the club before closing the door on those inside ‘Now you boys form a quiet and orderly queue’. Dicky Jeeps then proceeded to sign.........

.............. with composed efficiency each of our autograph books in turn on that balmy April night, after which we made our quiet way home, each of us in separate directions, each with our own separate thoughts. I felt, and I’m sure it was a sentiment shared, as one might feel after being called to the headmaster’s study.

          The number 31 United Welsh double decker bus from Gnoll Park Road in Neath took me to my Tonna home, there to be greeted by my father, ‘We beat the buggers son’.

          Saturday tea (unchanged) was taken as ever in the middle room - tinned salmon, bread and butter, before we settled down to hear my story of the day. My mother, knitting, was listening with an air of amused benevolence as I told her and showed her the autographs obtained. There was Butterfields name, wrote large with a flourish, elegant and expansive, there was Jacob’s - less so, and there, on a separate page, in splendid isolation was Dicky Jeeps. The story of my day was then told (I had saved the best for last).

          My father listened as I explained to him how Jeeps had been in earnest conversation on the way to the clubhouse and was therefore unable to accommodate our noisy pleadings. He listened as I told him how Jeeps had quelled that small group of rebellious schoolboys. He listened, with it seemed to me an increasingly furrowed brow at how the authoritarian Jeeps had taken control as a great man should. He listened as I told him how we were made to form that orderly and silent queue. He listened to how, on that April evening in Neath, we had been…..processed…..and then he went to bed.




The town of Neath is known in sporting terms throughout the nation of course, chiefly for its rugby. The game as we know it in Wales began at Neath, at the Castle Hotel in 1881 and Neath is the oldest club. In the 1988/89 season Neath scored 1,917 points and scored 345 tries, more points and tries than any team in the history of the game before or since, a world record that is unlikely ever to be broken, but little is known of another sporting record that was achieved in the town.

In the winter of 1968 the talk amongst the townsfolk was of a world record amateur snooker frame score achieved by a man called Dai Morgan.

          Born in the village of Crynant in the Neath valley in 1920, Dai Morgan began his working life as a collier, and represented his village at rugby as a robust and wholehearted back row forward, before taking up snooker at the relatively mature age of 37, after an earlier flirtation with billiards.

The snooker halls of South Wales had spawned some of the greatest players ever to compete in the game, and snooker’s place in the social and economic structure was firmly entrenched in the nation’s sporting awareness. Its off-quoted mantra, about its most successful players being products of a miss-spent youth, was given scant regard by its many devotees. It shares with darts, that other indoor sport without pretension, a similarity in that its leading participants are not required to attain any high degree of physical conditioning to be at their compelling best. Its nine dart finish, like snookers magical 147 being an elusive and fleeting glimpse of perfection.

          The game of snooker thrived as never before in the post war years, in the working men’s clubs and welfare institutes in almost all the centres of population. In Neath the games premier location was at the Mackworth club in the centre of the town. Wood paneled, hushed and somewhat reverential in character and content, it had all the hallmarks of a quintessentially British snooker institution, and was a place where the worlds greatest players would often appear.

To the casual observer, like me, venturing forth for the first time in the early days as a wide eyed innocent and yet to be corrupted schoolboy, the cavernous smoke filled halls were places of mystery and intrigue. One sensed, without actually ever knowing it for sure, that a delicious, exciting and furtive subterfuge was taking place among the flickering figures in the semi darkness.

          Amid such a scenario, at the Mackworth club in Neath, in front of a large and expectant crowd on a wet December night in 1968 on table No.1 and during a match against a well known local player, Dai Morgan was to make snooker history.

          After the customary early and cautious exchanges the first and ultimately fateful black was potted inadvertently by Dai Morgan’s opponent, resulting in Morgan being awarded seven points. There followed, with the slow and measured composure for which he was famed, 15 potted reds, followed by 15 blacks and all six colours to achieve a total frame score of 154 - 0. A world record in the amateur game.


    Verified by the billiards association and control centre at Arundel Street in London , it became a talking point wherever the game was played.

          Dai Morgan, already famous throughout the South Wales snooker establishment, was to extend his influence by playing many exhibition matches all over the country, in partnership with the most famous names in the sport, among them Jackie Rae, John Pullman and Joe Davis, for the aid of disadvantaged children, a cause and a charity that would always remain close to his heart.

