Abertillery Blaenau Gwent RFC
Blaenau Gwent RFC: A History
Blaenau Gwent is according to some the oldest club in Wales, officially formed back in 1869, two years even before the formation of the (English) Rugby Union. Early games were played against other clubs which had sprung up in the area, such as St Peter's, Blaina and Pontymister. Many of the players were colliers and were collected from the local pit heads on horse brakes to play. By 1880, when the Welsh Rugby Union was formed, the club was running three teams, the seniors, Raglans and the juniors. In 1883, it may be that the Abertillery club was formed out of the Blaenau Gwent club.
The early 1890s saw the arrival of the Tillings brothers, George and Tom, who were major influences on the field and the club won its first trophy, the Western Valley Cup in the 1893-94 season defeating Aberbeeg in the final. In 1895, the club moved from the Gas Works field to the Old Barn Field. In 1900, the club were now competing in the Western Valley league and again on the move, this time to a field in the Rose Heyworth area, apparently where the Rose Heyworth club stood.
In 1907, the Gwent seemingly became the first Welsh club to tour Cornwall where they won both their games to great acclaim especially in front of a large crowd at Redruth. Rugby was very strong in the Abertillery area at this time with the Abertillery pack, the so-called "terrible eight" being revered and feared throughout the land. The first World War caused the club to hibernate, but on resumption of rugby in 1919, the Gwent started playing again, this time on the Top Extension, but with many in the area on strike, players and committeemen worked on the Bottom Extension and the club were given use of that field in 1923 as a result.
Despite the travails of the town through the depression, the club enjoyed a highly successful period on the field with W. "Billy" Cook at the helm and were unbeaten at the Extension from 1923 through to 1927 when they moved to The Park. In that season, they were unbeaten and won the Monmouthshire League and Cup. Gilbert 'Ginger' James was now captain and he led the side into the 1930s. A stream of young players came through at this time, amongst them George Prosser, who played first at 14 for the Gwent, and Melvin Meek, who went on to win a Welsh cap in Rugby League.
As in the 1914, war interrupted activities in 1939, but in 1946 in club again restarted and a season later they won the Cyrus Davies cup for the first time, repeating the feat a year later. Amongst the players at this time were Abertillery war hero, Ivor 'Dabo' Williams, Harvey Parry, Idris Shepherd, Arthur Llewellyn, Haydn Rees, Waller Fisher, 'Bunter' Turner, Ken Lewis, Bill Griffin, and Len Martin who went on to become chairman of the club in the sixties. Their strength was such that the team beat Ebbw Vale and drew with Abertillery.
In the 1950s, a number of crises hit the club off the field but secretary Dai Watkins' shrewd handling of these situations saved the day and the club survived. In the 1966-67 season, Jeff Smith became the first Gwent player to score a century of points in a season. Two years later, in the 1969-70 season, the club celebrated its centenary with a Gala held at the Park.
In 1990, the club entered the new Heineken Welsh National Leagues with confidence but reflecting the crisis in Welsh rugby and that in Abertillery in particular at the end of the 1990s, the club struggled badly and fixtures were suspended as the club failed to raise teams. However, the hard work of a few in keeping the club going bore fruit and the merger with Abertillery RFC heralded a new era ensuring that 125 years of tradition was retained.
The first meeting of Abertillery Rugby Football Club is reputed to have taken place at The Prince of Wales Hotel in High Street on the 21st September 1883.
Rugby had been played in the town prior to that however with the formation of Blaenau Gwent in 1869 -1870 (see below) and it might have been that the Abertillery club was formed out of the Blaenau Gwent club. In that meeting, C. Roberts and E. Thomas were elected captain and vice-captain respectively, with W. Edwards as treasurer and Tudor Davies as secretary.
At this time, there were many teams in the area including Abertillery Hearts of Oak, Abertillery Harlequins, Abertillery Scarlet Runners, Abertillery Blue Star, and Abertillery Wednesdays as well as other clubs in Cwmtillery, Aberbeeg, and Llanhilleth. Some of these sides played on the Gas Works Field whilst others used the Old Barn Field, which was bought by the council in June 1898 and renamed, "The Park and Recreation Ground", the venue at which Abertillery-Blaenau Gwent play today.
The early days of the club are somewhat obscure since the records were destroyed in the early part of the 20thcentury but it has been suggested that Abertillery Harlequins combined with Abertillery Old Town to form what then became Abertillery RFC, whose early headquarters was Buckley's Temperance Hotel in Oak Street (now Oak Street club). According to contemporary reports, a game at Sophia Gardens between Abertillery and Cardiff Harlequins resulted in 'a violent war'. By the end of the 1890s, Abertillery were towards the top of the Monmouthshire League when they met Pontymister, a match at which supporters from both sides were nearly reported for shouting 'foul epitaphs' at the referee. The religious revival of 1904 also caused problems with jerseys burned and international tickets ripped up at Abertillery. However, by 1906, sanity returned and Joe Winmill captained Abertillery to win the Monmouthshire League with three thousand people at the game between Abertillery and Tredegar on April 21st
The team repeated the feat two years later and, as a result, was awarded "First Class" status by the Welsh Rugby Union and a game against the touring Wallabies. This took place on December 21 1908 in front of a 10,000 crowd. The 3-3 draw was the first time the Australians had failed to cross their opponents' line on tour.
