Proud St Helen’s the heart and soul of Swansea rugby

St Helen’s Rugby and Cricket Ground catches the eye as you drive down the coastal stretch that is Swansea’s Mumbles Road. A relic of times past, it is watched over by four archaic floodlights and its hotchpotch of stands and terraces sit gloriously at odds with each other like a bad set of teeth.

It is magnificently old school. The pitch is still pristine and plays host to the local club, which now fields a semi-professional side. Local rugby, football and cricket schools teams are regular guests while Ireland’s Women nilled Wales there last season after the home team had shocked the English world champions.

The scoreboard at one end looks old enough to be deemed a listed structure, but it is the clubhouse that looks out on to the shimmering Swansea Bay that is the real gem. Musty rooms, cracked paint and faded carpets abound and the walls are all but papered with memorabilia.

The great Gary Sobers hit six sixes in the one over for Nottinghamshire against Glamorgan at St Helen’s in 1968. Half-a-dozen pictures capturing the feat, and signed by the great man himself, run along the top of one wall. It is rugby, though, that is the dominant decoration.

Newspaper cuttings, old pictures, caps, jerseys, balls and all sorts of other odds and bobs clutter the place like cats in a spinster’s cottage. It is not so much a clubhouse as a living, if wheezing, museum and it is the artefacts pertaining to the All Blacks that are garnering the attention this week.

It’s not that Steven Hansen’s squad wanted to be based there. Of the four teams housed in Wales for the quarter-finals, Argentina came up trumps in the team base lottery. They are shacked up in the sumptuous Vale of Glamorgan, Ireland got Cardiff city centre, France took Celtic Manor and New Zealand were sent to Swansea.

Proud St Helen’s the heart and soul of Swansea rugby

Forty miles west of the Welsh capital, it has offered rather basic training facilities at the University of Swansea, but the welcome has been warm and it is fitting the world champions find themselves there as they prepare for a game against a side whose victories against them are legendary.

They know a thing or two about that in Swansea, see. The All Whites played New Zealand, Australia and South Africa 16 times. Australia they beat three times and drew with once, but the win over the men in black in 1935 was their pinnacle. It gave them the honour of being the first club to beat all three southern hemisphere touring sides.

“It made a huge impact here and in New Zealand,” says the club’s archivist David Dow of that win 80 years ago. “It was a glass ceiling, wasn’t it? I was talking to a fella recently and he was saying how many club sides had done it. We had a look and it’s really only four.

“But you have regions and provinces that have done it and one-off sides. Like, there was a Southern France side that done it. I thought ‘surely Leicester Tigers have done it’, but, no. Midland Counties have done it and Munster have done it. That was a great game. Great game.”

New Zealand hadn’t been beaten in Europe since losing to Wales in the mythic 1905 ‘Originals’ tour, but they fell in ‘35 to what The Times of London described as the “almost fabulous score of one goal and two tries (11 points) to one try (3 points)” on one Saturday afternoon in September.The price of entry was 2p and 30,000 or souls so forked out for the privilege.

The Times reported New Zealand had been beaten “fairly and squarely” by back play that was cleverer than their own. The South Wales Evening Post wrote about how Swansea’s “virile” forwards and relatively light pack had outdone their illustrious opponents.

More notable, however, were the Swansea halves.

The number 10 was a lad by the name of Willie Davies and his scrum-half was Hayden Tanner. Both 18, this was their first season with the seniors. By the time the All Blacks came they had a half-dozen or so games to their name and they were still attending school in nearby Gowerton.

“Tell them at home we have been beaten,” Jack Manchester the 27-year old flanker and New Zealand captain said to the travelling Kiwi press corps after the game. “But please don’t tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys.”

It was just the fifth game of 30 the All Blacks would play on a tour that ultimately spanned over six months and took in five countries, including Canada, and they would lose to Wales and England and draw with Ulster, in Ravenhill.

It was 1953 before they returned to Swansea to play a game that would finish in a 6-6 draw and Australia were the last of the tourists to pitch up on the club’s worn doorstep in 1992. Swansea marked that occasion with a 21-6 victory, but those days are long gone.

Regional rugby would arrive a decade later and the creation of the Ospreys saw the game’s focus shift three miles north to the shinier but less charming Liberty Stadium and the men of Swansea RFC are clearly proud of the boys they have produced and who have played for the Ospreys.

Pictures of Alun-Wyn Jones, Richard Hibbard, Dan Biggar et al have been put up alongside the facing black and white images, but they show their men wearing the Swansea white and there was a sense this week the heart and soul of rugby in this Welsh town remains in St Helen’s.

Terry Morgan is the president of Swansea’s past players association, one whose badge bears the Swansea Osprey and the emblems of the three SANZAR giants they bettered a long time ago, and he addressed a large media gathering on Thursday when the All Blacks paid them a visit.

Morgan spoke eloquently, but wistfully, about 1935 and the proud tradition the club established and there was that same tinge of regret in Dow’s voice when he mentioned the hugely controversial and divisive switch from club to regional rugby in the early noughties.

“When it came to regional rugby we didn’t know how it was going to work out,” he said. “Would it be five or six sides, regions, whatever? We nearly ended up with Llanelli, then it was Neath, and then it expanded into a larger region with the Ospreys and I guess we’re part of that now.”

Part of it, yes, but slightly apart from it, too.

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