Sadly, no longer with us, Dai Morgan died after a long illness on October 26 1973 at the tragically young age of 53.

In the surviving snooker halls they will talk with nostalgia about the games greatest players, all of whom graced the tables at the Mackworth. From the elder statesman of the amateur game, Neath’s own Mario Berni, who became champion of Wales, to the world professional champions of yesteryear, such as Scotland’s Walter Donaldson, Australia’s Horace Lindrum, England’s John Pullman and John Spencer, Ray Reardon of Wales and Ireland’s Alex Higgins.

They will talk long into the night about the greatest of them all, the incomparable and legendary Joe Davis, and occasionally of a feat unsurpassed or unequalled even by him - Dai Morgan’s 154. 

 Mario Berni 3rd from left, and Dai Morgan centre, watching Joe Davis practice at the Mackworth.





A lifelong interest in sporting venues took me recently to that most quintessentially English of test match cricket grounds, Trent Bridge Nottingham , and its renowned library.

I was met by Mr. Peter Wynne Thomas who has presided over this, one of the largest Cricket libraries in the world with loving care in his capacity as archivist and librarian for more years than he cares to remember.

As a man of Neath (actually Tonna) it is a special place for me, for it was at Trent Bridge in the 1934 test match against Australia that a former pupil of Neath Grammar School-Cyril Walters- became the first Welshman to captain England.

Remarkably, in the long history of cricket, the only other Welshman to captain England was a product of the same school-Tony Lewis-who was also a rugby player of some distinction for Cambridge University , Gloucester and Neath, and who was later to become president of the M.C.C.

Peter Wynne Thomas, an architect by profession whose father was born in Wales , showed me some of the books, scorecards and documents gathered and stored in sequential order in polished wooden bookcases among the memorabilia of centuries.

I told him, although I suspected he knew, of the bat and ball which was displayed for years at Neath Cricket club after the match in May 1868 in which the redoubtable W.G Grace famously ‘bagged a pair’. A brief search ensued until the details were unearthed. The United South of England eleven versus twenty two of Cadoxton with Howitt. A splendidly Victorian footnote recorded that Howitt ‘cyphered’ Mr Grace, and that one of the umpires (doubtless impartial but mindful of the town’s roman origins) was called Julius Caesar!!  

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Sadly, there seems little likelihood of anyone succeeding Mr Wynne Thomas when this most gentle and articulate of men decides to end his labour of love. His view, as mine, is that cricket, with its history and tradition has a quality of literature which is perhaps over and above all other sports.

Close by, and almost overshadowing the cricket ground are the two football grounds, Notts county, the oldest league club, and closer still, Notts Forest . Bigger, brasher, but lacking the timeless charm that is Trent Bridge .

When the next test match is played at Trent Bridge we have arranged to meet again. Until then, I left him to do what he has done day after day, year after year in his quiet vocation, studiously researching among the artefacts in that hallowed room. Perhaps only cricket could produce such a place, and such a man.


 William Bancroft of the Cadoxton XXII, grandfather of the legendary brothers William J & Jack Bancroft who were to star for Wales at rugby in the first golden era.





Inside ropes please, one for me and one for the boy”. With those words, spoken by my father, I first entered the Gnoll, to begin, like him before me, a lifelong devotion to Neath Rugby Club. In that first game (against Richmond of all people), we took what became our usual place at the Union End, away, my father reasoned, from the more raucous elements among the crowd. Thus, was I inducted.

After that first game I wanted him to take me again, to every game in any weather. I was smitten. He couldn’t get away with saying he was tired after a morning shift, because being an odious little fellow I demanded that we go.

At half-time there were the autographs. Too shy in the early days, I was soon leading the pack towards the half-time huddle, towards the Neath team of course. However famous and illustrious the opponents it was always the Neath signatures I wanted. As the years passed and he became too old and ill to accompany me, I started to go to the away games as well, eventually to every game, anywhere, often on my own, to all parts of the country, wherever the all blacks were playing.

One of my first   favourites was Cyril Roberts, that most powerful of wings for Neath and Wales. I still see him in Neath these days, looking fit, healthy and tanned, a testimony to the way he has lived his life. In those days he was a coruscating runner who thrilled the Gnoll crowd with his touchline dashes.