More celebrations occurred when Jim Webb became the club's first Welsh international, the first of many to follow. Abertillery now established itself amongst the top hierarchy of Welsh clubs and enjoyed an excellent following. In 1919, Abertillery supporters were called to order after they turned up in force against Ebbw Vale dressed in club colours and indulged in 'too much shouting'.
Like the town itself, the team struggled badly during the depression of the twenties as players moved away to seek employment, but by 1931 Abertillery had regrouped and won the Welsh championship with a formidable undefeated home record that lasted over two years.
That same year, they combined with Cross Keys in front of thirty thousand people at Abertillery Park to face Bennie Osler's Springboks, losing only narrowly.
Special trains were laid on to bring the huge number of people to the Park and it was a very close run match with the hosts only losing 10-9 in what was one of the hardest encounters of a Springbok grand slam tour.
The second world war disrupted matches naturally enough, but in 1947 the team again joined with Cross Keys, this time to face Australia at the Park. Amongst those playing for the combined side were George Parsons and Stewart Llewellyn, both of whom joined St Helen's rugby league side later that year where they became stars of the 13-man game. Others who also played for Tillery at this time and went on to become Rugby League stars included Ray Price, who played for Great Britain.
In 1948, the club adopted the colours of the Welsh flag, Green & White. The team joined with Ebbw Vale to face the 1953 All Blacks with LET Jones, Ken Morley and Bernard Jones amongst the Tillery players featuring.
By the end of the 1950s, the team had a superb back row containing Alun Pask, Haydn Morgan and John Lewis, the latter unluckily missing out on a Welsh cap. Pask and Morgan, together with Allan Lewis in 1966, went on to become British Lions.
Abertillery RFC: A History
The great Alun Edward Islwyn Pask, scoring for the British Lions in characteristic flamboyant fashion and whose revolutionary style of No. 8 play was ahead of its time.
Pask captained the 1966 Wales team but was controversially pipped for the Lions' captaincy losing out to Scot, Mike Campbell-Lamerton.
As Delme Thomas later said: "I didn't know much about the captain Mike Campbell-Lamerton before the tour and I remember reading in the papers that the Welsh number eight of the time, Alun Pask, hadn't been given the captaincy. That was a shock."
The early 1970s saw a good settled team with the likes of Malcolm Lewis, who went onto appear the most number of times for the club, Ray 'George' Gladwyn, Mike Cairns, John Dixon, and Ian Brice in the pack and Wales "B" centre Robert Harris, Adrian Barwood, Adrian Rees and Martin Brickell behind. They reached Welsh Cup quarter-finals in successive years narrowly losing at The Park to Llanelli and Aberavon. The club struggled somewhat on the field in the late-70s although both John Dixon and Robert Norster had Welsh trials, the latter of course becoming one of Wales' greatest line-out forwards.
In the 1980s, the club revived under coach, Richie Tillings and captain, Leigh Jones.
With Rupert Moon following his brother Richard in the team and a hard abrasive pack, Abertillery regularly finished in the top six of the unofficial Welsh championship such that they entered the new Heineken Welsh National league in 1990 in the Premier Division, winning the first ever Team of the Month award after a very narrow defeat at champions-to-be Neath and a great victory over a star-studded Llanelli team at The Park.
Despite being relegated that season, they bounced back a few seasons later and stayed there against the odds with a magnificent 35-29 win at Swansea on the last day of the season, regarded by many as perhaps the finest club match the club has ever played in, certainly in living memory.
With the introduction of open professionalism in 1995, the lack of industry and money in the town badly affected the club, which found it difficult to compete in the new harsh financial world of rugby, especially as it was saddled with debts accrued in clubhouse development in the early 1980s.
The side settled in Division One, but never achieved much above mid-table. Then, unfortunately, in 2001 they were relegated by just one point - this despite being beaten only once in their last nine games and the side having played its best rugby of the last six years in those final months of the campaign.
In 2002, the club hit its lowest point since the problems of the 1920s as they struggled to get a side together, after taking a stand not to pay players, and it was decided to suspend fixtures for the season, which under the rules led to the side's immediate descent from Division Two to Division Five. Sterling work behind the scenes stabilised the club's financial position and a merger with the town's oldest rugby team, Blaenau Gwent helped save that club and create a new future. Starting again in 2003, a series of promotions, along with one relegation, saw the club climb to Division Three East by 2012.
The club won promotion as Division Three East champions in 2012-13 and so has now ascended to its highest league position since the 2002 season. In addition, the club's youth team won its league title again and with the mini and junior sections looking healthy and thriving, the club is in great shape going forward, 130 years after the formation of Abertillery RFC.