Years passed, chiefly of mediocrity, until one day there came, for me, a seminal moment. It was the arrival of a full back, his name was G.T.R Hodgson of St Lukes College, Exeter and Neath – Grahame Hodgson – and he was the most complete player I had ever seen.  

Everything he did was immaculate, even his kit seemed perfect, an unsubstantiated rumour had it that even his bootlaces were ironed. 

For years, for me, he was Neath. There was, as ever, a fearsome pack, but it seemed to me then, that whilst he was there, as that last elegant line of defence that everything was going to be all right.

The history and traditions of Neath are known all over the rugby world, the list of achievements endless-first cup winners, first league winners, first treble winners, World Record holders (still) for tries and points in a season, among them. It was in Neath after all, that the Welsh Rugby Union was formed. Essentially blue collar, it has never been a club of glamour, thriving rather on a siege mentality, an esprit de corps which has been their enduring hallmark over the years.

None of this mattered to me then of course, nothing mattered much at all, as long as there was Hodgson at full back. He played fifteen times for Wales (it should have been thirty). He was a thorn in the side of whoever Neath played. Coming from the ground the opposition would bemoan the fact that they made him look good by “Kicking the ball down his throat”. The reason of course, was that with a sense of positioning that was uncanny, he was to be found wherever they kicked the ball. His catching was faultless and his screw kicking perfect (he was later recruited to coach J.P.R Williams in the art).  

Years later, when, in rugby terms he was old and I was young I actually played against him.

I have always regretted not telling him on that day what an influence he had been on me, but a combination of shyness and embarrassment meant that I let the moment pass. It didn’t seem to me, in those days, to be the right thing to do.

When I recreate the scenario now, I wish I could have sought him out in a quiet corner, just to say how much I had enjoyed and appreciated his career. As it was he never knew he was my hero, and I lacked the moral fortitude to tell him.

He had spoken to me only once, in the showers after the game, “Hey mate, chuck over the soap”, it was the only pass I ever saw him drop.






It began at the side of a railway track, close to my home in Tonna, near Neath in the late fifties. My father and I, on a morning walk, had come across a book, lying in the undergrowth on a disused line which once ran through the picturesque Dulais Valley . Not just any book, but a huge, beautifully illustrated leather bound volume, a first edition no less of Ancient Ballad Poetry.  

Embossed on its cover, in gold, was the crest of a school, not just any school, but Rugby School, one of the most famous and prestigious schools in all of England. 

 Written on the fly-leaf, in what appeared to be a classical hand, were the words Rhys Powell Morgan-Christmas 1860.  

 We dusted it, polished it, and cherished it. I couldn’t have imagined it then, but poetry was to become a source of enjoyment and fulfilment in my own life, in particular that of the late R.S.Thomas, whom I met just once, and who remains the man whose work I most admire.  In the bookcase at home the book remained, in quiet repose for almost thirty years, until the opportunity to seek its history was presented.

 My eldest son, much to his chagrin was sent to public school, (his brother had successfully resisted the offer). I had somehow managed to bring them up alone, aided by my father, whose earthy practicalities contrasted with the more aesthetic virtues of my late mother. Unhappy at boarding school and homesick at first, my son had nonetheless eventually settled happily into the somewhat insular world which was now his, and there was, as ever, rugby to be played.

 As a child he had watched Neath, with me of course, and was later to win representative honours in athletics and rugby, playing full-back for the Welsh Public Schools against England .

 In the rarefied atmosphere of public school rugby I was an unlikely parent, and because of my dishevelled appearance and lapses into swearing, I had been gently advised to steer a course well away from the more well to do among the assembled throng. “That’s Rupert Digby Penfold’s dad just there, he’s on the board at Lloyds, with Henry’s aunt Lucinda, a circuit judge in Kent ”. Consequently, at the games I became a shadowy, peripheral figure, not least from his own team-mates, who, on hearing me shout the odd obscenity would tease him mercilessly at evening prep.

 I settled into a rhythm, attending all the games in which he played, at all the famous public schools throughout the land, until eventually, the final fixture loomed. It was to be an away game, and it was to be against Rugby school.

It was the chance for me to take the book from its resting place at home, and seek its history from whence it came. The game was to be his and the teams last, before dispersing, and moving, as it were, into a man’s world, and of all the places where it could have ended, it would end where rugby began.

 I decided to stay overnight, and took a room near the school. I explored all of the places for which Rugby School is famous, I visited the statue of Rupert Brooke and the chapel immortalised by Matthew Arnold. As a preparation I had re-read Tom Browns Schooldays, the classic tale of life at Rugby , and the evil deeds of  Flashman.

 Outside the school is the statue commemorating William Webb-Ellis who, “with a fine disregard for the rules, picked up the ball and ran with it”. Thus was rugby born, on that field, at that school, at that place, all those years ago.

 Of all the famous seats of learning that I had visited, it was Rugby , with its history, its charm, and its traditions that was the most beautiful.

 I took the book into the library and was met by a kindly, studious, elderly and bespectacled man, in a faded tweed jacket with leather patches sown onto each elbow. He was of course, the archivist.

We discovered that the book had been presented to Rhys Powell Morgan as a prize for latin in 1860, by the headmaster at the time, who was later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.  A census some years later revealed that Rhys Powell Morgan had become a solicitor in Neath.  

 Not that it mattered, but the match was won, a full-blooded affair that was in the best traditions of the sport. The symbolism of the moment was largely lost on my son, but for me there was a poignancy in seeing that last encounter unfold. They weren’t men quite yet. Drinking, smoking and sex had probably entered their lives already, but they weren’t men yet, and it was possible then, to feel, to perceive, in the simplistic honesty of those last admirable endeavours, just the remnants of innocence.

 After this it would be university, and, well, yes, more drinking, smoking, and sex, but that was for another day. My son had enjoyed public school and was sorry to be moving on. In those years he had made his friends for life, and even I had made a mark, presenting a prize which is now awarded annually.

 As for the book of Ancient Ballad Poetry - when I came home I returned it to the bookcase, where it has been ever since.

 Should there be a descendant of Rhys Powell Morgan, a scholar of latin who was at Rugby school in 1860, and was presented by a future Archbishop of Canterbury, with a classically beautiful book, which was thrown into a railway ditch near Neath a hundred years later, they can get in touch. Until then it will be at home with me in Tonna.  

 Perhaps, but only perhaps, where it belongs.   






The year was 1866, the scene was a remote farmstead nestling in the Irish countryside near Dungarvan, a small unremarkable town near the coast in County Wexford, a land of undulating pastures, peat bogs and mists.

A greyhound bitch called Lady Sarah gave birth to a litter of seven pups, the smallest and weakest of which was a black dog. He was named after the Orphan boy who looked after him. The little black dog's life would be short, before he died of pneumonia in 1871 having lived for only five years.
In those five years he was to have songs, poems and books written about him, and they named pubs and restaurants after him in Britain, all over Ireland and as far afield as America and Australia. His image was embossed onto the backs of coins, and the Queen of England, Queen Victoria ordered that a private train be provided to transport him to Windsor Castle where he was presented at court.
In Ireland they built a monument, a statue which stands to this day in his honour, for this was Master M'grath, ''the most Celebrated dog in the world''.

The sport in which Master M'grath was peerless was the ancient one of hare coursing, no longer practiced in this country due to the hunting ban, but still hugely popular all over the Irish republic. Master M'graths first attempts at coursing during his trials were so poor that his trainer, James Galwey and owner Lord Lurgan ordered that he be given away, but the orphan boy and another kennel hand sensed a latent promise, and it was decided to give him a reprieve. 

He duly won his first official event, against all the odds in the visitors cup at Lurgan, and was victorious again soon afterwards in a sixty four dog competition at Creagh. He was now beginning to turn heads and was the topic of excited speculation among the greyhound fraternity. After more victories it was decided, still in his puppy season of 1868 to enter him in the sports blue riband, the Waterloo cup, held each year at Altcar near Liverpool in the North of England. 

First contested in 1836 it was recognised the world over as the sport's supreme prize. Master M'grath and his entourage duly sailed to Britain to take on the aristocrats of the sport in the English heartland. He won every round, and in the final defeated Cock Robin, a hitherto renowned champion with many victories to his credit. News of his triumph was greeted with riotous acclaim throughout the republic, he had become the first Irish dog to win the Waterloo cup, the most coveted and prestigious prize in the greyhound world. 

He returned to Durgarvan and his homeland, now a national celebrity, before going back in 1870 to defend his title at Liverpool. He again won every round, before, at the last, and in one of history's greatest contests he defeated the celebrated bitch Bab at the Bouster in an epic final battle. A crowd of over 90,000 had attended over the three days, many of whom had travelled from the republic. Remarkably, he had defended his title, and his fame knew no bounds. He became known as the immortal black, ''the most celebrated dog in the world''. 

He returned to the scene of his triumphs in 1870 to defend yet again the ultimate prize. This time, in the first round, against a fine bitch called Lady Lyons, and to the horror of all who watched, he fell through the ice in the frozen river Allt, and nearly drowned before being rescued and pulled to safety by one of the crowd.

It was the only time in his entire career that he was to lose. 

His defeat was regarded in Ireland almost as an injustice, and the great dog became thought of as something of a martyr to what was perceived to be an English air of superiority in sport and in life. Thus it was, that in 1871 he went back to Liverpool for what was to be his last attempt at the championship that every Irishman believed was rightfully his. He carried the hopes and aspirations of a people fuelled by a sense of oppression, which had seen the horrors of famine and beleaguered by insurrection. They needed a hero and they yearned for a champion, and they found one in Master M'grath.

Amid scenes of unparalleled fervour he won the supreme prize again, defeating Pretender in the final. He had won the Waterloo cup on an unprecedented three occasions. The victory news was relayed to Dublin and the other large Irish cities where the celebrations were unbridled as the nation rejoiced.
In England Queen Victoria asked that he be brought to her by private train, to be presented at court at Windsor, the only time in history that a royal audience was granted to a dog. 

He would never compete again, and in 1871 after a short illness, at twenty minutes to ten on Christmas eve, he died. 

They buried him at Lurgan in the grounds of a house called Solitude. He had united a nation and a people as never before. They preserved his heart after a post mortem in Dublin, where it was found to be almost twice the size of a normal dog's heart. In Ireland they put his image on the back of the sixpence and his obituary in the Irish Times ran to three pages, almost unprecedented even for humans. At the junction of the Clonmel road, in Durgarvan where he was born, they built a monument, a large imposing stone obelisk which stands to this day in his honour, the only statue in all of Ireland which commemorates a dog.


Having researched the backround of this story in and around his homeland in Dungarvan and Waterford, I decided to finish it, on my way home (not untypically) in a pub, in the centre of Wexford, that rather quaint but somewhat ramshackle town in the Irish heartland. There, I found, quite unexpectedly, in a place of prominence above the fireplace, and over a century and a quarter after his passing, a large oil painting of a small greyhound. It was Master M'grath of course, the immortal black, ''the most celebrated dog in the world''



Measurements of Master M'Grath


Head Front tip of snout to joining on to neck - 9 1/2 inches. 
Girth of head between eyes and ears - 14 inces. 
Girth of snout - 7 inches. 
Distance between the eyes - 2 1/4 inches.
Neck Length from joining on of' head to shoulders - 9 inches.
Girth round neck - 13 3/4 inches.
Back From neck to base of tail - 21 inches
Length of tail - 17 inches
Intermediate point Length of loin from junction hip bone - 8 inches. 
Length from hip bone to socket of thigh joint 5 inches
Fore Leg From base of' wo middle nails to fetlock joint - 2 inces
From elbow joint to top of shoulder blade - 12 1/4 inches
Thickness of foreleg below the elbow - 6 inches 
Hind Leg From hock to stifle joint - 9 3/4 inches
From stifle to top of hip bones - 12 inches
Girth of ham part of thigh - 14 inches
Thickness of second thigh below stiffle - 8 1/4 inches
Body Girth round depth of chest - 26 1/2 inches
Girth round the loins - 17 1/4 inches
Weight 54 lbs




R.S Thomas


An idolater, as defined by the venerable Oxford English Dictionary is someone who is a devout admirer. In sport and in literature, the two spheres which co-exist as the abiding interests in a largely meaningless life, I was an idolater of two people. In sport it was a rugby full-back, in literature, and in life, it was a poet.  

R. S. Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1913 and was educated firstly in Holyhead in North Wales , before studying classics and theology at St. Thomas College , Llandaff and the University of Wales at Bangor , before being ordained into the priesthood in 1937.

A taciturn and solitary man, he was to retain an austere, almost reclusive manner throughout his life, which, despite his vocation he did little to dispel.

After the rather bourgeois nature of his education he was sent for his first curacy to Chirk, in what was then Denbighshire, in the Welsh border country, and later to Hanmer in Flintshire before becoming rector of Manafon in Montgomeryshire in 1942. He was to find, initially at Chirk and Hanmer but more importantly at Manafon, that he was sorely under prepared for the harsh realities of life among a simplistic people whose livelihood was largely dependant on their work in the sparsely populated hill country of Mid Wales.

In the uncompromising environment to which he was sent, Thomas was at first shocked and appalled by the uncouth nature and lack of sophistication among those to whom he was to minister, only to find, in the fullness of time, that his feelings of revulsion were to give way, firstly to an acceptance and ultimately to an admiration for their hardihood and stoicism in the face of the bleak surroundings to which they belonged.

One day, on his way to one of the more remote farmsteads, high in the hills he saw a man working alone in the fields. This image was to be personified in the early poems as Prytherch, the anti-hero, someone and something whose enduring fortitude epitomised all that Thomas admired, an amalgamation of what he saw as the timeless struggle of the hill farmer and his like, against nature’s seasons and the encroaching tide of what was perceived as progress, but which would ultimately threaten the unadorned purity of their existence.  


Iago Prytherch

Iago Prytherch, forgive my naming you.

You are so far in your small fields

From the world’s eye, sharpening your blade

On a cloud’s edge, no one will tell you

How I made fun of you, or pitied either

Your long soliloquies, crouched at your slow

And patient surgery under the faint

November rays of the sun’s lamp


Made fun of you? That was their graceless

Accusation, because I took

Yours rags for theme, because I showed them

Yours thought’s bareness; science and art,

The mind’s furniture, having no chance

To install themselves, because of the great

Draught of nature sweeping the skull.


Fun? Pity? No word can describe

My true feelings. I passed and saw you

Labouring there, your dark figure

Marring the simple geometry

Of the square fields with its gaunt question.

My poems were made in its long shadow

Falling coldly across the page.


In his first published collection The stones of the field in 1946, Thomas writes starkly, and often beautifully, of the unending harshness of their slow and methodical labours as they are accepted and endured as if by natural selection. 

An Acre of Land was published in 1952 and a year later in 1953, The Minister, a long poem, which was commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on the Welsh home service. In the poem, Thomas tells the story of a somewhat naïve young non conformist pastor, the Reverend Elias Morgan B.A. sent, like Thomas himself into a lonely parish in the hill country, under prepared and innocent of the Moors hardships and the ingrained prejudices of the parishioners.

It was after reading The Minister that I knew, if I didn’t know it already, that R. S. Thomas was a genius.

He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1964 and was later to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Thomas, although born into an anglicised, middle class family who spoke no Welsh, had earlier decided to learn the language himself, in order, he reasoned, to be able to speak to his parishioners in their native tongue. Although he only felt able to write his poetry in English he became a staunch defender of all things Welsh, and his strongly held political views, especially in his opposition to what he saw as the dissipation of the Welsh people and their institutions by the influx of holiday homes purchased by those from beyond the principality, were often received with discomfort.

Another ministry followed, at Eglwys Fach, on the Cardiganshire border where he continued to live frugally, with little or no regard for technology or for what the modern world had to offer.  

The poetry, in the later period of his life, was to become, for the most part an abstracted and metaphysical quest, which was met with widespread critical acclaim, but there was nothing, to me, that was as meaningful in its bleak imagery and simplistic beauty as the outpourings of those formative early years.

A shy and retiring man, he spoke, especially in his older years  and whenever possible, only in Welsh, although when he spoke in English it was with a cultured and refined upper class accent which seemed curiously at odds with his perceived ideology.

R. S. Thomas of course, never knew that I existed. After more than forty years of admiration I met him for the first and only time when he was in his eighties, a month before Christmas in 1995 at the University in Swansea, and even then only for a few minutes, during which I succeeded in disguising the fact that I held him in such high esteem. Philistine and artisan, atheist and vicar, poetry apart we had nothing in common except that both of us were anti-social loners.  On the periphery as ever, we exchanged some mundane pleasantries before we shook hands and parted, never to meet again.

Many pictures, but precious few drawings of R. S. Thomas exist. I am fortunate in owning one of them, a charcoal by the renowned artist Will Roberts R. C. A. which depicts him preaching on Whitsun Sunday in 1974 at Aberdaron, the remote parish on the Lleyn Peninsula , which was to be his last ministry. I thought it best to return it to his alma mater, the University College of Wales at Bangor , to the R. S. Thomas study centre and library, where it now hangs, somewhat fittingly it seems, in a quiet corner.



BILL CLEMENT 1915-2007  

A tribute

L. K. OBRIEN, Chief Cashier or the bank of England, I knew his name well! For his rather stark and unwieldy signature appeared in my young days on the back of every bank note that came our way. Ten bob, quid, occasional fiver (were there others?).
                   To anybody in the Principality's rugby public however, there was another, perhaps more meaningful signature that became synonymous with the part the game played in their lives.

It was that of W. H Clement, whose written name was printed on every international ticket for over a quarter of a century, in his capacity as Secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union. 

Bill Clement by Gren

But what of the man?

                   Bill Clement was born in Llanelli in 1915 during the years of the first World War, and was educated at the local county School . He was a fast and elusive three-quarter, before winning the first of six international caps for Wales against England in 1937, and touring South Africa with the 1938 British Lions.        

                   The outbreak of the second World War saw him Commissioned into the 4th Battalion of the WELCH regiment, with whom he took part in the D-Day landings in June 1944.

                   One month later, Clement (Now major) was involved in hand to hand fighting near Caen in Northern France , in which all but two of the men in his leading platoon were either killed or wounded. The action became known as the ‘’battle of the bulge’’. Though wounded himself Clement, with his men, continued to their objective before inflicting considerable damage to the enemy positions. For his outstanding qualities of leadership Clement was awarded the military cross.

                   Bill Clement was demobilised in 1946 and settled into post war life as an accountant with Brecon County Council.           

It ‘’ Twas Autumn and Sunshine arose on the way to the home of my fathers that welcomed me back’’  

1946 saw him take up the post in which he became almost without parallel as one of rugby's great administrations.

                   Under his stewardship Wales were to win nine Championships, three grand slams, and seven triple crowns, and he played a prominent part in the re-building of Cardiff Arms Park .

                   He was awarded an O.B.E in the new years honours list in 1981.

Bill Clement died, aged 91, as the oldest Welsh International in February 2007. His wife pre-deceased him and he is survived by his daughter.

He had become what after all, is far more important than being a great rugby player, he was a great rugby man. The game, its spirit and camaraderie were dear to him and he knew and cherished the fraternity that exists in rugby as perhaps in no other sport.



A Day At The Cricket

Last Wednesday, I travelled from my home in Tonna, near Neath in South Wales to Derby, in order to watch the opening day of Glamorgan’s four day championship cricket match against Derbyshire. Like Glamorgan, Derbyshire have always been regarded as one of the games Cinderella names, without the pretension of the home counties clubs and seemingly forever in the wake of their northern neighbours, Lancashire and Yorkshire. In their long history, they have been county champions only once, in 1936.

The ground at Derby (As opposed to a stadium) is a charmingly quaint mixture of architectural styles, which pays scant regard to any degree of symmetry but succeeds, with its white wooden fencing and grass covered hill, in looking as a cricket ground should. I counted fifty eight elms at one end of the ground, with four rooks nesting in them, forming a background to a cricket match being played in its longest and purest form on an April afternoon in England.

During the lunch interval, I bought a book for one pound from the second hand cricket bookshop within the ground, called ‘Cricket County’ , written by the second world war poet and cricket lover, Edmund Blunden. At the tea interval, whilst reading it on that grassy hill in the warm sunshine, I fell asleep. It was that kind of day. A sparse and well mannered crowd occasionally clapping politely in a soporific mood whilst watching that most quintessentially English of summer games in a place and in surroundings where it truly belonged.

The final Glamorgan wicket fell at five thirty, near the end of the days play, whereupon I decided to take a leisurely stroll towards the gate, in order to look at Derbyshire’s reply in the days final overs. I had watched the days events unfolding alone, as is my wont, but lest I should remember those moments for their aesthetic charm and in a totally pearly light I saw a middle aged man in a flat cap entering the ground, evidently from a shift at the local mill, to be greeted thus - ”Ey oop Earnie, the Welsh bastards are all out”.




a 1962 British Lion & 1968 Great Britain Olympian

HJC Brown's rugby career in a nutshell was a tale of two injuries - the first a broken ankle that deprived HJC from an almost certain England cap. The second, the injury that ended Richard Sharp's 1962 Lions tour and ensured a call up for one HJC Brown. Read Alan's story of the sporting career of HJC Brown